Removing U.S. Campuses from Qatar

Texas A&M did well to terminate its partnership with the Arab state. Now say why.

Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, Virginia Commonwealth, Cornell, Northwestern, and Texas A&M established campuses in Doha’s Education City in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The campuses and personnel were paid for through the state-led Qatar Foundation. The Foundation directs curriculum goals and faculty hiring for these universities.

The number of universities in Qatar is shrinking with Texas A&M’s decision in February to close its campus by 2028. There has been concern about the American presence in Qatar for years. Qatar’s government funds Hamas. American universities “find themselves vulnerable to foreign exploitation” and indirectly supporting terrorism when the funders of terrorism fund them, as a spokesman for Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) worried in 2015.

Universities might tolerate terror-supporting groups on their own campuses if they build inappropriate foreign partnerships.Universities might also tolerate or apologize for terror-supporting groups on their U.S. campuses if they build such partnerships. The Qatar Foundation acts like Chinese Confucius Institutes, funneling money to American universities to win approval for its ideological commitments and to exploit U.S. expertise. The Foundation pays American professors, funds research, trains K-12 teachers, and organizes pro-Hamas events on campus without registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. A toxic mix of Qatari money and America’s homegrown DEI industry have long roiled campuses.

A&M’s programs, specifically, were also arguably helping the hands that feed Hamas. Unlike the other universities, A&M’s focus concerns engineering, with programs in chemical, electrical, computer, mechanical, and, significantly, petroleum engineering. (By contrast, Georgetown has a foreign-service presence and Cornell a medical school.)

These fundamental tensions came to a head after Hamas’s October 2023 attack on Israel. After the attack, the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy released a hit piece about the relationship between A&M and Qatar. The Qatar Foundation, it showed, supplied more than a billion dollars in funding to A&M. Furthermore, the report alleged, A&M has lax regulations on intellectual property ownership, shares research sensitive to national security with the Qataris, and allows Qatar’s government access to sensitive student data.

Some of the Institute’s claims were transparently absurd. The fact that Texas A&M-Qatar taught classes on Monte Carlo simulation was taken as indicative of some danger of nuclear technology transfer. Such simulations are used in many fields, including in nuclear engineering. Nevertheless, the report raises important questions about the extent to which secular universities can be influenced by their fundamentalist state partners.

A less tendentious article, entitled “How Texas A&M’s Deal with Qatar ‘Puts American Security at Risk,’” came out on January 3, 2024, in The Free Press. The article presents innuendo about technology transfers and intellectual property based on a strict examination of the contract between A&M and the Qatar Foundation. It also asks how A&M can continue to do business with a “frenemy state.”

A&M’s president, Mark Welsh, pointedly denied all of these charges in a January 7 press release. “The insinuation,” Pres. Welsh wrote, “that we are somehow leaking or compromising national security research data to anyone is both false and irresponsible.” The links between Qatar and A&M, Welsh claimed, are not only harmless (concerning energy companies), but they comport with American law. Intellectual property is protected, as is student privacy.

The A&M Board of Regents did not give what seems to be the real reason for closing its Qatar campus.Yet a month after this press release, the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents voted to close its Qatar campus by 2028, ostensibly because of “heightened instability in the Middle East” and the need to refocus efforts on what is good for Texas and the United States. Neither of these reasons passes the sniff test. The Board had caved to what Pres. Welsh called “false and irresponsible” charges against A&M.

The Qatar Foundation was “deeply disappointed” that, in its view, A&M had “fallen victim” to a disinformation campaign, a disappointment shared by the U.S. ambassador to Qatar. It is easy to sympathize with this view, since the A&M Board of Regents did not give what seems to be the real reason for closing its Qatar campus. Issues like intellectual property should not obscure the profound problem of Qatari and foreign infiltration of American higher education, nor the issue of indirect American support to regimes that promote terrorism.

Universities have dual purposes. They seek the advancement of knowledge for the relief of man’s estate through research capabilities. Medical research betters the plight of humanity, as does better petroleum engineering. On the other hand, colleges seek to promote the interests of the countries that fund them. Things like the Manhattan Project are designed to promote the interests of the United States, not “humanity” in general. This tension leads to borrowing and cross-fertilization, but it also illuminates the limits of such borrowing.

A&M’s Qatari connection was borne of 1990s-era fantasies about opening up the rest of the world through increased commerce, information flows, and global prosperity. It was an extreme expression of the “plight-of-humanity” justification for such partnerships. But it eventually became evident that the Qatari regime supports Hamas—and that its ethos could corrupt our institutions. The 1990s hopes have given way to doubts that partnerships with Hamas will lead to peace. American universities have moved in the direction of Chinese authoritarianism and Qatari-style anti-Israeli stances much more than American universities have changed those areas of the world. Foreign agents are using our supposedly open university system to put their thumbs on the scale of American priorities.

A&M’s Board reacted to public pressure by giving a transparently false reason for pulling out of Qatar. Its unwillingness to be forthright should not prevent the necessary re-evaluation of the role American universities play in broader regime-level policy. This is the time to question issues surrounding foreign funding, foreign students, and foreign influence—and to continue a re-evaluation of the broad 1990s consensus.

Scott Yenor is senior director of state coalitions at the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life and a professor of political science at Boise State University.