Two Tarnished Institutions

As published in the London Times Higher Education Supplement  

April 30, 1999

A lunch with George Bush in Oman makes Dorothy S. Zinberg reflect on personal greed and national need 

In my childhood, I would pick my way through the songbooks piled on my grandmother’s piano. One of the most romantic songs began: “I Dreamt (that) I Dwelt in Marble Halls with Vassals and Serfs by My Side.”

Needless to say, with time reality set in, and the words and music disappeared from memory. But suddenly there they were in a recent dream, accompanying me as I began a long, slow, two-storied descent of a curved white marble staircase.

The vassals and serfs stood to attention as I stopped midway to gasp at a 20-foot wall-hanging woven in silver and gold threads. I sensed a light touch at my elbow and a sweet voice said softly: “If you married me, we could glide down these stairs into the future.” It was George Bush.

That was too much for my unconscious to sort out and I jolted upright. Only it was no dream: it was reality. Former United States president George Bush and I, two kids born in Boston (and there the similarity ends), were guests of a charming Omani who was taking us on a tour of his “Versailles” home in Oman after a lunch given in Bush’s honour.

Bush is revered as the liberator of Kuwait, and the event, which was attended by dozens of ministers and leading businessmen, marked the celebration of his first visit to the Middle East since the Gulf war. Bush and I were representing two quite different institutions: in my case the university, and in his, the presidency of the United States, even though he left office more than six years ago.

Election to both institutions is fiercely competitive and coveted, yet both are seriously tarnished and under pressure to reform. Because the quest for higher education has been growing rapidly in Oman, numerous for-profit colleges have launched plans to build on its sandy tracts.

It is relatively easy to spot the obviously illegal institutions (reported to number more than 350 worldwide), although, sadly not for many unsuspecting students who forfeit large sums of money only to learn that their degrees are bogus.

Advertisements that read: “Eminent, non-accredited universities will award you a degree for only $200” should alert anyone intelligent enough to go to college. The problem lies in the grey areas, with universities from the US and Western Europe attempting to establish branch universities, and now, online degree programmes.

They may have some positive features, but many are essentially money-making operations to help with falling enrollments and depleted finances at home.

The old-fashioned “diploma mill” has vigorously refashioned itself with new technology. The Omanis are attempting to be vigilant, but it is difficult for them to assess the quality of the faculty who migrate to the newly created campus. Several Omanis in industry and education spoke about their concern that students would be (and are) receiving second-rate educations, thereby further eroding the strong human-resource base the country needs to develop its own social and economic institutions.

The dilemma is complicated because the operations of the majority of colleges abroad are legal, but the quality of many is second rate. In the long run, as disappointments mount over inadequate curricula and staff, these “grey-area” institutions will further weaken the very institution that has to be strengthened in order to survive.

I found aspects of President Bush’s visit as distressing as that of several of the newly proposed educational programmes.

He was joyously welcomed as a hero in the Gulf, and he did deliver wonderful speeches about friendship between the US and the Gulf states. But he was flying in a private plane that belonged to a Lebanese businessman who has major investments in the energy business in Texas – Bush’s home state. Legal undoubtedly, but the perception was that this was to a large extent a business trip with the president acting as a stalking horse for his business friends who accompanied him.

One more cynical nail in the coffin of respectability for the presidency. What can be done to protect age-old institutions that are being eroded by the growing acceptance that making money justifies almost anything as long as it is legal? More laws are unlikely to provide the answers. Perhaps more public discussions of acceptable behaviour for politicians after they leave office: and more watchful public organizations in both the home and recipient countries for new colleges would help.

I brought up the subject at one of the 1,001 magical evenings in Oman, when I was a guest at the desert fort of a prominent sheikh. Several guests were administrators in local education programmes, worried about the proliferation of second-rate higher education programmes.

Building a solid education system was at the top of their list. Less concerned about the US presidency than I, they automatically assumed that Bush was touring the Gulf States for business as well as ally-strengthening.

The setting was as surreal as my earlier Bush dream. While reposing on beautiful rugs and pillows under a star-filled sky, I heard “my” Mozart piano concerto from many years past wafting across the desert air. Only here I was being enchanted with an oud and Arab drums on a state-of-the-art stereo system.

The blending of fantasy and reality; old cultures and new technologies laid bare the age-old truism: everything changes but people. The need to balance personal greed with national needs is still everywhere with us.

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