Tufts and Saudi Arabia: A $60 million relationship

Ballou Hall is pictured on May 5, 2016. (Sofie Hecht / The Tufts Daily Archives)

Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was set to speak to students at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy; Ibrahim Warde, an adjunct professor of international business at Fletcher, had confirmed it in September of last year.  

But Khashoggi, a fierce critic of his native Saudi Arabia, never made it to Tufts. On Oct. 2, 2018, just days after agreeing to the talk at Tufts, Khashoggi was brutally murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by Saudi agents.

The assassination was met with a swift reaction around the globe and calls for a re-evaluation of Saudi financing of American universities, including Tufts.

In the last decade, Tufts University has received more than $59.5 million in contracts from the Saudi government and government-backed institutions, a review of federal data on foreign gifts by the Daily revealed.

The Associated Press, which first reported on a portion of the money, found that Tufts received the third highest amount of money among institutions of higher education in the United States, behind George Washington University and George Mason University.

The vast majority of the money, some $52.2 million, has flowed through the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission to sponsor Saudi students studying primarily at the Tufts University School of Medicine, a claim confirmed by the current dean and a former dean of international affairs at the School of Medicine.

Another $2.9 million came from contracts with the Saudi national oil company, Saudi Aramco, the data show.

Nearly $2.8 million came in contracts from Umm al-Qura University, a public Islamic university in Mecca, while $1.6 million came in contracts from King Abdulaziz University, a public university in Jeddah.

Patrick Collins, Tufts’ executive director of public relations, said that the university’s programs with Saudi Arabia are a product of Tufts’ dedication to fostering global relationships.

“Our collaborations have provided Saudi students with access to education, training and research experience in healthcare and the life sciences, which advances the cause of global health and social progress,” Collins wrote in an email to the Daily.

Tufts has not publicly indicated any plans to stop accepting funds from Saudi Arabia.

A healthcare system for the King

The first Tufts initiatives with Saudi Arabia began shortly after the arrival of Adel Abu-Moustafa as the inaugural dean of international affairs at the School of Medicine in 1987.

An Egyptian scientist and administrator, Abu-Moustafa began his work transforming the medical school from a Boston institution into a healthcare hub with global reach.

While Tufts’ new dean was looking for a place on the global stage for the university, Saudi Arabia was looking for prestigious universities like Tufts to help build up its nascent higher education sector.

The Kingdom, founded only in 1932, needed Western expertise to develop universities and a healthcare system from next to nothing, Liz Reisberg, a research fellow at Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education, explained.

“It was a really intensive push to build a higher education sector of international quality in a relatively short period of time, and that was necessary,” Reisberg, who has worked for eight years with Saudi Ministry of Education officials to organize higher education conferences, said.

Abu-Moustafa had no trouble getting started at Tufts.

The same year he was hired by Tufts, he led the efforts of a consortium of American universities to assemble six faculties of King Faisal University in eastern Saudi Arabia and signed a contract with the U.S. Treasury Department to develop the health sciences facilities of King Abdulaziz University in the Red Sea port of Jeddah, according to a 2009 article written by Abu-Moustafa and former Dean of the School of Medicine John Harrington, in Al Mubtaath, translated as The Scholar, a publication of the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission.  

The latter project routinely had an annual budget of $1.5 million and saw hundreds of Tufts faculty fly to Saudi Arabia to teach students and faculty at King Abdulaziz, Abu-Moustafa and Harrington wrote in the article.

In 1989, Abu-Moustafa started Tufts’ long-running cooperation with Aramco to train and equip the company-run healthcare system.

Abu-Moustafa lauded the initiatives as resounding successes for Tufts: “Now in the Middle East, everyone knows the name Tufts,” he said.

A testament to the programs he built: one of the students from King Abdulaziz who later studied at Tufts and knows Abu-Moustafa well, Dina al-Tayeb (DG ’02, DG ’04), was elected to the Tufts University Board of Trustees in 2016.

Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the focus of Tufts’ cooperation with Saudi Arabia shifted to medical residencies for Saudi students, Abu-Moustafa explained to the Daily.

This was possible thanks to a Saudi government scholarship program that pays the tuition for thousands of the country’s most talented students to study at medical schools across the U.S.

According to the Al Mubtaath article, only seven Saudi residents were studying at the Tufts hospitals in 2005, but that number stood at 65 by 2009. Abu-Moustafa said the program was bringing in millions for Tufts every year.

After 24 years as dean of international affairs, Abu-Moustafa retired in 2012.

Richard Dupee (LA ’67, M ’71), who now holds the post, says since his retirement the program has been forced to adapt to a series of challenges.

After a change in regulations, sponsored residents, like the Saudis, were no longer exempted from the highly competitive residency selection process called The National Resident Matching Program, or The Match. This year, there were around 30 Saudi residents concentrated in psychiatry and neurology at Tufts, according to Ghenwa Hakim (MG ’17), the director of international affairs at the School of Medicine.  

In 2016, Aramco left for Johns Hopkins University, and the health infrastructure contracts with Saudi universities have proved increasingly difficult to secure.

“Everyone loves my ideas: sharing curriculum, and providing them with teaching,” Dupee said. “It’s not clear why these things don’t work, but it’s not because we haven’t tried.”

Still, Dupee says that the residency tuition payments remain a significant source of revenue for the university — $3.4 million in 2017 alone — along with providing considerable intangible benefits to the Tufts School of Medicine.

“The benefit [is that] we’re international, so our goal is to make sure that we have an impact on education internationally, and as it turns out it’s Middle East [that we’re focusing on] at the moment,” Dupee said.

Hakim added that the Saudi residency program brings an element of cultural exchange that is beneficial to both the Saudis and their classmates.

“A lot of people who are coming from Saudi Arabia, they may have visited the United States before, but they haven’t been able to immerse in our culture, our society, in the way that they do when they study here for three, four, five, six years,” she said.

Killing puts Saudi millions in the spotlight

In the wake of Khashoggi’s murder and amid Saudi Arabia’s bloody military intervention in Yemen, the Saudis’ multi-million dollar contributions to institutes of higher education in America, such as New Haven University, Harvard University, Northwestern University and MIT, has stirred considerable controversy.

At MIT, the outcry was such that last October the university president commissioned a review of the school’s ties to Saudi Arabia which ultimately concluded in favor of maintaining them, according to reporting by MIT student newspaper The Tech.

While no such review took place at Tufts, Collins, the Tufts spokesperson, said that the university has changed policies since Khashoggi’s  murder.

“While we have policies in place to review all potential donations to the university, we are intensifying our review of any potential future donations from Saudi sources in light of our continued concerns over oppression and human rights violations, including the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, which the university forcefully condemns,” he said.

Elizabeth Prodromou (J ’81, FG ’83), a visiting associate professor of conflict resolution at Fletcher, urged the university to exercise “extreme caution” when evaluating donations from Saudi Arabia.

Eight years on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and two trips to Saudi Arabia have convinced her that the Saudi government’s stances on freedom of thought, speech and its routine use of violence are entirely at odds with the values a university should have, and she is wary of the Kingdom’s motivations for financing American higher education.

“[The Saudis] have seen education around the world, and certainly higher education, as a mechanism for penetration and dissemination of Saudi viewpoints certainly on human rights issues and on political regime issues,” she said.

However, Prodromou said that accepting tuition dollars, the bulk of the Saudi money going to Tufts, has the least potential negative effects, but she said that like any large donation from a foreign government there is the potential for a ‘chilling effect’ on the university’s commitment to speaking out against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s regime.

“It’s incumbent on any university, including Tufts, to do a very scrupulous review … of the nature of those relationships and to prioritize above all the commitment to academic freedom, not only in terms of the classroom but also in terms of research and publications,” she said.

Not everyone would be satisfied by a review of Tufts’ ties, like Michael VanElzakker (AG ’15), a lecturer in the psychology department at Tufts, who is calling for all Saudi ties to be cut.

VanElzakker, also a board member of Massachusetts Peace Action, a Cambridge-based anti-war activist group, says the source of the money is more important than what it goes to fund.

“If a prestigious university like Tufts were to say, ‘We’re no longer doing business with this government,’ that would make headlines and help to frame the debate. Tufts could be a leader in this regard, but instead it’s just accepting the status quo,” he said.

VanElzakker sees the funding as a way for the Saudis to buy legitimacy and worries about the influence the money could have over the university.

Dupee rejected the idea of cutting all ties with Saudi Arabia, which would also entail shuttering the residency program at the School of Medicine, calling such action a punishment to Saudi students who are not guilty of their government’s crimes.

“These are good kids, who come from good families that want to do good things. So I have no problem with that money,” Dupee said.

He also said that in all their conversations with the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission, which pays the tuition, political questions had never come up. He said he felt in no way constrained from critiquing Saudi Arabia by the money.

Hakim said the same about her contacts with Saudi officials.

“We’re focused on medical education and that’s pretty much where our conversations start and end,” she said.

In fact, Dupee argued the program was more likely to have a political influence on Saudi Arabia than the other way around.

“[The residents are] given the opportunity to see what Westernized nations like ours think about these things … they’re not happy with human rights abuses, now knowing that, they’re going to go back and run [medical] departments, and that’s going to filter down,” Dupee said. “Doctors have always led the fight against human rights abuses — always. Because that’s who we are. That’s our work.”

Reisberg, the higher education consultant, echoed that idea, saying that the Saudi residents at Tufts are the kinds of people most likely to support and advocate for social change in Saudi Arabia.

She also pointed out that Saudi Arabia is not the only country committing human rights abuses, and that cutting ties with the Saudis, while leaving intact those with the Russians and Chinese, would be inconsistent.

“I think when you start to weigh in the political stuff, the list of countries you can collaborate with gets really short really quickly,” she said.

While Tufts has received $2.6 million from Chinese sources since 2012, less than the $2.9 million from Liechtenstein in the same period, none of those sources were governmental, federal data show. Tufts has not received any significant financing from Russia.

These arguments were not good enough for VanElzakker, who hopes that Tufts would refuse funding from any country committing human rights violations.

“I do think that there’s a slippery slope argument to be made, but I actually don’t think that’s a counter argument,” he said. “Frame it in a positive way – imagine if Tufts took a principled stand on all of these governments.”

He also said that the ‘theoretical’ possibility that training Saudi doctors would lead to change in the Kingdom did not justify accepting money from the country.

“Within the last month [the Saudis] executed political activists by beheading. Did the fact that we’re training doctors prevent that? Is it the sort of thing where we say, ‘Look, we can accept a few beheadings as long as they’re training doctors because that’s how we make change,’” he said.

Prodromou called the moment an “inflection point” for the way the university does business with foreign financing.

“I think that for universities in particular, which are meant to be places of free conscience and free speech, the Khashoggi event offers a very important opportunity to take a step back and re-evaluate the parameters and specifics of the relationship with Saudi Arabia and more generally with foreign governments,” she said.


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