NU-Q’s progress and outlook: an interview with Al Watan

Dean & CEO Everette E. Dennis spoke with Al Watan newspaper about recent and future initiatives at NU-Q, and the media climate in Qatar.


Everette E. Dennis, dean and CEO of NU-Q

[Al Watan]: Could you provide an overview of the most recent developments at NU-Q?

[Dennis]: NU-Q continues to strengthen its faculty with new hires who have strong media and educational backgrounds while also developing a robust research program and outreach efforts to benefit its students who are becoming part of the talent pool for media and communication in Qatar and the region.

We’ve inaugurated a new Media and Politics program with Georgetown and established a certificate program in Middle East studies while also launching studies of media use in Qatar and the region. We’ve hosted conferences on news reporting in the region as well as a conference on how big data is affecting journalism and media—including reporting on this important topic.  We’ve added two key new executives and faculty as we prepare for the completion of our new building.

How has the university’s curriculum evolved since you first arrived in Qatar, and how do the developments reflect changes in the media scene related to technology and media convergence?

We have made plans to launch new courses in media law and ethics and in media and society in 2014-15 academic year while strengthening modules in education and business reporting.  Our study of media use in the Middle East is part of the World Internet Project and is used by students in our classrooms to better understand convergence and media change.  We have greatly expanded our liberal arts offerings so that our students have a rich understanding of knowledge across fields in the social sciences and humanities.  Grappling with the digital world including new technologies is at the heart of our media industries and technology emphasis in the communication program. Students have access to some of the best equipment in the world for broadcasting and digital media projects, including documentary films.

How does NU-Q attract graduating high school students to apply to its rigorous program?

We have several pre-college programs, including two summer institutes for high school students as well as a film festival that brings in students from Qatar and the region as well as internationally.  Our admissions staff visits area schools, and we have frequent visitors from local high schools. At the Doha Film Festival last fall, we had an interactive newsroom on site, and local school children and their families participated by making newscasts and experiencing the world of media.  We also have frequent visits by high school students and their families, which we encourage and enjoy.

Do you agree that Qatari students are less prone to pursuing degrees in journalism and communication? What do you think are the reasons?

Not really. It is true that there is less of a tradition for journalistic and media careers in the region and that they have not enjoyed as much popularity as fields like engineering and business, but this is changing as people realize the importance of media in virtually every field. Organizations like Al Jazeera have played a major role in advancing the status and importance of media work and communications.  Similarly there is no field where communications does not play a key role—from health and medicine to culture and sports.  As Qatari students have realized how critical communication is to realizing the goals of Vision 2030, they have expressed greater interest in these fields.  It is our obligation to continuously make the case for journalism and communication to demonstrate how exciting and rewarding these careers can be.  People in these fields not only contribute mightily to society and render a real social purpose through information, but also have fun doing it.

How many Qatari students have graduated from NU-Q thus far? Could you name some of the organizations they have joined since graduating?

We will have graduated nearly 100 students with the May 2014 graduation, of which about 40 percent are Qataris. Several are working for Al Jazeera Arabic Channel, Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Children’s, as well as the Doha Film Institute, major ministries such the new Ministry of Telecommunications and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Qatar TV, and various magazines, digital media companies and public relations firms.

What organizations in Qatar does NU-Q collaborate with and what is the nature of these collaborations?

Literally scores of organizations, including Al Jazeera, Doha Film Institute, ictQatar, the Qatar Museums Authority, various ministries, businesses, sports organizations, media companies and others.  In addition, NU-Q has been the convener of the Qatar Media Industries Forum, which has drawn more than 100 local organizations to its meetings aimed a disseminating new research on media and the Qatar media market.

What is the latest on your partnership with the World Internet Project?

After our maiden voyage with an eight-nation study of media use in the Middle East, the World Internet Project (WIP) incorporated our findings thus giving this region strong representation for the first time. We are now working on a major study of cultural, entertainment and sports media in the region, which is closely linked to the Internet.  The head of the WIP makes regular visits to NU-Q to meet with faculty and students as well as our research team.  We have just attracted a world-class associate dean for research in Dr. Klaus Schoenbach of the University of Vienna, an expert on journalism and media effects, who will play a big part in the WIP going forward.

Has NU-Q spearheaded any initiatives to communicate and collaborate with journalists in Qatar?

We have made working visits to Qatari newspapers and magazines to get a better sense of their needs. We’ve had briefings for local journalists and regularly invite them to our activities and events including providing translation services for the Arabic media. The Qatar Media Industries Forum welcomes journalists also. We will be developing mid-career and executive education for professionals in Qatar once our new building is complete, presumably in the 2014-15 academic year.

In your opinion, what is NU-Q’s most important achievement since its establishment in Qatar? And what are some of the most important challenges facing the university in the foreseeable future?

No doubt our most important and proudest achievements have been graduating two classes of students and growing the program each year with strong and accomplished young people whose achievement in journalistic work, communications and films continues to develop. Recruiting stronger and stronger new classes each year is part of that. We are also proud of attracting and keeping a world-class faculty as well as becoming a source of intelligence on media for the country and region through our research and outreach.

Qatar is known as a major media center in the region. How has NU-Q enriched the media scene in Qatar?

Ironically, Qatar often does not see itself as a media center since the individual industries—newspapers, magazines and broadcasting, for example—don’t always see themselves as part of a larger whole, which they are. We have documented for the first time the scope and depth of the media sector in Qatar and have celebrated that in the Qatar Media Industries Forum. One of our Qatari colleagues remarked that at the QMIF he saw the whole of Qatari media people together under one roof for the first time. “We really are an industry in ways that many of us never thought of,” he told me. First and foremost, we at NU-Q have learned from our colleagues in the local media.  We’ve added to the talent pool through our students and graduates, and we’ve conducted research that has practical value.  Our faculty have spent countless hours with local media folks learning and contributing.

What are your thoughts on media freedom in Qatar? Do you feel that there are any restrictions or taboos?

Media freedom is advancing incrementally in Qatar. In just three years, I’ve witnessed more robust and yes, courageous, reporting and commentary in the local media.  At the same time there are constraints in the existing media law, which, I understand, are under study. The greatest challenge to journalists, however, is one of ensuring a level of transparency, and that never comes easily in any society.  Greater transparency across Qatari society would have great advantages for everyone especially for business development and for Qatar’s image in the world.  People worry about the dangers of overly broad laws, although the Qatari constitution is clear on media freedom. Adjusting some key legal contradictions would be a step forward. Achieving that end will take time and an accommodation between modern and traditional values. We need to respect the culture, but also recognize that change is important to Qatar’s future.  It is good to remember what one great legal scholar once said, “the more we define freedom, the less freedom we have.”

Al Jazeera has had a major impact in the MENA region over the years. What are your thoughts on Al Jazeera America — will it have any role to play in boosting Qatar’s standing in the global media industry?

We at NU-Q have had the privilege of convening two content consultations sessions for Al Jazeera America as the new network was developing in 2013.  Al Jazeera America has hired a distinguished staff of journalists and news executives and has produced high quality programming since it first went on the air.  I hear about this from colleagues across the US, who are impressed with what AJAM is doing and its calm voice. Gaining an audience for a network is extremely difficulty and, AJAM has made strides but not as fast as it would like. It is having an impact on an audience of viewers who appreciate depth and quality news.  The seriousness of the AJAM effort has already impressed the media community, but building a stronger and larger audience is key.  The jury is still out on this bold venture, but I have high hopes for it. And I think the leadership of Al Jazeera is in it for the long haul to make this a success.