Middle East Woos U.S. Colleges

Carnegie Mellon's campus in Qatar

hide captionCarnegie Mellon's campus in Qatar opened in 2004, and its first class graduated in 2008.

Larry Abramson/NPR

American exports are famously under attack from cheaper competitors except for one industry: higher education. U.S schools have set up satellite campuses abroad — especially in places like the Middle East and Asia — as a way to boost their reputations as international players.

In Qatar, for example, a gathering of six top U.S. institutions have outposts in a complex called Education City, which rises in architectural splendor out of the sand. Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown University, Texas A&M, Northwestern and others offer something that students around the world crave: a real American degree.

Carnegie Mellon has 11 overseas campuses in addition to its main campus in Pittsburgh, and most of these outposts are targeted mainly at graduates. Its Qatar campus, which opened in 2004, is the school's only overseas campus that grants undergraduate degrees.

The campus looks like it should house works of art rather than students: The main building features a dramatic amphitheater with traditional Qatari seating on the floor, a cool fountain and lots of soft reflected light.

But it's the American degree that students come here for.

"We're not like Carnegie Mellon, or inspired by Carnegie Mellon, we ARE Carnegie Mellon," says CMU Qatar Dean Chuck Thorpe.

That's what the diploma says. There's no asterisk saying you attended the campus in Qatar. That gives this collection of schools at Education City a reputation so exalted, it's referred to locally as "Land of the Giants."

Each of the schools here focuses on a special niche. Cornell does medicine. Carnegie Mellon's specialty is business. Northwestern's focus is on journalism and communications.

U.S. Schools Abroad

According to the Observatory on Borderless Education, U.K.-based group that researches international higher education, U.S. schools had nearly 80 branch campuses overseas as of Sept. 2009. Many of these campuses were set up in the Middle East and Asia during the past decade, including:

  • New York Institute of Technology
  • Boston University School of Dental Medicine
  • Michigan State University
  • Rochester Institute of Technology
  • The University of Chicago Booth School of Business
  • New York University Tisch School of the Arts
  • Georgetown University School of Foreign Service
  • Texas A&M University

Education City

Saleh Al Khulaifi, a junior, is from Qatar as are nearly half the students here at Education City. The arrangement with the local administration gives some preference to Qataris. Sitting in the grand stone entryway of the building, Thorpe says, the reputation of this American school leads to some razzing. "So everyone sees us here as "The Enlightened," the highly educated that will come back and change Doha," Thorpe says.

And that's pretty much what Qatar's ruling family wants: to change this country from a tiny emirate dependent on gas reserves to an information economy. The Qatar Foundation, an endowment created by the government, considered building its own top-flight institution but decided that creating Education City was the quickest way to stem a brain drain.

"We are serving a tier of students who used to leave this country and study somewhere else in western Europe or in the United States," says Mohammad Fathy Saoud, president of the foundation.

Why Teach Here?

At a Business Communications class at CMU, all students speak good English, though many still struggle with business lingo. Other than that, the only clue that you're not in Pittsburgh anymore is the clothing. Some of the women are covered head-to-toe in a black abiya. Local guys wear a long white tunic called a thobe. Some are in a co-ed class for their first time. Senior Buthayna Al Madhadi says her parents were skeptical about letting their daughters be exposed to western morals.

"This was one of the things that my father and I argued slightly about. I think that his concern was more about the environment. But then when I came here, he encouraged my little sister to also come here. So perceptions change," Al Madhadi says.

Schools here hope their presence will nibble away at prejudices about the West. They have been promised that the local administration will not interfere with the curriculum. That might not be much of a problem for engineers or doctors.

Chuck Thorpe, dean of Carnegie Mellon Qatar i i

hide captionChuck Thorpe, dean of Carnegie Mellon in Qatar, headed the school's Robotics Institute before moving to Doha.

Larry Abramson/NPR
Chuck Thorpe, dean of Carnegie Mellon Qatar

Chuck Thorpe, dean of Carnegie Mellon in Qatar, headed the school's Robotics Institute before moving to Doha.

Larry Abramson/NPR

Richard Roth heads the Northwestern program here. Do his journalism students run into interference?

"Oh, all the time," Roth says. "There's no Freedom of Information Act here. The reporters here don't ask questions of government. These are the things we are trying to teach."

That's just one of many things that might discourage top faculty from wanting to teach here. Why give up a cushy job with tenure in a leafy suburb to teach in the desert?

Majd Sakr came from the Pittsburgh campus because he wanted a new challenge. "Here there was nothing a few years ago when it comes to this type of education and research," Sakr says. "The impact that you have on the society, on education, is quite significant."

Sakr is originally from Lebanon. Members of the Arab diaspora see U.S. campuses here as a chance to come home again and help establish the region's flagging education credentials.

Carnegie Mellon Dean Thorpe admits that this kind of experiment would be difficult to pull off in an impoverished country.

'Essentially Boutiques'

The Qatar Foundation builds the buildings, covers all expenses and pays schools a management fee. That's a pretty sweet deal, and it appears to satisfy any concerns that these campuses will be a drain of resources.

These and other offshore universities campuses are at pains to emphasize their connection to the deep history of the home university — they offer video connections, library access, even semester visits back in the States. Nevertheless, Professor Alan Ruby, who studies the globalization of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, says it's hard to compare these efforts to a full-fledged campus. "They're essentially boutiques, without meaning anything disparaging by that term. They're very tightly focused. They keep a control on the quality of admission and therefore on the quality of faculty," Ruby says.

Boutiques or not, foreign schools are catching on here. In the nearby United Arab Emirates, more than 40 international campuses have set down roots.

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