- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2003

DOHA, Qatar - Producing an entirely new education center from the ground up does not always guarantee academic success, but in the case of Virginia Commonwealth University, the dream of establishing a school with high standards far from its Richmond campus has proved itself in nearly every way.

The center is called Education City, a plain name for a wildly ambitious project of social and educational reform dreamed up by the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and his wife, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser bin Abdullah al-Misned. The project involves establishing branches of top-rated institutions of higher learning from Europe and America in a vast, unpopulated sandy suburb of Doha, capital of this tiny Persian Gulf emirate.

Curiously — even improbably — the first such campus to take root here was VCU back in 1998. The VCU School of the Arts in Qatar is said to be the first public arts school of its kind abroad and certainly one of few of its caliber in the region.

The concept is something of a miracle in the desert, unequaled in scope anywhere in the Middle East, if not the world. Fueled by the emirate’s plentiful reserves of natural gas, the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development — the project’s formal sponsor, almost exclusively under Sheikha Mozah’s direction — does all the planning and pays all the bills. That includes, among other expenses, putting up the buildings and paying faculty salaries.

Bachelor of arts degrees awarded to VCU-Qatar graduates are equivalent to those granted in Richmond, and an informal student exchange is under way between the two campuses.

Like the full-length black abaya robe worn in public by most Qatari women, a bland white two-story exterior that could be a motel on any American highway is merely the front for VCU-Qatar’s colorful modern interior. Inside, Qatari women shed their abayas to reveal all manner of Western dress underneath.

The $8 million, 80,000-square-foot edifice would cost an estimated $25 million to build in the States, according to Richard Toscan, dean of the School of Visual Arts in Richmond and VCU vice provost for Qatar.

The all-woman student body stands at 149 out of a 200-student capacity, with a majority from Qatar and the rest from the Gulf region. A dormitory nearby houses faculty — all full-time teachers are from Richmond — and students from outside Qatar.

Majors are offered in interior design, fashion design and graphic design. Classes are conducted in English. The atmosphere is friendly and low-key, with female faculty members often invited into local students’ homes. (Conservative tradition dictates that male faculty members do not often mix socially with their students.)

Downstairs in a private office, abaya-clad student body President Maha Al-Sader, 18, meets with trouser-clad guidance counselor Laura Green, a Richmond faculty member who has been in Qatar for five years. Upstairs, a class huddles in a sunlit coral-colored hallway studying spatial relations. A notice on a doorway nearby advertises an interior-design field trip to Doha’s Four Seasons Hotel complex.

“We saw the chance to create the ultimate design school and a program that would allow us to experiment with curriculum in ways we can’t do at home,” Mr. Toscan says, explaining the lure. “The School of Arts [in Richmond] with 3,000 students, and 2,500 in visual art and design, is one of the largest in America. The real attraction was that, with fewer students, we could explore interdisciplinary teaching and bring things that work back to the Richmond campus.”

It is Mr. Toscan’s understanding that Sheikha Mozah wanted a professional school that would encourage women to have careers. She took the lead in inviting VCU because of its ranking in U.S. News & World Report’s annual survey as one of the top public design schools in the United States. Thirty-six students entered the first class in 1998, which was then directed by Paul Petrie, currently a professor of interior design.

“For some reason, Qatari women seem to get a lot of support from fathers,” Mr. Toscan observes. “That seems odd given Arabic culture, but the fathers are very impressed with changes they see in their daughters.” Some months into the VCU program, he says, a father is likely to report that a daughter is becoming goal-oriented, in contrast to one who might be a student at the University of Qatar.

“We have some women students about to marry who put into the [marriage] contract that they can finish school,” he adds.

At present, VCU is the only all-female institution in burgeoning Education City, but it is expected to become coed by 2005, Mr. Petrie says. Texas A&M;, which is headed by former CIA chief Robert M. Gates, opened a branch here last month with a slender majority of Qatari female students, as has the newly dedicated billion-dollar Weill Cornell Medical College. Cornell University formally inaugurated its 11th president, Jeffrey S. Lehman, as part of an official opening celebration of the medical school Oct. 12.

The previous evening, the famed engineering school hosted a Texas-style barbecue — minus any alcohol out of respect for the country’s Muslim majority. It took place under a chandelier-bedecked tent next to the emir’s stables and featured an Aggie a cappella group singing “Ghost Riders In the Sky” plus a jitterbug dance troupe direct from College Station, Texas. Table centerpieces were cowboy boots filled with flowers.

In a country where some women do not yet shake hands with men, having male administrative heads and even male teachers is unusual but poses no problems as long as the men are not Qatari, Mr. Petrie says.

“Although different, there are wonderful opportunities here,” he says. “For one thing, our geographic center is the other side of the world from home, and travel to exotic places unreachable for most of us from the U.S. is readily available. Last night, I attended an excellent concert by a Chinese trio who played Vivaldi and Shostakovich.”

VCU-Qatar and the other American academic institutions offer higher pay as an incentive for faculty to take up residence in the desert, but Christina Lindholm, the school’s dean, suggests another, even stronger draw.

“Designers and artists are educated to look at things differently and are often adventurous and curious by nature,” she says. “They are attracted by the different and the unusual and march to a different drummer even in the States.”

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