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ADVANCE FOR USE FRIDAY, OCT. 21, 2011 AND THEREAFTER - This Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011 photo shows the University of Texas A&M campus at Education City in Doha, Qatar. American college presidents have spent the last decade obsessed with expanding overseas - looking to tap new markets, spread the gospel of American higher education and leave a glamorous global legacy. But like most empire-builders, they've found the reality on the ground more challenging than expected. (AP Photo/Osama Faisal)

An American University Retreats from Qatar to Texas

The undermining of America’s global role is most easily seen far from Washington—in College Station, Texas. Earlier this month, the Board of Regents at Texas A&M University ended the college’s 21-year partnership with Qatar, which had supported a satellite campus of A&M’s engineering school (TAMU Qatar) at the multi-university campus of Education City. The saga of Texas A&M’s erstwhile partnership with Qatar captures the zeitgeist of today’s America, as the United States abjures its global leadership role abroad, abandons overseas engagements, and retreats within itself.

Unilateral Withdrawal

The Texas A&M Board of Regents’ abrupt decision to cancel an existing 10-year contract came with no public discussion, no input from the Qatar branch (or even the American campus), and with only one Regent dissenting. At the time of the decision, one university administrator expressed doubts that any member of the Board had even been to Qatar, speculating that it “had no idea what was going on in Doha.” In fact, one member of the Board had visited Doha—the only Regent who voted against closing TAMU Qatar. Qatar Foundation (QF), the government agency funding the school, complained afterward that it had been completely blindsided by the decision. Even the loss of QF’s estimated $75 million yearly layout in support of the campus, its faculty, and its research activities could not sway the Board.

Texas A&M had long faced harassment about the overseas campus, mostly from American conservatives suspicious of Qatar’s cordial relationships with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. One right-wing legal organization brought a lawsuit on behalf of a client that accused the university of funding “antisemitism” and demanded the disclosure of funds paid to the university by “terrorist-linked Qatar.” A Texas court upheld these claims in March 2023. More recently—some two months before the Regents’ vote—a different group produced a report alleging that Texas A&M had licensed nuclear energy and weapons research to Qatar, thereby implying that the university had played a role in arming Hamas ahead of the group’s October 7 attacks on Israel. Mark Welsh III, Texas A&M’s president, denounced these findings as “false and irresponsible.” For its part, Qatar would later blame the “disinformation campaign” launched by these outlets for the Regents’ abrupt decision to quit Education City.

Explaining the Controversy Away

Though President Welsh condemned the reports as “misinformation,” he also asserted that the disinformation campaign had “no influence” over the Board’s decision to withdraw from Qatar. Little information regarding the Regents’ motives has emerged, even though the motion to close the Doha branch was introduced and finalized in less than a minute. Those in Qatar—theoretically the most affected by the closure—complained afterward that they had been left out of this “prearranged” vote, which felt like a foregone conclusion rather than a true debate of the necessity of a branch campus in Qatar. A spokesman for the Board alluded to the influence of regional instability and changing institutional priorities in its ultimate decision. The Board chairman pointed to the core mission of Texas A&M to perform its mission to develop engineers in Texas and the United States, which did not require a satellite campus “8,000 miles away.” As detractors of the decision were quick to point out, Texas A&M established its Doha campus in 2003—arguably a time of even greater regional instability with the United States engaged in not one, but two regional wars. At the time of the campus’ opening, Robert Gates served as the president of Texas A&M; he would later go on to serve as Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011 under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and was lauded for his international experience. In the current political environment, however, Texas A&M’s leadership does not see its overseas presence as relevant to the University’s mission.

The board’s motivations for the closure may be even simpler and possibly more superficial. If the Board found that the Qatar campus’ income and the overseas exposure it provided the university were unimportant, any drawbacks associated with the relationship would be that much more intolerable. The ongoing war in Gaza brought home unpleasant, thorny issues that placed the university in a bind; as one Texas A&M administrator put it, the ouster of Harvard President Claudine Gay after being paraded before a congressional committee as an anti-Semite was not something that conservative Texans would like to see happen in their state. Texas A&M’s leadership would also find it difficult to defend an ongoing relationship with Qatar, which hosts Hamas’ political wing, in front of right-wing legislators already intent on uncovering higher education’s ties to Islamist extremists.

What Was Left Behind

The biggest losers from the Board’s abrupt decision to withdraw from Qatar are the Gulf’s underserved communities. In the 21 years that TAMU has existed, it has graduated some 1,300 engineers, almost 40% of them women.   The five other American universities with campuses at Education City, including Georgetown University Qatar, form the largest grouping of American schools outside the United States. Administrators at these schools may feel trepidation as a result of A&M’s decision, though none have yet announced their own plans to leave Qatar.

This domestic threat to America’s global role in higher education is notable and new. When these universities first arrived in Qatar in the early 2000s, memories of 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq were the period’s immediate worries.  Resistance from the tradition-bound, religious regimes of the Gulf region was the primary concern of the university pioneers that had begun the foray into countries unfamiliar with liberal Western education systems. Would local populations support liberal education? Could academic freedom survive the pressures of conservative elites, many of whom ruled with little room for free speech in their own countries? Could women and non-Muslim minorities be tolerated and supported in a homogenous, mono-religious society? With occasional friction, these questions have generally been answered in the affirmative, and U.S. universities have played a major role in providing greater individual freedoms and expanding educational opportunities for the next generation of Arab leaders. The customs and politics of the Middle East have not prevented the people of this region from embracing the benefits of liberal American education. Ties of friendship and learning, as well as the impact of a sustained American presence in the Gulf, have bound the United States to the people of the region to the benefit of all parties.

Curiously, America’s isolationist and xenophobic impulses now threaten the United States’ role in the world more than the opposition of other states and peoples. A critical mass of Americans has come out against foreign engagement, endangering the critical role of universities, which build bridges between cultures and overwhelmingly serve American interests. In 1970, amidst the dejection of the Vietnam War, environmental degradation, and ideological competition, cartoonist Walt Kelly wrote, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” It is time to realize that we do not have to be.

Issue: Society & Culture, U.S. – Gulf Policy
Country: Qatar

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Professor Gary Wasserman has fashioned a career in teaching, political consulting and writing. He taught American and international politics courses for 8 years as Professor of Government at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, Doha, Qatar. He was appointed a Senior Advisor for online programs at Georgetown University. He was a Visiting Professor at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies teaching graduate students in Nanjing, China. Gary received his Ph.D with Distinction at Columbia University. A Fulbright Scholar, he studied at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, Nairobi University, and Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. His thesis, Politics of Decolonization, was published by Cambridge University Press. He also taught at Columbia University and Medgar Evers College, CUNY.


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