Cal Poly-Saudi Arabia deal falls through

Cal Poly’s proposed deal to develop an engineering program at a Saudi Arabian university has fallen through in part because of a disagreement over language in the contract.

Saudi Arabian officials backed out of a partnership after attempts to hammer out a contract satisfactory to both sides failed, said Susan Opava, Cal Poly’s dean of research and graduate programs.

The deal would have paid Cal Poly $5.9 million to help set up a program in four engineering fields at the state-run Jubail University College.

No discussions have resumed since the Saudi decision, and Cal Poly officials don’t expect to pursue the deal any further.

Opava said the sticking point was contractual language written in by the Saudis that would have required deadlines for the work and financial penalties if Cal Poly failed to meet them.

That kind of a deal — which Opava referred to as a procurement contract — is common in private consulting. But Cal Poly, a public university, wasn’t willing to agree and proposed a contract without the stipulations, Opava said.

“There were great silences on both sides,” said Opava of the negotiations. “We simply got a ‘Sorry, but we’re not able to work under these conditions.’ ” The Saudis pulled out in July.

The proposal, which died after about two years of talks, brought criticism from many students and faculty during the planning process.

In a town hall meeting at Cal Poly in April 2008, many speakers opposed the idea of doing business with a country that openly discriminates against females, Jews and homosexuals. Some expressed worry that Saudi Arabian officials would reject candidates based on gender, sexual preference or religion.

Cal Poly officials stressed the Saudi Arabians didn’t have a problem with anti-discrimination language in the contract, which specifically barred hiring practices that are illegal in the U.S.

University officials also said the campus shouldn’t shut itself off from countries that have different beliefs and should instead engage in an exchange of ideas.

Cal Poly spent about $15,000 on attorney fees during the negotiations, Opava said. Opava didn’t have a monetary estimate for how much time and resources staff members spent.

Industrial engineering professor Unny Menon said he didn’t think the proposal made sense from the beginning.

Menon said he thought that Cal Poly would fail to benefit financially or otherwise from the partnership and that students would be hurt by losing faculty to the project.

“Cal Poly administrators claim wrongly that they could experiment with new engineering curriculum,” Menon said. “But the Saudis would have wanted what already works at Cal Poly, and not something new. I didn’t see the gain.”

Cal Poly psychology professor Laura Freberg was another critic of the proposal.

“I would have liked to talk about this as a campus community first,” Freberg said. “If everyone would have been in favor of it, then great, but we needed to be won over.”

Opava doesn’t believe any ethical problems existed and said the good of the proposal came in the spirited debate.

“Even when something is this controversial, there are good values on both sides of the argument,” Opava said. “I’m sanguine about the discussions we had.”