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THE "ETHICS" OF OFF-SHORING OUR COLLEGES OVERSEAS: Sovereign Wealth Funds, And The Lessons Of Shariah-Compliant Investments"

by Marion DS Dreyfus


The Save-Us-Money theme will come back to bite us in the end ~ as our [solely male] students return with unConstitutional, unAmerican and dangerously unWestern mindsets. — Marion DS Dreyfus, Baruch College

"Information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire; it wafts across the electrified borders." — Ronald Reagan (The Guardian, London, 14 June 1989)

My point in this essay is not to stoke alarm. My goal is to seriously question the second-degree results from these seemingly "positive" steps of exporting one of our fortes. The ethical considerations far outweigh whatever benefits of a temporary and unsatisfactory sort might seem immediately evident.

Recent material in newspapers of record — the NY Times, ("Universities rush to set up outposts abroad," 10 February, Tamar Lewin) among others — has celebrated the off-shoring of our education in the form of exporting our college instruction to such far-flung outposts as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the Arab Emirates. There are a few reasons such offshoring may appear initially attractive. There are many more reasons it is a mistake, for all concerned: the institution, the educational matrix, and the student body.

Why "educational off-shoring" might seem so attractive

Though it is true that, because the baby-boom cohort and their offspring has now produced what is known in the industry as the "baby bust," meaning that colleges are feeling the pinch of slower enrollments and fewer applications, there are ethical dimensions that exceed those of purse-strings, erosion of teaching faculties and management of capital expenditures.

Cash infusions, Sovereign wealth funds, "Shariah-compliant" investments

If one looks at a side by side, for instance, of the sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) being invested in our banking institutions in this country, over the past years, with few exceptions other than the Dubai Ports deal that roused a royal furor two years ago, many of the premier institutions of the country, our primary engines of wealth generation and capital formation, have been compromised by massive "cash infusions" (as they are now soft-pedaled — euphemized — here, to soften the sting of what they betoken) to stanch losses from the unfortunate mortgage meltdown and the even more prominent credit crunch of the past 6 or 7 fiscal quarters.[1]

Analysts are worried that these mushrooming series of funds will be primed more by political than financial/economic considerations, and they may take control of companies critical for US national security.

Such unsubtle SWFs, valued now at $2 trillion-plus, recently fell under the public searchlight after pouring $20 billion into Merrill Lynch and Citigroup — with another $40 billion in sibling financial depots, including UK and Swiss banks. SWFs are projected to grow to $12 trillion within four years, or about a tenth of global assets. Such figures raise the stakes somewhat from the airily theoretical into the hardest-headed pragmatic.

What is wrong with starting up satellite colleges in foreign ports to take advantage of the few remaining excellences we still maintain in-country? Many of our former superiorities and resources have long since been exported or outsourced to the point where we have no part in their manufacture, production, distribution, sale or profit. And the population, in the Middle East, consists of some 60% youth, for whom 100 million jobs may have to be generated in the next 20 years. Not all can fall into the oil-management and live-easy rubric. [2]

College teaching around the globe: Personal experience

I have taught in colleges in Costa Rica, Colombia, Thailand and China (as well as currently in the United States), but these were local colleges that either recruited me while I was resident here for colleges there, or happily accepted my application when I was a newcomer to their shores. These were foreign colleges. Even in Thailand, where I taught in what was then known as the AUA [American University Alumni] program, the University of Maryland overseeing the curricula, in reality there were vast differences in the rigor of the coursework, the amount of subject matter covered, and the maturity and sophistication or otherwise of the students in the program. Those in these programs scaled back our expectations. That is going to change, presumably, with this new advent of wholesale export of faculty and modules and curricula to climes and cultures vastly different from ours.

Were we a culture that did not so fiercely hew to the politically correct notions that have rendered us all practically mute on dozens of fronts from college speech to "diversity" to the right to protest every trivial element of everyday life, there would not be such an ethical problem.

But the societies into which these colleges will be transplanted and grafted are far from our culture. They will without a scintilla of hesitation impose their strictures and cautions on our system. Faculties will be faced with overwhelming public pressure to conform to rules that are creatively disparate, religiously and sociologically variant, and gender-biased to a huge degree not encountered, even yet, here in the US.

Was my experience tainted by such considerations in the countries I lived in and taught college in? Because these were countries where religion was not very much a factor, and the overall ethos reflected to some greater measure those of the prevailing US culture's, no. I had a relatively mild mechanism needed to adjust. In fact, It was only in China, the Peoples Republic, where I was chided not to bring up just three concepts: Tibet, Taiwan and the religious group known as the Falun Gong. Otherwise, I had a radio program, and I taught throughout the country, with little opposition, so long as the government knew where I was.

The Middle East has shown a determination to alter our educational, sociological, gendered, racial and cultural practices that far exceed anything heretofore seen in "free" society. It is this ethical dimension I call attention to.

Endangered Scholars: Hidden but troubling part of the equation

A recent symposium held in the New School for Social Research that commemorated the 75th year of free inquiry and teaching following the Nazi juggernaut of WWII brings to mind another clear and inescapable worry. While our invited faculties may go to their satellite outlets with — we assume — something like immunity from molestation by host governments, in fact respected scholars are on the endangered list for the past many decades, chiefly from those nations where free speech and inquiry are not on the topmost echelon of state concerns. [3] The Global Challenge to Academic and Intellectual Freedom, Thursday, February 7, The New School Tishman Auditorium.

Recent examples of near-lethal differences

Two recent examples illustrate the potential for unforeseen calamity, where none would be forthcoming — in a Western setting: An ex-pat British teacher whose class innocently named their class mascot Mohammed was arrested and almost killed for "blasphemy," until the UK government officials and UN members interceded loudly and long. Calls for her to be beheaded and hanged were strenuous and — for the West watching with jaws dropped — unremitting, even though she loved teaching in Saudi Arabia, and her class of 5-year-olds had named the teddy bear, not she.

And the second, which happened in mid-February. A female manager of a financial company was found by the zealot police, the mutaween, in Riyadh, sitting having a coffee in a curtained "family" area of the local Starbucks when her company's electricity was temporarily shut off (as happens more than you might imagine). She was a longtime married woman, with three children, and a respected businessman husband. She wore an abaya and a hijab, as is usual for local women. She was dragged into the police station, strip searched, her clothing thrown into filthy muck, then forced to don her ruined clothing, verbally abused for hours, interrogated in a dank cell, and castigated as a filthy person who would be in Hell, called a whore, and so on. Her cell phone and passport were stripped from her, and it was only the persistence of her sensible husband that saved her from being permanently incarcerated for...having coffee with colleagues while her own company restored electricity.

Imagine all the prospective teachers and adjuncts and professors hailing from Nebraska and Baltimore and Boca having to remember never to sit near a man or woman to whom they are not related in any public site anywhere in the country.

My colleague, in Libya, a professor, was repeatedly told she had to march in rallies against the US, or she would not receive her salary. When she protested, and said that she, being Canadian, had nothing against the US, she was awarded two "watchers" for the rest of the term. Her mail was censored, and letters to me were clearly ripped open, blacked out for portions of their length, and then crudely scotch-taped together before mailing overseas. "Minders" are a fact of life under such regimes. They listen. They watch. They read. They spy.

In fact, following the core of several translated documents from the Arabic [4], there is an actual shortage in these countries of scholars — but these are not true intellectual scholars. These countries have stated that following the virtual explosion of 'shariah-compliant' deals underwritten or initiated by financiers and brokerages eager for the petro-billions pouring into Middle Eastern coffers weekly, there are insufficient scholars to go around. For these 'deals' depending on following the rubrics laid down by the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1930s and 40s, but now taken to be extracted from the holy book, each facet of every deal must be parsed and mulled by a koranic scholar. No scholar? No deal. These scholars get paid between a low of $20,000 to close to $100,000, depending on the riders and partners to a particular investment medium. These scholars are not compromised or molested in jail cells, of course, and are highly sought after: But again, they are far, far from our concept of meaningful intellectual inquiry, and their purposes are solely to watchdog that no "haram" (forbidden) elements of pork products, gambling or alcohol somehow manage to sneak in among the bonds, contracts and ETFs.

Going without a whisper of support are the other causes that will be nixed by such scholars — anything to do with plastic surgery, Israel, Christianity, Judaism, animal rights, the sex trades, entertainment that encompasses any of these elements.

Should we sacrifice our independence and prerogatives to hold our people equal, despite the emoluments and salaries waved in front of our cash-strapped institutions?

Do we have the courage to stand up to the manifold and variant strictures on our cherished freedoms that are indisputably a concomitant to the bounce from the continental USA to the Middle East — excluding Israel, where standards are identical to those in the US, if not actually a bit more rigorous? And as the Archbishop of Canterbury last week admitted, with reference to adopting shariah policies in the UK, getting into a huge PR flap that may yet lead to his stepping down from his august position, Some of the effects of following Middle East cultures may have deleterious effects on a vulnerable segment of our society — and the possible host countries: [Such teachings] could have the effect of reinforcing in minority communities some of the[ir] most repressive or retrograde elements [...], with particularly serious consequences for the role and liberties of women.

Should we not clamp this weakening of our educational lifeblood before we bleed out into official versions of second-class students (women), racist exclusions (anyone not of the prevailing Islamic faith) and apartheid of the sexually unvetted (Achmadinajad of Iran, in his talk at Columbia University last year, elicited the only open snorts of derision when he blandly lied that Iran "has no homosexuals." Of course they do: Until they are hanged. Or thrown out the window). As an iconic figure representing wholesale brutality, genocidal aims and population abuse, he merited applause: Only his 'PR flub' of lying about the Pre-Jurassic view Iran (and brethren shariah states) maintains about non-heterosexuals was enough to ruffle the feathers of the Columbia student body.

My point is not to stoke alarm. My goal is to seriously question the second-degree results from these seemingly "positive" steps of exporting one of our fortes. The ethical considerations far outweigh whatever benefits of a temporary and unsatisfactory sort might seem immediately evident.

Looking at the evidence, I believe the answer to whether we ought to outsource our educational 'brand' to those enormously different from our cultural matrix is a resounding, if regretful, No. We cannot afford this tempting offer. I believe firmly that such policies and outsourcing would weaken our country, lead us into endless demonic imbroglios that could end only in tragedy, and finally compromise the very qualities that make an American education such a reliably exceptional a product. Because these college outposts will be domiciled in possibly hostile turf, corporate and individual accountability will be tenuous and all-but-unenforceable. The favorite watchword of investment communities, "transparency," will be absent, as such a value cannot be expected in kingdoms, dictatorships or thinly upholstered what-might-be-called thugocracies.

Final thoughts: Troubling final considerations ~ Jettisoning the West is not an option

All the above entirely omits two other concerns that may render the transfer of our 'superior educational curricula' altogether moot.

One is the decades-long, documented tendency of many professors to be politically far left of center, which could prove a major obstacle to neutral teaching and learning abroad in an aura where the environment assertively discourages iconoclasm or heterodoxy. Might even such unbalanced teaching provide course content that is reflective of real life, and therefore relevant to practical life decision-making among these non-US student bodies? My experience in colleges afield supports the suspicion that if we assume our professors must act in a quasi-ambassadorial fashion, we might well be dismayed at the facts on the ground. Some people are not cut out to inculcate the American curricula in an asocial or unsupportive environment. Instead of enhancing our relative prestige and position overseas, such faculty occasion the reverse. They encourage anti-Western modes of thought; they abet anti-Americanism, when that is contrary to our best interests on both the short- and long terms. Especially with the currrent new US President, such anti-Americanism will tend further to debride our international standing — and safety.

An example from an Muslim-dominated country might be instructive: A colleague taught in Libya, where any pro-American teaching was decisively discouraged by plants, official surveillance people, in each class; teachers were reprimanded for infractions by withheld salaries and curtailed liberties. But Libya does not poretend to even-handedness, and teaching in such a constrained society offers no guarantees except higher-than-average salaries. If one manages to get through the contract without being sent packing for 'political transgression' or some such charge.

The US 'descends' in local esteem, encouraging erosion of our standing worldwide, enhancing the likelihood of attacks against us, because we are perceived as weak, inferior, whom even our own citizens easily derogate. My experience overseas supports skepticism as to the benign effects of disaffected American teachers with a negative agenda. Of all our vaunted shortages, are we interested in providing a fire sale of people with a taught disrespect for the ideals and values of this intoxicatingly great experiment in democracy?

And a second troubling possibility that — as per a recent study by the National Civic Literacy Board of 14,000 college freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges throughout the United States — in 16 of 50 top schools, seniors knew less American history, politics and economics than incoming freshmen; that seniors failed exams on these topics with average scores of 53%; and that even those graduating from schools top-ranked in US News & World Report (2007, last ranking) knew less than those tested from less highly ranked and respected schools.

Ought we send avatars from such poorly performing schools to seed the rest of the educable world? Does our performance even warrant export?

The Trojan Horse, too, appeared shiny and winsome as it perched in the Troy reception atrium, a veritable art treasure worthy of the most discerning curatorial portfolio.

At least until the city's population went to bed.


[1]  "Congressional Committee Warns of SWF Risks," February 8, 2008, Memri Economic Blog

[2] Saudi-US Relations Information Service, February 2008.

[3]  The Global Challenge to Academic and Intellectual Freedom, Thursday, February 7, The New School Tishman Auditorium.

[4]  From al-Qabas, Kuwait, January 24, 2008. Original article first appeared in Arabic and excerpts from the article were translated by the staff of

Marion DS Dreyfus, an Adjunct Professor at several colleges in the NYC region, is a journalist, media consultant, writer and editor with special interest in the Middle East, politics, education, social trends, medicine/healthcare and the stock market.


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