Dean Marwan M. Kraidy, dean of Northwestern University in Qatar, speaks about his hopes and plans for its future, freedom of speech, the path ahead for journalism in the Middle East – and why he is worried about social media companies
What is your vision for Northwestern University in Qatar moving forward? Is it simply a case of the university continuing to do what it has always done, or do you want to evolve and expand its role and academic remit?
Northwestern Qatar is a world-class university located in Doha at the confluence of continents. I envision our school as an embedded institution; a productive contributor to the Northwestern University universe and to the multiversity of Education City. We are nested in Qatar, the Arab world, and the broader Global South – and are truly distinctive only if we capitalize on our multiple enmeshments. And this realization shapes my vision for Northwestern Qatar.
That vision is firstly to be producers of knowledge in which Qatar and the Arab world are not only empirical subjects, but analytical prisms through which to look back at and speak back to the world; secondly, capitalizing on our location to galvanize intellectual and creative energy from and about the Global South; and thirdly, envision our teaching, research, and creative media as a unified enterprise focused on making different worlds intelligible to each other.
Translation – as metaphor, as worldview, and as craft – captures important aspects of my vision for Northwestern Qatar. Deepening and broadening scholarly research and media making at the highest level, fully integrating undergraduate students in our knowledge-creation enterprise, and consequently becoming a key interlocutor in global debates about pressing issues, is an overarching priority for me moving forward. Northwestern Qatar is already a prominent university; and an explicit research and pedagogical focus on the Global South will move us from distinction to eminence.
As Northwestern Qatar’s new dean – and its first Arab dean – what do you aim to bring to the role?
I aim to bring a strong vision rooted in the core values of academic excellence, which is implemented collectively by the Northwestern Qatar community. Being a role model is an important aspect of leadership, and I see myself as a citizen-leader who is part and parcel of the community rather than above it. To be able to rally a community around a common purpose, I believe you have to understand and appreciate every person’s concerns and aspirations – allaying the former and enabling the latter.
I also hope to inspire my colleagues and students with my fierce commitment to unfettered intellectual inquiry and creative experimentation. My deep understanding of the Arab context, my native fluency in Arabic, and my research on Arab media, culture, and politics will help me make Northwestern Qatar a more contextually resonant and impactful institution.
For all his efforts and achievements, the latter part of the previous dean’s tenure was marred with disagreements with students, and seemingly with certain faculty. Is there a need to improve relationships in this regard, and, if so, how do you plan to do this?
Disagreement is unavoidable when various members of a community have different ideas about where that community should be heading. I aim to build on the achievements of my predecessors to improve all relationships at Northwestern Qatar, including the ones between leadership and students, and leadership and faculty.
This will include developing policies, standards, and procedures that are clearly articulated, grounded in best practices, consistently applied, transparently communicated, and shaped above all by Northwestern’s standards of academic excellence. Once these are in place, people of goodwill who are committed to Northwestern Qatar’s future can use any disagreement as an opportunity for growth and development.
Northwestern Qatar aims to push boundaries and promote freedom of thought and expression. But we have seen the challenges this can create. Can Northwestern Qatar’s academic ethos and its setting truly operate in harmony, or do you foresee more challenges arising in the future?
At Northwestern Qatar, we know that growth and discovery require an unwavering commitment to free inquiry. Sometimes this can lead to controversy, but what is controversy if not a disagreement that becomes public? Controversies have positive aspects: first of all, they tell us that different sides deeply care about a set of issues or about the institution itself; and second, they air rival points of view, allowing people to critically examine competing narratives.
I do not see Northwestern Qatar’s academic mission and its setting being in disharmony. We are fortunate to be in a country that considers education a national priority and to have committed partners on that path. It is a mistake to consider this issue a dichotomy between “harmony” and “disharmony”; areas of agreement and mutual commitment vastly trump areas of potential divergence.
This does not mean that challenges will not arise in the future, but if and when they do arise, I hope we can use them as opportunities for mutual growth and to reaffirm core academic values that are essential for universities to thrive.
In a world of fake news, clickbait, and short attention spans, where distrust of some sections of the media has grown and many media companies have drastically cut their investment in quality newsgathering, why should young people still consider careers in journalism?
Turning our back to journalism because of disinformation, distrust, and decay is like turning our back on medicine because of disease and pandemics. Young people should consider careers in journalism now more than ever because they have unprecedented opportunities to make positive and enduring contributions to the wellbeing of their societies. In addition, journalism itself is undergoing transformations on multiple fronts, and new professional avenues are opening up as others fade.
What do you see as the future of journalism in the Middle East? Can it ever be truly independent?
Can journalism ever be truly independent anywhere? For that to happen, those who study the crisis of journalism worldwide – and particularly in the US – argue that only a model of public funding of journalism can ensure its survival.
It used to be that the main challenge to journalism in the Middle East was political, while in the West it was commercial. Recent trends show that political forces of censorship and instrumentalization of journalism are at work in North America and Western Europe, while market considerations have become a significant control factor in the Middle East.
Journalism is in deep crisis worldwide, under the combined forces of politics, economics, and technology, but it clearly faces special challenges in the Middle East. What we can do concretely is to continue training the best journalists in the making, and to continue raising awareness that independent media are important contributors to the rise and wellbeing of societies.
What are your views on social media – its main benefits and its main risks? And do its benefits outweigh its risks or vice versa?
One of the most distinctive features of social media is that it allows communication from the many to the many – as opposed to interpersonal (one to one) or mass (one to many). A second distinguishing feature of social media is that they are in no way neutral intermediaries, but rather algorithmic mediators: what gets communicated, amplified, and discussed is decided by software dedicated to maximizing profit.
There are some benefits in times of natural disasters or pandemics, or in allowing ordinary people to have a voice, for example, but I am afraid that on balance, the way social media companies are currently set up makes them instruments of propaganda, misinformation, and surveillance.
How do you see Artificial Intelligence shaping the future of media and communications?
Whether we are indeed in the age of Artificial Intelligence is debatable, particularly if we adopt the most popular and dramatic understanding of AI as machines taking over human life. But developments in machine learning and algorithmic applications, beyond affecting the future of media per se, flag the calculating communicative processes behind mundane decisions. We have enough research to know that these processes are manipulative and discriminatory, in addition to being control-seeking or profit-seeking.
This may not have huge consequences when it comes to music recommendations, but the implications—moral, ethical, economic, psychological, and political—can be enormous and can lead to real harm to real people. Think of racial discrimination, of consumer manipulation, of political polarization.
Therefore, in addition to understanding and harnessing AI technically, it is imperative that we understand its impact on society, ground it in human experience and morality, and develop ethical and technical guardrails against abuse.