US universities expand in the Middle East

Columbia Global Center, just opened in Amman, Jordan, is raising that city's status in the region.

Ilene R. Prusher/The Christian Science Monitor
NEW CENTER: Jordan fixed up this former private school in Amman, Jordan, for Columbia University.
Nader Daoud/AP
CEREMONY: Jordan's Queen Raina speaks at the opening ceremony of Columbia's Global Center on March 22.

If a few professors from New York came to Jordan, collaborated with a cadre of students on cutting-edge research projects, and were able to share – in real time – their findings with a similar team in China, what would that look like?

It would look a lot like the future of education. Or so says Columbia University. The university recently opened the first two Columbia Global Centers: one here in Amman and the other in Beijing. Possible future locations include Brazil, Argentina, India, and Tanzania.

"The center is really a hub with bridges throughout the Middle East," says Safwan Masri, director of the new center here and a Columbia Business School faculty member for the past two decades. What's significant, he says, is that the center could cover myriad ideas and topics, and go in multiple directions. "That's what's so exciting."

News of Columbia's opening here is lifting Amman's status in the region. Already, the once-sleepy city has grown into the destination of choice for United Nations agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) seeking a safe base from which to serve the Middle East, especially Iraq.

To bring Columbia here, this pro-Western kingdom fixed up a former private school, turning it into something akin to a miniature palace with classical Arabic flourishes. It's a home that few universities could resist.

"Universities are already very global," says Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger. "We have experts from everywhere coming to us. But in this era of globalization, many schools are realizing that it's not just how many experts you have but how to have an impact on global issues."

He points to other US universities opening branches in the Middle East, such as Cornell Medical College in Qatar and New York University's under-construction campus on an island off the coast of Abu Dhabi. He says Columbia's vision is different.

Global research, not degrees

"Those are fine: You send over American professors, and they teach classes to mostly local students, trying to replicate the experience of learning at the home institution – with some success," Mr. Bollinger says. "We decided to set up research centers that would allow professors and students to do collaborative work, and to connect them globally. We're not offering courses and degrees, and we're not building a local campus. But we want to bring people from Columbia to connect them with people in the region and with centers elsewhere in the world."

The strong suits of the program, he says, will be law, political science, and journalism (working on a project about freedom of the press in the Middle East). The other one will be the Earth Institute at Columbia.

"The whole Mediterranean basin is drying," says Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia. "This is not only real, it's deadly serious. I think that one of the projects the center can take on is creating a program for a sustainable Jordan."

Notably, the first two of Columbia's global centers are located in a monarchy (Jordan) and an authoritarian regime (China). That could make at least a few dream projects a bit politically sensitive.

"One thing that local centers can do is to work with NGOs, activists, and civil society to help them focus their concerns," says John Coatsworth, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs. The centers "can help them bring issues to the fore that they couldn't as easily if they were not doing it connected to an external institution.

"The good thing about Jordan," Mr. Coatsworth continues, "was that there was a lot of local interest. It's possible to get to any other part of the Middle East from here, including Israel, without any problems."

Why choose Amman?

Still, why Amman? There's no shortage of cities in the region with a bit more of a buzz to them. Amman's 15-year-old peace treaty with Israel helped situate Jordan in a role that no other country in the region could fill, except maybe Egypt.

But, frankly, many people worry that Jordan is just a bit too dull, with its many malls and Starbucks.

At Paul, a French bakery and restaurant, two Korean graduate students at the University of Jordan said they were finding Amman hard to warm up to.

There just isn't much in the way of entertainment or culture.

"The weather is good. The people are nice," says Mi-Jin Kim, showing off the Arabic she acquired in the past few months. "It's a little boring for us. There's no activity here."

Her friend Hana Jang chimed in: "Even in the past year, this whole area has developed a lot. So maybe in a few more years, it will be different."

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