IN A CLASH OF CULTURES THIS PAST WEEK, students questioned Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned’s position on the Weill Cornell Medical College Board of Overseers.
Sheikha Mozah, the wife of the Emir of Qatar, established a rehabilitation center in Qatar in 2006 that treats certain disorders. It includes treatment for alcohol and drugs, but controversially also for homosexuality, which the clinic lists as one of several “behavioral disorders.” Students questioned whether Sheikha Mozah should hold a seat on the board of Cornell’s medical college while simultaneously supporting the medical treatment of homosexuality.
This is a part of a complex issue and one that Cornell has run up against time and time again since the founding of the medical campus in Qatar. Though the college has many benefits — the expansion of the Cornell name globally, the new access that it provides for women in Qatar to attend medical school, the fact that its $750 million in development costs were funded by a Qatari foundation — it also operates in a country with vast political and cultural differences from the U.S. This has left the University open to criticism.
In early 2001, when administrators first announced their plans to open the college, gay rights activists condemned Cornell for opening a branch of the University in a country where homosexuality was a crime that could lead to imprisonment. In October of that same year, just following Sept. 11, then-foreign minister of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin-Jassem bin-Jabr al-Thani announced his opposition to President George W. Bush’s “War on Terror.” Students chided the University for partnering with a country that did not support American values. And in 2006, Cornell again received some criticism when the Qatar government pledged financial support to the newly formed Palestinian government headed by the terrorist organization Hamas.
Now, again, the University is being questioned for its ties with Sheikha Mozah, who is married to the Emir of Qatar — a country which outlaws homosexuality. The fact is that Sheikha Mozah is one of the more progressive figures in Qatar. As a leader in her country, she has placed an unprecedented emphasis on education and women’s rights. She has attracted American universities to Qatar, enabling more women to attend school, and elevating their rights. In 2007, she toured the United States, speaking about the need to eradicate poverty and homelessness. She has also helped youths gain employment.
Nonetheless, criticism of her stance on homosexuality is understandable. Though her views may align with Qatari cultural and political ideals, they fly in the face of America’s and Cornell’s values. On campus, the University is firm in its protection of LGBTQ rights. This should be clear across the board. Cornell does not necessarily need to criticize Sheikha Mozah, as long as her opinions on the matter do not influence the board’s policy; but it owes it to LGBTQ students to speak out on the issue, which it has yet to do thus far.
If the University wishes to maintain its Qatar campus for all of its benefits, it must be willing to address the criticism that will come from inevitable cultural differences. When an issue like this arises, Cornell must be firm in its views and willing to take a stand. It cannot hide behind its complexity. It should acknowledge the political and cultural differences between Qatar and America, but reiterate its support for its students on all its campuses, and its values as an institution –– centered in Ithaca, New York.