Welcome to Education City: the first knowledge-oriented theme park. Take the path to your left to experience true southern craftiness at Virginia Commonwealth University. But wait a second, if you’re a real Southerner at heart, then you may want to walk a little further to Texas A&M, just down the road. For novelty’s sake, you can take a few courses down south, but if tex-mex is not your style, don’t fret. Walk north a bit to Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, or even Cornell – life is better in the North anyway. But remember, after foosball and a Texan holler, don’t forget to go to mosque, its only a skip and hop away. Oh, right, did I mention that this theme park is actually a 2,500 miles distant multi-university campus in Doha, the capital of Qatar? Okay, so maybe theme park is a little harsh, I’m sure Texas A&M probably doesn’t serve tex-mex, and I guess the creation of knowledge-based society is probably a beneficial goal. But I wonder if it is a good thing that soon everyone may be a Texas longhorn.
Education City is the flagship project of the Qatar Foundation, a private, chartered, non-profit organization that was founded in 1995 by the Emir of the State of Qatar, His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. And in the ten years since the founding of Education City, great strides have already been made to further their mission: the creation of a community built upon progressive education and innovation, and the cultivation of a group of students who are prepared to meet the challenges of a global culture. The large campus currently hosts about six educational centers specific to Qatar as well as branches of five American Universities, each offering degrees in specialized fields (medicine, business, medias, and not surprisingly the largest field of all: engineering).
The idea is commendably progressive and under the guidance of Sheik Hamad may create a truly global difference. In fact, under His Highness, Qatar became the second country in the Persian Gulf to give women the right to vote (it only happened 10 years ago, but better late then never), and Education City manifests even greater strides for the women of Qatar. Many traditional families are opposed to their daughters traveling overseas to attend university and Education City gives women the opportunity to continue their higher education without having to leave their culture and society behind. Instead, America is brought to them.
The mission statement clearly explains that Education City intends to host the elite research institutions from around the world, so why is it that all the institutions are American? At what point does honest striving for better education become little more than cultural hierarchy? Before you cry “cultural imperialism”, I will remind you that it is the Qatar Foundation that originally did the courting, not the other way around. It was the foundation that asked each of the five American universities (soon to be six with the addition of Northwestern’s Journalism and Communications program) to build branches in Qatar. Each surrogate mimics the respective architecture of their mother university, as well as many of the social aspects of their American schools, complete with dorm life and traditional American activities like bake sales. In fact, even the traditions of specific universities are exported: come pajama day at Carnegie Mellon, the only difference between Qatar and Pittsburgh is that interspersed between the fuzzy slippers and draw-string pants are the dark figures of traditional hijabs.
With no shortage of money, the Qatar Foundation is almost limitless in its possibilities, so why import ready-made universities (unavoidably teeming with cultural implications)? If it is the progressive American style that they desire, nothing is stopping the heads of the foundation from creating new universities based upon the Georgetown blueprint. I am sure that the $750 million that Cornell is receiving over the next 11 years (along with other unspecified “gifts”) could pay for a few good professors even for a new university that (due to age alone) will unavoidably lack the prestige and allure of a Cornell. But just because something is older, does not mean it is inherently better. In fact, by building their own Universities and creating their own plan, they would be able to attract and cultivate professors with a personal stake in the universities’ futures.
The American universities cannot just export their staff to Qatar on a whim. As a result, many of the classes in Qatar are taught by professors near retirement and visiting professors that only stay for a few months at a time, some lectures are even given by video chats. These situations are less than ideal. But professors at the height of their career lack the motivation to travel to a foreign country, which would effectively put a halt on their tenure track since Education City lacks the facilities for (except for the petroleum engineers) independent research projects.
But maybe none of this is actually important; maybe it truly is just the name on the diploma that matters. It is assumed that after the students of Education City graduate, they will travel to America to finish their education. But is this the most advantageous plan for a foundation that has the goal of furthering Qatari society? The few students that attend school on scholarship are required to work in Qatar after the completion of the education, but that says nothing of the rest. With the millions of dollars that Qatar is sitting on, why are they looking to create a group of culturally American college students who will leave Qatar in their early twenties, only to potentially discover that their identity as a Georgetown student has permanently rooted them to American soil? But then again, America probably is not the greatest place to work at the moment, so maybe returning home is their best bet.
For me, the problem does not lie with the education but rather with the culture in which this education is situated. As more American universities are exported to Qatar, aspects of our cultural differences could begin disintegrate. I am not suggesting that American culture is inherently stronger than the traditional culture of Qatar, but as enrollment in these American universities becomes increasingly popular (as of now there are only 300 spots and competition is fierce), grade school education in Qatar (as well as the surrounding areas, as not all the students are native Qataris) will have to shift to a more American method in order to best prepare students for this competition.
Already at a current college fair in Qatar, hordes of teenagers had to debate the same question that many Americans teens ask themselves each year–questions of extracurricular and SATs, dorm life and social clubs. At this rate, the next question will be: What club do I want to bicker? And I am not so sure I want to live in a world where that is a universal question.