Dream Deferred or Dashed in Israel

Texas A&M announced two years ago that it would build a branch campus in Nazareth. Here's the story of what's happened since.

August 27, 2015
Signing ceremony for the Texas A&M campus in Nazareth

In the fall of 2013, Texas A&M University announced its plan to build a branch campus -- a “peace campus” -- in the predominantly Arab city of Nazareth in northern Israel. Then Texas Governor (and current Republican presidential contender) Rick Perry and Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp led the Aggie delegation to Israel, where they announced their intention to build a comprehensive campus in Nazareth during a signing ceremony in the residence of Israel's then president, Shimon Peres.

“This is a proud accomplishment that has been years in the making,” Sharp said at the time in a statement. “We are absolutely dedicated to making this one of the finest international universities in the world and open to all.”

Even as the media picked up on the announcement -- The New York Times, Bloomberg, Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, The Texas Tribune -- the obstacles to establishing such a campus were significant. Without a single deep-pocketed funder -- as in the case of A&M’s branch campus in Qatar, bankrolled by the Qatar Foundation -- Texas A&M needed to raise many millions of dollars. Further, it needed Israel to amend its restrictive laws on foreign branch campuses, which date to the mid-2000s, so that an A&M branch could be eligible for accreditation as an Israeli university and its degrees recognized for government employment purposes.

Plans for the campus stagnated. “To some degree it’s a chicken and an egg problem,” said Michael Benedik, Texas A&M's vice provost. “Why would we be getting a major gift to open a campus when we don’t have legal permission to even do it?”

About a year after the A&M announcement, the University of Haifa, a major research university in the north of Israel, stepped in and agreed to provide academic sponsorship to A&M’s would-be partner in Nazareth -- the Nazareth Academic Institute (NAI), a small, financially strapped entity that has served Arab students, most of them women, since its establishment in 2002.

But the Haifa plan, too, is perhaps fatally stalled. The result is that any plan to expand educational opportunities for the Arab population in Nazareth -- the so-called “Arab capital of Israel” -- remains unrealized.

“We are waiting and waiting, and nothing is done,” said Soher Rihani Bisharat, NAI’s dean of students.

Part 1: Texas A&M and NAI

Texas A&M’s initial plan was to develop a comprehensive campus in Nazareth with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. But after A&M announced its intentions “to build upon the work of the Nazareth Academic Institute” and create such a branch in Nazareth, the institute posted an article on its website that seemed intended to temper expectations.

“We are somewhat surprised by all the excitement around the Texas A&M announcement, because we feel as if we’ve been here before,” says the article, which notes that NAI began as a branch campus of the University of Indianapolis before changes to Israeli higher education law that “effectively outlawed branch campuses of foreign universities” forced it to change paths and operate, from 2010 onward, as an independent college.

“There is a tremendous amount of potential in the idea of partnering with Texas A&M to develop a new institution in Nazareth, and we can think of many ways we’d like to grow with an influx of resources -- both human and financial -- from A&M,” says the article posted on NAI’s website. “But there remain many problems to be solved, particularly given the fragility of branch campus arrangements in the past, and there will be no merger unless the resulting institution meets the same needs NAI was created to fill.”

The needs are significant. An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development review of educational opportunities in the Galilee -- the northern region of Israel where Nazareth is located -- documented significant disparities in higher education access, with Arab students attaining higher education at less than half the rate of Jewish students. The OECD review specifically recommended that NAI, which has never received Israeli government funding, be financially supported: “Considering the current underrepresentation of [the] Arab population in tertiary education, steps should be taken to provide adequate support to NAI, which is the first comprehensive Arab higher education institution in Israel” (in addition to NAI, there are also several teacher preparation colleges serving Israel's Arab communities).

James Hallmark, the vice chancellor for academic affairs at Texas A&M, said the initial plan for a branch in Nazareth emerged out of the Israeli government’s desire to increase higher education access for the Arab population. But he said that as the discussions proceeded it became clear that stepping aside to let Haifa take on the role of NAI’s lead partner would be the best way to accomplish this goal. Haifa would develop its own degree programs in Nazareth, and Texas A&M could stay involved by sending faculty, when appropriate, to teach.

“Haifa is 30 miles from Nazareth. They already have on campus a significant Arab population -- they are more in tune with the Arab population in Israel than anyone else that we are aware of -- and they were very excited and willing to work with us as partners,” said Hallmark.

But while Haifa and Texas A&M are indeed pursuing partnerships in other areas -- marine science research, for example -- in Nazareth there is nothing for them to partner on at present. That's because the Haifa-NAI partnership has also run into difficulties.

“These sort of arranged marriages, there is a limit to which you can act as a matchmaker,” said Manuel Trajtenberg, who brought Haifa and NAI together in his former capacity as the chair of the Planning and Budgeting Committee for Israel's accrediting body, the Council for Higher Education (Trajtenberg is now a member of Israel's parliament, the Knesset).

Trajtenberg said that in retrospect he may have exerted too much pressure on Haifa and NAI to reach an agreement. “In the end they have to be willing partners to each other, and Haifa was not certainly, and also I must say the Nazareth people were also very, very reluctant to enter into this partnership on the terms that I had designated, which had essentially entailed giving full academic responsibility to Haifa, because the idea was to make sure that the academic quality was going to be as high as possible.”

Part 2: NAI and Haifa

To back up …

In November of last year, Haifa and NAI finalized an agreement, brokered by Trajtenberg, that the former would assume academic responsibility for NAI’s programs. Though NAI hoped to eventually gain independence -- an aspiration written into the agreement -- the idea was that in the meantime NAI would transition from a private college to a publicly funded, or “budgeted,” college under the academic administration of Haifa.

NAI’s academic basis was “shaky,” said Trajtenberg -- “it was barely recognized by the Council for Higher Education” -- and it needed a strong academic partner like Haifa for it to be a viable candidate for public funding.

However, shortly after the agreement was signed, Israel’s Council for Higher Education withdrew NAI’s accreditation entirely. The institute’s authority to operate as a degree-granting entity expired Jan. 1, 2015. A total of 114 students who were enrolled in NAI's two programs, chemistry and communication, have transferred to other institutions to earn their degrees. 

Michal Neumann, the deputy director-general for academic affairs for the Council for Higher Education, said that in ending accreditation evaluators were concerned about the institute's finances and the academic quality of the communication program in particular.

With NAI shut down by the council, “everything has to be built from scratch,” said David Faraggi, the rector, or chief academic officer, for Haifa. Shortly after the agreement was signed, Haifa started a pre-academic year program in Nazareth. Underscoring the challenges of getting students up to speed to do academic course work in Hebrew -- the language of instruction at Haifa and a second language for Arab students -- Faraggi said just eight of 25 students who started that program are on track to finish.

Still, Faraggi said, Haifa is well accustomed to educating Arab students, who account for about 30 percent of enrollment at the university's main campus. Haifa presented a plan to offer five of its degree programs -- Arabic, communication, general studies, political science and psychology -- in Nazareth starting this coming October, but Faraggi said the Council for Higher Education objected to that mix of programs, requesting programs that are more tightly linked to labor market needs.

Indeed, the original agreement between Haifa and NAI, approved “in principle” by the council, stipulates that the academic programs proposed by Haifa “should include areas of potential employment guarantee for graduates, such as computer science, nursing, economics, accounting and more.” It further states that the slate of programs should "be built according to the capability of the University of Haifa and will take its interests into consideration along with the needs of the target population as well as the preferences of the [Nazareth] college."

In short, psychology and communication seemed to be OK, Faraggi said, but not the other three programs Haifa was proposing, and the council also wanted Haifa to offer nursing and computer science. Faraggi said he met with the chairs of Haifa’s nursing and computer science departments, who agreed to start offering courses at Nazareth the following year, in October 2016. However, Haifa would not initially be able to offer the full nursing and computer science programs at Nazareth, and students in those programs would have to take some of their courses in Haifa.

“You need the first step to achieve something. If you don’t do the first step, even if it’s not 100 percent what you want right from the start, if you don’t do it, then you don’t start. And that’s what’s happening now,” said Faraggi.

“What we offered to open this October stands. We are ready to open, but the Council for Higher Education didn’t approve. They said, no, you aren’t going to open anything.”

The Council for Higher Education's Neumann said that's because Haifa and NAI can't seem to work together. “They can’t reach an agreement between themselves and we have reached a point at which we will probably have to say, ‘enough is enough, and that's it.’ If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work … we can’t force them to reach an agreement.”

Beyond the curricular issues, Neumann said that NAI and Haifa clashed over fundamental questions of control. For example, she said that the two entities disagreed over who would get to hire faculty, with NAI wanting to claim that right but Haifa objecting, on the grounds that these are Haifa’s degree programs. The original agreement -- signed before NAI lost its accreditation -- calls for Nazareth to hire the majority of teaching staff subject to conditions set by Haifa.

“Both of them are not flexible enough and they are not willing to compromise on things,” said Neumann. “Each one wants to run the business and be above the other one.”

The Council for Higher Education says, “you and Haifa did not agree about the future,” said Bisharat, the dean of students at NAI. “We say that we are not the reason [for the agreement stalling]. We are trying to fulfill what the CHE asks us to do, but Haifa University delayed and delayed and delayed and we are in a very difficult situation.”

A written summary of events provided by Bisharat accuses Haifa's rector of refusing to consult with NAI over the academic programs the university proposed (unsuccessfully) to the council. “It is clear now that Haifa considered the November agreement a license to open a branch campus of Haifa in Nazareth, on their own terms -- not to provide academic supervision to NAI,” the document says.

Haifa's Faraggi pointed out, however, that NAI is no longer an accredited academic entity with a faculty of its own. “We will build up NAI, basically, but it takes time. It will take us time to make something good,” said Faraggi. ​“We want to have something of quality in Nazareth. The worst thing that can happen to the Arab population in Nazareth is to open a weak college.”

In the meantime, there is of course no college at all. “The entity that is losing,” Faraggi said, “is the Arab population.”

On that, Haifa and NAI agree. As does the Council for Higher Education: Neumann said the council remains interested in finding a way to establish or encourage the establishment of a publicly funded college in an Arab city. “We know and we acknowledge the need for a higher education institution for the Arab population and in an Arab region,” she said.

Bisharat, of NAI, said that for the college in Nazareth to succeed “the government must realize that it’s not the project of the Arabs of Israel. It’s the project of the government in Israel. They have a duty to give the opportunity to the Arab population to study.”

“It’s Nazareth, it’s a very important town,” she said. “It’s the town of Jesus. What more can we say?”


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