Featured Commentary: American Universities Have No Business in Saudi Arabia

San Francisco (IJCR) — At first glance, it seems more than appropriate for the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University to help the newly founded King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia (KAUST) to recruit and train faculty and to expand and share scientific knowledge. What could possibly be wrong in furthering teaching and research abroad, with an American friend and ally no less? Behind the assurances and surface rhetoric both Berkeley and Stanford offer the public, and themselves is the truth–that the agreement with Saudi Arabia is an ugly betrayal of what universities themselves claim to be.

Universities are quite proud of their role in fighting discrimination of all kinds and sell themselves as bastions of moral virtue and behavior. They fancy themselves as trailblazers in the fight against global injustice.

Yet the history of race, religion, and gender within higher education itself is not a pretty one. Higher education’s devotion to equality is a recently acquired taste. Colleges and universities slammed the doors with quotas for both Jewish faculty and students in the first half of the 20th century. Southern universities were forced to open their doors to African Americans through national legislation and the imposition of Federal troops. Long after women had entered the voting booth, elite schools kept them out of the classroom. All in all, it was not a flattering picture.

Today, higher education advocates would say that the past is past, and where universities concentrate their efforts would seem to support their claim as citadels of liberalism in American society. That is, of course, until they smell money. The Saudi’s lured both Berkeley and Stanford to the tune of $20 million each and we can be sure that both institutions hope there is more where that came from.

Take gender equality, for example, a core concern of universities. While both Stanford and Berkeley may intend to bring positive change to the Middle East, they are about to do business with one of the worst abusers of women’s rights in the world –a country where women are not even allowed be in public without a male guardian. Only recently, an American businesswoman was arrested for appearing in a Starbucks with a male co-worker. But that is par for the course. Many likely recall the recent ruling by Saudi Arabia’s Sharia legal system, sentencing a rape victim to jail time and lashes.

Religious freedom is non-existent. An entire city is off limits to non-Muslims. If a Muslim wants to convert from Islam? The punishment is death. And the extreme interpretation of Islam that is practiced in Saudi Arabia, known as Wahhabism, which has no room for the lofty ideas of academic or any other kind of freedom, is actively being exported by the monarchy.

Why would any American university, some of which have evicted the ROTC programs from their campus for being anti-LGBT because of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy team up with a nation that has no qualms about punishing its own gay and lesbian citizens? Of course, one could just assume that Saudi Arabia, like Iran according to president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while speaking at Columbia University, has no gays.

Berkeley and Stanford assure us-and their own campus communities–that the university in Saudi Arabia will be non-discriminatory. Tell that to the Jewish faculty who will not be allowed into the country, or anyone for that matter if they have visited Israel and the stamp shows on their passport.

Either campus officials believe the Saudi lies denying the extent of their discrimination, or they want to believe them because their payout is high enough to turn a blind eye.

But Berkeley is a public university supported by California taxpayers. Both Stanford and Berkeley receive healthy doses of federal funds for research and financial aid. Charitable contributions are tax deductible, so all those tens of millions of dollars going to these schools are subsidized by American taxpayers.

Voters, elected representatives, and donors should put a stop to this unsavory arrangement. Colleges and universities have some ugly history when it comes to bigotry and discrimination that should not be revived today.