Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
On Wednesday in Jerusalem, Israeli President Shimon Peres, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp are expected to announce plans to establish a Texas A&M campus in Nazareth. It is tentatively being called Texas A&M University at Nazareth-Peace Campus.
The project took shape when Sharp visited Israel earlier this year and had lunch with Manuel Trajtenberg, an economist who has chaired the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education in Israel for about four years. In that role, Trajtenberg has worked to increase access to higher education for, among other groups, the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities.
“There is no major academic institution in any Arab city or town within Israel,” he observed in an interview with the Tribune.
Sharp's desire to set up shop in the region since shortly after assuming the chancellorship in 2011 complemented Trajtenberg's desire to address this problem, and over the course of their meal they narrowed in on Nazareth, a predominantly Arab city, as the location. “It really was a meeting of the minds,” Trajtenberg said. “Really a great coincidence. He came with the general idea of doing something in Israel, but he wasn’t aware of our efforts in that direction.”
A&M benefited from being able to claim some know-how when it comes to operating a branch campus, as well as providing international education in engineering — a major need in the region. In 2003, the university opened an outpost in Doha, Qatar, that specializes in engineering degrees.
Because the agreement with the Qatar campus grants them exclusive access to A&M's engineering program in the region, the Nazareth campus will only be able to offer engineering degrees if the Qataris allow it. Sharp said it has yet to be determined if that will happen.
One key difference between that project and this one is that Qatar courted foreign universities; A&M ended up being one of six American universities to have a presence there. The country, through a wealthy nonprofit foundation, foots the entire bill for A&M’s presence.
That will not be the case in Israel, where A&M will be the first — and, for now, only — foreign institution with such a foothold in recent memory. Most of the funds for the Peace campus are expected to come from donors. Sharp said that, especially given how low tuition is kept in Israel, an ongoing foundation will be created to support the university.
“Our side of the equation is to locate and make available land, which is a scarce resource in Israel,” Trajtenberg said.
Trajtenberg said he anticipates significant student interest. “Of course, we would appeal to potential students in the area, but also Jewish Israelis of all sorts, because we want that to be a multicultural place,” he said. “I suspect there will be a strong demand for this institution from students who would prefer to study in English and are comfortable in a multicultural environment.”
Texas A&M is not the state's only higher education institution eyeing opportunities to expand its physical presence internationally.
In September, the University of North Texas officially opened a recruiting office in Bangkok, which will also help provide services for the school’s approximately 1,000 living alumni from Thailand — a bond that developed between the country and university after President Lyndon B. Johnson arranged for the school’s jazz band to play for Thailand’s monarch.
But UNT’s new office in Thailand is a far smaller endeavor than what A&M has planned in Israel.
“We still have lots of difficulties ahead,” Trajtenberg said, indicating that the timeline for when the new campus would open was unclear. “We have to recognize that, because never before we have attempted something like this. For a foreign university to set up a branch in a different country, it’s not easy. It’s a different place with different regulations and different characteristics.”
Sharp said that two things must happen before A&M can open the doors of its "Peace Campus." In addition to A&M raising the money for the project, an Israeli law will have to be changed in order to allow a foreign institution like A&M to establish a branch campus there. Minister of Education Shai Piron has indicated support for making the alteration.
But A&M's chancellor said he was not fazed by the hurdles. "Every time we hit a wall," Sharp said, "somebody knocked it down or changed something to make it happen."