With United States troops and American journalists alike jockeying for position in Iraq, Cornell University seems secure in its own outpost in the Middle East.
A few hundred miles from Baghdad, The Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar (WCMC-Q), inaugurated only six months ago, stands in contrast to the turbulence of the American-led campaign.
According to Dr. Daniel Alonso, dean of WCMC-Q, who is currently working at the new college located in Doha, Qatar, the war has had only minor effects, and has not disrupted the school’s goals.
“We’ll continue the implementation of our program as previously scheduled,” he said, “and have no plans to scale back any of the programs.”
Alonso noted that Doha seems largely detached from the friction common amongst its neighbors.
“We have not experienced any hostility and Doha remains calm and quiet. And, different from other cities in the region, there have not been any demonstrations,” he said.
WCMC-Q was established on April 9, 2001, as a joint project between Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, and the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. Started in 1995 at the initiative of Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Emir of Qatar, the private, non-profit Qatar Foundation aims to develop the nation’s educational system.
Operating the college in Qatar has required especially careful oversight. According to Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University relations, University leadership in Ithaca and New York City “is in touch with the school in Qatar literally every day.”
“We are very sensitive to security issues that are presented, and have been long before the recent hostilities,” Dullea said.
Specific security measures are in place at the college. Alonso detailed the precautions taken: aside from training faculty and staff in preparedness, the school also boasts a warden system that allows the College’s personnel to remain in constant contact. In addition, according to Alonso, the Qatari government has provided unsolicited assistance.
“There is an increased presence of government security personnel stationed around the Medical College campus and the housing complexes where our employees reside,” he noted.
But, to date, the measures remain only a precaution.
Dr. David Robertshaw, associate dean for pre-medical education and professor of physiology, described the atmosphere in Qatar as “great.”
“It’s a pleasant place to be,” he said, describing life at the college’s temporary facilities as “very comfortable.” The permanent buildings will be competed in July.
“We don’t feel threatened at all, or we wouldn’t be here,” Robertshaw said.
Rather than focus on the war, Robertshaw and his colleagues prefer to concentrate on the reasons why Cornell first decided to enter the region.
At the time of its founding, President Hunter R. Rawlings III hailed the college as a reflection of “the common commitment to educational opportunity that links all nations and peoples. This history-making venture is educational diplomacy at its finest.”
Robertshaw agreed that collaboration in Qatar provides an unmatched opportunity for expansion in understanding.
“Cornell is becoming a global institution, and we were invited to a part of the world that we know little about,” Robertshaw said.
Thus, the focus of students and faculty at WCMC-Q remains education, not war.
Currently, 25 students are studying in the pre-medical program, a precursor to the four-year medical program starting in 2004, taking courses identical to those taught in Ithaca. Among other classes, students must enroll in BIO 101-102: Introductory Biology and CHEM 207-208: General Chemistry.
According to Robertshaw, discussions in lectures cover this specific scientific material, not politics.
“We don’t avoid the topic,” he said, but in his opinion it seems that “students prefer that we don’t talk about it too much.”
Of the 25 students, half are Qatari, and all come from the larger Middle East region.
Alonso admitted that these students “are naturally concerned about the war, its impact on civilians, the uncertainty of future developments and the danger of destabilization,” but this sentiment has not deterred them from their studies.
No students have left the program, and applications for admissions for the next class remain strong.
Other American universities are following Cornell’s lead. While Virginia Commonwealth University School of Arts arrived in Qatar in 1997, Texas A&M is planning to open an engineering school in Doha in September.
Prof. Emeritus Charles Bowman, petroleum engineering, Texas A&M, executive coordinator of the Qatar program, stated that while plans call for the formal establishment of a school in Qatar by Sept. 1, the date is contingent upon the war’s course.
“We’re waiting for a change in the State Department travel advisories,” Bowman said, noting that the war makes it difficult to “hire a team of faculty and staff and convince them to move.”
In the event that officials deem necessary an emergency or precautionary evacuation from Qatar, Alonso stated that the University is prepared.
“Should circumstances suggest the need to suspend Medical College operations and evacuate Qatar,” Alonso said, “all arrangements and resources are in place to ensure the rapid and safe departure of our faculty and staff, as well as students who elect to leave the country.”
But for the moment, this possibility seems remote, according to Robertshaw.
“We go to the shops just as we have been, people travel back and forth freely,” he said. “We don’t feel threatened at all … it’s pretty much life as usual.”
Archived article by Michael Dickstein