'Stumbling Blocks' to a Saudi Collaboration

When American colleges propose forging collaborations or building campuses in places like Abu Dhabi or Dubai, questions about human rights and whether gender, religion or sexuality could limit access or opportunities are never far behind. In most cases (though not all), colleges succeed in largely quelling those concerns when it comes to operating in the United Arab Emirates.

But what about in Saudi Arabia?

February 22, 2008

When American colleges propose forging collaborations or building campuses in places like Abu Dhabi or Dubai, questions about human rights and whether gender, religion or sexuality could limit access or opportunities are never far behind. In most cases (though not all), colleges succeed in largely quelling those concerns when it comes to operating in the United Arab Emirates.

But what about in Saudi Arabia?

California Polytechnic State University’s controversial negotiations with Jubail University College in Saudi Arabia center on a proposed $6 million consulting deal. Faculty from Cal Poly, in San Luis Obispo, would, over a period of five years, develop and implement civil, computer, electrical and mechanical engineering programs at the young Saudi institution. In keeping with Saudi Arabia’s enforced segregation of the sexes, only male students would be able to enroll in the program at its outset.

The agreement would be limited in scope to program development. Cal Poly faculty would not be teaching students under the terms currently being negotiated. And, while the possibility of joint degrees was initially floated one year ago, the Saudi partners were not interested in that approach, said Gregg Fiegel, lead author of the proposal and chair of civil and environmental engineering at Cal Poly. Students in the to-be-developed Jubail engineering programs will not receive degrees bearing Cal Poly's name, he said.

Administrators stress that all qualified Cal Poly faculty can participate in developing Jubail's engineering programs regardless of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation. “While Saudi practices limit delivery of instruction in the classroom to instructors of the same gender as students, nothing in the draft project proposal, draft contract, or discussions surrounding either, would otherwise preclude any Cal Poly faculty member or student from participating in project activities,” William W. Durgin, the provost and vice president for academic affairs, wrote in a memo to the Academic Senate. He added in an interview Thursday that the proposed contract includes a requirement that Cal Poly and its Saudi partner operate in compliance with U.S. equal employment laws barring discrimination. “We expect to have the best people available to us," Durgin said.

But not everyone’s so sure. “While being in favor of cultural exchange, I’m a little dubious about a project where the gender, religion and sexual orientation of the participants becomes a stumbling block," said Richard Saenz, chair of the Cal Poly physics department and president of the local chapter of the California Faculty Association (the faculty union).

“The fact that big chunks of the faculty would feel that they didn’t have a chance to do this and even if they tried to, would arrive there and be highly circumscribed in what they could do based on their gender or religion, makes me wonder how good this is."

Faculty skeptical of the project -- and by some accounts there's plenty of skepticism on campus -- wonder: Will opportunities truly be equally available to all Cal Poly faculty? Would women feel they can apply for an on-site director position in a country where they, unlike their male colleagues, would be barred from driving? What about homosexual faculty? Would they see good professional options in a country where sodomy is punishable by death? What about Jewish faculty in an Islamic country without religious freedoms?

The administration says that the bulk of the work to develop the programs would likely happen on the California campus. But site visits and long-term director positions abroad would be available. And there aren't just opportunities, but also money, at stake here: The proposed base annual salary for a senior faculty member working on the project is $180,000.

Beyond the question of access for Cal Poly faculty, some are wondering if the university should involve itself with a Saudi educational system that espouses such significantly different norms -- including gender segregation.

“I feel that I could only support a proposal that included women as both educators and students in the mission statement,” Kate Van Dellen, the student president of the university's Society of Women Engineers chapter, said over e-mail.

“If Cal Poly was to partner with a college without the hope of including women, then it would be a huge step back in our efforts. It doesn't make sense for a school with a tradition of supporting women engineers to even stand still, and break the momentum, let alone move backwards," she said.

“If this had been sold to us as a way that we could have a positive impact on Saudi society, especially in the area of making more opportunities available to Saudi women, I’d be all for it,” said Frank Owen, a full professor of mechanical engineering at Cal Poly. “But it hasn’t been sold that way, and it keeps being changed as we object to it or ask questions about it.”

Owen said originally faculty were told that female, homosexual or Jewish faculty wouldn't be able to participate in the project. He said they were then told that anyone could apply but the applications would be turned over to the Saudis; what happened next would be out of Cal Poly's control. Finally they were told that the university would make the decisions on whom to hire.

The mechanical engineering department voted handily, Owen said -- 15 to 1 with 3 abstentions -- against the proposed project. Under the proposal submitted to Jubail, mechanical engineering would be one of four degree programs created.

“I just feel like the faculty’s not for it. So why do we have our administration continuing to insist that we do it?” Owen asked.

“Unfortunately when the mechanical engineering department first discussed this, they were operating on some incomplete and inaccurate information,” said Durgin, the provost. “The facts are that there are at least three mechanical engineering faculty members who would love to participate in this program and hopefully we can accommodate them.”

More generally speaking, the chair of the Academic Senate, Bruno Giberti, said that he initially fielded concerns over the proposed project from faculty following a November 27 meeting in which the president publicly reported on it. However, he has not heard any feedback lately. And though the Senate hasn’t taken a vote, members of the executive committee determined that the provost’s response to faculty concerns was satisfactory, Giberti said.

Durgin said he didn’t know the timetable for completing contract negotiations. “This is Cal Poly’s first experience in dealing with a project of this scope on an international scale,” the provost said. He expects they’ll be ironing out the language for at least another month.

Working with universities from "across the globe is of critical importance to the development of understanding and the building of bridges so that we can avoid conflicts in the future," Durgin said. "My fundamental belief is that one simply must understand people across the world, and this is a wonderful opportunity for America to build another bridge to a country in the Mideast.”

“My understanding is that those who are concerned about this arrangement have two major concerns,” Linda Vanasupa, director of the Educating Global Engineers Initiative and a materials engineering professor at Cal Poly, said in an e-mail. “1. They view the Saudi Government as one that is guilty of human rights violations. 2. They feel that there are equally qualified individuals who will be [denied] the opportunity to participate/benefit from this arrangement.”

She said that she’s still thinking through these issues herself. But she pointed out that as for count one, while it often assumes the moral high ground when it comes to human rights, it’s “disingenuous” not to consider the negative impacts of U.S. actions abroad (relative to energy policies that contribute to climate change, for instance). And, she added, “[T]o those who want a more just Saudi government, it seems that the way of accomplishing that is through education (not wars). Can this occur through the arrangement, I don't know. I would genuinely hope so,” she wrote.

As for count two -- will equally qualified individuals be denied the opportunity to participate? -- Vanasupa said this: “I have been asked as a woman if I am upset by this arrangement. The argument here is that there are people who are being denied a right ('opportunity') that others have. On this one, my reasoning is that we, as Americans, often are focused on 'What is in it for me?' I don't know, but in this case, I feel that it is important for me to see the greater good that could come of helping shape the thinking within Saudi Arabia.”

She added that she, personally, wouldn’t opt for the assignment.


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