Gulf Between the Gulfs

Houston Community College's experiences in Qatar -- including issues of gender segregation, administrative infighting and student discontent -- provide a cautionary tale of foreign expansion.

March 8, 2012

Houston Community College had lofty goals for its partnership with the government of Qatar.

The hope was that Qatari students would master English, complete prerequisite courses and earn associate degrees at the Houston-led Community College of Qatar before transferring to an American or Qatari university. To some extent, that seems to be happening.

The community college is the first institution of its kind in the small but prosperous Persian Gulf nation that has long been home to satellite campuses of Western universities.  Houston saw the campus as a way to grow revenues and its international reach.

While college officials remain optimistic about the program, e-mails reveal things haven’t always gone as planned.

Administrative squabbles, cultural misunderstandings and academic problems are perhaps understandable when an American college opens a campus in a place with vastly different customs and views on human rights.

But the frequency and scope of those problems at the Community College of Qatar, as shown in hundreds of e-mails sent and received by Houston Chancellor Mary Spangler in early 2011 and obtained by Inside Higher Ed after an open records request, suggest both sides might not have been fully prepared for the partnership.

Among the changes from Houston’s U.S. curriculum – and one with potential legal ramifications – is that classes are segregated by gender despite an acknowledgment in a contract with the Qatari government suggesting that instruction would be coeducational.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the U.S. law best known for requiring equity in college athletics, also mandates that courses be open to students of both genders. Opinions vary as to whether the provision applies only to programs within the United States or all programs of American institutions, including those operating overseas.

The Community College of Qatar is an independent enterprise of its nation’s government, but its academic programs are administered by Houston.

Even though the gender-segregated classes are a diversion from the community college’s original plan and its practices in Texas, Spangler wrote in a one-paragraph e-mail to Inside Higher Ed that she believes her institution is complying with U.S. law. Spangler declined to be interviewed for this story or comment further.

“The answer is simple and straightforward, frankly,” Spangler wrote. “According to our attorneys, Congress did not intend for Title IX to apply to activities outside of the United States. Thus it would appear that CCQ’s conducting classes separated by sex would not subject HCC to any Title IX liability because Title IX does not apply to operations in Qatar.”

Erin Buzuvis, a law professor at Western New England University and an expert on Title IX, disagrees.

“There’s no basis in the law for an institution that receives federal funding to operate a program that is excluding one sex,” she said. “I see this as a clear case of Title IX violation.”

Houston declined to make one of its leaders available for an interview, but a group of administrators did respond to a series of written questions. They said segregating the classes was an exercise in cultural respect, and that some U.S. policies might be considered unethical elsewhere.

"We hold our HCC values but respect the values set by others in their countries," they wrote. "We would hope that the experience would enrich the lives of our students and faculty. This is what this exercise is all about. People are smart and can discern these types of issues for themselves."

But the issues in Doha extend far past gender equality.  The archives of Mary Spangler’s inbox -- first reported by the Houston Chronicle and later obtained by Inside Higher Ed – show Houston administrators trying to solve crisis after crisis half the globe away.

One employee in Qatar asked a colleague visiting Texas to retrieve 15 medications that weren’t prescribed to her, put them in prescription bottles and deliver them to her when she returned to Doha. Administrators sent panicked responses out of fear the employee would “look like she is trying to smuggle drugs into a foreign land” and “could go to jail.” The colleague had already refused the request.

A student complained that, after he failed a course, his instructor told him he shouldn’t worry about having to retake it since Qatar’s government was footing the bill. The student found the remarks offensive, and Spangler asked her deputies to look into the matter.

Then there were disagreements between Qatari government officials and Spangler about the autonomy of the Community College of Qatar, and accusations that the then-dean of the college was working against her Houston colleagues and on behalf of Qatar’s minister of education. The dean, who couldn’t be located for an interview, was relieved of her duties by the Qatari government last year and replaced by a longtime Houston Community College employee.

Administrators in Texas received reports of unrest among students who felt duped when they learned their credits might not transfer to all American universities. That's because the credit is not always awarded by Houston Community College, which has the appropriate accreditation for its courses to be transferred, but by the Community College of Qatar. Both the male and female student governments staged angry meetings about credit transfers, and some students said they wouldn’t leave an administrator’s office until he guaranteed them in writing that their classes carried Houston’s accreditation. The administrator was unable to meet that request. A Houston spokesman said Cornell and Texas A&M Universities have accepted Community College of Qatar credits. The community college also has an articulation agreement with Qatar’s national university.

But there were other problems. Faculty members had trouble securing visas for family members. A job applicant received a message from a moving company before receiving a job offer. Spangler expressed doubts about officials' competence.

Some challenges are, of course, inevitable when running any large college -- especially when separated by nine time zones. But Philip Altbach, director of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education, said institutions often rush into overseas partnerships with the goal of making money but without a complete understanding of what they’re signing up for. A fuller understanding, he said, can help mitigate those issues while failing to do due diligence can be devastating.

“It’ll cost them time and effort back on the home campus,” Altbach said. “It can cost them heavily in their good name.”

But naïveté and inexperience aren't an issue at Houston, administrators wrote, adding that their chancellor is respected for her work in international education. Houston is one of a few American community colleges with significant overseas interaction. It also offers programs in Vietnam and Saudi Arabia. The Community College of Qatar was started in 2010 as a partnership between Houston Community College and Qatar’s Supreme Education Council.

Some surprises are always inevitable in a venture like this, the administrators wrote, but they can be positive. They didn't address the content of individual e-mails.

"You have to adapt to your environment without compromising your values," the administrators wrote. "As with any new endeavor, we have a continuous learning and improvement process.  We provided orientations for faculty and staff and have improved this aspect of our operation, as we would with any other project."

The five-year, $45 million agreement differs from the six other American institutions operating in Qatar -- including Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern and Georgetown Universities --  in that Houston is acting as a vendor for the nation’s government whereas the other institutions are operating satellite campuses independent of the government.

A Northwestern spokesman said his university’s Doha classes were coeducational and that the topic had never been raised as an issue. He declined to say whether Northwestern would remain in Qatar if the government asked it to separate genders. Generally, the American universities operating in Qatar and elsewhere in the region have stressed that their nondiscrimination policies have been followed there.

A Houston spokesman defended the separation of genders at Qatar’s community college. Both sides acknowledged that the classes were expected to be coeducational when the contract was written, but he said it wasn’t considered a binding term of the agreement. The spokesman, Dan Arguijo, wasn’t sure when or why it was decided that classes wouldn’t be coed, but said the request came from the Qatari government.

“I’m not in their mind,” he said. “They had a reason why they did that. We saw no problem as long as they handled that end of it.

“We adjusted to the customer’s needs.”

He said relations between Houston and the Qataris remain positive, and e-mail records seem to indicate efforts by Spangler to preserve ties between the two sides even as disagreements arose.  Officials at the Qatari Embassy in Washington did not return calls seeking comment.

The Houston administrators said the Doha program has their support and the confidence of Qatar's government.

"This is a great partnership," the administrators wrote. "It has been an outstanding opportunity for our staff and faculty. Both parties are excited about the bright future we have together."


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