‘The Doha Experiment’

New book by a former professor looks at the tensions and struggles behind what author describes as Georgetown’s “bold, important and interesting” experiment to bring American liberal education to Qatar.

November 2, 2017
 

In The Doha Experiment: Arab Kingdom, Catholic College, Jewish Teacher, a forthcoming book about the eight years Gary Wasserman spent teaching American political science at Georgetown University’s branch campus in Qatar, Wasserman offers a generally positive view of what he describes as Georgetown’s “bold, interesting and important experiment.” But he is also candid in describing the kinds of tensions that have underpinned Georgetown’s attempt to import liberal education to the Persian Gulf.

The tensions are summed up by an “off-the-record” comment from an unnamed Qatari whom Wasserman quotes in his chapter on the negotiations that paved the way for Georgetown’s Doha campus: “You want liberal education. Fine, you can say it, but don’t say it too often.”

Wasserman wrote that Georgetown’s classrooms in Doha on the one hand were sites of debates “that would have been taboo elsewhere [in the region] -- on everything from feminism to punishing dissent to treatment of migrant workers.” On the other hand, Wasserman wrote of what he described as “soft censorship” and the sense of one professor that “there were implicit boundaries on what was discussed in classes about the history, culture and politics of the region.” Another professor said it would be “impolite to criticize the emir and insane to insult Islam.” Still another, Wasserman wrote, “felt concerned enough about the issue of sectarianism to publish an article in an international journal on Shiites and Sunnis under a pseudonym.”

Wasserman also wrote of what he called “not-so-soft censorship” in the form of imported books being seized by customs inspectors and forwarded to the Ministry of Culture for approval -- or lack thereof. Many of the censored books, Wasserman wrote, dealt with politics of Qatar and the region, religion, and sexuality. “Although Georgetown conformed to the ministry’s wishes in all cases where printed books were banned, they were retrieved via other methods,” frequently electronically, he wrote. “Because the school was on the Washington campus’s virtual private network, content could not be tampered with by the authorities.”

The book also discusses the case of a Georgetown Qatar professor who had his residency permit revoked in 2015. The professor in question confirmed that while his permit was subsequently restored, and he was able to resume teaching in Qatar in fall 2016, the permit was then revoked again and he was denied re-entry to Qatar during the winter holiday between the fall 2016 and spring 2017 semesters. Wasserman speculates the revocation was due to the professor’s critical writings on a country in the region that is allied with Qatar.

Wasserman leaves it as an open question in the book whether Georgetown’s response to these two challenges to its academic freedom -- the censoring of books and the revocation of a professor’s residence permit -- was sufficient. A Georgetown spokesperson said that the university respects “that every sovereign nation retains the right to choose who comes into its borders. As Georgetown engages with countries across the world, we continue to advocate our position on the importance of academic freedom.” The spokesperson also said, “We are confident that we have not had to compromise our curriculum to conduct [the] business of educating students in Qatar. In some cases this has been with printed editions, digital editions or other means as appropriate. We are not facing any interruptions or interference to the delivery of academic content.”

“It seemed to me that we really were engaged in a kind of a struggle, a not-resolved struggle of making sure that the kinds of freedoms that we value in the classroom and in liberal education are preserved and expanded,” Wasserman said in an interview.

For Wasserman, at least, that struggle is worthwhile. “People say you shouldn’t be there because it’s not a democracy, which it isn’t, and you have autocratic rulers, which they are, but that’s kind of where you want to be, isn’t it? Isn’t that’s where you want to make your pitch?”

Wasserman stopped himself. “Let’s not get too self-serving there. Georgetown located in Qatar because Qatar had the resources as well as an eagerness to embrace [American] higher education. It also had the resources.” Georgetown’s expenses for the campus in Doha are bankrolled by the Qatar Foundation to the reported tune of tens of millions of dollars per year, money that paid for Wasserman’s $100,000-a-year salary plus perks like free transportation and housing.

Georgetown’s campus in Qatar opened in 2005, toward the beginning of a boom of sorts in American universities establishing branch campuses in nondemocratic countries in the Middle East and Asia. Georgetown’s campus is one of six American universities that set up shop in Doha in what's known as Education City: it’s joined there by branch campuses of Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Northwestern, Texas A&M and Virginia Commonwealth Universities. Each of the branches has a focus -- medicine in Cornell’s case, engineering in Texas A&M’s Georgetown offers an undergraduate foreign service degree in Qatar, foreign service being a signature program for Georgetown’s main campus in Washington.

Supporters of the campuses, like Wasserman, say there’s real value to be had in exporting American-style education abroad. In his book, Wasserman writes of these campuses as exercises in American soft power. Liberal education, he says, gives students from the region “new ways to view a host of issues, from women’s rights to press freedom. It also establishes networks of foreign professionals who can fill important positions in a globalized world.”

Critics, however, accuse American universities of selling their brands to autocratic bidders. They question the premise that academic freedom can exist in places where people are not free and that nondiscrimination principles can be upheld in countries with discriminatory laws. In Qatar, rights to freedom of expression and assembly are restricted and sex between men is illegal.

Further, there have been a series of incidents in which students or scholars hoping to study or teach at American branch campuses abroad have been denied permission to do so, seemingly due to reasons related to their identity or research topic. Kristina Bogos, a former graduate student at Georgetown who as an undergraduate studying abroad at New York University's Abu Dhabi campus had written critically of the treatment of migrant workers there, was denied a visa to conduct research at Georgetown’s Qatar campus last fall. She was told by Qatari immigration authorities that she was on a “blacklist” maintained by Gulf Corporation countries due to the “trouble” she’d made in Abu Dhabi.

Georgetown, a Roman Catholic university, issued a brief statement in response to Inside Higher Ed’s questions about Wasserman’s book. “Our campus in Qatar has helped educate nearly 400 students in international affairs while maintaining our unwavering commitment to academic freedom, religious freedom and inclusion and nondiscrimination. We independently manage our campus activities including curriculum, research and faculty hiring. The opinions and representations expressed in this personal memoir do not necessarily reflect those of Georgetown University or its leadership.”

Among the chapters in Wasserman's colloquially written book are ones dealing with Georgetown’s early history in Qatar, expat life and “teaching while Jewish.” Wasserman devotes much of the book to describing the anxiety he had around being a Jewish professor in Qatar. He describes a feeling of “paranoia” upon arriving there, which subsided over time. “As a Jew, I never suffered discrimination or harassment from the people of Qatar,” he wrote.

In a section on being gay in Qatar, Wasserman wrote that same-sex relations were to some degree tolerated as long as they were kept private. Most gay students, he wrote, kept their sexual orientation largely to themselves, but would tell their friends. His book describes an exchange between a Georgetown administrator and a new hire in which the administrator reportedly said he would recommend pulling Georgetown out of Qatar if the hire experienced any discrimination for being gay, even as the administrator made reference to Qatari law, which prohibits gay sex. Wasserman observed wryly that the distinction between, as he put it, “‘being’ gay” versus “‘doing’ gay” is “a somewhat nuanced distinction for any employer to enforce.” (The two parties to the reported conversation did not comment. A Georgetown spokesperson said the university “cannot confirm the accuracy of private conversations that the author recounts or characterizes in the book, and several members of our community dispute the depictions of conversations with them that are included in the book.”)

Some of Wasserman’s diction and descriptive choices will likely strike many readers as questionable. In a chapter about the campus’s female students, Wasserman writes of one that “she would not be called conventionally pretty -- too many angles on her long, Semitic face.” Of a student who wore a miniskirt at graduation, Wasserman commented on the length and muscle tone of the student’s legs as part of a broader point he was making about her character: “The long, athletic legs of this six-footer served as a not-so-subtle parting act of defiance toward the assembled, mostly robed, mostly conservative senior Gulf Arabs seated in the honored front rows of the auditorium.”

The miniskirt-wearing woman, one of a number of female students that Wasserman profiles, was, we learn, a driven and ambitious student who is now enrolled in graduate school in an American city. Over all, Wasserman has mixed feelings about the role the university played in empowering women in the region.

“There was a debate in the corridors of our school about whether female graduates of Western universities could ever fulfill their professional ambitions if they remained in Doha,” he wrote. “Many recent grads stayed in Doha, if only because they were required to remain for a couple years if they wanted their financial aid from Qatar to be forgiven. Most found jobs in multinational corporations, nonprofits or government agencies … On the other side of the debate was a realpolitik appraisal that we were educating women for a world that didn’t quite exist in the Arab Gulf.”

Wasserman also devotes a chapter to the migrant workers who make up the majority of Qatar’s population, and who built Georgetown’s campus, keep it clean and serve students food. His appraisal of Georgetown’s moral standing on the matter is mixed: “Georgetown generally acted as an enlightened employer for its low-income migrant labor. It followed international standards for workers, insisted on safe conditions in the construction of its new building, and advocated Qatar-wide protections for them from abuse by contractors. In a recent survey of workers at Georgetown, the university came off as a good recruiter, informing migrants of their rights and intervening on their behalf with the companies that directly employed them. Professors researched the recruitment and treatment of these workers, set up financial workshops, and elevated the subject of international migration to a topic worthy of academic discussion. Student groups joined in by teaching laborers English and other subjects; a few of them went further by investigating and writing about the living conditions and exploitation of these workers,” Wasserman wrote.

“So Georgetown is ‘off the hook,’ at least in a public relations sense, in its posture toward low-income workers. But whether its actions for impoverished people -- individuals with whom it coexisted and on whom it depended -- lived up to its liberal, religious and educational principles, was another question.”

Wasserman ends the book with a chapter asking whether American liberal education has a future abroad and another chapter pondering his own departure after eight years. The mood in Qatar in 2015, when he was preparing to leave, was glum, he wrote, in part due to an economic slump attributable to the decline in oil prices. And this was before the diplomatic standoff this summer that left Qatar isolated from many of its neighbors.

Wasserman is hopeful Georgetown will stay in Qatar for the long haul. “I would hope it would grow,” he said in an interview. “One of the reasons I wrote the book is to kind of say, how do you become a vital force in this society? [Georgetown is] both fitting in and [being an] an irritant, because it’s trying to change those surroundings in some way. It is trying to improve the condition of workers to some extent; it is trying to implant liberal ideas. It is trying to do a lot of things that are certainly different from the traditions of the region.”

“It’s a bit of a conflict.”

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