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College's Saudi plan stirs anger

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo's engineering program ignores the country's treatment of women, critics say.

February 26, 2008|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

If Cal Poly San Luis Obispo had wanted to start an engineering program for a university in someplace like Norway, the proposal probably would have sailed through without much comment either on campus or off.

But the school's plan to start an engineering department in Saudi Arabia is a different story.

Some staffers and students contend that the university -- which prides itself on the number of female engineers it graduates -- should steer clear of a kingdom where women's rights are restricted and a fledgling engineering program would be open only to men.

Other U.S. schools confront similar issues when it comes to establishing partnerships in the oil-rich kingdom.

"The hardest problem is who controls the curriculum," said John Burgess, a former Foreign Service officer in Saudi Arabia, adding that Saudi education officials have insisted on an approach that many U.S. academics and even some Saudis believe is too heavy on religion and too light on technology and global trade.

"I've heard Saudis complain that when their tooth hurts, they want to see a dentist -- not a Muslim dentist," said Burgess, a blogger who focuses on Saudi Arabia.

In San Luis Obispo, the development of a program 8,000 miles away at Jubail University College hasn't exactly galvanized the placid campus. But it has created a buzz, with a columnist in the Mustang Daily student newspaper saying that it would "jeopardize the honesty and integrity of our institution in the name of money." Last fall, the mechanical engineering faculty protested it in a 15-3 vote.

Over five years, Cal Poly would receive $5.9 million from the Saudi government to create an engineering curriculum, build labs and train teachers in Jubail, a sprawling oil center on the Persian Gulf. Only men would qualify to take or teach engineering classes, although the campus has separate classes in other disciplines for women.

"No matter how you cut it, we're supporting the oppression of women," said Jim LoCascio, a professor of mechanical engineering at Cal Poly since 1981.

"A woman in Saudi Arabia got 200 lashes for being gang-raped," he said, indignant that his school would consider a venture there. "What is this administration talking about?"

Sentenced for "un-Islamic behavior," the woman was pardoned last year by King Abdullah after international outrage over the planned flogging. Still, Saudi women require a man's permission to seek medical care, cannot drive or vote, and must be veiled in public.

That disturbs Kate Van Dellen, president of Cal Poly's 300-member Society of Women Engineers.

"It seems odd that a college with such a great history of women in engineering would partner with a school to start something detracting from that view," said Van Dellen, a senior majoring in aerospace engineering. "We'd be much more supportive if part of the mission was to create an open atmosphere where women could learn."

The yet-to-be finalized agreement between Cal Poly and Jubail University College is part of a massive push by the Saudi government. Since 2004, the Ministry of Higher Education has planned or opened more than 100 colleges and universities -- many of them relying on the technical expertise and administrative experience of U.S. schools that sign big contracts to assist.

"I understood that this would raise questions among my faculty, but I saw the benefits too," said Gregg Fiegel, chairman of Cal Poly's civil and environmental engineering department, who was a prime mover behind the proposal. "It can be very rewarding to build a program from the bottom up."

He isn't the first academic to grapple with campus skepticism about doing business with repressive regimes.

At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, a faculty member asked computer sciences chairman Peter Lee about the school's proposed involvement with Saudi Arabia's planned King Abdullah University of Science and Technology: "Why should we want to take money from a regime as repugnant as the Saudis'?"

Others were equally blunt, even though the university -- a graduate-level research institution with a $10-billion endowment from the king -- is widely seen as a progressive experiment and would be the first in Saudi Arabia to have fully coeducational classes.

"It's highly unlikely that the place could be really world-class and have restrictions on women," said Lee, who sees the project as an "agent of change" in the Gulf region.

Drawn by the region's wealth, many Western schools have set up programs in the Middle East.

"A gold rush is a good analogy," said Philip Altbach, director of the Boston-based Center for International Higher Education. "A number of U.S. colleges have helped Saudi institutions with gusto and profit."

Cal Poly officials said their venture would not yield a profit.

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