US university to open ‘peace campus’ in Nazareth

Texas A&M offshoot in Israel’s largest Arab city will cost $70 million and is scheduled for completion in two years

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Texas Governor and former Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, right, posing for a photo with Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp (photo credit: courtesy Texas A&M University)
Texas Governor and former Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, right, posing for a photo with Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp (photo credit: courtesy Texas A&M University)

One of the United States’ leading institutions of higher learning plans to build a “peace university” satellite campus in Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab city. It would mark the first time an American university established a major physical presence in Israel.

The Nazareth municipality has already designated a plot for the new campus, an offshoot of Texas A&M University, which is expected to cost $70 million and be completed by October 2015. It is still unclear, however, which academic programs it will offer.

President Shimon Peres and Texas Governor Rick Perry were scheduled to sign a Memorandum of Understanding for the creation of the campus on Wednesday morning.

“This is the first time that one of the world’s leading research universities opens an academic center in Israel,” the President’s Residence said in a statement. “The ‘Peace Campus of Texas A&M in Nazareth’ will give out thousands of advanced degrees and will provide higher education to Jews and Arabs from Israel and the world; and it will be very effective in reducing the gaps that exist in higher education, while preserving co-existence in an atmosphere of academic research that meets international standards.”

According to Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp the idea for a branch in Israel started with Perry, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

“He’s a huge supporter of Israel, as am I, and we didn’t know exactly what the vision would be, but it became clearer when we started dealing with [Education Minister] Shai Piron and Shimon Peres, who wanted it to be not just a university, but a peace university, and that’s how it morphed into the agreement that we have now,” Sharp told The Times of Israel this week in a telephone interview from Texas.

Courses at the new university will reportedly be taught in English by Texas A&M faculty. University officials asserted this week that the Nazareth center will conform to all the rules and regulations of Israel’s Council for Higher Education. All course offerings and tuition rates will also be approved by Israel. The school will be paid for with private money which Texas A&M has committed to raise independently, with Perry’s help.

“Last year, our university in Texas raised privately $760 million; we have a good apparatus for that and we think we will be able to raise money to build a first-class university in Nazareth,” Sharp told TOI.

According to Peres’s office, Texas A&M has committed to raising $70 million for the construction of the new campus, and to the creation of an educational fund worth “millions of shekels” to finance the school’s activities. Before construction can start, though, the money for the project has to raised, Sharp said.

The Texas A&M University System, which includes several campuses across the state, is America’s fourth-largest university, with more than 50,000 students studying in more than 120 undergraduate and 240 graduate degree programs.

What exactly is a peace university?

“Well, it’s a university where, for instance, the faculty would be half-Jewish perhaps, half Arab,” Sharp said. “The student body would be diverse, as well. All different people from all over Israel would not only study to get a degree but would become more familiar with each other and foster understanding… A university not just to grant first-class degrees — which we will — but a university that also serves another purpose in uniting people to a more common understanding.”

Texas A&M already has a branch university in the Middle East: a decade ago, it opened an engineering school in Doha, Qatar. The school’s inaugural class had 29 students and it has since grown to a student body of nearly 550 undergraduate and graduate students from more than 30 countries, according the Associated Press.

The Israeli branch of Texas A&M will take over the Nazareth Academic Institute, which was created three years ago mainly to serve the Arab population, according to Haaretz. Suffering from a lack of funding and other ailments, NAI welcomed news of the American university’s takeover. “We hoped and wanted to be an Israeli academic institution in every respect, not a branch [of a foreign university],” NAI’s dean of students, Soher Bsharat, told the paper. “But when we didn’t find a budgeting solution, and ran into many problems, we saw that cooperation with Texas, which is a respected university, was a solution.”

Wednesday’s signing event at the President’s Residence will be attended by the chair of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education Manuel Trajtenberg, the chair of the Knesset’s Education Committee, Nazareth Mayor Ramiz Jaraiysi, representatives of the Nazareth Academic Institution and Texas A&M University president R. Bowen Loftin.

Before 1948, Nazareth was a city with a large Christian majority, but today 70 percent of Nazareth’s 80,000 residents are Muslim. The change dates back to Israel’s War of Independence, when an influx of internally displaced villagers from the surrounding area relocated to the city. Researchers also point to a significantly higher Muslim birth rate.

Religious tension in the city came to the fore in the early 2000s, when local Muslims began constructing a new mosque near the Basilica of the Annunciation, the city’s towering Christian landmark. In early 2002, the government decided to halt construction on the site, built over the grave of Salladin’s nephew Shihab a-Din, following massive pressure from the Vatican. Muslims were infuriated by the move, but put up little resistance when an illegal structure they had built on the site was bulldozed the following year.

In Tuesday’s mayoral election, the incumbent Jaraiysi — a Christian who has served as mayor for the last 19 years — ran against Balad MK Hanin Zoabi, a Muslim woman.

Elhanan Miller contributed to this report.

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