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Commentary / Canadian campuses in the Middle East

Commentary / Canadian campuses in the Middle East

When oil prices were high and rulers in the Middle East were wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, some western universities and colleges decided that it might be very far-seeing to establish “for profit” campuses in these countries particularly since many western governments were engaged in vigorous cost reduction and were strongly encouraging their institutions to transform themselves into business-oriented corporations. Although this process of creating such campuses in the Middle East has waned in recent years, it is still very much alive. What could possibly go wrong?

In 1974–75 New York University decided to create a campus in Abu Dhabi. The New York Times investigated and found that the campus was being built by thousands of virtual slave workers from Bangladesh and other parts of South Asia. The university said that it had nothing to do with the construction and blamed everything on the contractors. It nevertheless was forced to issue an apology. Hands were duly washed.

A story in the Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that the chair of the company building the luxury campus, Khaldoon Khalifa Mubara, was a member of the board of NYU and was a policy adviser to the royal family of the emirate. NYU did not explain how, when the campus was operational, academic freedom and critical free speech would be protected in a funda­mentalist dictatorship. In March 2015 the New York Times reported that one of the authors (Sean O’Driscoll) of its exposé claimed that he was summoned by the authorities, offered immunity from prosecution plus high pay if he would write pro-government ar­ticles. Professor Andrew Ross, a labour policy specialist on the home campus of NYU was refused entry to the emirate. “The lack of respect for freedom of speech per­meates the entire enterprise,” commented one spokesperson for the American Association of University Professors.

Those creating such campuses may find themselves turned into public defenders of the dictatorship and its values. When Algonquin College in Ottawa created a campus in Saudi Arabia at Jazan, it accepted and defended regulations that all faculty had to be male. It justified this by announcing that it had put forward plans for a separate but equal female campus specializing in food production, health and beauty/fashion. Premier Wynne of Ontario described this discrimination as unacceptable.

What else could go wrong? Libya may not be in the Arab Gulf but it certainly was another oil-rich dictatorship under Col. Gaddafi. The London School of Economics decided to make educational arrangements with the dictator. The go-between was his son, Saif al-Islam who became a PhD student at LSE. This provoked vigorous debate with allegations that LSE was selling its degrees and sanitizing the regime. The link with Libya was very profitable, netting some 2.2 million pounds. Libyans were to be trained in modern governmental practices of a vaguely liberal persuasion. The Director of LSE, Sir Howard Davies, with the encouragement of the UK government, became an advisor to the Libyan Sovereign Fund, created by the Gad­dafis to deal with their oil profits. Under the supervision of LSE, Libya was going to become the Norway of North Africa. Libya also helped finance an academic PR firm, the Monitor Group, which subsidized meetings between leading Anglo-American academics with Col. Gaddafi in Libya. The dictator himself was invited by LSE in 2010 to give the prestigious Milliband lecture where he was addressed as “brother leader” and compared to Nelson Mandela.

The whole enterprise collapsed in 2011 with the civil uprising against the government. Davies resigned in March 2011: “We took a risk and I think it’s right to say that risk backfired on us.” The former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, was appointed to examine the links between LSE and Libya. Lord Woolf found that the extent of the link was such that LSE had effectively tied part of its reputation to that of Libya, and more particularly to the dictator’s son. Roger Cohen’s epitaph sums it up: “It may be possible to sink to greater depths but right now, I can’t think how.”

Another problem is there is no notion in the oil autocracies of academic freedom or free speech as understood in Canada. Any criticism by faculty or students of the esta­blished authorities would be met by the severest penalties. An example of Saudi law in this regard is the case of the blogger Raif Badawi who was sentenced and re-sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam. His wife and children are in Canada and the federal government and the European Union have protested.

The Board at Algonquin College was told not to worry about such matt­ers since its policy was to engage rather than to isolate. This common justification implies that the Canadian presence will gradually by example convert the faculty and students in the oil autocracies to Ca­nadian views of academic freedom. This seems un­likely but, if it were to happen, it would be irresponsible in the extreme to persuade the Saudi and emirates faculty and students to practice free speech given the huge risks of imprisonment or worse.

Overseas campuses do not always make money. Even before the price of oil collapsed, Algonquin College lost $1.5 million in its first two years when it had projected a profit of $19.9 million over five years. This can be awkward to explain when it is clear that the Saudi college was set up as a business exercise to offset declining revenues on the Ottawa campus in the hope that Saudi princes and students would subsidize the Canadian campus. Eventually Algonquin gave up and closed the campus because it was losing money. What happened to engagement? In the end, the Saudis stuck the College with a closure bill of $4.3 million.

In practice, it is very difficult to guarantee effective and honest business methods, much less academic inte­grity and freedom from thousands of miles away especially since many of these ventures are franchises. Canadian colleges and universities should think twice before committing to inter­national money-making fads in the oil dic­tatorships — if it is too good to be true, it probably is.

Donald C. Savage is a former executive director of CAUT and a retired professor of history.

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