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American Higher Ed in the Middle East

I am writing this blog on the Heathrow-Newark leg of my trip back to Princeton from Doha, a trip of about 14 hours in all. Plenty of time to reflect on the past few days in Qatar, and on my reactions to what I have seen of higher education in two very different (and equally atypical) places in the Arab world.

In Beirut I spent all of my time at the American University, which is now nearly a century and a half old. Founded just after the Civil War by American Presbyterians and intended to provide the sort of Christian higher education that was already on the decline in the United States, AUB has long since transcended its religious origins, and also its early 20th-century role as a gentleman’s training institution. It now provides some of the leading medical, business, and technical education in the region, and it is fully coeducational. The University has bounced back magnificently after the trauma of the Lebanese Civil War, and under the energetic leadership of John Waterbury has begun to raise the capital necessary to continue the expansion and modernization of its thrillingly beautiful seaside campus. I was struck by how many of the scholars who attended the American Studies conference early last week had been trained at AUB, despite living elsewhere in the region. AUB has been a beacon of quality higher education for a very long time, and its influence has been immense.

It is of course very much an American university, and what strikes me as most distinctive about it is its commitment to a classical version of general education. Most of the local students seem to opt for practical/professional courses of study (although my own contacts are mostly in the arts and sciences), but they all have to take general education courses. Many of the faculty I know or met are in fact Americans, teaching in Beirut on short-term contracts, since AUB does not give tenure to its faculty — although the rumor last week was that Waterbury was inclined to recommend to his board that the institution adopt a tenure system. Nevertheless, the (mostly younger) faculty I met were very impressive, and obviously highly motivated — I was delighted to see Nisreen Salti, a Princeton economics Ph.D. (and the daughter of AUB faculty members), who has returned to AUB to teach despite having very attractive job possibilities in the States. AUB, like the American University of Cairo, has been the model for the creation of “American Universities” in many other parts of the world, especially in the former Soviet Union.

This was also the model for what I believe was the first of the new American universities in the Middle East, in Sharja (in the Emirates) — a large and apparently highly successful institution profiled not long ago in The Chronicle. As I mentioned in my last post, the Qataris have made a different educational policy choice, opting for branch campuses of prestigious American universities as a way, I think, of jump-starting the modernization of higher education in their country and in the region. There is also an indigenous university, Qatar University, whose admirable President I met at a meeting yesterday in Doha — the Sheikha Abdulla, the paternal aunt of the Sheikha Moza (who has been the inspiration for Education City), herself a Durham University Ph.D. in Education. Dr. Sheikha, as she is called, is apparently trying to reform and modernize Qatar University, and Georgetown (and I assume the other American campuses) is trying to assist.

But the challenge (in all of these institutions) is very large, since Qatari males have neither tradition nor economic incentive to participate actively in higher education. Still, it is impossible not to admire the educational ambition that I am witnessing in Doha.

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