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Texas A&M faculty in Qatar slam decision to close Middle East campus

Professors say students in the Doha campus are devastated by the Board of Regents’ sudden decision to shutter the school by 2028.
Posted: 9:17 AM, Feb 13, 2024
Updated: 2024-02-13 10:17:12-05
The Texas A&M Administration Building in College Station on July 30, 2023.

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QATAR (Texas Tribune) — Faculty at Texas A&M University’s Qatar branch are slamming the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents' abrupt decision last week to wind down the Doha campus after more than two decades.

At a Texas A&M faculty senate meeting Monday, several professors from Qatar called for more answers and a clear transition plan for staff and students there, many of whom they say are devastated by the decision.

“Our students can't understand how local Texan politics can unilaterally determine a weighty decision about a very successful campus that excels in education without any discussion or negotiation,” Brittany Bounds, a history professor at the Qatar campus, said at the meeting.

She noted the move is especially confusing to the campus community since the school renewed its contract with the state-run Qatar Foundation in 2021, extending the teaching agreement for another 10 years.

Regents voted 7-1 Thursday to cut the contract. The university system pledged to continue teaching current students at the school until the campus officially closes in 2028.

In a press release sent after the vote, the system said the board decided to reevaluate the university's presence in Qatar this fall "due to the heightened instability in the Middle East."

“The Board has decided that the core mission of Texas A&M should be advanced primarily within Texas and the United States,” Board of Regents Chair Bill Mahomes said. “By the middle of the 21st century, the university will not necessarily need a campus infrastructure 8,000 miles away to support education and research collaborations.”

The university opened the Qatar campus in 2003 to boost engineering education and research in the Middle East, a major oil and gas region. More than 1,500 students have graduated from the program and it currently enrolls 730 students, according to the university. All campus operations are paid for by the Qatar Foundation, which is controlled by the country’s government. A&M is a public institution and no state funding or tuition revenue can be used to pay for the campus’ operations.

Texas A&M is one of six American universities that has a location in Doha’s Education City, including Virginia Commonwealth University, Georgetown University and Northwestern University. The University of London ended its contract with the Qatar Foundation in 2020 as part of changes it made to its academic priorities.

Administrators told faculty on Monday that they alerted the Qatar Foundation a month prior that regents would discuss the contract at their Feb. 8 meeting. But faculty told The Texas Tribune they did not expect the board to cancel the contract and were caught off guard by the decision.

“We assumed that it was a conversation that needed to be seen publicly, but we had no idea that the regents would actually vote to close this campus,” Bounds said. “Waking up to a flurry of messages and emails on Friday morning was disorienting; I felt kicked in the gut.”

Texas A&M President Mark Welsh III held a town hall meeting Sunday morning to answer pre-submitted questions from faculty and students about the board’s decision. He said A&M officials would be visiting the Doha campus to discuss a transition plan.

A transcript of the meeting provided by Texas A&M shows university leaders had few details to share about the transition plan, saying they were still determining what the decision means for ongoing research projects and faculty appointments.

Professor Mohammed Al-Hashimi described the town hall as a “one-way broadcast” rather than a real dialogue.

“Attendees found themselves unable to voice their concerns or provide feedback, effectively resulting in a sense of this continued disconnection and frustration,” he told A&M faculty during Monday’s meeting.

Faculty members who spoke to the Tribune said communication from Texas and Qatar administrators has been sparse since the board vote, and that some faculty were reprimanded for attempting to hold group listening sessions for Sunday’s town hall.

One faculty member in Qatar who spoke to the Tribune on the condition of anonymity because of fears of retaliation said faculty watching the town hall in Qatar were laughing at the lack of specifics by the end of the meeting.

N.K. Anand, vice provost of faculty affairs, told faculty that administrators met with the president of the Qatar Foundation on Monday. Anand said he will travel to Qatar in early March to meet with faculty, staff and students there to hear their concerns. A full transition team will travel to the campus in May, he said.

Anand confirmed the school will not admit freshmen in the fall, stating the Qatar Foundation will decide where freshman applicants will attend school instead.

Bounds and other faculty said they are also not convinced by the regents’ reasoning to close the campus because of heightened instability in the Middle East amid the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. The professors argued instability in the region was never an issue before. Similar skepticism was also expressed by the Qatar Foundation, which accused the university in a statement last week of falling victim to a “disinformation campaign aimed at harming the interests" of the foundation.

A Washington, D.C.-based think tank called The Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy, which describes itself on its website as a center “dedicated to the academic study of antisemitism,” sent a letter to U.S. officials in January alleging that Qatar had “substantial ownership” of weapons development rights and nuclear engineering research being developed at the Texas A&M campus, which they claim is a threat to national security. The letter came a few months after ISGAP released a 17-page report in which it alleged it had discovered a “disturbing relationship between Qatar and Texas A&M University.”

Texas A&M denied the accusations about its research but also insisted the report from ISGAP was not a factor in the regents’ decision-making process. During the town hall Sunday, Welsh said the “disinformation campaign” had “no influence whatsoever on their decision.”

Yet many faculty say they want more answers from the regents about why they made this decision now, and so quickly.

“One has the feeling that [Welsh] is being given a job to enforce a decision he never would have made,” the faculty member in Qatar who spoke on the condition of anonymity said. “That's the general feeling. That the regents were on a very different agenda from everyone else in the university system.”

The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage.

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