Special Feature: Inaugural Commencement in Doha

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NU-Q Dean and CEO 'Bullish' on Qatar Campus Success

Everette Dennis praises first cohort of graduates preparing for Doha Commencement May 9

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April 23, 2012 | by Storer H. Rowley

Everette E. Dennis, dean and CEO of Northwestern University in Qatar, recently discussed the historic graduation scheduled to take place at NU-Q in Doha, Qatar, on May 9. “I’m bullish on this whole enterprise,” said Dennis in a wide-ranging interview about Northwestern’s campus on the Arabian Gulf. He called NU-Q “a unique, one-of-a-kind place” and described the 36 students from 17 countries who make up the first graduating class as a diverse “mosaic” of cultures and true pioneers who have blazed a successful trail for others to follow. A delegation of more than 50 dignitaries from the University -- including President Morton Schapiro, Provost Daniel Linzer, trustees, vice presidents, professors and staffers -- will travel to Doha for the celebrations May 7 to 9. They will give out awards, celebrate achievements and watch the seniors get their diplomas in journalism and communication at NU-Q’s first commencement. Following is a Q-and-A with NU-Q’s dean about the events and their significance for Northwestern.

Q: Can we start with the significance of the first graduation at NU-Q? Why is this so important for Northwestern University?

A: Northwestern University in Qatar is the first institution of its kind in the region that is poised to prepare people for the media economy of the 21st century, so it’s the fruition of four years of work, including the time so many people here put in to develop the programs.

It really is a moment of achievement. It’s a recognition of a pioneering journey by the students, faculty and staff who helped them, because they took a risk when they came here.

Northwestern University is famous in America, but it is not as well known in this region. The students came here because they heard about this program that could prepare them for journalism and communication enterprises. They immediately had a sense of excitement about the place and wanted to be involved. It was a real adventure for them.

Q: Were there risks for these students to do this, and for their families?

A: The students were asked to take a chance in coming here. There were no sophomores, juniors and seniors ahead of them.

NU-Q was totally new to them and out there making its case for them to come. It shows an appetite among these young people for new communications and media skills in the region, as well as a receptivity to a liberal arts education, which is also part of what we do.

I believe this was important as well because, in some ways, the fields of communication and journalism had no instant status here. In fact, they may have had questionable status at first. There was a real disconnect between the realities of modern media and some of the traditional news institutions that existed across this region.

So the attitude of a lot of families was: What are you doing this for, anyway?

Q: What were the challenges for NU-Q, and what are your measures for success?

A: I think it’s a great moment for Northwestern University because there’s a promise that’s been made here that the quality of the education would be equivalent or comparable to what a student would get in Evanston or Chicago. So, on the face of it, this meant there had to be a very rigorous program here of comparable faculty and opportunity.

It was also a test of how we take advantage of the resources of the five other universities here. When a student enters, they also have access to programs at Georgetown, Weill Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Virginia Commonwealth and Texas A&M. And we also needed to connect closely back to Evanston and calibrate to courses there. It was an overall effort to connect all kinds of pieces together to form that kind of a high-quality education.

Then we saw results in a de facto test last year. NU-Q students who went to Evanston and enrolled in Communication and Weinberg courses did at least as well as their counterparts from Evanston campus. We also have a residency program for our journalism students, and feedback from host organizations has come back equally positive. One New York public relations agency described our students as the best they ever had.

Q: Can you discuss this cohort of graduating seniors?

A: This commencement class is very important, and to be frank, it’s been challenging, because usually undergraduate students are not under this kind of scrutiny. The president, the provost, individual deans and many other dignitaries come to visit, and the Qatar Foundation is attentive, too.

The work of our students and the quality have been universally high here. Our students are winning awards in film festivals, web contests and other places. So it’s very exciting -- and a little scary, at times -- for them to be part of the very first class to graduate from NU-Q. Everyone is especially conscious, even very self-conscious, about their existence, achievements and educational outcomes.

We have 36 students in the first graduating cohort. They come from 29 countries. They have different language skills and different levels of understanding. The challenge for us was pitching the curriculum and course material in a relevant and pertinent way and having assignments everyone can benefit from. The diversity of the group made for a very worldly class of students because they know so many places and represent so many cultures. Bottom line: That all worked out okay. This became a mosaic and one in which each piece represented some different background yet still became part of the whole.

Q: Can you talk about the diversity of NU-Q students?

A: Most everybody has English as a second language. That’s a difficult challenge for students to learn to write and to document everything in English, but having so many languages represented is an asset as well, of course.

The Qatari students constitute in total admission about 39 percent of the numbers over the years, and the rest of the students are from all over. A good number of them come from the local community but with different passports in the Middle East. We also have students from Europe, America and China, though not all in the first graduating class.

Q: What kind of celebrations are you planning in Qatar for commencement?

A: There will be a number of things. President Schapiro will host an awards luncheon where students will receive awards voted on by the faculty and staff. That will be exciting for us to bring them to a recognition ceremony and exciting for them to have some opportunity to see him again.

The trustees will come to spend time at NU-Q and also in the community, see the cultural institutions and have meetings here.

Also, there is an Education City convocation on May 8, and that’s wonderful in both substance and symbolism. All six U.S. universities come together, and representatives of the three other international schools and universities affiliated with the Qatar Foundation here join in. Those three are the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies (QFIS), the French business school Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC) and the University College of London Qatar.

The idea is to gather all six universities graduating students together and to have all students honored at once. Actual diplomas are not given out at that time, but Sheikha Moza bint Nasser and the Emir of State of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, will likely be there.

Q: What is planned for the first Commencement ceremony?

A: On the next day (May 9), we have our own event at NU-Q, and that is our University’s graduating class ceremony and convocation at the Qatar National Convention Centre. That building has incredible architecture, which includes a branching Sidra tree -- that’s the beloved indigenous tree here, and its branches reach out as a symbol of the Qatar Foundation and Qatari culture.

Students will be there, and there is a large hall overlooking Education City with the famous giant Maman spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, and they will have a panoramic view back toward Education City, which is quite a remarkable place. This will also be replete with a display of student journalistic and artistic work. It’s a major celebration.

Q: The first graduating seniors from the two schools -- Medill and Communication -- are also invited to come to the home Evanston campus for commencement here on June 15, right?

A:  NU-Q is the 12th school of the University, and we’re bringing all the graduating seniors to Evanston for commencement, too, so they’re all going to be together as one school to receive their degrees.

Q: What are some things these first students did that made you proud, like the work reflecting the Arab Spring or helping Libya create an independent media?

A: The student involvement was minimal in the Libya initiative -- but they are still very proud of it. They did attend some of the conference events and interviewed leaders of the revolutionary movement and National Transitional Council. That initiative was a reminder of the communications revolution that is coming to this part of the world.

Even before that conference, you had the Arab uprising happening and this yearning for freedom going on around the region. Students were following it closely. They went out and did something about it, and their work reflected it.

One student’s film, “A Falcon, a Revolution,” used the symbol of the falcon in Arab culture to illustrate and understand what was happening with the Arab Spring. The students were using the motif of a falconer’s family and their concerns as they listened to the radio and drove around, realizing the change that was occurring in their country. The falcon, I suppose, was a symbol of freedom flying through the air on one hand, and also of control on the other hand, when the bird is back in the cage.

Some other students developed a website that is really a news service, a site that is news about diabetes and obesity and healthy eating, done in a news format in a country that has very severe issues with diabetes and obesity. It’s not just an information website, it’s really about storytelling.

Q: Can you talk about the new building being built now for NU-Q?

A: We now occupy about 50,000 square feet in the building of Carnegie Mellon University in Education City. Our new building, designed by famed architect Antoine Predock and now under construction, will have about 370,000 square feet. The new building is shaped like an arc, and it has a grand entry space, a great atrium with floors going up above it, including a two-story library, and on one end, an exhibition space tracing the past, present and future of communication.

All the people coming into it will be treated to vivid imagery and digital information about the substance of the knowledge base of the field.

The building also has two 250-seat theatres, a black box theatre, digital studios, newsrooms, control rooms, radio facilities and a suite of offices that will cover the major media platforms -- along with exhibitions spaces and classrooms.

Q: Why is it important for Northwestern to have this campus in the Middle East?

A: Well the broader University is interested in Middle Eastern studies and is expanding in that area. That began even before our campus in Qatar, so the creation of NU-Q was a natural opportunity to do something and establish an important foothold in an expanding part of the world that is terribly misunderstood.

The region is also a place of tremendous growth and change. Sometimes people ask: Why is Northwestern University in Qatar and not in China or India, for example. Part of the answer is: Because Qatar’s leaders asked us to come. There was an invitation extended, and a determination was made that this had value for the University.

It would extend the University’s impact on the world, in general -- and it’s a tremendous place, in particular, from which to extend Northwestern’s reach and impact into other parts of the world.

There are unique and wonderful opportunities for students and faculty in Qatar and also in a number of places that are easily accessed from here. For example, from here to Nairobi and Mumbai and Vienna is a half-day trip, not a major expedition across the Atlantic. Look at the different countries surrounding us here.

Q: Is this a place where Northwestern can make a difference?

A: This part of the world has been one of the most volatile for generations, and yet now the Gulf states are playing a bigger, more important role in the global economy and in foreign policy.

It’s just a great place to study, not necessarily to embrace everything or to criticize everything that happens here.

It’s a place where we can make a huge difference. Faculty can make a difference anywhere, but there’s an acceleration of impact one can have on students and their lives and directions when you teach here -- especially, when you’re a new player in a place that yearns to be a big part of the global enterprise.

Q: Taking a broader view, what are the implications for American higher education in general and Northwestern’s growing reach in the world?

A: I think we are having an impact for the public good here, for Northwestern and for U.S. higher education, as well. There have been start-and-stop experiments with higher education in the Mideast and elsewhere. The broader thing is to do it for the right reasons, for the education agenda to contribute to the larger agenda of the world.

Qatar offers a unique opportunity to learn about the rest of the world, and that is what makes it worthwhile being here and being in this maelstrom of change.

I think also for Northwestern, journalism, media studies and communications constitute the tip of the iceberg for what this campus can ultimately be for the University. There are already various delegations that have come here, and projects in the works with other schools back home who want to be part of this, and we’re all open to that to see what might happen.

Q: Are there any specific goals you want to highlight on the eve of commencement?

A: One thing that does strike me is the fact that our job here is really not to create American journalists or communication specialists but people with a global perspective who can work anywhere in the world and, especially, who can make a contribution here. That’s an intriguing challenge, and we are drawing on the resources of an established tradition in Evanston and a track record that’s proven itself.

Our mission really is to provide a cadre of communicators, regardless of where they go and what they do, who can work anywhere in a digital age -- and yet with a special obligation to this part of the world.

Q: What are your hopes for the future for NU-Q, for successive classes to come?

A: The vision is to become a widely recognized world-class institution where students are inspired to come.

We want to see a place that has a truly distinctive faculty and programs that get better and better. We want a program here that provides services and benefits to the region and that is a beacon for enlightenment -- one that people would say is not just an American university in the Middle East, but an integral part of America’s global ambition to contribute to international development.

What we want to create with NU-Q is really a lab for the future of communications, that doesn’t have any boundaries and that is still changing as an expression of the culture of the region. And we want to do it in a way that is always sensitive to the traditions and people of the region.

I’m very enthusiastic. I’m bullish on this whole enterprise. It’s just a truly unique, one-of-a-kind place.