Friday, November 2, 2018

Less than desirable partners

Numerous U.S. and European universities have significant relationships with Saudi Arabia. Whether it's hosting fully funded Saudi students, partnerships/exchanges, or outright gifts, what's not to like?

The current crises over freedom of speech and the assassination of prominent journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, has spurred institution leaders to contemplate whether or not to retain these lucrative arrangements. However, it's not all about money. Liz Reisberg reflects on the myriad factors that would weigh in favor of modifying or canceling agreements with Saudi Arabia. However, Reisberg's perspective should be weighed with the understanding that she, herself, has worked as a consultant to the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education. Reisberg focused on reducing or cancelling arms sales and economic investment while leaving the door open for educational partnerships by saying, " is not possible for any country to withdraw entirely from our unavoidably globalized world. If we cancel academic engagement with a country, then we cede international interaction to economic, political and military interest. If there is any hope for mutual understanding, the protection of human rights, sustainable development and more evidence-based policy, I don't think it will happen without the participation of scholars and universities."

The balance advocated by Reisberg is complicated and challenging to maintain. In a subsequent statement, Reisberg noted that institutional internationalization policies should be in place so that spokespeople are not left adrift in a PR crisis such as occurred at Harvard and MIT when the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia visited them. Ultimately, such a policy should include balancing the level of atrocity a university and its leaders can accept with the potential positive outcomes of maintaining a relationship that could make a difference in the longer term. The greatest complication with Saudi Arabia is that it has so many relationships with often prestigious universities and these relationships involve a great deal of money. Students at MIT, one of the institutions that has benefitted most, are increasingly urging the university to sever ties with Saudi Arabia, indicating that the reputation of the university could be irreparably tarnished if MIT continues to engage under the current cloud of concerns. The chief internationalization officer at MIT recommended that the relationship be maintained with Saudi Arabian educators and researchers, although protests from faculty and students continued. The rationale offered by Richard Lester was that, "We're not going to cut and run from these people even despite the atrocious actions that have been taken by the leadership of the country." As a result of the controversy, MIT's President Reif commissioned a study of how to move forward. The commission recommendations encouraged closer scrutiny which President Reif reiterated in commenting, "There are many progressive people that we want to engage with because it's helping the country, and how do we distinguish helping the people who want to help the country versus helping the regime?" Ultimately, MIT announced that it will more carefully scrutinize international "elevated risk" projects in which it is involved; China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia are specifically identified.

Saudi Arabia isn't the only Middle Eastern country where links between U.S. and European universities may be suspect. Reports of academics in the UAE being charged for crimes related to their research or publications have also emerged. Although Mathew Hedges was ultimately pardoned, his case was troubling for the lack of apparent due process as well as very harsh sentence. The UAE has been less visible than Saudi Arabia but the conditions there may be deteriorating; this may pose risks for fieldwork and other research that is potentially political in its orientation.

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