Opinions differ on success of Houston Community College's Qatar program

At Education City in Qatar, locals can get a degree from schools such as Northwestern, Georgetown, Texas A&M, Virginia Commonwealth and Cornell, all without ever taking a trans-atlantic flight.

It’s an experiment in international education that’s generating a lot of controversy about the mission of U.S. schools, the cultural divides between Qatar and America, and the best way to move forward as part of a global community.

Take the example of the Houston Community College, where leaders signed a five-year agreement with Qataris in 2010. For five years, HCC operated a satellite campus in Education City.

What they got for it – well, that’s partially a matter of opinion.

Butch Herod, the former dean of HCC Qatar, points to numbers from HCC Senior Vice Chancellor of Finance and Administration Teri Zamora, showing an eventual $1.7 million profit.

In an interview with the Gulf News Journal, Herod admitted there were some challenges; and that having had the experience, the school would be able to put a similar program together better.

“There’s a correct way to do this.” Herod said, explaining that establishing a 501c3 and controlling funds that way would make things clearer.

“It keeps a nice, clear and bright line.” Herod said.

In the end, he said, it was more a question of time than of money: HCC’s leadership thought administrators were getting “distracted” by the HCC Qatar venture.

But, Herod said, it’s a mistake to only value the program according to its revenue, saying HCC was involved in what he called “educational diplomacy” and an effort to “build bridges between different cultures.”

“Any institution of higher education that seeks to pursue international operations should assess both the costs and benefits of doing so.” Herod said. “Having said that, I also believe with conviction, that the same cost-benefit assessment often misses very important non-monetary benefits that result from these initiatives. In our experience, our involvement in international initiatives changed the lives of not only the students we served, but also the lives of our faculty and staff who were participants. It not only changed the attitudes and beliefs of those involved, but it also created life-long friendships and partnerships that continue to provide dividends.”

Others have different takes on the subject: an August 16 piece in The Watchdog shows an HCC Board of Trustees member, Dave Williams, voicing concerns about the program, starting with the finances. Wilson told the Watchdog he “felt certain” that the Qatar program lost $15 million.

Speaking to the Gulf News Journal, Wilson clarified that statement, saying the real problem is a lack of transparency.

“Nobody has the numbers.” Wilson said, calling for an audit of the program.

Beyond the money, Wilson also discussed concerns about the nature of the partnership.

“I don’t think we should be over there with our employees in a country that harbors terrorists.” Wilson said, adding that Qatari restrictions on educating women limit the efficacy of U.S, scholastic programs there.

As for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, a state agency that coordinates educational efforts by Texas schools, board members declined to comment when contacted by the Gulf News Journal on the grounds that they do not have statutory authority over programs like HCC-Qatar.

As schools like Georgetown, Cornell and others continue to operate Qatar campuses, this controversy will likely continue as Americans, and others beyond U.S. borders, contemplate the future of a globally interconnected world.


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