Western universities’ branch campuses in the Middle East and Asia can produce more headaches than revenue thanks to enrolment shortfalls and concerns over academic freedom.
Now a US lawyer has challenged one institution’s overseas initiative on new grounds – that it contravenes the university’s founding charter and tax-exempt status.
Jeffrey Lovitky, an attorney based in Washington DC, has claimed that Georgetown University’s Qatar campus is illegal under its 1815 congressional charter, which, he says, allows it to operate only in its home city.
In a 21-page letter to Georgetown’s president, John DeGioia, Mr Lovitky contends that the university calls the spin-off in Doha an “additional location” rather than a branch campus to avoid its being subject to separate accreditation. US accrediting agencies require universities to operate with autonomy. In Qatar this is limited by laws forbidding criticism of the emir, among other things, Mr Lovitky says.
He says that operating in Qatar also violates Georgetown’s commitment to freedom of speech and religious pluralism because a code of conduct allows searches of students’ living quarters and prohibits shows of disrespect for officials of the Qatar Foundation, which underwrites the campus; and also that the foundation’s budgetary authority gives it effective control of the curriculum.
“Would it be acceptable for the American government to have control over the curriculum at any university? But that is what’s required by the agreement in Qatar,” Mr Lovitky, whose late partner Sandra Welner was on the faculty at Georgetown, told Times Higher Education.
In a five-sentence written response, Georgetown says its Qatar operation “is fully consistent with [its] charter, mission, and tax-exempt status”. It did not respond to requests for elaboration.
Six US universities, University College London and HEC Paris operate in Education City, which in 2012 was renamed Hamad bin Khalifa University. Some of the US institutions, including Northwestern University, have provisions in their charters that allow them to operate remote locations. New York University amended its charter in order to open NYU Abu Dhabi in 2010. But others may have similar legal problems to Georgetown’s, Mr Lovitky said.
Because it was issued in 1789 when the US capital was governed directly by Congress, the Georgetown charter is under congressional control. Mr Lovitky said that, barring a more complete response from Georgetown, he may seek a congressional inquiry into its Qatar campus.
“I don’t think [Western institutions] had any sensitivity for what it’s like to try to run a university in accordance with the standards we expect in the US and…somehow impart those standards at a location thousands of miles away – particularly when the host countries don’t have a legal framework for recognising freedom of speech or freedom of the press,” Mr Lovitky said.
“In fairness to Georgetown, there are some things this Qatar campus does right. They allow Middle Eastern women to study there, and that’s the kind of thing we ought to be encouraging. That’s outstanding…They also give financial assistance to students.”
But he added: “It seems to me that universities have a special role, a particularly significant role, in standing up for freedom. Fundamental to the definition of a university is a place where unlimited discussion and creative thinking is permitted.”