New Magazine on Arab Higher Education Will Make Its Debut, but Not at a Conference in Dubai

February 28, 2013

When the philanthropist Salah Khalil proposed starting a magazine to cover Arab higher education, he knew it would have to negotiate political obstacles in a region where governments tightly watch scholarly work. Just how quickly that would happen, however, he didn't expect.

On Wednesday, Mr. Khalil canceled a higher-education conference that was to launch the new online publication because of concerns about academic freedom in the United Arab Emirates, where the event was to be held this weekend.

That step came less than a week after a similar move by the London School of Economics and Political Science, which canceled a conference it had planned in Dubai after Emirati authorities requested that a presentation on Bahrain, which is facing political upheaval, be dropped from the program. A scholar on Arab politics from the London institution who was to speak at the event was briefly detained at the Dubai airport and barred from entering the country.

The new magazine, called Al Fanar, "is committed to strong coverage of academic freedom, and we truly believe academic freedom is an essential condition for excellence in universities around the Arab world," said Mr. Khalil. "We can't talk about upholding academic freedom and launch in Dubai. I don't think it sends the right message."

Despite the event's cancellation, Al Fanar will start as planned on March 3. It is the first major project of the Alexandria Trust, the charity Mr. Khalil founded in 2012 to improve education in the Middle East and North Africa.

Mr. Khalil, an Egyptian businessman who lives in Britain, said he wants to help Arab nations return to their historical role as leading places of scholarly inquiry and research. Despite a vaunted history of scientific discoveries and some venerable institutions, the region's universities have suffered from swelling student enrollments and antiquated teaching and administrative practices.

'The Lighthouse'

In addition to starting the magazine, the charity, which is based in London, is helping ministries of education in Arab nations work with top consultants to provide advice on teaching, the use of educational technology, and other topics.

It also plans to translate some 5,000 textbooks into Arabic and make them available free online. The collection, Mr. Khalil said, contains the "seminal works" in economics, sociology, and 12 other academic disciplines. He estimates it will cost more than $50-million to obtain copyrights and translate the books.

But by allowing donors to pay for a page or a chapter at a time, he hopes the approach will attract both wealthy supporters and people of more modest means.

The trust has raised more than $2-million for its various projects, primarily from Arab donors. (The Ford Foundation has also donated $240,000 to support Al Fanar.)

For Al Fanar, whose title means "The Lighthouse" in Arabic, Mr. Khalil envisions a "thoughtful critic rather than a cheerleader" for Arab higher education. "We want to tell the good stories and the bad stories to get an informed debate going across the region."

Its editor, David L. Wheeler, a former managing editor of The Chronicle, said the charity held a conference in Cairo in April to solicit opinions from Arab university leaders about the project.

"They felt it was needed because they don't have good information to make decisions at their universities about basic things like finance, governance, improving teaching, and discussing curriculum," Mr. Wheeler said. "People came to the workshop and basically said, We don't know what's going on at a neighboring campus, much less other Arab countries."

The magazine will feature original articles by reporters in the region and aggregated content from other news media. Stories will be in both English and Arabic, and it will offer a biweekly electronic newsletter. In the future, Mr. Wheeler hopes the publication won't have to depend on grants and donations, but will survive largely on money earned from job and other advertisements.

Jamil Salmi, a higher-education expert from Morocco who formerly worked at the World Bank, praised the new effort. "I do think that it is an important step for higher education in the Arab world," he wrote in an e-mail. "The initiative fits well with the positive side of the Arab Spring, namely a more open press in some corners of the Arab world."

Despite the decision to cancel the Dubai event, in which some 80 university leaders and education experts were expected to participate, Mr. Wheeler said Al Fanar is not an advocacy group. It ultimately wants to help higher education by providing a thoughtful, objective voice.

"I do want to be neutral on political and religious issues," he said. "But I don't think a publication about higher education can really be neutral about academic freedom."