The Middle East Muddle

Tensions in the region hamper U.S. government efforts to promote international relationships between colleges.
August 10, 2006

When the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative was dreamed up by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2002, there was no war in Iraq. And Israel and Lebanon were not raining missiles down on each other.

The program, which was intended to help spread democracy, promote education, empower women and help economies grow, has depended in part on partnerships between American and international universities. But today, the changed landscape in that region of the world has dramatically affected the ability of college and university officials to carry out their missions.

On Wednesday, at Higher Education for Development's annual "Synergy in Development" conference, scholars from the United States and abroad gathered at one session that was supposed to discuss how to expand capacity for higher education in the Middle East. But given the state of political affairs in the region, conversations took on a decidedly more downbeat tone -- often countered by expressions of hope from program officials.

“I’ve been in Lebanon several times,” said Jonathan Swift, director of the Center for International Studies at Madonna University, in Michigan. “We’re dealing with closed universities … all of the faculty have gone to the hills. We just have to ask ourselves, ‘What now?’ ”

In 2005, Madonna received a grant of $100,000 from the partnership initiative to work with Notre Dame University Louaize, in Beirut. The money was intended to help establish an American studies program at the university that would have help Lebanese students and educators learn about democratic values and diversity in American society. Notre Dame was also supposed to advise Madonna’s officials on starting a Middle Eastern studies program.

Swift said that even before the Israeli bombings began, Lebanese faculty members had a difficult time understanding “what makes Americans tick.”

“It took a long while to help them understand that American studies is more than about literature, geography and history,” he said. “We got to that point, though.”

Now, with Middle East tensions at new extremes, the entire plan is in jeopardy, according to Swift.

Marilyn Crane, a program associate with Higher Education for Development, which aids the U.S. government awarding funds and tracking progress within the Middle East Partnership Initiative, said that the conflict in Lebanon is still very fresh, but it has quickly complicated the efforts of some participants in the partnership program. “We just need to see how things are going to settle,” she said. She also noted that there have been no partnerships thus far with higher education institutions in Iraq. 

Several American scholars at the conference expressed concerns that they wouldn’t be able to use their funds from the partnership program because their international partners are currently not available for collaboration, as is the case with officials at many Lebanese institutions.

Responding to those concerns, Crystal K. Meriwether, a State Department official who oversees the program, said that its officials will be “flexible when it comes to situations outside of the control of universities." In other words, grants could be extended, thus allowing progress to unfold more slowly, contigent on developments in the region.

Meriwether also said that the continuing conflicts are taking the spotlight away from several success stories that have happened through other partnerships that are not focused in Lebanon, Israel or Palestine.

“There are so many wonderful things going on,” she told a roundtable discussion of several international recipients of the grants. “While we’re getting success stories, you need to go back and market them -- sell that image of the United States.”

Almost $300 million has been spent on the program in total, with most of the money going to nonprofit and private organizations. Since 2003, about $2 million in total has been awarded to several universities.

“Yes, people are worried about the conflicts,” Meriwether added in an interview after the discussion. “But there are certain things we can’t control. Let’s deal with the ones we can control.”

Meriwether also noted that the university-focused portion of the partnership program has made strides in many countries  -- Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Oman, Jordan and Saudi Arabia among them. For instance, with a grant from the Middle East Partnership Initiative, Duke University was able to team up with Effat College, in Saudi Arabia, to create the first known engineering program for Saudi women. And a collaboration between the University of Missouri at Rolla and Oman’s Mazoon College on business innovation and entrepreneurship for female students recently resulted in a second graduation ceremony.

Many participants at the conference said that despite the continuing battles in the region, the real challenge is trying to come up with ways to contextualize American educational experiences within new cultures.

Catherine Cassara, a professor of communications at Bowling Green State University, said that American educators would be wise to do more “to revise pedagological approaches, bring private [organizations] into the mix, and encourage student exchange programs.”

Salha Abdullah Issa, a professor of comparative education at Sultan Qaboos University, in Oman, said that forming a partnership with Northern Kentucky University to conceptualize ways to help students learn the English language through the Internet has taken much brainstorming.

“It’s a challenge,” Issa said. “But we talk things through, and we will find a way.”

Even Swift -- who has seen his Lebanese-based education dreams rapidly diminished -- said he remained “optimistically cautious” about the program. 


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