Texas university gets $76 million each year to operate in Qatar, contract says

The total annual bill for six prominent U.S. universities to run branches in the wealthy Arabian emirate of Qatar comes to more than $400 million.

That sum includes more than $76.2 million a year to operate Texas A&M University at Qatar – a previously undisclosed figure that The Washington Post recently obtained through a public records request in Texas.

The university provided The Post with a copy of its contract to operate in Doha, Qatar, as well as budget estimates and other documents, after the state attorney general’s office ruled that the documents are public records and must be released. A Qatari foundation had petitioned Texas authorities to keep the documents secret.

Texas A&M’s branch is part of Education City, a massive venture to import elite higher education from the United States to Doha using the oil and natural gas riches of the tiny Persian Gulf nation. Others in Doha are Cornell, Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern and Virginia Commonwealth universities.

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Education City is something of a gamble for the U.S. schools. Leaders of the universities say they pay nothing to operate in Doha because their expenses are covered by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development.

But the schools also must safeguard their reputation. They are prominent representatives of the Western liberal academic tradition operating in a country with tight controls on political expression and other public speech. Qatar, predominantly Muslim and culturally conservative, takes Islamic law seriously and is careful to protect the royal family’s power. Anti-sedition laws make it a crime to publicly insult the emir.

Many details of Education City’s operations are opaque. The foundation – chaired by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, wife of the previous emir and mother of the incumbent – discloses few financial details. Four of the six U.S. universities involved are private, and they all declined Post requests to view copies of their contracts.

But The Post pieced together a picture of the financial operation through U.S. tax records, U.S. Education Department data and public records in Virginia and Texas.

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Here are estimated total annual expenses in 2014:

Weill Cornell Medical College – $121.7 million

Texas A&M – $76.2 million

Carnegie Mellon – $60.3 million

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Georgetown – $59.5 million

Northwestern – $45.3 million

VCU – $41.8 million

The total: $404.8 million.

But those are just operating expenses for the six university branches. There likely are other capital and operating expenses for Education City as a whole. The figures suggest that the foundation has spent several billion dollars to develop and operate the complex during the past 15 years. The first of the six branches to open in Doha was VCU’s in 1998, but the venture accelerated after Cornell agreed in 2001 to launch a medical school there.

Each branch focuses on a specialty. VCU does fine arts; Georgetown, foreign service; Northwestern, communication and journalism; and Carnegie Mellon, business and computer science.

Texas A&M’s specialty in Qatar is engineering. Since 2003, the Doha branch has awarded 635 diplomas. This school year it has 508 students and 81 faculty members. The branch offers bachelor’s degrees in engineering (chemical, mechanical, petroleum and electrical/computer), as well as a master’s degree in chemical engineering.

When The Post asked VCU last fall for a copy of its contract with the Qatar Foundation, the public university in Richmond provided one. But Texas A&M at first declined to do so, instead referring the request to the Texas attorney general’s office. Attorneys for the Qatar Foundation told the attorney general’s office that release of the records “would cause substantial competitive harm.”

An assistant attorney general, David L. Wheelus, concluded in a letter to Texas A&M on Feb. 11 that the records must be disclosed. “We note this office considers the prices charged in government contracts to be a matter of strong public interest,” Wheelus wrote.

The latest Texas A&M contract, dated Jan. 13, 2014, expires in June 2023. In many aspects it resembles VCU’s contract.

Key provisions stipulate that Texas A&M shall operate in Doha with “the same standards of quality for faculty, staff, students and curricula that apply on the main campus” and that the branch will follow “the educational, employment, academic freedom, nondiscrimination and quality standards observed at the main campus.”

Other provisions:

– Degrees awarded in Doha are to be “identical in all material respects” to those awarded in College Station, Texas.

– Texas A&M agreed to set a goal that 70 percent of its undergraduates in Doha would be Qatari citizens.

– Courses are to be coeducational and delivered in English.

– The campus dean reports directly to top officials of Texas A&M in College Station.

– Faculty and key administrators are eligible for a salary premium of up to 30 percent of their base pay.

– The Qatar Foundation retains approval authority over budgets and business plans.

– Texas A&M is eligible for a management fee for running the branch – an amount set at $8.2 million in fiscal 2014.

– Students pay tuition to the Qatar Foundation, and the foundation reimburses the university for expenses.