Texas A&M will sign an agreement on Wednesday to open a branch in Nazareth, making it the first American university to decide to set up a campus in Israel.
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The agreement was announced Tuesday by the President’s Residence, the Education Ministry and the Council for Higher Education. President Shimon Peres will preside over Wednesday's signing ceremony, which will be attended by Texas Governor Rick Perry and Texas A&M chancellor John Sharp.
The new campus in Nazareth is meant to provide an alternative for the many Arab Israelis who currently attend college abroad. Essentially, Texas A&M will take over the city’s existing college, the Nazareth Academic Institute, which was established in 2010 specifically to serve the Arab population. Having suffered from many problems in its effort to function as an independent institution – above all, a lack of state financing – NAI welcomed the prestigious American university’s entry into the picture, hoping it will finally provide a proper institute of higher education for the Arab population.
“We hoped and wanted to be an Israeli academic institution in every respect, not a branch [of a foreign university,]” said NAI’s dean of students, Soher Bsharat. “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.”
Texas A&M has promised to raise $70 million to build its Nazareth campus, which will be known as Texas A&M Peace University, as well as additional millions for an endowment to finance its operations. Classes will be taught in English by lecturers from Texas A&M. The university will be open to both Jewish and Arab students.
Sharp, the Texas A&M chancellor, was a driving force behind the decision to open a campus in Israel. “I wanted a presence in Israel,” he said, in an interview with the New York Times. “I have felt a kinship with Israel.”
To pursue his goal, Sharp, a longtime supporter of Jewish and Israeli causes, sought help from Pastor John C. Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel. Hagee helped him make contact with officials in Israel.
But locating the branch in Nazareth was Peres’ idea, according to the president’s advisor on social issues, Yosef Angel. The university, he said, “wanted to open a branch in Israel and was looking for a suitable place to establish it. They consulted us, and we advised them to look into Nazareth. They visited and fell in love with the place.”
NAI currently offers degrees in two subjects – chemistry and communications. It has 120 students, 90 percent of them women.
But it has never received any state funding, despite repeated requests, and despite an OECD recommendation that Israel should fund the college. NAI’s president, Prof. George Kanaza, told Haaretz three years ago that the Council for Higher Education even conditioned the institution’s accreditation on a promise not to apply for state funding. “Apparently, the CHE hoped we would expire from lack of funds,” he told Haaretz at the time.
The CHE’s argument for refusing to fund the college was that Israel already has plenty of colleges and doesn’t need another state-funded institution. Since then, however, the government has approved upgrading the college in Ariel to a university, while NAI remains unfunded, despite the dire need for more academic institutions serving the Arab public.
Recently, the CHE’s Planning and Budgeting Committee delayed approval approval of a new campus for NAI, even though the college had already obtained a plot of land from the Israel Lands Administration and the Nazareth municipality, as well as a pledged donation to finance construction. The latter came from Palestinian millionaire Munib al-Masri.