news from Arabia

Last week I visited United Arab Emirates University to address its convocation of the new academic year. Candidly, I find just typing that pretty exciting. There are those of my breed – that is, higher ed geeks who travel around and make speeches – who are more jaded. (“Do you fly on points?” “No, PowerPoints.”) But for me this was a flippin’ thrill.

I’d never before been anywhere on the Arabian Peninsula. So there I am listening to my hosts, trying to focus on their questions of student engagement in the CSU, and all I can think is how I might sneak a selfie with a camel. Before the trip I’d fantasized about white robes, otherworldliness. Sitting on floor cushions and eating with my fingertips. But I also know it’s a McDonald’s and Ikea world out there, and braced myself for a letdown.

But so help me it’s still there, the calls to prayer, the crowding and wealth, the extreme hospitality, the omnipresent dates, and yes, even the flowing white robes and headgear. In fact, the traditional dress is such a given that it’s drawn onto the silhouettes of crosswalk signs.

Some of the old world touches can rankle. The country’s class system is explicit; that white and checkered headgear is the dress only of the nationals, called “Emirati.” Although they hold a growing number of executive positions, much of the day-to-day work of the university, and for that matter of the country, seems performed by expatriate workers brought in. Emirati don’t need to cook or clean, or in many cases even drive. I can’t be too judgmental here – you will hear very little English among the dishwashers and farmworkers of California – but the strata are starker here.

And then there are gender relations, which I’m not sure what to make of. Those top Emirati exec positions are largely male, but here, too, people who sit on glass ceilings shouldn’t throw stones. Although there are women in the CSU who outrank me, it’s telling that caption goes here... everyone who reports to me is female, and those I report to are male. No exceptions on either side of me.  Similarly, in the UAE five cabinet positions out of 25 are held by women.  It’s a hard thing to measure precisely, but female authority seems about equally attenuated on both sides.

The classrooms and labs segregate students by gender, something we don’t do. But I left wondering if we should try it: UAEU is trying to get more males into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, to balance all the successful women engineers and scientists it produces. That’s right; the country is running a surfeit of females in STEM. Faced with the opposite problem in the CSU, I was agog. I asked if all those female STEM grads were getting jobs. “Oh, yes. The country is culturally conservative, but the women do work. Many are engineers.”

I asked what the men majored in instead. In fact many of the high-performing high school graduates pursue college overseas.  Many others don’t pursue education at all; the country is ahead of us in the loss of men in college. At the CSU the male portion is 40% and falling; at UAEU it’s already down to 25%.

Maybe when we get down to 25%, we’ll also find that our STEM gender gap has reversed. I’d like to close it by other means.

The university’s academic and administrative structures feel oddly American, the upshot of decades of consulting with westerners like myself. Instruction is in English, the curriculum and selection of majors familiar; they even have our quirkiest contribution to higher ed, General Education. They’re up for accreditation by WASC, the same U.S. regional that does the CSUs. There’s a meal card, a student affairs division, dorms, and a registrar’s office. Many of the bad habits came in too – lectures, content emphasis, disciplinary silos. All this eleven time zones away. It’s disorienting.

Maybe I’m biased by the way I parachuted in, but I have to believe globalization fuels this university. The UAE has a near monopoly on safety in a part of the world where jet planes can just about make it on a tank of gas. If you’re going to have a layover somewhere, it’s likely to be here, the O’Hare or DFW for the world. (See a recent Wall Street Journal op ed from the ambassador, on keeping your cool in a tough neighborhood.)

Sheikh-Zayed-Mosque-in-Middle-East-United-Arab-Emirates-with-reflection-on-water_-Abu-Dhabi_2Before we left the LAX runway, a PA announcement catalogued the languages of our Etihad Airlines flight crew: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, and two others I didn’t catch. I’m not kidding. Think of those currents of culture, creativity, and ideas, swirling together in the mega cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and lapping up to the universities in between. Think of living in that. Making it your base for study.

Seeing such a confluence rise out of the desert, built on oil and an ideal location, it’s hard not to think of earlier trade hubs striking it rich – 13th century Venice, or 19th century London. Or the Silk Road. After all, the world’s clearinghouse of knowledge was once its Arabic trade routes, along which the eastern world curated Roman and Hellenistic thought for centuries, while a few countries to the west we were still cleaving each other with broadswords and meat axes, the lights out for a while to come.

Fast forward a millennium to visit a staggeringly cosmopolitan, polyglot hub of learning, built on a commodity and occupying another crossroads, and it kind of makes sense. The next step, once they’ve won their accreditation and can relax a little, will be to think critically about which parts of the U.S. approach they can drop. They’re diversifying away from oil as fast as they can; there are probably some higher ed organizational habits that should go the same way.

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