Design school faculty to remain in Qatar despite increased U.S. military presence

Despite U.S. military buildup in Qatar, Richard Toscan, dean of the School of the Arts, said the VCU Qatar College of Design Arts’ faculty hasn’t changed their behavior.

“They go to the mall. They go to the food store. They behave the ways they always do. They say they’re always very welcomed,” the dean said.

Gen. Tommy Franks, chief of U.S. Armed Forces Central Command, leads U.S. military readiness maneuvers in Qatar with more than 3,000 U.S. troops stationed in the area. The college is about 10 minutes outside downtown Doha, the capital of Qatar.

Toscan said this military buildup hasn’t had an effect on the design school’s faculty because the military presence isn’t “very obvious.” The military forces remain separated from the city, and command center Al-Udeid Air Base is situated 20 miles south of Doha.

Paul Petrie, founding director of the design college, said he conducts a teleconference with the school once a week and communicates by phone or e-mail most days.

“I don’t think that they’re particularly happy or comfortable that this big air base is on their doorstep,” he said. “The skies are always droning with these great, big, lumbering American planes.”

The faculty “should be concerned, but they’re not frightened,” Petrie said, calling Qatar “a very safe country.”

Toscan said gauging student reactions to the military buildup becomes harder than for the faculty, but the students in general have great respect for Qatar’s monarch, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and his decisions about the United States’ actions in Qatar.

Petrie related a story a faculty member told him following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. When the faculty member asked a student whether the students felt comfortable studying at a school with American faculty, the student replied, “Oh, Ms. So-and-so, that’s government. We’re just people.”

For the past two years, a private security company named Group4Falck has patrolled the campus for the school, where fences surround the college and the faculty apartments.

“The fencing has cut down one or two exits from the campus,” Toscan said, “so I’ve heard some of the faculty can’t take some of the shortcuts they used to (take).”

Petrie said though a fence surrounds the perimeter of the property, it’s not a wall.

“We didn’t go there to be put behind walls and feel like prisoners,” he said. “We went there to offer an education.”

Peter Martin, a physics professor teaching mathematics at the Qatar campus, called the security “about as obtrusive as the VCU police,” comparing the security escort offered at the Doha campus to VCU’s own security escort service.

Toscan said the school notes when incidents happen, such as the recent firing on U.S. forces by civilians in nearby Kuwait.

“Qatar does not have a history of violent activity, political or otherwise, against foreigners,” Toscan said, attributing this to Qatar having a much more controlled government than Kuwait.

For Martin, going off campus is not an adventure, because “Doha is absolutely safe. … It’s a very controlled society.”

Toscan said no special guidelines exist for American faculty members to follow.

“They are expected to honor the culture,” he said. “They’re expected not to go around insulting Islam as a religion. They should follow the same behavior as they would here. They’re really common-sense things.”

Even though Toscan said no guidelines exist, Martin said the design college dean encourages them to read literature about the Qatari culture.

Still, Toscan, Petrie and Martin said they remain unsure of what will happen to the design school if the United States goes to war with Iraq.

“We will take our cue from the U.S. embassy in Doha,” Toscan said, “and what other American corporations based in Qatar decide to do with their personnel.”

During the Gulf War in 1991, the main American K-12 school in Qatar remained open, Toscan said, adding that the school is prepared to withdraw its faculty from the country if the embassy recommends it. In that event, the dean said the Qatari government has agreed to pay for the faculty’s travel and accommodation expenses.

Furthermore, Petrie said that if faculty members were to feel a threat, they would be allowed to leave the school in Qatar even if their contract was not up.

Another factor indicating the design school faculty’s willingness to continue involves the school changing to long-term contracts for the American faculty starting in the fall rather than the current annual contract.

“That’s actually at the request of the faculty there — that they are ready to make a long-term commitment,” Toscan said.

The long-term contracts won’t affect Martin, though. He said that personal factors would keep him from teaching long-term in Qatar, but that he would otherwise consider it.

“It’s always exciting to be teaching where changes are going on.”

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