Press releases, snazzy conferences, and promotional videos all tell one story about Northwestern in Qatar: that of a successful branch campus which, despite some initial hurdles, is flourishing.
As Provost Dan Linzer said at an event in Norris last October, NU-Q has “transitioned from a start-up to a thriving school, wrestling with the same kinds of issues schools here wrestle with.”
But behind the finely-tailored PR lies a harsh reality for its employees, according to many current and former staffers.
They say a recent period of restructuring has reinforced a “climate of fear” which leaves many fearful for their job security, with many afraid to speak out because they are scared their job contracts will not be renewed.
Allegations of discrimination have rocked NU-Q’s workplace as well. Many say one employee was let go for being LGBTQ, and at least one more has filed a formal discrimination complaint.
And while NU-Q’s restructuring has created a new drive to produce research, this may rest on shakier ground than appears at first glance, with politically sensitive survey questions directly censored by the Qatari government.
In an exclusive report based on interviews with over fifteen current and former employees, THE CHRONICLE has detailed this climate of fear. (Almost all workers interviewed spoke on condition of strict anonymity.)
It’s a long story of power struggles, faculty politics, culture shock, and vast sums of money. And it’s been happening right under Northwestern’s nose, unreported until now.
A Rocky Start
Before NU-Q’s current problems with its employees can be explored, it must be understood just how quickly an entirely new Northwestern campus was set up from scratch.
In late 2007, Northwestern in Evanston agreed to have a Qatar branch, and by the next fall, a fully-functioning, degree-granting American campus was brought to existence.
Of course, fully-functioning is one way of putting it. Creating such a totally new institution led to a host of what Northwestern calls “startup problems,” many of which continue to this day.
A couple examples: pests plagued student dorms; NU-Q’s registration system, bugged because its software from Oracle operated under a US time zone; and for its first graduating class, NU-Q had to re-order new diplomas which made no mention of Qatar (students wanted diplomas identical to those issued in Evanston.)
One former staffer said many student affairs workers worked “incessantly” for 70 hour weeks, almost living in their place of work.
Another mentioned getting 5AM emails from colleagues who woke up hours before work to finish paperwork, saying “I do know the burnout is a bigger contributor to the staff turnover than anywhere else.”
And the high turnover in some departments meant the “underlings” were constantly under the orders of new supervisors, worsening workplace stress.
“[It’s] just the pure exhaustion of having to tell people how to do things over and over again, because you’re pretty well aware, you don’t get attached to people because they may or may not be here in six months,” said the previously-quoted staffer.
But on top of the intense workload and disorganisation, employees had the added stress of operating in a completely different culture than the US with little to no training about the region.
At times, these cultural differences clashed and directly affected certain peoples’ jobs.
Former NU-Q workers cited the case of one female employee who, at an academic fair, mentioned street harassment by Qatari men as one of the “minuses” of living in Doha (she had been the subject of such harassment herself.) But she was overheard by a Qatari who took offense over what he saw as a gross generalization about locals; after he wrote a letter, she was fired.
Such incidents of cultural misunderstandings made non-faculty employees nervous about their jobs, which could be over “the moment you piss off a Qatari with a little wasta,” (the local term for “connections,”) said one former staffer.
This environment of intense work, disorganisation, and culture shock took a psychological toll for many. “I had people in my office crying all the time. Bawling on a regular basis,” the same former staffer said.
The workplace at NU-Q, however, was made better by some factors.
For one, employees are paid significantly more in the Middle East than in the US – it’s not for nothing they’re nicknamed “mercenaries” in the country. But it wasn’t all about the money.
Many said they genuinely enjoyed living in Qatar and experiencing its unique culture, and some did enjoy working there. “I think overall it was a great place to work,” said one employee who left in 2011. “Now I think that the student and academic experience in NU-Q is incredibly enriching. The downside to that is aside from complete material freedom, there is a little bit of intellectual constraints that happen.”
It also helped that NU-Q’s first Dean, John Margolis, was generally regarded as a kindly and transparent person who was personally close to many students and faculty.
But despite Margolis’ geniality, many start-up problems remained at NU-Q, and the school retained a low profile. It was far from a research powerhouse Northwestern in Evanston could boast about, and its schools, which taught communications and journalism, lacked unity. (Margolis “let the schools really run themselves,” staffers say.)
Expanding programming and scholarship at such a new institution was not a priority for Margolis, who “didn’t really care about research” but focused more on teaching.
When Margolis retired in 2011, it was time for NU-Q to get a new Dean, and the choice made was of a more corporate flavour: Everette E. Dennis, who remains NU-Q’s “Dean and CEO” to this day. Little did NU-Q’s employees know, but Dennis’ rule heralded the beginning of a new period of restructuring at NU-Q which has bitterly divided the workplace ever since.
Clearing the House
Dennis was, unlike Margolis, a prominent name in journalism and communications education – and a zealous reformer.
Dennis came to prominence in the 80s advocating for journalism and communications schools to combine their curricula into one “generic mass communications study” taught by experts with PhDs rather than journalists, along with producing more research.
Staffers say Evanston’s vision for NU-Q was to unite its disparate schools and vigorously expand research, and Dennis, described as an “indefatigable organizer” who “gets things done,” was a perfect match for the job.
But many of these ambitious goals required a total overhaul of NU-Q’s staff, which set Dennis on a collision course with much of the existing NU-Q community Margolis had built up.
When he arrived to take over NU-Q in June 2011, staffers say Dennis made it clear he was going to “clear the house” and begin restructuring NU-Q. That involved letting go several employees (that is, not renewing their contracts) abruptly and with little due process, those affected said.
On the non-faculty side, some of the first to go remain shaken to this day.
Charlene Thomas, NU-Q’s only registrar until 2012, was told by a colleague’s wife one day: “I hear you’re leaving.” Thomas had no idea her contract was not going to be renewed; as the school’s lone registrar, she thought her job was safe. But after working for nine years at Northwestern in the US and three in Doha, she was suddenly told she was no longer needed at NU-Q.
Thomas, who was a Northwestern “Employee of the Year” in 2005, was in a state. “I was shocked,” she told THE CHRONICLE. The bitter irony: right before she was told she would not be renewed, Thomas had several job leads in the Gulf which she could have pursued but decided not to because she wanted to stay at NU-Q.
In the end, there was no exit interview or reason given behind her contract’s non-renewal. After Thomas left, NU-Q didn’t have a registrar for over a year; her work was simply outsourced to the already-overworked administrative staff. (Thomas is back in the US and still out of work.)
The lack of a fulltime registrar led to problems for some instructors. One faculty member told THE CHRONICLE last-minute classroom changes began popping up. “A couple times I showed up [in class] at the very beginning of the semester and my students weren’t there,” the faculty person said. “This is just part of not having a consistent registrar – a full time person that does that type of thing.”
Thomas was not the only non-faculty staff member affected. Another was also abruptly not renewed around the time Dennis began his restructuring.
“In my case I was just told, your contract is not going to be renewed but you need to leave now,” the former employee told THE CHRONICLE.
The staffer had worked at Northwestern in Evanston for almost 25 years and returned to the US without a job, eventually finding a new one through a temp agency.
Even though it was understood there would be no job waiting back in Evanston, the former staffer said little respect was paid to job termination processes prescribed by HR at Northwestern in Evanston.
“On the main campus, if they want to get rid of you, you have to have so many warnings, you know there’s a process to go through,” the staffer said.
After moving to NU-Q, the staffer said, “you go from being a full-fledged employee to a contracted employee [for non-faculty jobs], which means there’s no guarantee of a job when you come back and it’s at their whim as to whether or not they want to renew your contract.”
Others agreed that this uncertainty contributed to a “climate of fear” at the school.
“You might not know that your contract is being renewed until you got six weeks left on your current contract, and your legal ability to be in the country is tied to your employment,” said another former staffer. “And those are the kinds of scare tactics, those are the kinds of things that contribute to the climate of fear, the very, very real climate of fear that exists at NU-Q.”
This environment, in which one’s contract can be “not renewed” seemingly on a whim makes some quite terrified of airing any criticisms whatsoever – even under anonymity.
“I have learned in my years at NU-Q who to trust, and they are few,” said one faculty member who declined to be interviewed at greater length.
Of the professors and staff NU-Q has lost over the past few years, the person noted, “granted, some of these left happily and on their own accord, but many others absolutely did not.”
(Of those who did not leave happily, at least one faculty member filed a discrimination complaint with the Office of Equal Opportunity and Access in Evanston.)
Dennis’ restructuring plans affected people on the faculty side as well.
Faculty members who had contracts coming up for renewal in 2012 were told they would be put “under review” by external assessors, which made the workplace nerve-wracking. For months, many were convinced their jobs would be over.
“Everybody was totally freaked out by this,” one faculty member told THE CHRONICLE.
Despite the reviews, most of the faculty’s contracts were renewed. Some accuse Dennis of supposedly trying to “fire everybody at once” but switching to “firing selectively” (several faculty have left this past year.) Whether this is true or not, it’s certain the ambitious restructuring turned several faculty members against him. (The popular term NU-Q’s old timers use to refer to Dennis’ new hires from his networks is “cronies.”)
THE CHRONICLE tried to ask Dennis at an information session in Evanston on February 5th about NU-Q’s workplace issues and a “climate of fear” at NU-Q.
“You seem to have an agenda,” Dennis said, accusing THE CHRONICLE of “hound[ing] people for months.”
“What the hell are you doing?” Dennis said.
After he was asked if he would follow up via email, Dennis replied, “No, I’m not going to follow up. That’s enough with you, sir.”
“Not much we could do about it.”
Aside from Dennis’ clash with some faculty over the reviews, the case of one of the first people on the teaching side to not have their contract renewed sparked considerable controversy at the school.
Numerous current and former colleagues independently told the THE CHRONICLE the instructor’s LGBTQ status was the reason behind Dennis’s decision not to renew the contract.
When reached for comment, the instructor (who did not take legal action) said this was true but declined to discuss specifics.
“This history is difficult for me to reconstruct because it was so challenging to get through and because the things I was told didn’t make any sense to me,” the instructor, who now works in the US, wrote in an email.
The instructor heard the Qatari government itself was the source of the decision (due to homosexuality’s illegality in the country) but “did not necessarily believe” the authorities were involved.
The instructor was popular with many NU-Q students who cherished having an openly LGBTQ teacher in a conservative country, and was described as “good for students and beloved by students – maybe more so than anybody else,” by one former faculty member.
The state of gay rights at NU-Q is something of a taboo topic with its administration. While Northwestern in Evanston has a fully-staffed LGBTQ resource center, a Rainbow Alliance, and several other groups for sexual minorities, this is not the case in Qatar. When asked about gay rights at NU-Q, staffers say the policy is basically “don’t-ask-don’t-tell.”
An internal PowerPoint obtained by THE CHRONICLE prepared for NU-Q by the law firm Patton Boggs titled Living and Working in Qatar makes it clear homosexuality is illegal and receives up to 7 years in prison. There is no indication whatsoever NU-Q employees or students are exempt from such laws.
“It is in the faculty contracts that we have to abide by the customs and laws of the country,” said the previously-quoted former faculty member.
This glaring disparity in law – which predates Dennis’ arrival, to be sure – has led to some rather unusual conversations at NU-Q. At the meeting in which the Living and Working in Qatar PowerPoint was shown (on August 21st, 2013,) faculty members were concerned about one clause which stated that “failing to inform the authorities of an act which is classed as a felony is punishable by up to 3 years jail and a fine of 10,000 QR [$2,740]”.
According to one person present at the meeting, some were worried that if they didn’t report a gay student to the authorities they would be prosecuted under such a law. The attorney present at the meeting “didn’t really have an answer for that.”
THE CHRONICLE asked senior associate dean Richard Roth about the status of gay faculty at NU-Q. Roth said that while the university is supportive, “if they were to be arrested, I don’t know what we would do. They would be in violation of the law here.”
“Not much we could do about it.”
Other parts of the PowerPoint presentation also make it clear freedom of speech for NU-Q is not the same as Northwestern in Evanston.
“Anyone who criticizes and/or challenges, by any public means, the Emir’s authority or rights” receives “up to 5 years imprisonment,” the slide titled Respect for God & Government reads.
[To see the PowerPoint in its entirety, click here.]
Overall, however, it’s not totally clear who or what is responsible for the situation NU-Q’s workplace is in. One staffer highly critical of NU-Q didn’t feel Dennis was wholly to blame, saying he, like many NU-Q employees, “operates out of fear.” As for those who put the blame on Qatar itself, the same staffer noted other branch campuses in Education City (where NU-Q is located) such as Texas A&M seem to suffer from far less internal chaos.
Whatever the root cause of NU-Q’s many problems, one thing is beyond dispute, the staffer told THE CHRONICLE: “I want Northwestern to be in my freakin’ rear view mirror for ever and ever.”
In light of NU-Q’s change-of-course, it’s not surprising Dennis is said to have clashed with higher-up administrators.
One of them, faculty members told THE CHRONICLE, was Richard Roth, who went from being the director of NU-Q’s journalism programme to a “senior associate dean” who mostly works behind the scenes placing NU-Q students for their residencies.
Staffers say the change in position happened at least partly because Roth, a veteran reporter described by many as questioning of authority, didn’t like Dennis’ plans to “bulldoze” NU-Q’s old faculty.
In an interview with THE CHRONICLE, Roth denied such reports, saying, “I don’t think there was a clash at all. When a new Dean shows up he or she comes in with A) a vision and B) perhaps mandates from the provost and [the Dean] implements those.”
But regardless of these reports, Roth does appear to differ with Dennis on some key points. For one, Roth has a different view of NU-Q’s impact on Qatar’s media scene, which is heavily censored. While Dennis said at the February information session in Evanston that the press environment in Qatar has gotten significantly better since NU-Q arrived, Roth remains doubtful.
“I like to think [NU-Q has] helped, but I don’t really see great evidence of it,” Roth told THE CHRONICLE.
This skeptical side of Roth came through in a recent interview in which he condemned an Orwellian piece of draft legislation in Qatar, the Cybercrime Law, which would punish online reporting which infringes on “social principles” and “values” – even if the information reported is true.
“I don’t know what I’ve said on my blog that would get me in trouble,” Roth said in the interview.
Roth and Dennis also seem to contradict each other when it comes to a controversial Faculty Senate motion from last year.
When Northwestern in Evanston’s Faculty Senate decided to pass a motion supporting the Qatari poet Mohammed al-Ajami (who was imprisoned for 15 years for criticising the Emir of Qatar in a poem), NU-Q’s senate members studiously ignored the motion, refusing to support it.
Dennis said at the February information session that members of the NU-Q community were unified against the motion, explaining that NU-Q is not “responsible for anything going on with the government.”
But Roth, a senior member of NU-Q’s administration who has been at NU-Q since its beginning in 2008, said he was never asked about the motion.
“Nobody asked my opinion, because I would have voiced one,” Roth said. “I for one was supportive of it, I was not against it.”
Roth and Dennis do agree that the school’s main goal is to create, as Dennis recently put it, a “talent pool” of journalists in Qatar who will eventually hold positions of influence in the country’s media and - it is implied – reform it.
But substantial obstacles to this remain, considering most of NU-Q’s journalism students go into the far more lucrative and less dangerous field of public relations. Not a single NU-Q student has joined the country’s local newspapers, although it must be kept in mind that only two classes have graduated.
Other factors, such as Qatar’s citizen-based hierarchy, also come into play; when Roth described the poor state of reporting in Qatar’s local papers, he bluntly said “the non-Qataris can rise in the ranks but they will never be editor.”
Roth is leaving after spring quarter, and with him gone, there will not be a single faculty member left who has called for reform of Qatar’s government in the press. (Roth wrote a New York Times op-ed last May urging Qatar to modernise its outdated press law; three weeks later, the substantially more restrictive Cybercrime Law was unveiled, and looks likely to pass as of February 2014.)
The other director who left, James Schwoch, also became an ambiguous “senior associate dean” after heading NU-Q’s communication programme.
Schwoch, even though he’s described as more of a “company man” than Roth, didn’t have a very good relationship with Dennis either, sources say.
According to one faculty member, before he left Doha to come back to Evanston, Schwoch declined an invitation to a going-away party because if he drank and his tongue was loosened “all of the vitriol” would spill out.
“I think he was incredibly upset at the direction the school was going,” said the faculty member.
[IF QATAR, DO NOT PRESENT QUESTION]
It’s undeniable, however, that Dennis has greatly bolstered the role NU-Q plays both at home and abroad. Under his tenure, NU-Q has massively expanded into research, conferences, and further academics.
Just to get an idea of how ambitious this programme is for a relatively small school with only 33 graduates in its latest class, in the past two years NU-Q has: published a massive research study about media use in the Middle East, offered a certificate in Middle East studies and another in Media and Politics, and has most recently proposed to offer masters degrees “within two years.”
The Arab Media Use Study’s publication was particularly significant. It was meant to objectively report how people in the Arab world use and judge the media they consume, and was first presented in The Atlantic.
But a close look at the study, which was co-authored by Dennis and covered 8 Arab countries (including Qatar), calls into question how independently research can truly be conducted in Qatar.
One section, titled State of the Nation, was meant to explore “general sentiment in each nation regarding optimism/pessimism about the direction of the country (right direction/ wrong track) and one’s own future.”
But this politically sensitive part of the survey, which was included for all of the survey’s other countries (including politically repressive ones such as Saudi Arabia), was not asked in Qatar “at the request of the Qatar Statistics Authority.”
Other delicate parts of the study were also clearly censored by the Qatari government. In sections titled Freedom, Privacy, and Regulation on the Internet and The Internet and Political Influence, the study notes “the wording of select statements was altered in Qatar at the request of the Qatar Statistics Authority.”
Essentially, for Qatar (and Qatar only), any statements which referred to politics and could potentially undermine the ruling monarchy’s legitimacy were eliminated and replaced with inoffensive language.
For example, the survey asked responders how much they agreed with the statement “People should be free to criticize governments on the internet.” This was changed to “People should be free to criticize powerful institutions on the internet” for Qatar [emphasis added].
“On the internet, it is safe to say whatever one thinks about political affairs” became “On the internet, it is safe to say whatever one thinks about public issues.”
Another question which asked whether one’s Internet use increased or decreased contact with “people who share your political views” became “[people] who share your views on society.”
Pictures of the redacted methodologies are shown below. The changes made for Qatar are highlighted in green:
Aside from research, NU-Q has also hosted several major conferences under Dennis’ tenure. The first, in 2011, was held in Libya, not Qatar, and called for a “free media” to emerge in the country. Whether it worked is debatable, but directly calling for a free media where NU-Q was actually located would probably not have been possible.
The other conferences, one on “Big Data” and another on Qatar’s local media, show an emphasis on unifying Qatar’s media, public relations, and communications sectors.
But these lavish galas produce few concrete results and have been criticised by faculty members who feel they are part of a corporate environment Dennis has instilled.
“They produce these policy papers and photo ops which don’t really seem to lead anywhere,” said one former faculty member. “That kind of corporate culture is not why I went into academia, I would’ve become a corporate person at 22 and already got my million by now.”
Another former faculty member also criticised the allegedly corporate nature of Dennis’ agenda.
“[People who go into academia] don’t want to work for some corporate hacks or corporate people or whatever you want to call it,” the member said. “And so it’s a very weird atmosphere.”
Moreover, some say NU-Q’s ambitious restructuring has come at the cost of focusing on actual hard-hitting journalism.
“I think the focus on journalism careers is not there anymore,” said Shabina Khatri, the executive editor of Doha News and a former adjunct lecturer at the school, adding she was disappointed more and more students were going into PR instead of journalism.
Khatri also said Dennis “definitely has a different take and vision for NU-Q than the founding members” and has transformed the school “into a more formal, less friendly and more businesslike environment.” But Khatri added that she was “not sure if that change was necessary for the university’s survival at QF [the Qatar Foundation, NU-Q’s backer].”
Marche ou Crève
But why have all these problems not been reported elsewhere? Sources say NU-Q’s outward image is tightly-controlled.
After all, one of its own students, Usama Hamed, was jailed for 10 days and accused of being a “Syrian spy” by the authorities – something which was never reported at NU-Q’s equivalent to The Daily Northwestern, The Daily Q.
It’s hard to imagine this being the case in Evanston if a Medill student was jailed and accused of being a foreign spy for his reporting. (Insiders say Dennis was “livid” when Hamed’s story was broken by THE CHRONICLE a year after it actually occurred.)
And yet, despite all of these problems, Northwestern in Evanston has almost gone above and beyond in its support for NU-Q.
For example, President Morton Schapiro and Provost Dan Linzer have outright denied NU-Q ever told Usama Hamed that “Northwestern does not help or support criminals” after he sought help, a dubious declaration even the school itself never officially made (it simply refused to comment on the matter.)
Schapiro and Linzer did not respond to requests for interview by THE CHRONICLE. But one factor which almost certainly plays into Northwestern in Evanston’s support of NU-Q is money.
It has long been rumoured Northwestern in Evanston receives a yearly “bonus” for hosting NU-Q – it already got an undisclosed “contribution” for agreeing to set up a branch in Qatar. Word on the street is that the yearly bonus is a $10 million donation straight to NU-E’s endowment, but there is no way of independently confirming this number.
Asked how much this yearly contribution was, James Hurley, Northwestern’s Associate Vice President of Budget and Planning, requested THE CHRONICLE omit the entire matter from its reporting.
“On that particular one, I’m going to ask you not to reference that in the article,” Hurley said, visibly uncomfortable. “Please be careful with that.”
Additionally, in a place where the stakes are as high as Qatar, any wavering in support from Northwestern’s home campus could weaken NU-Q’s position within the country – especially with a school which teaches as sensitive a topic as journalism.
It’s not uncommon for government- funded projects with lofty aspirations to go very wrong in Qatar.
One example is the Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF), an institute set up by the government to promote freedom of the press in the Gulf and abroad. The DCMF had a rocky start: its first director, the French journalist Robert Menard, left because of what he called government censorship of the centre.
However, after Menard’s departure in 2009, the DCMF seemed to prosper under its new leader: the avowedly moderate Dutchman Jan Keulen, who toned down criticism of Qatar. But this December Keulen was abruptly fired without warning or reason. A senior manager of the centre resigned in protest, writing “this kind of fake support for freedom initiatives is a bloody shame.”
And last year as well, the RAND Institute was kicked out of Qatar for failing to reform the country’s education system. (RAND had a 10-year contract, as does NU-Q.)
The DCMF and RAND, just like NU-Q, were entirely funded by Qatar’s government.
It doesn’t seem likely such a drastic change would occur in NU-Q’s case – for now. Professors at NU-Q are still free to express whatever views they want in the classroom, no small feat in a Persian Gulf country. But the world outside the Education City bubble looms large, and in the long run, nothing is certain.
NU-Q is already doing its best to make sure it doesn’t involve itself in politics, as can be seen from its deliberate shunning of Evanston’s Faculty Senate motion and its public silence on the Cybercrime Law (which the Committee to Protect Journalists’ own director condemned.)
How long NU-Q can keep standing by, especially as press freedom gets worse and its own research goes through government censorship, is unclear. The fact that the Qatari government has recently scaled back its funding of cultural “soft-power” projects doesn’t help either.
Moreover, students are still arrested and detained for relatively minor incidents, as seen this September when Usama Hamed was arrested yet again for filming a gas station explosion. Interestingly, Dennis is using these arrests as a selling point; during a talk in Evanston last October, he said that although “students are occasionally detained by police, this challenge enriches the experience.”
When it comes to Western branch campuses in the region, Gulf expert Christopher Davidson of Britain’s Durham University says it’s “unrealistic” to think the same standards of academic freedom and non-discrimination can be upheld in the long run.
“All kinds of problems, ranging from freedom of expression, attitudes to homosexuality, Iranian/Israeli students, etc., eventually manifest themselves. Most often the red line issues are circumvented, sometimes by self-censorship,” Davidson told THE CHRONICLE. “And it’s unlikely critical research will be undertaken on such topics.”
For now, NU-Q’s balancing act continues; research, programming, and hiring are going along briskly. But whether these expansions are a sign of NU-Q’s strength rather than its weakness isn’t so sure.
It could well be, as the French Foreign Legion motto goes, that the situation is one of “marche ou crève”– march or die. Any substantially bad PR or direct criticism of Qatar’s absolute monarchy, and NU-Q could find itself in a situation many of its employees have long feared: with its contract on the chopping block.
THE CHRONICLE sent NU-Q’s Dean and CEO Everette E. Dennis a list of the major incidents and themes listed in this article prior to publication. Dennis did not respond to any requests for comment. Provost Dan Linzer and President Morton Schapiro did not respond to requests for comment.
Photo 1 by Ars Electronia, photo 2 by Omar Chatriwala, photo 3 by Stefano Campolo, photo 4 by Dan.