JERUSALEM (AP) — The head of Texas A&M University said Tuesday that he plans on opening a branch campus in Israel, a project meant to bring Arabs and Jews together and expand the school's growing overseas presence.
Chancellor John Sharp said that the "peace university" will be located in Nazareth, Israel's largest Arab city. He said the city, best known as the place of Jesus' childhood, was chosen after consulting with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
"He wanted another aspect added to it, that it would be a peace university, that it would be a university that would be composed of students from diverse backgrounds in Israel, Arabs and Jews in the same classroom, professors, teachers the same way," Sharp said. "It would be used to foster understanding and education and unity in Israel."
Peres, a Nobel peace laureate, is a vocal advocate of coexistence between Israel's Jewish majority and its Arab minority. While other Israeli universities have mixed student populations, the A&M campus would give a big boost to an Arab population center. Israeli Arabs often suffer from discrimination and a lack of opportunities. A site is already being explored in Nazareth.
Many American universities have collaborative relationships with Israeli universities. But branch campuses have been rare.
The project has a long way to go. Sharp said he did not know when it would open. In order to build the campus, he said, the Israeli parliament will need to pass special legislation, a process that he said could take a year. Since the project will not use state monies, he said a special fundraising effort is also planned.
But he said Israeli officials are supportive of the project, and potential donors have already been identified.
"There are laws to be changed. There is money to be raised, but we're very confident. I think President Peres is confident. The governor is confident," he said.
Sharp is in Israel this week with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, his former classmate at A&M in the 1970s. A signing ceremony with Peres and Texas officials is scheduled at the president's residence in Jerusalem Wednesday.
Sharp said it is too early to say how many students will study at the university, or which specific programs will be offered. He said he envisioned a research center that collaborates with both Texas A&M's main campus in College Station as well as with other Israeli universities.
"We intend to produce here a university of the first class, just as we have in College Station," he said. "We feel we can produce something special, not just for Texas A&M but for the state of Israel as well."
According to the agreement to be signed Wednesday the branch will be known as Texas A&M University at Nazareth-Peace Campus.
In a statement, Peres' office said the president believes the project will reduce the gaps between Israeli Arabs and Jews, promote higher education and peace. "He is very happy about the cooperation between Texas and Israel," it said.
Texas A&M already has a presence in the Middle East with establishment a decade ago of an engineering school in Qatar, an Arab state on the northeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula.
Since then, the university's inaugural class of 29 students, of whom 24 were Qatari, has grown to a student body of nearly 550 undergraduate and graduate students from more than 30 countries. The Qatar school also has more than 90 faculty with expertise in engineering, sciences and liberal arts.
Since December 2007, Texas A&M at Qatar has produced 294 graduates.
A&M is among several U.S.-based universities in Qatar, including Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern, Virginia Commonwealth, Georgetown and Weill Cornell Medical College. In addition, New York University has a branch in Abu Dhabi.
In Texas, the A&M System includes 11 universities with more than 125,000 students and 28,000 faculty and staff. Its flagship university in College Station was founded in 1876 and the nearly 59,000 students enrolled in the current semester makes it among the largest schools in the U.S.
Sharp said entering Israel was part of a strategy to expand the university's global footprint and encourage collaboration across borders. Beyond the Qatar campus, Texas A&M also has programs in Italy, Mexico, and Costa Rica.
"We get prestige being associated with two prominent countries in the Middle East," he said. "What we get out of it mostly is a much more enriching experience for our students and their students."
Michael Graczyk in Houston contributed to this report.