November 7, 2001

Cornell Looks to School With College in Qatar

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Amid political turmoil in the Middle East, Cornell and other universities forge ahead with educational programs in Qatar, weighing multinational interests against the risks of having faculty and staff in the Muslim emirate.

Cornell is closely watching Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), which first embarked on the rocky desert soil four years ago when it established its arts school for women in Qatar, according to Daniel R. Alonso, dean for the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar.

VCU President Eugene P. Trani said the university was reconsidering its interests in Qatar after the World Trade Organization hesitated over continuing with its global ministerial conference in the country, which is still planned for Friday through Nov. 13.

He offered faculty and staff members the option to leave Qatar and return to VCU without penalty.

“I wanted to make sure the faculty felt safe as a first priority,” Trani said.

But no one has wanted to leave Qatar, he added.

In response to reports that Qatar may be harboring al-Qaeda terrorist cells, VCU has beefed up security around its Shaqab College of Design Arts in Doha, the capital city.

Cornell’s Weill Medical College has agreed to establish a branch in Qatar — the American branch of a medical school in a foreign country — with the emir spending $750 million over the next 11 years.

Although optimistic about the agreement, Cornell will soon put an emergency evacuation plan into writing, according to Alonso.

“We’re applying prudent care,” he said. “Qatar is traditionally a very safe country. It was the kind of place people felt secure without locking their doors. Everything changed on Sept. 11, because the whole world has become potentially dangerous.”

Although Cornell does not have any personnel presently living in Qatar, the first representatives from Cornell will move there in early February.

The design phase is nearly complete, and construction will begin in January 2002, with completion in summer 2003. Temporary quarters equipped with labs and classrooms will be renovated for the first-year students of the premedical program, which will begin in fall 2002. Medical school classes will commence two years later.

Qatar, a tiny oil- and gas-rich country in the Persian Gulf, has a “very stable” government, according to Gregory Sullivan, spokesperson for near eastern affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

The current emir of Qatar took power in 1995 after a bloodless coup in which he toppled his father’s rule.

The new government has pledged full partnership with the United States in its mission to eradicate terrorism. Qataris have expressed condolences and outrage over the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We haven’t seen any public backlash against Americans,” he said.

The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) is also considering establishing a business school in Qatar.

A 60-person delegation of UNC faculty members and administrators will be visiting Qatar for the next few days to examine the situation, according to Robert Shelton, provost for University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

As with Cornell and VCU, the Qatar Foundation has promised to yield complete control over the academic process but fund the school entirely on Qatari money.

UNC is six months into negotiations and expects to make a decision by the end of the year, according to Shelton. The Sept. 11 tragedies have not caused any delays.

Americans should be more concerned about safety in the United States than in Qatar, said Paul Petrie, associate dean of VCU’s arts school.

“People here don’t have a clear reading of what it’s like over there,” he said. “If anything, we’re going to have trouble prying faculty members back home when some of them end their terms this year.”

VCU faculty have the option to remain in Qatar for a maximum of three years, according Petrie, the Qatar college’s founding director, who lived on-site for the first three years.

The VCU faculty in Qatar have repeatedly emphasized their commitment to the arts school, which will graduate the first class of students this spring. In a petition presented to the administration, they said:

“We urge VCU to maintain its commitment to the college and entrust to us decisions regarding our presence in Qatar. To abandon our mission here would undermine the progress we have made and leave our students with nothing to show for their hard work and trust in our institution.”

Archived article by Jennifer Roberts