In Focus: Aftermath of NU-Q student’s mental health crisis highlights differences between Evanston, Qatar sites

February 15, 2017

Rhytha Zahid Hejaze arrived at Northwestern University in Qatar in August 2013, excited to study journalism at a top university. She did not expect that eventually she would face academic suspension at the end of her third year, much less spend a night in a Qatari jail cell.

During her freshman year, Hejaze began to struggle with her mental health. She started counseling with Patricia Collins, NU-Q’s only on-campus counselor, in fall 2013.

In October 2015, Hejaze registered with AccessibleNU-Q, formerly called Services for Students with Disabilities. Her academic accommodations included extra time for tests and in-class assignments, breaks during exams and lectures, as well as the ability to reduce her course load or withdraw from the current semester “without financial or academic penalty,” according to a letter shared with Hejaze and dated Oct. 13, 2015.

Despite these accommodations, Hejaze, who is from Pakistan and formerly was a columnist for The Daily, said she continued to battle mental health symptoms, including anxiety and depression. She said she withdrew from classes and tried different medications.

On May 31, 2016, during a meeting with a professor, Hejaze ran into a bathroom, crying. According to a University investigative report obtained by The Daily, Collins called medical personnel out of concern for Hejaze’s welfare. The report said “allusions” to suicide made by Hejaze to NU-Q officials and other evidence gathered during the investigation indicated that “members of NU-Q administration had ample reason to be concerned for (her) well-being.”

The professor that Hejaze was meeting with when she ran out of the room, Amy Kristin Sanders, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Upon the arrival of emergency personnel, Hejaze resisted efforts to transport her to the hospital and NU-Q officials then called the police, the report said.

Hejaze, who plans to graduate in 2018, said she did not resist help from medical personnel, but that she resisted “what NU-Q’s idea of helping me was,” which she said was “forcing” her to go to the hospital.

“It’s traumatizing to have a student be in a hall with everyone watching.” she said. “It’s like a freaking show. Do not make a spectacle of someone who is already having a hard time.”

Although Hejaze told The Daily that at the time she was not doing well, she maintained she was not suicidal.

“Just because someone has told you at some point in their lives that they have experienced suicidal ideation, does that mean that’s always going to be?” Hejaze said. “The precedent this sets is if a student ever has suicidal ideation they cannot talk about it.”

The police accompanied Hejaze to the hospital May 31, where she remained in the urgent care unit until June 4, according to the report. The report stated that she was then taken to a police station to spend the night of June 4 in a cell.

“At this point, and without any advance notice to anyone at NU-Q, (Hejaze was) transported to the (Al Rayyan Police Station) where (she was) placed in a cell overnight,” the report said.

Hejaze spent the night of June 4 at the police station and was released the next day, traveling back to the university accompanied by Qatar Foundation security guards, she said. On June 5, she met with D. Charles Whitney, NU-Q’s associate dean of academic affairs, who gave her a letter of suspension for one academic year. The letter, obtained by The Daily, said the suspension was in part due to “failure to make satisfactory progress toward completion of degree requirements.”

Nanci Martin, director of strategic media and marketing for NU-Q, said NU-Q does not comment on students’ academic or personal records.

“It is important to note, however, that the University is committed to the health, safety, and welfare of each of its students and the student body collectively,” Martin told The Daily in an email. “While University policy and federal regulations prohibit us from commenting on individual students, University faculty and staff regularly assist any student who may be having difficulty or those who may need disability accommodations.”

Operating more as an extension of NU’s Evanston campus than a separate institution, NU-Q features a well-respected journalism program in a country where criticizing the emir or vice-emir can mean imprisonment or fines.

Multiple NU-Q students interviewed by The Daily praised the opportunities they received throughout their education. But as the University looks to expand its brand across the globe, Hejaze’s story highlights the challenges of opening an international school in a place with different cultural norms than the U.S.

Creating a school

In 2007, the NU administration signed an agreement to open a school in Doha, Qatar’s capital, with the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, a non-profit organization that founded Education City. An initiative spearheaded by the wife of the former emir of Qatar, Education City is located at the edge of Doha and includes several American schools, such as NU-Q.

NU-Q opened to students in 2008. Provost Dan Linzer, who played an instrumental role in NU-Q’s founding, said Doha is a destination for leaders and organizations from around the world to convene and discuss global issues.

But in the near decade since its founding, NU-Q has been subject to controversy due to limits to academic freedom in the country. In a 2015 report published after visiting NU-Q, former Faculty Senate President Stephen Eisenman praised the commitment to education shown by NU-Q faculty and students, but also expressed concerns about restrictions on academic and press freedom.

“The ethics of establishing a campus in an authoritarian country are murky, especially when it inhibits free expression, and counts among its allies several oppressive regimes or groups,” he wrote.

Qatar, a peninsula country located in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, has a population of 2.2 million people, according to the CIA’s website. The country is geographically small, but one of the wealthiest in the Middle East, with much of its income coming from vast oil and gas reserves.

NU-Q’s class of 2020 is 56 percent Qatari, according to an August news release. Qatari nationals can have most of their tuition paid for through sponsorship under government entities and corporations.

NU-Q’s website notes that besides Qatari natives, NU-Q hosts students from 20 different countries in its current freshman class. Tuition at NU-Q is the same as at its home campus: $52,004 for the 2016-17 academic year.

Operating under the law

Because Qatar has more restrictions on public speech than the U.S., Education City sometimes faces issues surrounding academic freedom. In addition, controversy surrounding Qatar’s alleged mistreatment of migrant workers has sparked international debate.

After telecom providers blocked online access to the Qatari news organization Doha News in November, NU-Q students raised concerns about the country’s media freedom, The Daily Q reported in December. In 2014, Education City students and faculty reported to The Daily Q that books were removed from course syllabi because they were held by the government for review of controversial material.

Situations involving mental health issues can face added uncertainty because attempting to commit suicide is illegal, according to the government’s penal code.

According to the investigative report, Hejaze expressed suicidal thoughts to Collins “about 3-4 times per semester since (Collins) started counseling (Hejaze) in fall 2013.” Hejaze said she talked to Collins about having suicidal ideation, but did not recall the specifics of the conversations.

“It’s legally right to call the police. But can’t you see how wrong that is?” Hejaze said. “There are professors looking at me, there are students looking at me. And I’m getting taken away by the police. Everything that is legally right shouldn’t be done. I wasn’t threatening to hurt someone; I wasn’t threatening to hurt myself.”

Hejaze said she did not realize at first that she was in a jail cell. There were suitcases and mattresses on the floor of the cell, unlike jail cells she had seen in movies, she said.

In emails obtained by The Daily, Hejaze notified Whitney when she was sent to the Public Prosecution, the country’s judicial body, on June 4, before she went to the police station and after her hospital release. She continued emailing him upon her arrival at the police station.

After emailing him four times over about two and a half hours starting at 6:58 p.m., Whitney responded to Hejaze about eight and a half hours later, writing, “I am terribly sorry about this. As of now, others in (Qatar Foundation), (Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Education City), and NU-Q are responsible for your welfare, and I hope and trust you’ll be released this morning.”

Hejaze was not allowed on campus during her suspension, as she was no longer an NU-Q student. In an email on June 6, she asked Whitney if she was allowed to say goodbye to anyone on campus. He replied, “You may text or email people and ask them to meet you at the front desk of the dormitory or, if you can arrange it with (Qatar Foundation) security, meet at the Student Center. No, sorry, you are not allowed in the building.”

Whitney deferred comment to Martin, the director of strategic media and marketing for NU-Q.

In the end, Hejaze was not convicted of a crime, and went home to Pakistan a few days later. After a months-long appeals process, her suspension was overturned and she returned to NU-Q for the spring 2017 semester, which began Jan. 8. She maintained that she felt her suspension “came out of nowhere.”

Across cultures

In an interview, Provost Linzer said Education City is a “rather protected space,” similar to NU’s Evanston campus.

“There are things written in law (in the U.S.) that are not enforced in practice and there are things written in law in Qatar that I have not seen enforced,” Linzer said.

He cited U.S. laws against underage drinking as a comparable example. “We don’t go around and arrest all of our students (in Evanston),” he said.

But whether in Evanston or in Doha, if students violate laws there could always be consequences regardless of different cultural expectations, Linzer said.

The 2016 Annual Security and Fire Safety Report for NU-Q, compiled by University Police, warns that “NU-Q community members are subject to the laws and regulations of the country in which they are located, which may differ substantially from and not offer the protection laws offer in their resident country.”

Qatari law includes strict regulations on activities common on college campuses, like drinking and “obscene language.” The security report also warns that conviction for “homosexual activity” may result in prison time or deportation.

Jim Sleeper, a political science professor at Yale University, has written several articles opposing Yale’s partnership with the National University of Singapore due to the country’s “tight-fisted governance that generates a subtle but pandemic self-censorship among its citizens,” he wrote in 2014.

He told The Daily universities must be prepared for conflicts that may arise when establishing international sites in countries with different values.

“Universities have to be sure to drive hard bargains, because they don’t want to lose their autonomy,” he said. “You can’t go for the gold without making sure that you’re keeping your values and pedagogical principles.”

Sleeper said universities can be especially enticed to opening an international site when the host government is willing to subsidize it.

“It’s catnip to the Americans,” he said. “It makes them feel cosmopolitan and worldly.”

Bridging the distance

Although NU-Q is located about 7,100 miles and a nine-hour time difference from Evanston, Linzer emphasized the role NU-Q plays within the University system.

“NU-Q is not a campus, it’s not a satellite, it’s a school of the University,” he said. “(NU-Q has) to operate as one of the schools of the University, just as I oversee the law school and the medical school and Kellogg, not just the undergraduate schools and graduate schools.”

Linzer rejected the phrase “international branch campus,” a catch-all term for institutions that establish a physical presence in a foreign location, to describe NU-Q.

As provost, Linzer said he communicates frequently with all NU deans, including NU-Q Dean Everette Dennis. He said NU-Q often coordinates with departments in Evanston. Part of the Qatar Foundation’s contract with NU-Q, Linzer said, stipulated that some of NU-Q’s budget helps support employees back in Evanston who help manage operations in Qatar.

For example, Linzer said, if there is a facilities issue at NU-Q, it will go to Jean Shedd, associate provost for budget, facilities and analysis, in Evanston. Similarly, security concerns are communicated to NU’s Executive Vice President Nim Chinniah and the University’s Chief of Police Bruce Lewis.

The security report said although UP has no formal agreement with Qatari local and state law enforcement, it periodically requests information about any situations that could “pose a serious or continuing threat” to the NU-Q community.

UP Deputy Chief of Police Gloria Graham said while information about incidents at NU-Q is often relayed to her back in Evanston, “most of the logistics of a response is handled locally in Qatar.”

Graham said if a student in Evanston is having a mental health crisis, UP will sometimes carry out a hospital transport. Deputy Chief of Police Dan McAleer said if a student is unwilling to go, UP may be required to take them into protective custody and transport them against their will. McAleer said emergency medical personnel administer some of these transports as well, especially if the incident occurs off campus. He said the Evanston Police Department often refers incidents with NU students to UP.

McAleer and Graham both said no student in Evanston has ever been detained solely due to mental health problems to their knowledge.

“I can say for our department (in Evanston) there has definitely not been a scenario where someone has been taken to jail or to a holding facility for a mental health issue,” Graham said.

After learning the University had suspended her, Hejaze said she believed she was discriminated against by NU-Q because of her mental health issues. Hejaze said that soon after the incident she began contacting NU’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Access, located in Evanston, to investigate the University’s handling of the situation.

On Oct. 27, 2016, about five months after the incident, Abel León, the investigator working on Hejaze’s case, sent Hejaze an email informing her of his findings.

According to a report on the investigation obtained by The Daily, there was no evidence that NU-Q officials sought assistance from Qatari police because of a discriminatory bias toward Hejaze based on her mental health.

“The sequence of events that unfolded after you admittedly resisted medical attention from the paramedics, including your subsequent detention and the stationing of guards outside your dormitory, appear to have stemmed from the involvement of police authorities,” it said.

Hejaze maintained in an interview with The Daily that she allowed medical personnel to examine her and that NU-Q did discriminate against her, treating her differently in the days that followed the incident. Hejaze said she blames NU-Q for the events that followed May 31, including being taken from the hospital to the jail without the University’s notice.

León found that the suspension failed to “adhere to the accommodations granted to (Hejaze) in fall 2015 and spring 2016,” the report said.

The report added: “Although you suggested that the suspension letter issued to you was a direct result of your emotional reaction to the May 31 conversation with Professor Amy Sanders, I reviewed several e-mails, dated May 30, 2016, which reflect that Whitney was in the process of drafting your suspension letter the day before the meeting with Sanders.”

“Nevertheless, the incidents that developed starting on May 31st, discussed below, after your meeting with Sanders made it impracticable to deliver the letter to you until June 5, 2016,” it said.

According to the report, Whitney indicated to León that when the suspension letter was issued, he was unaware of Hejaze’s accommodations that would have “precluded” the academic suspension.

Hejaze noted a May 24 email sent by Sanders to other NU-Q officials, including Whitney, that detailed Hejaze’s psychological state during a meeting with Sanders. Hejaze said this email shows Whitney was aware of her mental health struggles before the suspension letter was issued.

Hejaze said that NU-Q should have been able to foresee the consequences that calling the police would have on her.

“The whole police thing added to everything else that I was dealing with,” Hejaze said. “It just traumatized me more.”

León found that University officials’ decision to contact medical personnel and the police “was based, not on any stereotypes or discriminatory animus, but on an individualized and informed assessment of the risk you posed to yourself and out of a genuine concern for your overall wellbeing.”

Hejaze said although it was technically legal for NU-Q to call the police on her, she does not believe it was the “sensible” thing to do.

Writing on behalf of León, Sarah Brown, the OEOA’s director, said the office does not discuss individual cases publicly when asked for comment by The Daily.

As a result of the investigation, Dennis told Hejaze in a letter dated Oct. 26 that he was overturning the suspension.

“Although you were not making satisfactory progress toward completion of degree requirements at the time of the suspension, I find that it was improper to penalize you academically for having taken a reduced course load, in light of the accommodations that were offered,” he wrote.

The email said Hejaze could return as a student beginning in the spring 2017 semester, which began on Jan. 8.

Several NU-Q administrators, including Whitney and Collins, deferred requests for comment to Martin, the director of strategic media and marketing. Martin responded to requests for comment on behalf of Dennis and other administrators.

Beyond NU-Q

In an interview with The Daily in October, University President Morton Schapiro said when he first arrived at NU in 2008, he was skeptical of the benefits of international sites to the University.

“When they recruited me for this job in winter 2008, I said, ‘Please tell me you don’t have any global campuses,’” Schapiro said.

However, he said, over time he has warmed up to NU-Q.

“It’s really hard to do it right,” he said. “That said, I think NU-Q does it right. … I think my traditional skepticism about international programs, about depreciating the value of the brand, about not creating the same values, I think is not the case there.”

In November, a University task force recommended NU establish up to three new international locations over the next five years. Unlike NU-Q, these locations could take the form of an office or meeting center with NU’s name on the building, Linzer said, rather than the form of a school.

Linzer appointed the task force to strategize how NU can have a better global reach, he said.

“Having that better projection of NU makes people feel included in a global enterprise and proud to be part of the institutions, and that helps us build and maintain a better university,” he said.

Kellogg School of Management Dean Sally Blount, who co-chaired the task force, told The Daily in an email that the University will not open a site of the same magnitude as NU-Q in the next five years.

“Our goal is to broaden, rather than deepen, our global reach,” Blount said.

In a November interview with The Daily, Blount said she “personally would be a big fan” of establishing international sites in places like Southeast Asia, Africa and South America.

In an interview with The Daily, Ronald Braeutigam, the associate provost for undergraduate education, said the Qatar program represents one international site, but he is unsure how future locations would be structured.

Linzer, who was provost at the time of NU-Q’s opening, said several reasons factored into NU’s decision to establish a site in Doha. For several years, NU had been building up its Middle East studies program, and Doha proved itself to be a safe learning environment for students wanting to study in the area, he said.

Second, schools such as Georgetown University and Carnegie Mellon University had already established schools in Education City, influencing NU’s decision to have a site there, Linzer said.

Finally, NU wanted to educate students in a more “objective way,” he said.

“The third reason was somewhat ridiculously long-term, naive, altruistic, whatever you want to say,” Linzer said. “But I think it fundamentally drove the thinking as the strongest reason, which is universities like Northwestern exist to have an impact.”

In a January 2009 speech, Schapiro said he planned to create a globally-minded campus during his first public appearance on campus after he was named NU’s next president the previous month.

“In order to educate anyone — undergraduates, graduates, whomever — you have to prepare them for a global world,” Schapiro said in the speech. “It’s a scary world, but we’re not properly doing our job as educators unless we prepare them for that world.”

In December 2014, the University launched a comprehensive website consolidating all of the University’s global opportunities.

While NU-Q is the University’s first location of its magnitude outside Illinois, NU has established several smaller operations throughout the U.S.

At a November town hall discussion on the task force report, some faculty members expressed concerns about funding and resource allocation for new global sites. Other faculty members at the meeting said they were worried their voices were not represented in the report.

The student perspective

Several NU-Q students who have visited the Evanston campus through various NU programs said the two schools differ in certain ways.

For one thing, NU-Q is much smaller, said Jemina Legaspi, a senior studying communication. Legaspi said she does not feel restricted by living in Qatar or attending NU-Q, adding that there are just certain laws or processes students need to follow. For instance, it is sometimes difficult to get permission to film at certain locations, she said.

Mohammad Qandas, a junior studying communication, said the environment in Doha forces students to think creatively about how to pursue stories.

Qandas, who is currently studying on Evanston’s campus, said the law in Qatar has not been an obstacle for him.

Qandas arrived in the U.S. at the beginning of Winter Quarter 2017. Although he said he noticed the size of the student body immediately, other differences, such as resources, were also apparent.

“I’ve heard about CAPS here, which is pretty impressive that CAPS as a whole is available for students,” he said. “On our campus, we do have a counselor, and she’s great and does a really good job, but it’s impressive seeing a department for that.”

Omar Al Ansari, an NU-Q senior studying communication and a friend of Hejaze, said he was present when Hejaze was taken to the hospital. He said there were “a lot of rumors floating around” about what had happened.

Al Ansari said he believes the University should not have called the police.

“This whole chain of events happened because the University mishandled the situation,” he said. “Her suspension was overturned … they knew they messed up, and that shouldn’t have happened from the beginning.”

Despite access to a counselor, Al Ansari said there is a significant stigma around mental health issues in Qatar.

“Most people don’t talk about it,” he said. “There are a lot of people who still see it as something that’s wrong with you.”

Hejaze is now back at school for NU-Q’s spring semester and taking classes. She has seen improvements in her well-being, she said, by focusing on activities like sprinting and playing the guitar. She still copes with anxiety, she said.

She said she dislikes having to communicate with the administration. NU-Q officials who were unhelpful in the past are still the people she has to go to for information or guidance. She no longer uses in-class accommodations because they added more stress than relief, she said.

Looking back on what the University could have done differently, Hejaze said the University could have done a better job communicating with her instead of calling the police and assuming her intentions.

“When you want to help someone … you do not suspend them,” Hejaze said. “I felt that then, and I feel it now.”

Photo by Alex Lederman/Daily Senior Staffer
Timeline by Benjamin Din/Daily Senior Staffer

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