Carnegie Mellon in Rwanda

In unusual move, American university opens branch campus in Africa. Some question ties to government that has been criticized on human rights.
September 19, 2011

Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, came to Pittsburgh Friday to officially announce that Carnegie Mellon University would open a branch campus in his country, where it will offer a master of science in information technology.

While many American universities have opened branch campuses abroad, most have been in Middle Eastern or Asian nations with deep pockets to support the ventures. (Carnegie Mellon is among those universities, with a branch in Qatar.) Only a few American colleges and universities have degree programs in Africa, and they have generally not attracted the fanfare of efforts in China, Qatar and elsewhere.

Officials at Carnegie Mellon and elsewhere said that it was crucial for American universities to include African nations among those with which they work. But several human rights groups focused on Africa issued an open letter to the university on Friday calling on it not to go ahead with the effort, citing the decidedly mixed record of Rwanda's government on civil liberties. As the university prepared for the Rwandan president to speak, dueling protest groups arrived on the campus -- one opposing relationships with Rwanda and one encouraging such ties.

The degree to be offered builds on Carnegie Mellon's strengths in technology and on the desire of Rwanda to build up its technological infrastructure. Rwanda's government will be providing financial support to run the program, for which Carnegie Mellon says that its own faculty will be used, and that academic standards will be identical to those on the Pittsburgh campus. The university expects to open the program with 40 students next fall, with plans to increase enrollment to 150 by 2017.

The aim is to recruit students from throughout Africa, with an emphasis on those from Rwanda. And those from Rwanda who pledge to work for the government for two years will be eligible for scholarships from the government. (Tuition rates are the same in Rwanda as in Pittsburgh.)

Kagame's government in Rwanda is generally credited with restoring stability to the nation, where genocidal attacks took place in 1994. And as Carnegie Mellon's announcement noted, Rwanda has seen strong economic growth in recent years.

But a coalition of human rights groups, in a letter to Carnegie Mellon officials, said: "We regret to inform you that your characterization is dangerously skewed and that, in its haste to collaborate with President Kagame, your institution may become a collaborator in the pejorative sense by supporting an unjust, oppressive regime and an official version of Rwandan history that silences opposition and gives power to a leader who abuses it." Carnegie Mellon, the letter added, risks "certain historical stain as one of the institutions that supported the despotic rule of another African strongman."

The government there has denied that it violates human rights, although human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and the U.S. Department of State have noted many serious problems.

Asked about the human rights issues, Bruce Krogh, the director of the program, said via e-mail: "We are confident that Carnegie Mellon University in Rwanda will prepare students to become innovators and leaders in the information and communication technology revolution that is transforming Rwanda and East Africa."

Philip G. Altbach is Monan University Professor of Educational Leadership and Higher Education and director of the Center for International Higher Education, at Boston College, and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed who has written (sometimes critically) about branch campuses. He said he didn't view Rwanda's human rights record as more of an issue than those of other countries where many American universities have set up outposts.

"Few question dealing with China, Singapore, Bahrain or any number of other countries with questionable human rights or academic freedom records," he said.

The larger question, Altbach said, is the ability of the university (especially one that already has a substantial branch in the Middle East) to attract professors. "I always question whether Carnegie Mellon University can deliver its faculty to Rwanda over time to ensure that the branch campus is actually CMU and not a second-tier copy staffed by faculty who may not be CMU professors," he said.


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