Is Newest 'American U. of...' Really American?

Project in Malta is led by Jordanian company. Proponents say DePaul is playing a key role, but a university statement says it won't be awarding degrees.

May 11, 2015

The name "American University of…" -- best known in the cases of Beirut and Cairo -- has for more than a century signified an American style of education in many cases otherwise unavailable in various countries. The institutions have been led by American educators, featured American (and other Western-educated) faculty members, and promoted a broad liberal arts-based education, along with top professional programs. Review and recognition has been provided by American accreditors.

But how American does a university need to be to call itself the American University of wherever?

That question is being raised by the creation of the American University of Malta. The government in Malta is strongly pushing the project, saying it will create new options for students from the small nation and attract students from elsewhere. But critics note that the university is being set up not by American educators, but by a Jordanian hotel and tourism company.

While DePaul University is involved (and its role has been pointed to by supporters of the effort as evidence of the American nature of the university), the institution is not offering degrees or setting up a campus there, but has only agreed to provide curricular materials for 10 degree programs.

DePaul was concerned enough about the way its role was being described that it issued a statement to news outlets in Malta and to Inside Higher Ed outlining what the university will and won't be doing there.

The statement said in part: "DePaul University is not establishing a branch campus and will not be issuing degrees in Malta. Sadeen Education Investment Ltd. (SEI) is seeking approval to establish the American University of Malta (AUM). As part of this process, SEI contracted with DePaul to develop curriculum materials for 10 programs at AUM: 5 bachelor degrees, 1 M.B.A. and 4 doctoral-level programs. Such curricula were developed in collaboration between DePaul and AUM, represented by SEI, in accordance with an agreement signed between mentioned parties."

A spokesperson for the university said, in in response to questions about the statement, described the arrangement with Sadeen this way: "Faculty designed degree programs in areas that were requested, with the dual goals of being academically well-designed and meeting regulatory requirements in Malta. Individual faculty members were selected with the help of teams -- comprised of associate deans, school directors and department chairs -- in the relevant colleges. Faculty then were asked to design the curriculum, and they were compensated for their work."

She added: "The right to use our name (DePaul University) is specifically in connection to the curriculum. While specifics of any DePaul contract are proprietary, I can tell you that it went through the usual, internal multi-step review process."

The university referred further questions to Sadeen officials, who did not respond to a series of questions. Sadeen Education Investment's stock is owned by the CEO of the Sadeen Group, which in addition to its tourism businesses also works in construction and operates international schools in Amman.

The Times of Malta quoted Sadeen's representative in the country as saying that most of the students and faculty members would come from outside Malta, and that the project was originally planned for Spain but that Maltese leaders convinced Sadeen to relocate to Malta. “When families come they will stay in hotels, students will be spending money here. And this besides the direct jobs in construction and finishing. We are looking at Malta as a center of excellence, a great place where students from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe can come over to study,” said the Sadeen official.

Articles in that newspaper and others in Malta have featured questions about whether the government should be providing land for the project, whether the new American University of Malta will undercut the University of Malta and whether the new institution really is an American university.

An essay published Sunday in The Times of Malta begins: "In principle I have no major problems with the non-American non-University of Malta. I think of it much as I would of a monster shopping center or hotel, that is to say, as a private business venture that has every right to try its luck at turning human beings into customers."

Philip G. Altbach, a research professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College (and an Inside Higher Ed blogger), said via email that "the whole 'American University of (fill in the name)' deserves critical attention."

He said that these institutions include top institutions like those in Cairo and Beirut and also some of the newer institutions, with varying degrees of connection to the United States. But he said he fears that a growing number are "business interests starting universities to make money using the American brand."


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