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Qataris say Texas A&M pact for Doha branch should remain secret

Two major public universities, one from Virginia and the other from Texas, operate branches at a complex in Qatar, called Education City, with support from an organization created by that country’s royal family.

Virginia Commonwealth University’s contract with the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development has been disclosed as a matter of public record.

But Texas A&M’s deal with the foundation remains shrouded in secrecy, and the Qataris are petitioning Texas authorities to keep it that way.

“Although the existence of ‘Education City’ is not confidential, [the foundation] takes great care to ensure that the operational and financial details of these agreements are maintained in strict confidence,” attorneys for the foundation wrote last month to the Texas attorney general. To release the Texas A&M contract document “would cause substantial competitive harm” to the foundation, the attorneys wrote.

Education City, which includes branches of six prominent U.S. universities, represents a significant effort to import Western higher education to a Middle Eastern capital using billions of dollars in wealth amassed from natural gas and oil exports.

The other four U.S. schools involved are private: Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern and Georgetown universities. They all declined Post requests for their Qatar contracts.

VCU officials provided The Post with a copy of their contract because it is a public record in Virginia. The 10-year deal to provide education specializing in design and fine arts took effect in July 2012.

Two exhibits attached to the VCU contract show its estimated budget – about $45 million in the current fiscal year – and the courses that are offered at the Qatar branch:

The Post asked Texas A&M on Nov. 16 for a copy of its agreement with the foundation, pursuant to the state’s public records law. The university referred the question two weeks later to the Texas attorney general, and notified the foundation that it could object to disclosure.

Texas A&M has provided The Post with some information about its branch, which opened in 2003. There were 508 students enrolled in fall 2015, and there were 81 faculty members. The branch has awarded 635 degrees since it was founded, including 105 in 2015. Its programs include bachelor’s degrees in engineering (chemical, mechanical, petroleum and electrical/computer), as well as master’s degrees in chemical engineering. The Post also interviewed several students and faculty members at Texas A&M in Qatar.

But key questions remain: How much each year does Texas A&M receive from the foundation to operate the branch in Qatar, and on what terms? What specific written guarantees does Texas A&M have that its Doha branch will be given academic freedom and autonomy in a country ruled by an absolute monarchy that maintains tight control over public speech? How is Qatar shaping the branch’s research agenda?

Nor was there any information available about Texas A&M’s revenue from the foundation on a federal website that tracks foreign donations and contract revenue to universities. The federal government generally requires such information to be reported.

Shane Hinckley, Texas A&M’s interim vice president for marketing and communications, said in a statement Tuesday:

“Our contractual sponsor, the Qatar Foundation, has asked for a ruling by the state Attorney General’s office. We are required by law and our contract to give our sponsor that opportunity and now that the request is in the AG’s office we are required to wait and then abide by the AG’s decision. We will, of course, do what the AG requires but we did not take a position concerning the ruling or necessarily seek the nondisclosure.

The foundation’s communication director, Mayan Zebeib, said in an emailed statement to The Post:

“Qatar Foundation (QF) welcomes any public interest in QF’s efforts to bring higher education opportunities to students in the Middle East and in order to do so, retains a diverse panel of legal support that acts on behalf of QF to ensure compliance with QF’s partnership agreements as well as the relevant laws and regulations pertaining to our partner universities.

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