A controversial plan will reshape Texas A&M’s Qatar campus

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Major changes announced at Texas A&M University’s Qatar branch campus will fundamentally reshape the role of liberal arts faculty, kicking professors off renewable rolling contracts in favor of fixed term deals and consolidating power under one dean.

Critics argue that the plan–first floated in November–undermines academic freedom and will result in an exodus of talented employees. Some believe the main campus in College Station, Texas, is imposing unwanted and unneeded changes by fiat, and worry about the professional consequences they and their colleagues may face as a result. University leaders are casting the move as a more efficient use of resources, and a way to establish cross-campus consistency, which will help Texas A&M hit key performance indicators set in their contract with the state-led, nonprofit Qatar Foundation, which partners with Texas A&M on the program.

Texas A&M administrators declined to share the details of its contract with the Qatar Foundation, including key performance indicators. The administrators are fighting an Inside Higher Ed public records request made under the Freedom of Information Act, appealing to the Texas attorney general to keep the contract secret because it contains proprietary information.

The Plan

The reorganization plan at Texas A&M Qatar largely resembles the proposal advanced last fall.

Texas A&M President Katherine Banks wrote in a July 14 memo announcing the changes that the focus of the Qatar campus is to provide engineering degrees at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. As such, “non-degree granting units”–such as the liberal arts–“will focus on instructional activities exclusively” in a newly established Division of Arts and Sciences. That move will become official September 1, the memo notes.

In essence, that means liberal arts faculty must cease research activities.

The second change outlined in the memo will shift faculty from rolling contracts to fixed-term appointments. Banks noted that the Texas A&M main campus does not use rolling contracts and this move will “establish a uniform approach” ending a “problematic” inconsistency. While all faculty will be affected by this change, liberal arts professors will likely face more uncertainty given the short-term nature of renewable appointments compared to their peers in degree-granting units.

“The Dean of [Texas A&M Qatar] will offer fixed-term appointments to faculty in degree-granting programs for up to a maximum of five years,” Banks wrote in the memo, which was distributed to faculty members working in Qatar. “Appointments of instructional faculty in the non-degree-granting division can be renewed annually based on performance and need. All [Texas A&M Qatar] faculty will have nine-month appointments. Additional two-month appointments will be possible in the summer for teaching or service to the campus, based on the availability of resources and need.”

Finally, the plan will also consolidate power in the hands of one dean, César O. Malavé, a move made just days before the start of the semester. That shifts oversight of faculty and curricula from individual departments to one central authority, who “may choose to seek input from other deans on hiring, retention, annual reviews, and promotions of faculty” at his or discretion, the memo said.

Kelly S. Brown, a spokesperson for Texas A&M, explained by email that “the final decision” on the changes “was made by President Banks based on input from [a]broad group of stakeholders.”

The Pushback

Joseph Daniel Ura, a political science professor at Texas A&M’s main campus who is on temporary assignment in Qatar, is among the critics raising concerns about the changes.

“The whole campus only had two weeks to digest this, from the time it was announced [on July 14] until classes start [on July 31st],” Ura said. “And to say it’s a surprise is an understatement.”

He worries that the changes in work responsibilities, including stripping professors of research capabilities, and the revised contract status will harm Texas A&M’s mission in Qatar. He predicts that the proposals will degrade the quality of education offered at the Qatar branch campus, in part by driving away faculty members.

“I think faculty who have external employment options will, in the next year or two, exercise them and get out of Qatar. I think it’s going to be very hard for [Texas A&M Qatar] to continue to recruit the same quality of faculty members,” Ura said. “If you can’t offer people the kind of tenure equivalent position and options to have faculty roles that incorporate more job security and greater academic freedom and greater freedom to determine your own service roles and freedom to participate in shared governance, then they’re absolutely going to go take other jobs.”

Since he has tenure at Texas A&M’s main campus, Ura has the ability to speak out. Other critics, however, asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of retaliation for speaking critically of the administration–especially now that power is being concentrated under Malavé.

“I’m totally devastated. In fact, I’m heartbroken,” one faculty member said in an email. “I fear it has ruined my career in academia. Instead of going up for promotion, I’m for all intents and purposes demoted. Try to explain that when applying for a faculty position elsewhere!”

The professor added that they felt “betrayed by main campus officials” who have a history of ignoring complaints made against Malavé for allegedly creating a hostile work environment in Qatar.

Additionally, the faculty member said there was significant confusion about where the plan came from: Was it an idea that emerged from Malavé, President Banks or the Qatar Foundation? And while Banks ultimately claimed responsibility, was this plan handed down by the Qatar Foundation?

“This fuzzy way of announcing policy changes has long been a pattern at [Texas A&M Qatar],” the professor wrote. “They use QF to shield themselves. In fact, I wonder if they are using [Texas A&M Qatar] as a test case to effect similar changes and undermine tenure on main campus.”

Back on the main campus–where nearly 30 librarians recently lost tenure or tenure-track status under a reorganization effort–the Faculty Senate has pushed back against the Qatar plans, forming a committee to consider the recommendations and passing a resolution against the proposals.

“I am very disappointed in the latest decision regarding Texas A&M University at Qatar. It will negatively impact faculty there, and I know the Faculty Senate Executive Committee is as dismayed as I am,” Dale Rice, a journalism professor and speaker of the Faculty Senate, said by email. “This is yet another example calling into question the administration’s commitment to shared governance at Texas A&M. And that is a sad commentary on the state of our university.”

Michael DeCesare, senior program officer in the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, & Governance for the American Association of University Professors, said by email that “replacing faculty members’ renewable rolling contracts with shorter fixed-term appointments is cause for deep concern with regard to academic freedom at [Texas A&M Qatar], though neither type of faculty appointment is adequate for protecting academic freedom.”

DeCesare added: “If what the two faculties report is accurate, it would mean that the Texas A&M administration is acting in blatant disregard of long-standing and widely observed standards of academic governance.”

The Contract

Given the opacity surrounding the contract, it is unclear exactly how much money Texas A&M makes from its agreement with the Qatar Foundation–or what key performance indicators the university must meet.

In 2016, Texas A&M received more than $76.2 million per year to operate its branch campus in Qatar, according to a copy of the contract obtained by the Washington Post after a legal battle over the document, which the university lost after the Texas attorney general ruled against it.

Texas A&M has declined to release its current contract with the Qatar Foundation, as requested by Inside Higher Ed in early June, arguing in a letter to the Texas attorney general’s office that the most recent agreement “may include commercial or financial information excepted from disclosure as third-party proprietary information” under Texas laws governing public records.

The Qatar Foundation has also gone to the Texas attorney general’s office seeking to bar the release of the contract, arguing in a letter that the document should be withheld in order to protect confidential information and “trade secrets” included in the agreement. Legal counsel for the Qatar Foundation said earlier this month that “QF’s valuation and specific allocation of funding in contracts with Partner Universities is incredibly valuable information that is considered and treated as confidential, and would cause QF substantial competitive harm if disclosed.”

The Office of the Attorney General has not yet weighed in on the request to withhold the contract.

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