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NU-Q and Qatar's Significance in the Region

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April 23, 2012 | by Storer H. Rowley

NU-Q Dean Everette E. Dennis discusses the significance of Northwestern’s choice of Qatar as the site of its campus in the Gulf region, and why Qatar is unique in the Arab world as a base for Northwestern’s programs there. There is an openness to change and to learning the best practices and knowledge that the outside world has to offer that makes Qatar different from many countries in the Middle East.

Dean Dennis: Look what’s happened in Egypt and elsewhere during the Arab Spring. But there has also been quiet progress in Qatar for a long time. There’s a connectedness and engagement in foreign policy here that’s very open to the rest of the world. We’re not directly part of the foreign policy in this country, but we are very much a part of their desire to really invest in education, to instill it in the culture and to make that part of the dynamic of the country.

This part of the world does not have a long tradition of freedom of expression as we know it in the states, and change can be incremental. That's part of the reality as we live with local traditions, laws and practices that, while changing, are still dramatically different from those in the U.S. This is an opportunity to have meaningful impact and make educational and substantive progress on that front, too.

Different cultures wrestle with issues of freedom of expression on the one hand, versus total control by an authoritarian state on the other. There are competing views about the value and consequences of having absolute freedom. You don’t do away with, overnight, all the ways things happened in the past. You have to do it with an understanding of the culture, and within the traditions of Islam.

Part of what we do is bring western teaching methods and values that are quite universal in a way -- we’re bringing the sense of a global society, not trying to stamp out American products here. We’re bringing that sense of globalism. We’re trying to connect with and extend and build the local culture, to calibrate and build an education enterprise here that speaks with an Arab accent but is not just a piece of Evanston sort of stuck in the Middle East. It’s more about our values from Northwestern being brought to bear on change and bringing in all the best practices and traditions we can, some of them very good ones.

I wouldn’t call it a clash of cultures as much as listening to each other and trying to be very aware of where we are -- and of what’s settled and what’s really in play in regard to education and media and communications. And our students have been able to do that, to understand the limits of what’s permissible and to push the boundaries in their work. They have not shied away from taking on very controversial subjects like breast cancer and guest workers.

Qatar’s foreign policy allows them the luxury of sort of being the belle at the ball, and that’s great for our students -- to have the kind of conferences that flow through here, such as a stem cell conference, delegations of world leaders, the world-class tennis tournaments and more. It’s incredibly dynamic for such a small place.

It’s wonderful being surrounded by great ambition. There is much focus on education, museums and exhibitions, a yearning for significant growth, and the blunt realization that one day the oil and gas will run out. They understand that there have to be new enterprises and markets here. There have to be changes in place to sustain their future.

Will it be the Switzerland of this new century? I don’t know, all kinds of compacts are brokered here, and problems are solved. There’s a tendency to want to do that, and yet any foreign policy is driven by security interests to protect what is important to this nation. Still, for students in our fields to be in the center of this, to be educated in a little place that is a big player, you couldn’t ask for a better laboratory. They see world leaders, famous people and the economic leadership of the world passing through here.

It’s in this microcosm and amid this enormous dynamism in the world that they are being educated. This capital city went from a tiny fishing and pearling village 25 or 30 years ago to this city of soaring skyscrapers, business, education and art and culture.

There’s a whole notion of nurturing quality here, and yet there are incredible contradictions, as well. There are the forces of holding on to tradition versus forces promoting modernity. Sometimes there’s a feeling of taking three steps forward and two steps back, and, in other instances, there’s an amazing sense of security and serenity about its future and confidence in that future.

It’s a confident place, especially for our students to do their learning. In a world beset by recession and economic downturns, you sit in a country with a 17.5 percent growth rate that is securely sitting on its own ambitious trajectory.

Topics: University