Satellite Programs Promoting Liberal Arts Education in the Middle East

By Sama Imran Ilyas

Throughout the past decade, many American universities have opened satellite campuses in the Middle East. For years, higher education in the Middle East has been oriented towards science, math, and technology disciplines. One of the first American-based university systems that opened, Cornell in Qatar, was a medical school. It opened in 2004 and became the first American medical campus outside of the United States. Also in Qatar and at the same time, Carnegie Mellon opened, with a focus on biology and technology. Thus, the focus on STEM education remained largely preserved.

Change was slow but persistent. In 2005, Georgetown opened a branch in Qatar with a focus on foreign service, international politics, and economics. This was a shift away from the science and technology focus, but not a full embrace of liberal arts education.

Thus, it was an exciting and innovative venture when New York University opened its doors in Abu Dhabi.

NYU Abu Dhabi is a liberal arts university that opened in 2008. As noted by President of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation Arthur E. Levine in the Huffington Post, “NYU Abu Dhabi demonstrates that the liberal arts and liberal arts colleges remain vital.” NYUAD offers twenty two majors, including a wide variety in the humanities. It also offers multidisciplinary studies. In addition, students are required to take classes from the core curriculum, which encompasses classes in the humanities. NYUAD has also begun to offer graduate programs.

Admission into NYUAD is competitive, which is encouraging despite the declining rates of enrollment in liberal arts colleges. The Levine offers high praise for NYUAD, explaining that “the lesson of NYU Abu Dhabi is that, while the liberal arts continue to be essential today, they need to be refreshed in the content and skills they teach for a world growing increasingly flat and a nation shifting from an industrial to information economy.” Levine adds that “this institution also shows that eminent research universities have the capacity to offer their undergraduates a high-quality liberal arts college experience.”

NYUAD encourages students to take advantage of “studying away” at one of their international sites dispersed throughout the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia. The idea is that the students will be engaged as active world citizens and learn about international relations and cultures.

Following suit, newer American university satellite programs in the Middle East are focusing more on fields in the humanities, taking precedence from NYU Abu Dhabi. Northwestern in Qatar also opened around the same time as NYUAD, with a focus on media education, offering degrees in communications and journalism.

In this small way, higher education in the Middle East is being shaped to mirror the Western world. A key component of this is the encouragement and instilled importance of liberal arts education. 

Sama Imran Ilyas is a senior at the University of Florida. She was elected into Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year. The University of Florida is home to the Beta chapter of Florida of Phi Beta Kappa.

Photo: NYU Abu Dhabi 2014 Commencement Ceremony.