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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Higher education success: A challenge in Palestine

Higher education is difficult in Palestine, professor says.

By Chris Corley, Minnesota State University, Mankato history faculty member (published in The Free Press, Mankato, MN, 5/30/2011]

On a beautiful, sunny day, our tour guide at Bethlehem University pointed to a new building as we made our way around the campus. Groups of students chatted on benches in the gardens. Others sat alone as they prepared for their final exams.

A Roman Catholic university of 3,000 students that sits atop the highest hill in the city, Bethlehem’s charm rivals many Minnesota campuses. The institution’s tenacity and sense of purpose, however, has few peers.

As our guide described the new building, he explained that it had replaced a previous structure that was destroyed by three Israeli missiles in 2002, during the second intifada.

The university decided to preserve some of the damage wrought by a fourth missile that struck the library. A hole remains in its exterior wall. Inside the library, visitors can read about the shelling and the curfews that closed the campus for extended periods.

Our group visited five university campuses in the West Bank. During each visit, we received campus tours from students or public relations officials prior to meetings with faculty and administration for the rest of the day.

As we walked around the campuses and listened to the faculty, two points became increasingly clear. The conflict is never very far from the minds of those who work and study on the campuses, and Palestinians who serve in higher education have a patient hope that their work will bring about a better, more prosperous and peaceful future for all.

Professors prepare for their semesters knowing that their courses might be interrupted. Blockades or strikes sometimes halt classes, and checkpoints close without warning. Staff at Hebron University, to the south of Bethlehem, claimed that Israeli authorities culled through their library book orders. Memorials to students killed in the conflict sit near the center of many campuses.

In this context, pursuing a university education takes on layers of meanings that go unnoticed in more serene surroundings. Themes of emancipation and freedom are woven into courses in diverse disciplines, and students are encouraged think independently about identifying problems and posing solutions for them.

Professors described how courses that explored different cultures and places allow the students to see their own situation in a broader context, and gave them hope that they could be agents of change for their own lives. One English faculty member said that her courses encourage students to “consider themselves active players … in changing and shaping and creating a better future for Palestinians.”

This message of persistence and hope was repeated among the faculty at universities throughout our visit. As a whole, faculty and administrators see themselves as “building capacity” for a better Palestine, regardless of the specific political solutions that develop.

Birzeit University, just outside of Ramallah, mandates 120 community service hours of all of its students prior to graduation. I toured information technology centers and new nursing and community health buildings. Many of the universities focus on developing teachers, managers, lawyers, government ministers, health care specialists, scientists and journalists. These are the types of professionals needed to advance open political institutions and societies.

Although the universities emerged only in the 1970s and 1980s, they work with strong foundations. According to the United Nations, ninety-four percent of the Palestinian adult population is literate, as are nearly all of Palestinian youth aged between 15 and 24. New construction existed at all of the campuses we visited. Most of the faculty hold Ph.Ds from American and European universities.

The gender ratio at the universities might strain American stereotypes of Arab societies: at all of the universities, at least 60% of the students were women. Birzeit has a Women’s Studies program that will provide a model for similar programs at universities in Egypt and other Arab countries.

But as the damage preserved in Bethlehem’s library wall attests, challenges remain for these institutions.

Despite the large percentage of female undergraduates, women are underrepresented in the work force. Few female faculty work at the universities. I met only one female university administrator during my time in the West Bank.

Although many faculty hold Ph.Ds from international institutions, building a consistent research agenda is very difficult because the scholars are relatively isolated, mobility is limited and funding is scarce for such endeavors. A lack of research capacity means that Palestine will have to look elsewhere for innovations rather than developing them at home.

Faculty and student exchanges remain difficult. All of the universities are moving toward developing further international exposure for their students and faculty, but the more serious problems lie with visitors coming to the West Bank. With the exception of a program or two, only European universities send visiting students and faculty in consistent numbers.

Few Americans visit and study in the West Bank, which is why we came. Meeting potential partners and learning about their institutions occupied our main business activities each day. Although some lifelong professional and institutional relationships may emerge, it seemed to me that many faculty were happy to have us listen, to understand their stories from their perspective. In the end, that may be the most important outcome of all.

(Chris Corley is one of 10 professors across the nation selected to visit Palestine for two weeks as part of the the Palestinian American Research Center’s seminar on Palestine.)

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