On January 28, the Lebanese American University, in partnership with the American University in Cairo, hosted a panel discussion on “American Higher Education in the Middle East”.
The panel featured Ted Purinton, dean of the Graduate School of Education at The American University in Cairo, and Safwan M. Masri, executive vice president for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University.The event was moderated by Lina Beydoun, academic executive director at LAU NY.
In terms of audience, there was a strong presence from Columbia University faculty, staff, and students, as well as AUC alums and staff. There were also attendees who work in the field of international education, and who are affiliated with the Institute of International Education (IIE), Bard College, United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA), Carnegie Foundation, Soliya, and Rennert.
Among the topics discussed were the implications for the proliferation of American-style universities in the Arab region, comparing them with the three historic institutions (LAU, AUB, AUC). Questions were raised about the long-term sustainability of branch campuses of American institutions (such as Georgetown, Northwestern, Carnegie Mellon, and NYU).
The international activities of U.S. universities have expanded in volume, scope, and complexity during the past two decades. In the Middle East in particular, there has been a significant increase in the presence of U.S. universities and colleges, especially following 9/11, with many schools setting up outposts in the more stable Gulf countries.
With a population heavily skewed towards youth, higher education in the Middle East is now a viable target for many international institutions’ global expansion plans.
In addition, a move away from pedagogical learning methods to more interactive teaching styles, which are the hallmark of American education,have become more appealing and acceptable to governments in the region.
However, there are sometimes conflicting interests and ambitions among Middle Eastern and U.S. educators involved in the various partnerships and collaborations.
Purinton and Masri discussed the merits and challenges of taking a product that is truly American, liberal arts education, and trying to replicate it abroad.
“Internationalization, or being global, is something universities want to do these days,” said Purinton. “There’s the pursuit of exclusivity in higher education, and having a global presence makes a university exclusive,” adding,“It almost seems like universities these days are like sports teams, countries put a lot into them to make sure they stand out.” But, he added, these international programs or global campuses, are the periphery of education, not the core.
For his part, Masri elaborated on Columbia’s eight global centers, which he explained are different than satellite campuses in that they aim to get Columbia’s students and faculty engaged in the world, and contribute to local communities through training local teachers, or in other ways.
He gave the example of one of Columbia’s political science professors who teaches a course ondemocracy building, and who was able to design a course that took 15 students from Columbia University, paired with 15 students from The American University of Cairo, to studydemocracy building for two weeks in Tunisia and two weeks in Turkey.
Masri says Columbia has stayed away from opening a branch campus in the Middle East, like MIT, NYU, Cornell, Northwestern and others have done, even though he was asked to do so by the government of Qatar.
“It's a very difficult model to sustain. It’s difficult to maintain quality faculty, and the same level of education” he said.“After all, part of your experience at Columbia University is what you learn outside the classroom, in the wider campus that is New York City.”