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Texas A&M University to close Qatar campus

The Texas A&M Board cited instability in the Middle East as the reason to end its contract with the Qatar Foundation. The foundation accuses the board of falling prey to a “disinformation campaign.”
Posted: 9:41 AM, Feb 09, 2024
Updated: 2024-02-09 10:41:07-05
Students study at Texas A&M University in Doha, Qatar, on Feb. 27, 2012. The Texas A&M University System Board of Regents voted Thursday to close the Qatar campus.

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QATAR (Texas Tribune) — The Texas A&M University System Board of Regents voted Thursday to end its contract with the foundation that funds the system flagship’s branch campus in Qatar, effectively ending the 20-year-old program.

The vote to end the contract with the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, which is run by the Qatar government, means the school will start winding down the Doha campus over the next four years before officially closing its doors. The current contract was resigned in 2021 and was set to expire on June 30, 2033.

The 7-1 vote was made without discussion. Regent Michael Plank was the only regent to vote against the proposal. Regent Robert Albritton was absent.

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 board's decision to review its presence in the region also came as a Washington, D.C. think tank known as the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy started to raise questions in October, shortly after the start of the Israel-Hamas war, about the partnership between the state-run foundation and the university.

The nonprofit, 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 where it alleged it had discovered a “disturbing relationship between Qatar and Texas A&M University.”

The report, released shortly after the start of the war between Israel and Hamas, notes that Hamas is “funded extensively by Qatar” and that Qatar maintains a relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The university has firmly denied the accusationsabout its research. A&M President Mark Welch wrote in a letter last month to the campus community that the Qatar campus does not offer a nuclear engineering program or any classes at the campus.

“Contrary to what these articles have implied, no nuclear technology, weapons/defense or national security research is conducted at this campus,” Welch said in a Jan. 7 statement. “Nor does the Qatar campus have any connection to nuclear reactor research done in Texas or the Los Alamos National Lab.

"The insinuation that we are somehow leaking or compromising national security research data to anyone is both false and irresponsible,” he added.

In a campus message Thursday, Welch said the board's decision to close the campus by 2028 was made after "thoughtful discussion."

"Over the last 20 years, the Qatar campus has advanced ideals, graduated exceptional Aggie engineers and is cemented as an important legacy of Texas A&M," he said in the message. "As we look to the future, we will continue our commitment to global education and research through our campuses in the United States."

The Qatar Foundation slammed the board's decision Thursday. In an email attributed to an unnamed spokesperson, the foundation accused the board of being influenced by a disinformation campaign "aimed at harming the interests" of the Qatar Foundation.

"It is deeply disappointing that a globally respected academic institution like Texas A&M University has fallen victim to such a campaign and allowed politics to infiltrate its decision-making processes," the statement read. "At no point did the Board attempt to seek out the truth from Qatar Foundation before making this misguided decision."

The statement did not specify what disinformation the foundation is referring to. In a statement Thursday evening, Texas A&M system spokesperson Mike Reilly said the foundation is "jumping to an unfortunate and incorrect conclusion."

"The misinformation campaign had no bearing on Thursday’s decision by the Board of Regents, which was made following a close analysis of the university’s mission and the evolving political situation in the Middle East," Reilly said. "Discussions about branch and remote campuses are ongoing and had begun before false information was reported about Texas A&M and Qatar."

Multiple faculty at the Qatar campus did not immediately respond to requests for comment as the board's decision was made just after midnight in Doha.

But Joe Ura, a former professor at Texas A&M Qatar who now teaches at Clemson University, said the board's reasoning to leave amid heightened tensions in the Middle East seemed "thin," given the campus opened shortly after 9/11 and continued to operate through other regional conflicts, including Saudi Arabia's blockade of Qatar.

"The idea that a military conflict in Israel, which ... is not immediately proximate to Qatar seems far fetched," he said.

Ura is one of two former faculty members who filed federal lawsuits against the university alleging sexual discrimination at the branch campus. Ura also alleged the school retaliated against him after administrators told him not to renew the contract of a faculty member who made a comment on social media in support of Israel, angering students and the Qatar Foundation. That professor ultimately held onto her job but Ura left the school in 2023.

On Friday morning, the U.S. Ambassador to Qatar, Timmy Davis tweeted his disappointment in the decision.

"TAMUQ proudly represents the [American] values and inspires innovation for students who might otherwise not have access to an American education. This is a loss for the Aggie community and for Education City," he wrote.

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. 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.

All campus operations are paid for by the Qatar Foundation since A&M is a public institution and no state funding or tuition revenue can be used to pay for the campus’ operations. It’s unclear how much money the university receives annually from the contract. In 2016, The Washington Post reported that the school received more than $76 million to operate the branch campus.

According to the university system, school administrators will organize a team to ensure students can complete their education, faculty and staff are supported and that the university fulfill its current research obligations.

“The work in Qatar is great work,” Mahomes said in the press release. “But it is a fraction of what Texas A&M accomplishes year after year.”

Tracy Hammond, president of the Texas A&M Faculty Senate, told The Texas Tribune that the body will work with the administration to ensure "faculty feel supported as this might be difficult transition time for some of them.”

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

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