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Students at a California state university circulated a petition this week questioning a deal that could bring millions of dollars to their school. The school wants to set up an engineering program halfway across the world with a Saudi Arabian university. But the lucrative contract comes with this string attached - the Saudi university doesnt allow women in its engineering courses.

David Gorn has that story.

DAVID GORN: Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is known for two things: its world-class programs in computer, aerospace and mechanical engineering that is its technical expertise, and the other half of its equation for success is its reputation for recruiting women into science. Kate Van Dellen is studying to be an aerospace engineer at Cal Poly is also president of the local Society of Women Engineers, and she is not impressed by the schools plan to launch a program in Saudi Arabia.

Ms. KATE VAN DELLEN (Student, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; President, Local Society of Women Engineers): The fact that there would be definite issues with women not only studying there but working there made me feel very uneasy.

GORN: Van Dellen says Cal Poly continually gets national prizes for its support of women in the sciences. And when the Saudi proposal first came to light, Van Dellen sent out an e-mail to alumni asking what they thought of it.

Ms. VAN DELLEN: One of them sent me an e-mail back and said, if this thing happens, I may be just ashamed to be a Cal Poly alumna.

GORN: U.C. Berkeley last week signed a similar pact but at a different college in Saudi Arabia where women can take engineering classes as long as they remain segregated from the men. But the Cal Poly proposal at Jubail University College completely excludes Saudi women students from engineering.

Cal Poly professor, Jim LoCascio, sitting on his front porch before school says he is appalled that his school would sully its name and its reputation for cash.

Professor JIM LoCASCIO (Cal Poly San Luis Obispo): To tell women here at home that, you know, we support you, we support you; and then we go and support a regime that is so outrageous treatment of women - I mean there is something wrong with that.

GORN: Not really, says Cal Poly provost, William Durgin. He is the one negotiating the contract with Jubail University.

Mr. WILLIAM DURGIN (Provost, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; Vice President for Academic Affairs): That university has elected to start this program with male cohorts in engineering. Thats not to say that that wont change in the future.

GORN: Durgin says that the way to make inroads in changing a countrys discriminatory stance is to start in the academic world.

Mr. DURGIN: I am hoping that we can influence Saudi Arabia. One has to start somewhere to build a bridge and to tear down the barriers.

GORN: So the university, Durgin says, not only gets $5.9 million in the deal, not only gets the prestige of establishing a global campus in the Mideast but it might also help change Saudi attitudes toward women. Charles Hill is an international studies professor at Yale and he has a different take.

Professor CHARLES HILL (International Studies, Yale): So it may bring in money for the university, but to explain this in terms of having the ability or the possibility of bringing about change in those cultures in society is, I think, is a very dubious proposition.

GORN: University officials say that the students and faculty who are critical of the deal arent looking at the larger picture - building a new program from scratch in a country that badly needs it is worth quite a lot. Thats all understandable, Yale professor Hill says. But just so its clear, he adds, when Cal Poly and the other universities are paid to create programs in Saudi Arabia with Saudi rules, then he believes its the Saudis who are doing the influencing.

Prof. HILL: What should be done would be to have those students come to the American universities and see how American culture and society works.

GORN: That way, says Hill, Saudis could return to their own country with all kinds of knowledge in hand, both technical and personal. An exchange program isnt a part of this deal. Administration officials say they would be open to it, but that would have to be approved by the Saudis.

For NPR News, Im David Gorn.

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