Lacking students, US colleges drop out of Mideast

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Photo Caption: Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan looks at the project model for Saadiyat Island during a ceremony in Abu Dhabi in 2007. The multi-billion-dollar  project includes the construction of four museums and several international universities. (Rabih Moghrabi/AFP/Getty Images)

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — When Sheikh Shakbut bin Sultan Al-Nahyan was the ruler of this oil-rich emirate back in the 1950s, he liked to boast that there was not a single school in his entire kingdom.

The sheikh cheerfully turned down offers from neighboring countries to build schools. He was a strict traditionalist who believed that the old Bedouin ways — including near universal illiteracy — were best.

Things have changed.

Abu Dhabi is now ruled by his nephew, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, a thoroughly modern man who is a firm believer in education — especially name-brand higher education.

Under his sponsorship, the Sorbonne University of Paris opened a branch in the emirate in 2006, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has become the key partner in the Masdar Institute, a new graduate research program dedicated to the development of alternative energy, environmental technologies and sustainability.

But the jewel in the crown is a glittering new campus that Sheikh Khalifa is building for New York University on Saadiyat Island, part of a $27 billion project that will also include a branch of the Guggenheim Museum and the Louvre.

For its part, NYU has promised to deliver “the first world-class liberal arts university in the Middle East.” The Abu Dhabi government will underwrite all operating costs. Classes began this month at a temporary campus in the city center.

The prototype for this kind of higher-ed transplant project is Qatar’s Education City, which after a decade of steady expansion now hosts programs from half a dozen top U.S. universities, including Cornell’s Medical College, Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and Northwestern’s journalism school.

For American universities on the lookout for new revenue streams, the idea of opening a campus in one of the wealthy Arab states has been understandably seductive — a can’t-miss chance to tap into a seemingly bottomless pool of cash.

The reality is a bit more nuanced.

George Mason University, a public institution in Fairfax, Va., gambled on Ras Al-Khaimah, one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates. With high hopes, the university opened a temporary campus there in 2005, but enrollments fell far short of expectations, and in May 2009 school officials decided to cut their losses and abandon the project without having graduated a single student.

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Similarly, Michigan State University opened a branch campus in Dubai in 2008 — just ahead of the high-flying emirate’s sudden financial crash — and found itself in a losing struggle to attract students.

With enrollments falling below projections, Michigan State raised eyebrows and ire on other campuses in the region last fall when it offered half price tuition to transfer students. Administrators at other schools saw this as a blatant attempt to poach their students.

But even this gambit failed, and last May, after less than two years, Michigan State pulled the plug on its undergraduate programs, leaving about 100 students scrambling for alternatives. The school will continue to staff a limited graduate program.

Chicago’s DePaul University, which has run an MBA program in Bahrain for a decade, has been successful with a more low-key approach.

“These other schools go in and try to staff a full campus. Ours is a different financial model: we view ourselves as service providers,” said Dan Heiser, associate dean of DePaul’s international programs.

DePaul works in partnership with the Bahrain Institute of Banking and Finance, which provides the physical plant, the local administrative staff and the marketing; DePaul, meanwhile, provides the professors and the curriculum.

“They (BIBF) do what they do best and we do what we do best,” said Heiser. “Our professors are in Bahrain, face-to-face with students, but our physical footprint is fairly small ... (and) our overhead is a lot lower,” he said.

The school is now in discussions about expanding into undergraduate business education.

“Our mission as a non-profit is to take our services to underserved populations,” said Heiser. “We try not to lose money, but we are not treating this as a profit center.”

Given the mixed results of these experiments, it is not yet clear whether it is possible to simply transplant a higher education system in the arid sands of Arabia and expect it to thrive.

One of the legacies of Sheikh Shakbut and others in his mold is the region’s weak tradition of primary and secondary education. The problem is compounded by the growing dominance of English as the language of education, commerce and mass media. Most college-bound 18-year-olds in the Gulf can function in English, but not well enough to meet the normal standards of a U.S. university.

All of the U.S. universities with a presence in the region insist that they apply the same admissions and academic standards here as they do at home, even if it causes them to fall short of projected enrollments.

“The biggest problem — and it’s a pretty big one for a school of journalism — is writing, said Richard Roth, senior associate dean of Northwestern’s journalism program in Qatar.

“The writing skills, whether in English or Arabic, are not at the level we would expect in the United States. So we made an adjustment — we added a lot more hours in the week for writing instruction,” he said.

Northwestern, which is now in its third year in Qatar, has 49 students. But despite the relatively small numbers, Roth is confident the effort will yield results.

“Oh yes, I think it’s working. Immediately, young people — mostly female — are getting educations they undoubtedly could never have gotten,” he said.

“Longer term, I expect the outcome of all of this to be profound. Not in two years when we graduate a dozen journalists into the State of Qatar or a year later when there are 15 or 20 more ... but in 10 years, say, when there are a couple of hundred of them,” he said. “Then, 10 years from now, I think you will begin to see the value of this experiment.