When I arrived at Northwestern University in Qatar, in June 2011, the historic repercussions of the Arab Spring across the Middle East were readily apparent. Less clear to me then was the role a media- and communications-focused university could—or should—play in these dramatic developments.
What I learned from a conference we sponsored last December was that, under certain circumstances, universities with global campuses may be uniquely suited to engaging a country's leadership in discussions and deliberations on policy issues of national, even international importance. By virtue of location, access to high-level authorities, and financing resources, an international campus can think expansively and act impartially, summoning the power of its university's reputation and brand to effect change in its own region.
Three years before I arrived in Qatar, Northwestern established its only overseas campus, in Doha, the capital, with an academic program centered on journalism and communications. The program was derived from two of the university's professional schools as well as its liberal-arts college. The goal was to help the Persian Gulf state prepare a talent pool for its emerging knowledge-based economy.
Qatar itself was to serve as a laboratory for incremental education that would foster freedom of expression and independent media, something deemed essential to modern states. Doing this in conjunction with five other American universities, all with specific disciplinary mandates, was especially relevant to a university that was also raising its profile in Middle Eastern and North African studies.
The campus had already engaged the Arab revolution, with students acting as correspondents, crafting research reports, and producing videos, films, and plays. The university had held a scholarly conference on the role of satellite television in the Arab world. The lessons from the upheavals had made their way into classroom instruction and faculty studies.
Still, the overall effort was fragmented. We received frequent requests to mount training missions and provide other types of support that were more appropriate to, and already being performed by, scores of nongovernmental organizations. I wondered whether it might be more fitting for Northwestern, without paternalism or outright interference, to connect the lessons of scholarship and professional experience with the needs and desires of the region's unsettled media scene.
An unformed idea emerged in conversations with a Middle Eastern communications expert who was working both with us and with Libya's National Transitional Council, that country's de facto government. There existed a rough bureaucratic proposal to transform Libya's mostly state-owned and -controlled news media.
That plan, expressed in a diagram, seemed to me a Rube Goldberg contraption that would simply transfer the media from one regime to another, circumventing the goals of the young revolutionaries who, we were told, had "died for a free press." As an alternative, we offered to hold a "good offices" conference that would enable the Libyans to discuss among themselves the building blocks for a nationwide, independent media.
"Good offices," a term from diplomacy, typically refers to a neutral party who, having the appropriate gravitas, brings together various interests to settle disputes or forge action plans. For Northwestern University in Qatar, the conference was high-risk, high-reward. The risk was that it would end in chaos or, worse, result in an international incident, possibly damaging the university's reputation.
The reward would be a Libyan agreement on fundamental principles of freedom of expression, not simply lifted from another country's constitution or a management consultant's handbook. Such a consensus, I thought, could serve as inspiration for other states in the region and might even validate the role that universities can play on the world stage, something that does not happen often, if ever.
With the support of Northwestern's leaders in the United States, we tendered the invitation, and the Libyan leadership accepted. They were familiar with the "good offices" model and trusted both Northwestern's global reputation and NU-Q's pledge of impartiality. In addition to the Libyan delegation, we invited internationally renowned experts on media freedom, governance, economics, technology, and training. We asserted no preferred approaches to governance, economic or business models, technological solutions or training. Having done media development in Eastern and Central Europe after the fall of Communism, I knew the folly of imposing American models on other cultures and countries without accounting for their own traditions and values.
The Libyans agreed with this approach. Members of their 17-member delegation reflected diverse backgrounds, including law, engineering, education, business, and politics. Northwestern insisted that the delegation include women.
The secretary general of the Arab League, Nabil Al-Araby, also accepted our invitation, bringing with him an authoritative perspective on the importance of media freedom to the modern state. "This," he said, "could yield a model for others."
In essence, we were holding a master class on media-policy development in the midst of real-time deliberations by the principals in charge of a nation's media system. Our visiting "faculty'' featured an array of highly regarded outside experts, but close attention was paid to the Libyans' views and experiences. We were careful to promote debate, then consensus, and not to give advice or advocate policies.
Nonetheless, for Libyans who had little experience with the traditions and institutions of free speech, the dawning realities of an independent media were not always pleasant. The deputy head of the National Transitional Council, Abdel Hafez Ghoga, complained about the fickle nature of the international news media. "We helped them during the revolution," he said, "gave them access to everything," which resulted in robust reporting that drew international attention and support. "Now," he said, and others among the Libyans concurred, "they've turned on us, criticize everything we do, distort what we say, and fail to understand how difficult and fragile it is to build a new government." Such an attitude seemed to suggest continued state control of media, but by the end of the conference that view had all but vanished.
At the conference's conclusion, the delegates developed seven principles to serve as a tentative blueprint for an independent media system. The principles were read aloud in both Arabic and English at an international news conference, which included vigorous questions from skeptical reporters. Mr. Ghoga, who was also conference co-chair, said, "We've made an important start," but he foresaw many potential impediments. Weeks later he resigned from the transitional council after demands for his ouster were made by increasingly impatient veterans of the revolution.
In addition to a declaration of principles and a tentative action plan, what exactly had the good-offices conference achieved?
From Libya's perspective, the conference sparked discussion and concrete action back home. As for Northwestern, the conference gained considerable media attention and raised our profile in Qatar, the region, and back on the home campus, in Evanston, Ill. It spurred interest in our instructional program and future research.
In the months since the conference, its influence—whether seminal or fleeting—has been witnessed incrementally in Libya, where upheaval is still the norm, and in inquiries and invitations to showcase the work at regional and international meetings. More important, though, is the realization that a global campus can use its power and the good-offices model to connect scholarship and direct experience on matters of real importance well beyond campus confines.
With its mandate to spread knowledge, a university can promote thought leadership on matters like freedom of expression, even in regions where no such tradition exists. The goal should not be any claim of influence or anticipated success, but the satisfaction of expressing the highest aspirations and values of an educated society while promoting public conversation and learning. The idealism in such an effort is, of course, tempered by political reality and the often slow nature of change.
Everette E. Dennis is dean and CEO of Northwestern University in Qatar.