Texas A&M University has scrapped plans for a $200 million campus in the Israeli city of Nazareth and instead is launching a $6 million marine research center that's expected to contribute to critical projects Israel is pursuing along the Mediterranean Sea.
The research center, which will open in February in collaboration with the University of Haifa, is a departure from plans announced in October 2013, when A&M System Chancellor John Sharp said a "peace university" was planned for Israel's largest Arab city, Nazareth, that would bring Arabs and Jews together. The plans for an A&M branch were unveiled after consulting with then-Israeli President Shimon Peres, an advocate of coexistence between Israel's Jewish majority and its Arab minority.
While Israel has restrictive laws that can prevent the opening of foreign branch campuses, Sharp told The Associated Press last week that A&M changed its plans because elected officials in Nazareth wanted to dictate the direction and aim of the campus.
"We're not going to put our name on something we didn't have total control over," he said.
Large natural gas deposits have been discovered in the eastern Mediterranean and Sharp said part of the appeal for the research center in the northern city of Haifa was tapping into the "oil and gas segment in Israel." Work at the center will include monitoring ocean flow and is expected to help mitigate risks associated with offshore exploration.
"We're starting with a $6 million project there but I don't have any doubt that it'll grow exponentially over the years," said Sharp, explaining that research in Israel often leads to startups and new commercial ventures.
"They don't call it 'startup nation' for nothing," he said.
The A&M System has achieved a primary goal of expanding into Israel to take advantage of the country's growing reputation as a high-tech hub.
"There really is a remarkable amount of research and innovation occurring in Israel," said James Hallmark, vice chancellor for academic affairs at A&M. "There's just so much going on there and we wanted to be a part of that."
The country, comparable in size to New Jersey, has thousands of active technology startups fueled by billions of dollars in investments. In the third quarter of 2015 alone, 165 high-tech companies raised $1.1 billion, according to the Israel Venture Capital Research Center.
Hallmark said research at the Haifa center will complement work A&M students and researchers conduct along the Texas coast. It's not yet clear how many students will study in Haifa, but it will begin with graduates and then is expected to expand to include undergraduate work.
University of Haifa Rector David Faraggi said the agreement with A&M will create a marine monitoring station, the first of its kind in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Sustained measurements of ocean data will help researchers forecast long-term trends, officials say.
"Texas A&M is one of the largest and best universities in the States, especially in marine sciences," he said. "This is something the University of Haifa is putting major efforts into, to make ourselves leaders in marine research in Israel."
Texas A&M already has a presence in the Middle East with the establishment more than a decade ago of an engineering school in Qatar, an Arab state on the northeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula.
In Texas, the A&M System includes 11 universities with more than 140,000 students and 28,000 faculty and staff. Its flagship university in College Station was founded in 1876 and the more than 64,000 students enrolled in the current semester makes it among the largest schools in the U.S.
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