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Week of 5.16.08

Transcript: Education City

BRANCACCIO: Americans being given a big welcome in the Arab world? Seems far-fetched, with America's reputation in the middle east hovering at historic lows. But one word makes all the difference: education. My NOW colleague Mona Iskander is just back from the tiny oil and gas rich nation of Qatar, host of a fascinating experiment in cross-cultural education. Brenda Breslauer produced our report.

ISKANDER: this is twenty year-old university student Assma Al Adawi. She's the student body president of Georgetown University. But there's a twist. She's not studying in Washington, D.C., Assma is the student body president of Georgetown ....in Qatar. A tiny desert nation in middle of the Persian Gulf.

It's the same prestigious university as in D.C.. Same curriculum, same tuition, same degree. But this three year old campus is part of a radical experiment in exporting American education to the Middle East.

ASSMA: An American education is important to me because it's a way of advancing my career. It's a way of learning the best that I—learning the most I possibly could. And it's a way of getting a different perspective.

ISKANDER: Assma grew up here in Doha, the capital of Qatar. She's the oldest of four children; her mother teaches at Qatar University and her father works for the government. While Assma doesn't agree with American foreign policies, she's eager for an American diploma.

ASSMA: I just definitely don't—see how American policy manage to culminate into the War in Iraq. But—I don't dislike Americans any more, because of American policy. I think there are other aspects of American society that are good. And including the—the education being one of 'em.

ISKANDER: At a time when Arab public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to U.S. policy in the middle east, many hope Education City can be an ambassador of American culture and values.

Chuck Thorpe is the dean of Carnegie Mellon in Qatar

THORPE: One of the really odd things about this time in history is that the American government may or may not be popular. But American education, American openness, American ideas, those are all still very powerful and still very welcomed.

ISKANDER: I the desert outside of Doha, Education City covers 2500 acres and is home to five American universities. Here... students can study international relations at Georgetown, business at Carnegie Mellon, engineering at Texas A&M, or design at Virginia Commonwealth. They can even get an Ivy League education at Weill Cornell Medical College, the first American medical school to offer degrees outside of the U.S. it's got a multi-billion dollar price tag .....paid in full by the Qatari government....a plan to transform education in the Middle East.

REARDON-ANDERSON: Although universities have been around for a 1,000 years, up until the creation of Education City, you could never get a degree from Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Stanford or anywhere else without going to that place and studying in that place.

ISKANDER: After twenty years of teaching at Georgetown in Washington, D.C., James Reardon-Anderson moved 7000 miles away to become dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

REARDON-ANDERSON: Every day, we're trying to be Georgetown. But, we're trying to be Georgetown in a—in a different environment. And that's very exciting. It's also very risky.

ISKANDER: There's a risk for everyone involved in this experiment in education. Here in the U.S., the American schools are betting their reputations that they can maintain the quality of their curriculum, their faculty and their students in a new and unproven environment overseas.

And there are questions about whether these academic institutions should be partnering with a country with a checkered human rights record. The State Department has charged Qatar with mistreating its foreign workers. Homosexual activity is a criminal offense in Qatar punishable by flogging, prison or deportation. And the country has no formal diplomatic relations with Israel. The answer we heard over and over was that this is a crucial time to engage with this part of the world.

FADHY SAOUD: It is important for Qatar. It is important for the region. It is important for the Arab world.

ISKANDER: Dr. Muhammad Fadhy Saoud says Qatar also has a lot at stake. He's the president of the government-funded foundation that runs Education City.

FADHY SAOUD: We are hoping that this project is going to be important to the whole world. Particularly during these very troublesome days.

ISKANDER: Right now in the Middle East there's such strong opposition to the American policy in the region.

FADHY SAOUD: That's true.

ISKANDER: Why are people running towards American education? Why do they want it?

FADHY SAOUD: Because I think this is the best platform where they can see the brightest face of the American civilization.

ISKANDER: There are some 900 students representing 52 nationalities at the universities in Education City. Roughly half are from Qatar. The rest are from neighboring countries in the Middle East..and beyond. Campus life isn't all that different from the U.S. ....just on a smaller scale.: there's a Starbucks here, hip hop classes, and time to just let loose

What is it that students here don't get that they do in the main campus?

REARDON-ANDERSON: Students in Qatar do not get Washington DC. Doha is not Washington. Students here do not get a major American campus. We, for example, do not have a basketball team that made the NCAA playoffs.

LOUISA: There's Georgetown basketball here, but it's not quite the same thing as Georgetown basketball on the main campus.

ISKANDER: Louisa Aviles would know. A junior at Georgetown in [Washington] D.C. majoring in International Politics, she's spending a semester abroad here. Louisa says there are advantages to the Qatar campus.

LOUISA: This is the first time that I've had the opportunity to be in tiny classes with really world renowned professors.

ISKANDER: But coming to Qatar wasn't an obvious choice for a junior year abroad.

So in—in some ways, does it feel like a gamble being here?

LOUISA: It was definitely a gamble—deciding to come—because I sort of thought, well, it'll either be spectacular or it'll be a total disaster—

ISKANDER: Even her parents declined to visit.

LOUISA: My parents were—sort of said, "Well, if you were studying abroad in Italy we'd think about coming to visit you, but studying abroad in Doha, I'm not sure what else we'd do besides follow you around."

ISKANDER: When Louisa first got to Education City, she told us, she was struck by the Qatari women in traditional full length black abayas and headscarves, an outward display of religion different from the U.S.

LOUISA: Georgetown the main campus, it's just—you know—it's a Catholic university, but you don't feel that all the time. And I feel much more the presence of Islam here just because of the way people dress.

ISKANDER: Qatar is very much a traditional culture. While courses at Education City are co-ed, we were asked not to film the female students in a number of classrooms. And while Qatar is considered one of the most progressive states in the Middle East, the country is ruled by a monarch. Political parties are forbidden. Translating an American curriculum here can be a challenge for professors.

Patrick McGinnis teaches business communication at Carnegie Mellon. The day we showed up, he was giving a lesson in business presentation.

MCGINNIS: Do people treat men and women differently in a car dealership? Women you walk into a car dealership...this is a very pretty color...what do they say to the guys...this is a very tough car, it can go 0 to 60 in 5.2 seconds.

ISKANDER: In one class on how to behave in a job interview, McGinnis was stumped when confronted with the fact that many conservative women in the Middle East don't shake hands with a man.

MCGINNIS: And so, we came up with a sort of standard way of replacing the hand shake, which involved a gesture and a couple of words to—to bridge the gap and—and eliminate the awkwardness. She—she now goes like this and says, "I'm sorry. I don't shake hands. But, it's a great pleasure to meet you."

ISKANDER: Twenty one year old Noor Alathirah is a student in McGinnis's class.

NOOR: To show the person in front of us that, no, we don't shake hands, but you're—you're very welcome. It was an interesting class.

ISKANDER: Noor, who is Palestinean, is a senior at Carnegie Mellon majoring in Business Administration. Noor is taught not only by professors who came here from Pittsburgh but also by professors in Pittsburgh. Like this one via teleconference.

It's a class that teaches the real world of businesss...skills she needs because after she graduates, Noor plans to start her own company.

NOOR: I'm here because it's the best education, and I'm trying to get the best that I can of here. And I think I've kind of succeeded in that.

ISKANDER: Recruiting students is one thing, faculty another. Patrick McGinnis has been a Carnegie Mellon professor for nine years. He describes himself as a middle class Irish Catholic kid from Pittsburgh. So when the dean of the business school first approached him about relocating to the Middle East three years ago, he had serious doubts.

MCGINNIS: As any other American, post 9/11, I had a certain set of expectations about what it would be like to—to be living among Muslim people, to be living in this part of the world, which I think most of the time is represented as—hostile to our way of life. And I can tell you my family wasn't very happy about it.

ISKANDER: But now he's back for the third time in three years. He sees education city as a vital opportunity.

MCGINNIS: I can think of no more important time than now for us to be building positive bridges between America and—and the Muslim—the Arab-Muslim-Gulf world.

ISKANDER: And it's also building opportunities for women... although women can vote and drive in Qatar, local customs dictate that Qatari women not mix casually with men who aren't relatives. And in a country where most schools are segregated by sex, Education City offers the chance for women to compete side by side with men.

ASSMA: This—university's almost, I would say, 60 percent female. I'm not sure if that's statistic, but I think it's somewhere around that. And we work just as hard as the boys.

ISKANDER: Many Qatari women, she says, would not be allowed to attend universities in the states without a chaperone.

ASSMA: It is—a little taboo to send your daughters abroad. Although more people are opening up to it now, people are still uncomfortable with the idea. So they would rather—they just—were able to, in a way, protect their daughters here.

ISKANDER: Many parents distrust American campus life, Assma told us.

ASSMA: So there's kind of that fear of just being either swept up in the culture or—even destroyed by the culture (LAUGHTER) in one way.

ISKANDER: Having an American university in their backyard solves the problem. Qatari students like Assma can visit the prayer room during the day and go home to her parents' house in Doha at night.

ASSMA: With the setting here, you're still able to maintain a kind of a traditional lifestyle, while at the same time reaping the benefits of an American education.

ISKANDER: That's what Jinane Tabra says drew her to Education City. She's twenty-one, and a business major at Carnegie Mellon,

JINANE: To stay in this part of the world and be around my friends, and still be near my family, it seemed—it seemed like a no-brainer.

ISKANDER: Jinane is an only child who lives with her parents. We were invited to visit her family at home, rare in a country where cameras are not typically welcome. Her father is Iraqi, her mother Scottish and the family spent many years in Scotland before moving to Qatar.

ISKANDER: Why was it important for you to send Jinane to an American university? An American education?

JINANE'S FATHER: So they can have the best of both worlds. They can have the best education here. And Carnegie Mellon is one of the top universities for business and—computer sciences. And—yes, and in the world at large. And she can be at home here. With—within an Arabic and Islamic environment. So we're grateful for that.

JINANE: Having a specifically American education really lets your voice be heard.

ISKANDER: Jinane says the degree will put her in a unique position.

JINANE: Being an Arab and having an Arab background, and also being a Muslim—now that I'm equipped with an American education I think people are more likely to listen.

ISKANDER: And Education City is giving some Americans a view of the Middle East they've never seen before.

LOUISA: People call Washington an international city. And coming here, you realize Washington is not an international city. Doha is an international city. I came at—my first week here, I met Sudanese, Omanis, Egyptians, Palestinians. I didn't even know—I had never met anyone who identified as Palestinian in the States before.

ISKANDER: Louisa and many of the people she's talking about live here in the dorms. While classes in Education City are co-ed, dorm life is not. Women aren't allowed to visit men in their dorm rooms. So when I came to interview these three students from Syria one night, it wasn't the norm. They're all freshman, studying engineering at Texas A&M in Qatar.

The main campus at Texas A&M has 45,000 students and is known for its die-hard school spirit... students and alum are affectionately nicknamed "Aggies" referring back to the school's roots in agriculture more than a century ago. And that Aggie spirit is felt here in Qatar too.

ISKANDER: So we're here in Doha, and you guys—three guys from Syria, and you're all wearing Texas shirts.

STUDENT #1: We're not Texas, we're Texas A&M.

ISKANDER: Texas A&M.

STUDENT #1: Yeah.

ISKANDER: And you feel an allegiance to the school?

STUDENT #1: Yeah.

ISKANDER: Why do you feel this allegiance?

STUDENT #2: It's—it's the Aggie spirit.

STUDENT #1: It's like a big family of 45,000 people plus us. Plus 400.

STUDENT #3: 400 in Qatar.

ISKANDER: These Syrian students' connection to an American university is in stark contrast to the tense relations between the two countries. For nearly thirty years, Syria has been on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

ISKANDER: Are there some Syrians back at home would say, "Why are you getting an American education?"

STUDENT #1: No.

STUDENT #2: No.

STUDENT #3: No.

ISKANDER: Why not?

STUDENT #3: Because—it's known everywhere American education is—the best we can take from America. It's—the best thing we can take from America.

ISKANDER: That's how the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, sees it. He and his wife, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned, created Education City as part of a grand plan to transform Qatar into the education hub of the Middle East. And as one of the richest countries in the world thanks to its oil and natural gas reserves, they have the means to do it.

The emir's been transforming the arab world since he started Al Jazeera back in 1996. The first Arabic satellite television network. And over the years he's been a friend and ally of the United States. He too got a taste of the Aggie spirit at a ceremony in Qatar.

Here he is with former President Bush at the opening of a new Texas A&M building. And the emir has been a friend to the American military...allowing them to set up regional headquarters for the U. S. Central Command since the beginning of the Iraq war.

Even so, getting American universities to sign on hasn't been easy, says Dr. Saoud.

SAOUD: Everybody was telling us this is the impossible. They said that this region part of the world is not—security there is not right. And they were right. Nobody was prepared to take a risk of coming here and failing or coming here and putting the brand name of this university at the risk.

ISKANDER: A number of schools spent a year considering an Education City campus before abandoning the idea.

The University of North Carolina gave up for financial reasons. The University of Virginia pulled out over concerns it could not meet accreditation requirements. And the University of Texas decided it would detract from its mission in Austin.

SAOUD: Some of our area of discussions led into a complete disappointment, this was not, again, easy.

ISKANDER: So you really had to convince these institutions.

SAOUD: Oh, yes, yes.

ISKANDER: And they have. The government's vast wealth has helped. For each of the five Education City campuses, Qatar has brought in cutting edge architects, one more state of the art than the next. Most with facilities far ahead of its domestic counterpart.

And there are big plans for the future. Northwestern will open a journalism school next year.

To make all this happen, Qatar guarantees there will be no financial risk to the universities.

ISKANDER: So you cover all the costs of these—

SAOUD: All of it.

ISKANDER: For these universities to operate here?

SAOUD: Yes.

ISKANDER: That's a lot.

SAOUD: Yes.

ISKANDER: How much?

SAOUD: Oh, that's a huge amount of money. We can speak about billions in ten years time.

ISKANDER: That's right, billions. For Cornell's medical school alone, the Qatar Foundation committed 750 million dollars for the first eleven years. And the foundation has made "gifts" to the universities in the multi-million dollar range, but no one would tell us exactly how much.

ISKANDER: There is the criticism that, you know, American universities that are setting up here are basically selling their name to the highest bidder.

REARDON-ANDERSON: Well, I—I would say that criticism is probably made by people who don't know anything about the finances or the operation.

ISKANDER: How much did the Qatar Foundation offer Georgetown to set up here?

REARDON-ANDERSON: It's a risk free undertaking for Georgetown. Georgetown does benefit in some ways from the engagement.

ISKANDER: Louisa Aviles says she's witnessed the benefits of all that money.

LOUISA: On the main campus, it's kind of a fight to get funding for any sort of student organization. Here, people say, you know, do you have a good idea for a club that you want to start? Do you have a speaker that you really want to see? Come to—come to Georgetown in Qatar, tell us, you know, and we'll give you the money and we can make it happen.

ISKANDER: But back in the U.S., the bottom line question for students, faculty and alumni of American universities is this: will the degree be the same as the one in the U.S.? Some say it can't be done. Just last month Yale scrapped plans to open an arts institute in Abu Dhabi because it said it couldn't guarantee the staff or students would be of the same caliber.

ISKANDER: When people graduate from Georgetown here, their degree will not say "Georgetown in Qatar." It will be "Georgetown." Some say that that's devaluing the degree.

ANDERSON: It certainly would be devaluing the degree if the degree recipients were less qualified than their classmates in Washington. The rule we have is nobody gets admitted if they wouldn't have been—if you wouldn't be willing to see them go to the main campus.

ISKANDER: Which raises another issue. These universities are reaching mostly the elite from these countries. Take this example.

THORPE: One of the stranger conversations we had was about an example in an algebra text, where a kid needs to make money, so he has an after school job shoveling snow. And he makes so many dollars per inch of snowfall, et cetera.

ISKANDER: The professors were worried the students had never seen snow so they'd have to modify the story.

THORPE: We were talking to our Qatari friends who said, "Now, we're gonna have to change that example." They said, "Oh, yeah, of course, you're gonna have to change that example. No Qatari kid has an after school job."

ISKANDER: The Qataris are so wealthy that most don't have to work. Back in McGinnis's class the privilege that comes with so much money is apparent.

MCGINNIS: "In your family, who drives the nicest car...your driver." Laughter. "He's got the best car on the block."

MCGINNIS: If we are here, primarily, educating Qataris and we are, therefore, primarily, educating only the elite, are we missing an opportunity in the region to bring up the educational system throughout the region and throughout the country? And I think—I think that's something that we should continue to—to take a look at....

ISKANDER: Education City is not the only place courting American universities. It's happening across the oil-rich middle east on a scale that's never been done before. In Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates, Rochester Institute of Technology and Michigan State University will offer classes this fall. And in Abu Dhabi, another of the Emirates, NYU will open a full-scale liberal arts university by 2010.

For all these universities, the question is: will going global end up diluting American education or will it be an investment for the future?

ANDERSON: It is an experiment. And it's a very young experiment. We haven't even graduated our first class yet. So, it's early on. S—I'd say, "So far, so good. Come back in ten years and we'll see where we are then."

ISKANDER: This month, three universities did graduate their first classes. Cornell handed out 15 diplomas to the first doctors ever to be educated and trained in Qatar. Carnegie Mellon held a graduation for its first class too.

With 32 students are you—are you really making an impact?

THORPE: Those 32 students are a beachhead. Through just the beginning of really starting to have a big, positive influence in Qatari society.

ISKANDER: Jinane Tabra was among those 32 graduates.

JINANE: At the moment, with Education City, we're taking a lot from the west. And it's time that once our students graduate it'll be time for us to give back. I think you can be against American policies, and you can be against a lot of the policies coming out of the west towards the Arab world right now. But by accepting an American education, and by equipping yourself with an American education, you're opening doors to negotiations and dialogues in the future that can help to resolve those issues.

BRANCACCIO: What's your alma mater doing overseas? We've put together information on many of the American colleges and universities with branches beyond the border. Check out our web site for more on that.

And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.