American university officials often cite lofty and honorable intentions when expanding their degree-granting operations abroad – internationalizing their offerings, forging connections with other cultures and expanding educational opportunities worldwide – but the (generally) unspoken fact remains that these endeavors often represent big business opportunities  for the home institutions. When Cornell University announced its plan  to establish the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar back in 2001, for instance, it did so with a promise that a Qatar foundation would provide $750 million for the project.
Cornell is now set, however, to launch its first degree program in Africa  in partnership with Ethiopia’s Bahir Dar University – an initiative fueled primarily by development objectives instead of dollars. In November, a cohort of 20 students will start a Cornell master of professional studies degree program in international agriculture and rural development, with a focus on watershed management. Faculty members will travel to Ethiopia for three weeks at a time to teach intensive courses in topics including hydrology, soils, economics and program management while collaborating with Bahir Dar faculty – with the ultimate goal being the transfer of control of what’s now a Cornell degree program to the six-year-old Ethiopian institution .
“It’s very much a university strengthening program as well as a degree program,” said Alice Pell, director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development  and a professor of animal science who co-developed the program. “It’s important to understand that it is starting as a Cornell degree and that it will in the long-term morph into a Bahir Dar degree.”
Bahir Dar leaders initially approached Cornell officials, who had been in the region doing watershed work, to ask if they would cooperate in writing a proposal for a World Bank grant to fund such a program. Cornell is offering partial, though not full, tuition remission, while the World Bank grant will cover the remaining tuition for the 20 students -- who were selected from a pool of 99 -- and on-the-ground costs, Pell said.
The program will focus on “teaching the engineers in an integrated way,” said Tammo Steenhuis, a professor of biological and environmental engineering who has forged connections with Bahir Dar University in the five years since he began work on a U.S. Agency for International Development program in Ethiopia. “Engineers do have a problem, they’re usually top-down, and the only way to do watershed management is to work with a population,” Steenhuis said. The program location at Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, should be particularly instructive, Pell added, as the area is a focal point of water disputes with Sudan and Egypt.
Cornell, whose president, David J. Skorton, has focused attentions on Africa through the university's "Africa Initiative," also recently announced that it will provide academic and technical support for a new doctoral program for plant breeders at the University of Ghana . Cornell faculty, in cooperation with faculty from the University of Ghana at Legon, have been involved with establishing the brand-new West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement, a center "intended to help provide training and resources for plant breeders from around the region so that they will develop some of the tools and skills needed to develop drought- and pest-resistant crops and improve crop productivity," said the university's vice provost for international relations, David Wippman. The Centre is expected to enroll 40 Ph.D. students in a program on plant breeding and genetics over the next five years, beginning in January.
"The concept," said Vernon Gracen, a professor of plant breeding at Cornell and associate director of the West Africa center, "is to train African Ph.D.s in Africa on problems relevant to Africa. Basically what we’ve done in the past is African Ph.D.s have often come out to the U.S. or Europe and done their Ph.Ds here. Sometimes they don't return to their countries or sometimes when they return to their countries, [they find that] the problems they could work on here weren’t all that relevant to what they needed.”
Historically, Pell said, land grant institutions have focused on research collaboration when it comes to strengthening institutions abroad. “We have certainly been guilty of that as well. We lead with research and a lot of times African institutions are primarily teaching institutions.”
The bigger objective of the new degree program, Pell said, “is trying to figure out creative ways to work with universities in Africa, which are chronically under-funded. Faculty there have very heavy teaching loads; yet, they need to be active fires in development.”