American Colleges Discuss Their Next Moves in Protest-Riven Middle East

February 23, 2011

The recent uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East have placed American colleges in a tense situation. Beyond immediately evacuating students in harm's way, what is their role in these events and their aftermath? A session on Wednesday here at the Association of International Education Administrators' annual conference prompted a frank discussion of those questions.

As the waves of populist protest against autocratic regimes continue, educators at the meeting said they were torn between wanting to stay engaged in the region and needing to protect students and faculty members who are there.

One worry is that a temporary pullout could be seen as a signal for permanent disengagement, said Katherine Bellows, executive director of the Office of International Programs at Georgetown University.

Georgetown is scheduled to offer a language program this summer in Alexandria, Egypt. 'What are we going to do?" she wondered. "Part of me fears that if I say, 'No, you're not going,' that will be seen as a long-term decision."

Public institutions like the State University of New York face further complications, said James Ketterer, the system's deputy provost and chief of staff of the Office of Academic Affairs and University-Wide Programs.

"We're funded by the Legislature, and they are very much driven by the headlines, by calls from parents and constituents," he said. Although he understands the hesitancy to withdraw from countries in turmoil, he said, universities cannot afford to make missteps that could result in a permanent pullout. "These are day-by-day, minute-by-minute calculations," he said.

'A Road That Has Not Yet Been Paved'

Even as colleges are propelled by State Department warnings and concerned parents to pull back, the Middle East has become a more fascinating place with which to engage, participants said. That holds true for students and faculty members alike, said Norm Peterson, vice provost for international education at Montana State University, who moderated the session.

"While we were flying students out of the region, there were students clamoring to go in," he said. "That's part of the tension of our work."

Tully Cornick, executive director of Higher Education for Development, which is primarily financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, said that at the same time his organization has been evacuating project members from Egypt, its officials have begun discussing how they can reprogram their Middle East partnerships. For one thing, he asked, would the new governments in the region even honor the existing agreements?

Many at the session had worked in the field long enough to remember similar discussions following the fall of Soviet-backed regimes and the opening of Eastern Europe in the 1990s. Yet there are a number of crucial differences, Georgetown's Ms. Bellows noted, such as culture, religion, violence, and economic issues, including access to oil.

"That's what's disturbing," she said. "We're looking at a road that has not yet been paved."

Colleges should begin considering strategy now for their long-term engagement in the region, participants agreed. That means working internally with faculty and staff members to figure out institutional priorities. It also means reaching out to federal bodies like the Agency for International Development and the State Department to offer expertise and guidance.

"In the long run," said SUNY's Mr. Ketterer, "the work we do is going to become more important in helping to reset foreign policy in the region."


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