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A Middle East Ivy League?

— Today’s New York Times carries a story by Tamar Lewin on the push by many American universities to establish branch campuses overseas, particularly in the Middle East. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, “Education City, a 2,500-acre campus on the outskirts of Doha where oil and gas money pays for everything from adventurous architecture to professors’ salaries … has fast become the elite of Qatari education, a sort of local Ivy League.” Virginia Commonwealth University, Texas A&M, Cornell University, Carnegie Mellon, and Northwestern are all establishing a presence there with programs in medicine, engineering, marketing, and journalism.

Earlier reports in this Times series on the globalization of higher education suggest that a desire for money drives many of these initiatives.

When John Sexton, the president of New York University, first met Omar Saif Ghobash, an investor trying to entice him to open a branch campus in the United Arab Emirates, Mr. Sexton was not sure what to make of the proposal—so he asked for a $50 million gift. “It’s like earnest money: if you’re a $50 million donor, I’ll take you seriously,” Mr. Sexton said.

But regardless of the motive—base, noble, or alloyed—are these international campuses as good as they could be?

I can think of few parts of the world that could benefit more from the encouragement of genuine liberal education than the Middle East. And yet applied studies—where the money is—seem to be the focus, and this is frankly acknowledged.

Personally, I like what the liberal arts do in the United States, but if you look at what our country needs right now, we need people trained in the oil and gas areas, we need doctors, we need media, so those are the programs we are bringing in,” said Dr. [Abdulla al-]Thani, of the Qatar Foundation.

Fair enough. But will the more superficial aspects of American campus life be officially brought in as well?

The Education City schools often mirror American campus culture: Texas A&M holds the Aggie Muster every April, just like the College Station, Tex., campus. And at Carnegie Mellon, Ms. Hadan, working with the student government, helped organize “Crazy Week,” culminating in Tartan Day, when students wear the Carnegie Mellon plaid. “Everyone has at least a T-shirt,” she said. But on Pajama Day, the divide between Qataris and non-Qataris, a majority of Carnegie Mellon’s students, became clearer than ever. Some non-Qatari students arrived in full sleep regalia, complete with fuzzy slippers and teddy bears.

Ms. Hadan and the other Qataris remained in traditional dress, women in black abayas and head scarves, men in long white robes and headdresses. “Because of my culture, I couldn’t wear pajamas; it’s too embarrassing,” said Khalid al-Sooj, 19.

Not all American students would be comfortable attending an event in pajamas either, although some would. Optional, student-generated activities of all kinds are fine, but these events have the hallmarks of organized Student Affairs programs being set up by university officials, reminiscent of the “condom toss” and “dress the building director” activities I have seen scheduled for freshmen by Residence Life administrators.

American universities can do better than this. These new campuses present a wonderful opportunity to serve as channels for the best of American and Western culture, in addition to providing whatever practical training may be required. Instead of “Crazy Week” and “Pajama Day,” how about introducing Middle Eastern students to performances of MacBeth, or screenings of prize-winning films, or stories from Greek mythology, or readings of American poetry as part of the non-curricular recreational life of the campus? How about organizing official quotation contests, literary prizes, conversational Cafés Scientifiques, or lively collegiate spelling bees and chess tournaments? Perhaps conservative Muslim students would find ideas that both challenge and resonate with their thinking in the Puritan writings of John Winthrop, a man of action whose culture imported the residential college idea into the United States more than 300 years ago.

If the students themselves decide to organize their own Crazy Week, fine and dandy. But if that’s the most substantial thing that American university officials can think of organizing for them, then perhaps we need to export some better officials.

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