Texas A&M University is close to creating a branch campus in Israel, sources close to the situation tell The Eagle.
High-ranking A&M System and university administrators recently have made trips to the country to negotiate the partnership, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity. They said the initiative has not been finalized but that an announcement is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 23. They say A&M System Chancellor John Sharp, who has been steering the effort, has a serious interest in a second physical presence for A&M in the Middle East.
It's unclear if the potential branch campus would offer a range of A&M degrees, or focus on a specific discipline. It is also unclear how the initiative would be funded.
The sources said Sharp, A&M Provost Karan Watson and Rabbi Peter Tarlow, former executive director of the A&M Hillel and a tourism expert, have traveled to Israel to work on the initiative. It's unclear how much A&M or the A&M System have spent on the venture thus far. The Eagle has filed an open records request to obtain travel records, expense reports, itinerary and schedules of the visitors. So far, the requests made to A&M will cost the newspaper $300 for officials to compile.
A system spokesman declined to comment for the story, as did Sharp. A spokesperson for The Council for Higher Education in Israel did not return a request for comment.
Sharp on Wednesday spoke at a fundraiser hosted by the Jewish National Fund in Austin, where it was reported by the American-Statesman that his flagship university is working on a collaboration with Israel, and that he expected to make a major announcement in about two weeks. Sharp said the announcement will involve Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. No mention of a branch campus was made in the article.
Julie Malin, regional director for the Jewish National Fund, said that Sharp visited the group of 160 to raise money, but declined further comment.
The announcement teased by Sharp syncs up with a Middle East trip expected to be made by one of the more well-known Aggies in politics -- Gov. Rick Perry. Later this month, Perry will travel to Israel, according to his spokesman Josh Havens. Perry broke the news of his Israel trip in July to The Washington Times. He told the paper, "We will be going to Israel to bring together Arabs, Christian and Jews in an educational forum."
Havens on Wednesday declined to comment on the nature of Perry's trip.
Texas A&M's first Mid-East campus
An Israeli campus would be more than 7,000 miles from College Station, but just over 1,000 miles from Texas A&M University at Qatar. The Qatar campus was founded in 2003 as part of "Education City" and is subsidized by the government-funded Qatar Foundation. The campus offers four degrees in engineering and educates 550 students from primarily Middle Eastern countries. The engineering students are required to take the same core classes as their Texan counterparts, and the majority of the faculty members at A&M Qatar are transplants from College Station.
Texas A&M's only other branch campus is located in Galveston and specializes in marine and maritime studies in science, engineering and business. Comparatively, the University of Texas has no branch campuses.
An A&M campus in Israel would buck several higher education trends.
Only about a dozen international branch campus are opened per year worldwide, said Jason Lane, director of educational studies at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy think-tank of the State University of New York.
The growth of international branch campuses is down after an explosion in the early 2000s, and most of the new campuses are located in Southeast Asia, as opposed to the Middle East. There are only about 200 international branch campuses in the world, he said on Tuesday, and only about 90 of those are from American universities.
He said it's rare for a university to operate branch campuses in more than one country.
"A lot of universities realize how difficult it is to manage these things," said Lane, an associate professor who also co-directs the Cross-Border Education Research Team at the University of Albany. "It's evolving the university into a multinational corporation. I refer to them as multinational universities now, because you're managing across geopolitical lines. There are a lot of similarities here in terms of governance, financing, administration and regulatory issues that multinational corporations deal with. I think that's why, once you open one, you realize how difficult it actually is, and they tend to be more hesitant to expanding."
Lane said there are three main reasons why universities expand overseas -- reputation, perceived financial gain and educational value. He said universities finance branch campuses in a variety of ways, but that most of the self-supporting campuses do not make money. Potential pitfalls for the campuses, he said, include regulatory changes in the host country, lack of support from home campus and a disconnect from students culturally, by learning styles or a language barrier.
Most universities hope the branch campuses are revenue generators, but, Lane said, that often isn't the case outside of highly subsidized models.
"I think most universities enter this space thinking these are going to be self-sustaining entities and that they don't want capital or other financial resources from the home campus flowing to the branch; in fact, they want the opposite," Lane said. "I think the reality for most universities is if they are having to drain off the main campus, they are more likely to close the branch campus than sustain it."
Goal for the campus
If Texas A&M were to offer degrees in another foreign country, it would likely need minimal approval from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said spokesman Dominic Chavez. Chavez said only new programs that utilize Texas students or tax dollars need in-depth board review. He said if A&M were to offer its College Station programs abroad to Texas students, the board would have a procedural review to ensure the educational quality is the same as that offered at the home campus. Due to Texas legislation passed earlier this year, the board would not need to approve any construction financing, Chavez said.
Christopher Morphew, an educational policy professor at the University of Iowa, said an increased international presence could be a way for A&M to raise its worldwide prestige.
"I think A&M probably doesn't like where it sits internationally," Morphew said on Wednesday. "I think some of that may be a function of the fact its in-state competitor does better on these international rankings and this is a way to boost its stature ... But there's not been a ton of work that demonstrates to me that a significant financial investment in something like a branch campus is going to pay-off in international stature and rankings. I haven't read anything that demonstrates that."
Michael McLendon, professor of higher education policy at Southern Methodist University, said on Tuesday that overseas expansions typically result in three main concerns for faculty members. He said sometimes professors will have moral or philosophical qualms about human rights in the host country, concerns about financial or other resources being diverted abroad and that they typically want the university to involve faculty in the decision-making process.
Texas A&M Faculty Senate Speaker Walter Daugherity said Wednesday that no official input was requested from the faculty senate regarding Israel.
Israel is a politically sensitive topic, especially in academia.
Academics internationally have boycotted Israel and continue to do so in the hopes of forcing a change in Israel's policies toward Palestine, which critics argue are oppressive. In May, physicist Stephen Hawking joined a growing list of public figures when he boycotted a conference in Israel. The U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel advocates professors refrain from any academic cooperation or joint projects with Israeli institutions.
The U.S. Department of State issued a travel warning for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza in December and modified the warning in June. The warning breaks down concerns across the different regions in Israel and labels the country's security environment as complex.
But if there is a university that could garner the support needed to weather international concerns, it would be Texas A&M, experts said.
"The reality is A&M is different from many other public and private universities in this country, in terms of it's a very conservative place," Morphew said. "Its board is now dominated by Rick Perry appointees, and I don't know exactly what his ideas are on Israel, but I seem to remember him having some real strong words of support for Israel in his last attempt at a presidential nomination. If you were to say to me which public research university in the country is in the best position to set up shop in Israel and to not get a huge backlash from its governing structure or its community, A&M would be near the top of that list."