The Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University opened its first overseas office this month, in Tunisia, in what has been hailed by the university’s president as an opportunity to “bring the world to Harvard and Harvard to the world”. Among local higher education experts canvassed by University World News, hopes for the initiative seem equally high.
Based in the Tunisian capital of Tunis, the centre’s office aims to establish an intellectual hub for scholars of and from Tunisia, the Maghreb, the Mediterranean and the wider Middle East region. It is intended to provide students and scholars with a “bridge” to renowned Tunisian archival facilities and serve as an incubator for analysis of the evolving social, cultural, legal and political movements in the region, according to the official Center for Middle Eastern Studies or CMES press report.
"We are always seeking opportunities to make the university more intentionally global, and the field office in Tunisia will bring the world to Harvard and Harvard to the world in exciting new ways that will shape important work across fields and disciplines," Harvard University President Drew Faust was quoted as saying.
Harvard is known for its relatively cautious approach to overseas expansion. While the Ivy League American university has deliberately not followed the trend of establishing undergraduate campuses abroad, it maintains a global presence through a number of overseas offices which serve as outposts for university programming, teaching and research efforts, according to a 2015 article in student newspaper The Harvard Crimson.
The office and year-round programmes run from the new office in Tunisia have been made possible by the support of Harvard alumnus and Tunisian financier Hazem Ben-Gacem, who is also responsible for mobilising funds for major projects included in the next five-year Tunisian plan entitled Tunisia 2020: Road to inclusion, sustainability and efficiency.
This plan includes the establishment of an US$85 million German university that will be operational by 2021 and will be the first of its kind in the Arab Maghreb region.
“From the beginning, the hope has been to establish an outpost where Harvard faculty and students would come to discover Tunisia – its history, language, culture, art and people – and integrate this experience into their scholarship and education,” said Ben-Gacem. “I’m very excited by this first step towards a substantial Harvard presence in Tunisia.”
The establishment of the CMES Tunisia office is in line with a statement from a 2012 article published in the Journal of Studies in International Education entitled “US Students Study Abroad in the Middle East/North Africa: Factors influencing growing numbers". The authors state: “The political events of the last decade and the Arab Spring have made it more important than ever for Americans to understand the language, culture and history of the Middle East/North Africa region."
Programmes available at the Tunis location for students and faculty from across the university include Harvard Tunisia Scholarships for Harvard graduate and undergraduate research, funding for Harvard faculty sabbatical research, an Arabic language summer programme for Harvard graduate and undergraduate students, and a three-week winter session for Harvard students, according to the Harvard statement.
The office will also offer university scholarships to Tunisian students to attend Harvard University and its CMES to carry out research on Middle East languages, politics, cultures and histories.
Response to the opening of the Harvard office from local experts canvassed was generally positive.
"CMES's Tunisia office will help Tunisian students in local universities to get to know their US peers and gain a better understanding of American culture as well as promoting the internationalisation of higher education and creating global citizens," Hassan Moawad Abdel Al, a higher education, science and technology consultant and former president of the City of Scientific Research and Technology Applications in Egypt, told University World News.
According to Juma Shabani, former director of development, coordination and monitoring of UNESCO programmes with a special focus on Africa, the initiative would help to strengthen research capacity not only in Tunisia but also in Africa in the centre’s areas of expertise.
"It will also contribute to promoting academic mobility and scientific partnerships between Harvard University and institutions participating in the initiative and to improving the quality of supervision of PhD students," said Shabani.
"The initiative is important for Africa since it might encourage other prestigious universities at global level to engage in similar partnerships with African higher education and research institutions in various areas of scholarship."
Shabani said it was anticipated that the partnership would be effective since it “builds on good practices used by Harvard University in its cooperation models with other institutions at a global level”.
Higher education expert Anouar Majid, vice-president for global affairs at the University of New England in the United States, said the establishment of the CMES office in Tunisia was "great news".
Praising the introduction of an “American academic approach” in a largely “Francophone environment”, Majid said: "Both Harvard and Tunisian scholars stand to benefit from this academic venture, especially as Harvard will be introducing an American academic approach to a mostly Francophone environment."
"The states of the Arab Maghreb Union in North Africa like Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania crave the American model of education and have long sought to break with the heavy French legacy that shapes their research, so this is a small step in the right direction," he told University World News.
"I am sure more such initiatives will see the light of day in the near future," he said.
Maine’s University of New England or UNE officially inaugurated its UNE facility in Tangier, Morocco in 2014.
"Morocco is home to the American University of New England’s study-abroad campus in Tangier, which is connecting American students and the Moroccan community around significant cultural and social projects," Majid told University World News.
Asked specifically about the potential benefits of the office for the region, Abdelkader Djeflat, higher education expert at the University of Lille, France, said if the Tunisian office remained an “enclave” used exclusively for the benefit of Harvard students, its national and regional impact would be less significant.
"Based on the stated mission of Tunisia's CMES office, it does not seem that it will have direct benefits to the Maghreb countries as it is not clear how this office will relate to other training and research institutions in the various faculties of art, literature and sociology in Tunisian universities."
"The type of interactions and links Tunisia's CMES office will manage to build in the future will determine to what extent it will have a direct impact on higher education development in Maghreb countries," he said.
However, as a possible model for other global universities seeking to establish a presence in Africa, Djeflat said: "It is clear that a university field office has much going for it in terms of benefits to the faculty and students of international universities."
In addition to access to first-hand information and data, the campus could provide first-hand experience of and exposure to the host economies, society and politics which would contribute to higher quality research by the international university, he said.
"It could challenge many of the clichés and deformed pictures of the reality which Western scholars working from a distance have."
"Nonetheless, if they are disconnected from national research policy and research institutions, it will be unsustainable and may face resistance or even rejection by the host academic community."
"On the other hand, it rests upon a reciprocal effect; in other words, to what extent opportunities are given to local students and researchers to join the facilities of the international university back home," Djeflat said.
Djeflat said it was unlikely that many international universities would be tempted to follow suit owing to the costs involved. “Bear in mind that Tunisia's CMES office is supported by a Harvard alumnus," he said.
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