Outpost in the Middle East

George Mason University is opening a degree granting college in the United Arab Emirates.
March 1, 2005

George Mason University, a fast-growing institution in northern Virginia, is now planning to grow overseas: with a full degree granting campus in the United Arab Emirates.

The campus will be located in Ras-Al-Khaimah, a province whose government and private companies will pay for all costs. George Mason will control admissions, hiring and the curriculum. About 200 students are expected to start in the fall of 2006, and enrollment should grow to 2,000 over a decade. The initial academic programs will be nursing, engineering, information technology, management and English.

Alan Merten, president of George Mason, said in an interview that Monday's announcement grew out of several years of discussions with educators in the United Arab Emirates.

George Mason expects to recruit students from India, Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia -- in addition to those in the Emirates. While the program is being designed for students from outside the United States, students from George Mason's Virginia location may also spend a semester there.

In recent years, many American colleges have been approached by countries in the Middle East about establishing full campuses there, and some have received huge contracts to do so. In Qatar, Cornell University operates a medical college, Virginia Commonwealth University operates a school of the arts, and Carnegie Mellon University offers programs in business administration and computer science. And Harvard University offers some medical programs in the Emirates.

Several other prominent universities -- including the University of Virginia -- have been approached about opening campuses in the region, but have declined. On some campuses, faculty and student groups have questioned whether it would be possible for these programs abroad to abide by universities' nondiscrimination policies.

Merten, George Mason's president, said that the university spent a lot of time discussing these issues, and came away believing that there would not be discrimination. George Mason's campus will be located in one of the region's free trade zones, where many laws do not apply. Merten said specifically that female and Jewish faculty members and students would be treated equally and that classes would be coeducational. He said that businesses in the free trade zone have female and Jewish employees who do not face bias.

Faculty and administrators will probably be split 50-50 between those who move from George Mason's main campus for a period of time and those who are hired specifically to teach in the Emirates. Merten said that those faculty members would be hired from all over the world.

Merten declined to say how much money George Mason is being paid to open the campus. But he said that over time, it would be a "very healthy" amount that would end up providing extra support for the university's Virginia operations. He said that the agreement linked the payments to enrollment increases. But even in the short term, he said, George Mason would not lose any money because expenses are all covered.

The motivation for George Mason to open the campus was much more than financial, he said. "It's extremely important for American higher education to have a presence in the Middle East, in this form and in a variety of forms." He said that countries in the region have "an eagerness" to learn from American higher education.

With many students in the region having more difficulty getting visas to enroll in the United States, this is a way to keep American colleges global, he added. "This is going to become part of the blend," he said.


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