By Sindhu Nair

Educator and media professional Everette Dennis is a man with a mission of building a strong research enhanced media industry that will stand the test of leaders, policies and forces that oppose freedom of expression globally.

The Dean and CEO of Northwestern University-Qatar (NU-Q) campus, Everette Dennis has been at work expanding the research ambit of the university for the last six years. Under his tenure, NU-Q has published a study about media use in the Middle East, meant to understand how people in the Arab world use and judge the media they consume; conducted the biannual Qatar Media Industries Forum (QMIF) that brought together top representatives in publishing, and advertising in a discussion to assess the present and future of Qatar’s media landscape.

While he has been at the helm of both education and media in New York, Dean Dennis feels that his contribution from Qatar is equally stimulating. “I moved here from New York where I worked in media and in education, often building a bridge between the two, so NU-Q fits my interests and aspirations like a glove,” he tells Qatar Today.

“As I tell our students, a career in and around the media industries gives you access to everyone from world leaders to ordinary people, and that has been my experience. Being in Qatar and building a new institution with the help of many others opens new doors. In my time here I have been in the Oval Office, at 10 Downing Street, and at other corridors of power where I’ve met with leaders of media industries, education, and other institutions. I find, however, that the best way to stay connected with the realities of the world is through interaction with our amazing students, faculty, and staff as well as the people of Qatar,” he says.

Dean Dennis seems to be particularly optimistic of the country’s willingness to embrace change, a stance that might not be shared unanimously in the media circles, especially after Doha News, one of the most active online news sites of the country was blocked, raising voices from the media fraternity and some like the Human rights watchdog Amnesty International labelling this move as an “alarming setback for freedom of expression in the country”.

But Dean Dennis believes that “in Qatar there is a sense of destiny about building a globally significant country and media sector, a willingness to embrace change, openness to talent from almost anywhere, and the wherewithal to make things happen.”
Now moving into a brand new building designed by American architect Antoine Predock, NU-Q stands at a threshold that promises of hope.

“To our students, the building says, “Think big, dream, and create.” It offers opportunities to both increase our programming and enhance the quality of our undergraduate programme while planning for executive and graduate education. Of special interest is a newsroom that was designed by the Beirut architect, Ali Wazani, which will be among the most advanced in the Middle East and beyond; and a new museum, the Media Majlis at Northwestern University in Qatar, the country’s first university museum. Taken together, our building will be one of the largest and most advanced communication schools in the world,” he says.

Designed by Ali Wazani, the newsroom is the most advanced in the region. Photo credit: Reem Saad, NU-Q student

In a detailed Q and A, Dean Dennis answers some of the issues that the media industry faces in the region and around the globe. In this age of desolate fascists leaders it is heartening to find a fervent educator who believes that change is imminent and for the better. And his inspiration is from the words of George Bernard Shaw, the great Irish playwright, who said, “We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.”

“In partnership with the Qatar Foundation, NU-Q is honored to help contribute to this country’s future. And as we moved into our new building I was reminded of Winston Churchill’s remarks on the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament, that: [First] “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

In your six years as a Dean with NU-Q what changes have you seen in the media scene and how do you evaluate them?
Overall the media scene worldwide is in a state of great change and disruption, which is creating exciting new enterprises while sun-setting some traditional media that now have diminished influence, though some have been strengthened too. There is a net gain for people communicating with each other with or without the help of media thanks to the digital revolution. At the same time, there is a worrying trend for independent journalism and truth-telling as so many governments have taken on the press with draconian policies and practices, both in the West and across much of the globe. This is a challenge for all – to cope with change and navigate complexity since freedom of expression is always in play everywhere and needs constant tending and attention.

How would you describe the journalism scene in Doha?
First and foremost, great growth at Al Jazeera, in publishing, digital media, the Doha Film Institute as well as a strengthened PR and advertising presence. Social media has also revolutionised communication in Qatar and in the region, as well as globally. Due to social media, the rapid advancement of media both in journalism and in film has been dramatic, which is increasingly making Doha a media city.

What kinds of institutions do you see your students working in?
Our students and alumni work in a wide variety of media organizations, including strategic communication firms, government, and non-governmental organizations. In addition to Al Jazeera, our students and alumni who work in journalism, are also employed at Qatar Media Corporation, Qatar TV, various magazines, beIN Sports, Associated Press, Al Arabiya, and others. Some of our students have a passion for news and public affairs and seek jobs in journalism, while others are more interested in working as professional communicators for businesses, health care organisations, research institutes, sports media and marketing, museums, and other entities. It is worth noting that some 30% of our first four graduating classes went to graduate school at leading universities around the world including Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Columbia, Northwestern (Evanston), Cornell, and the London School of Economics, among others. And all doors seem open to them as some have done advanced study in media and film, while others have studied law, business, education, and such fields as Middle East studies.

The new NU-Q building designed by Antoine Predock. Photo credit: Reem Saad, NU-Q student

What are the main factors that deter the growth of an open, honest and free media?
The legal regimes governing media must be favorable to free expression and governments must be transparent. This is always a struggle anywhere in the world. I think most would agree that policies imposed through government, cultural norms, or corporate entities that restrict a person’s ability to communicate freely will deter a certain element of growth in any industry. That said, there are always challenges to meet as our alumni, students, and faculty find ways to capture the essence of the world they meet through journalistic reports, documentaries, photos, and strategic communication with gusto and purpose. Increasingly, they are being recognised for the quality and excellence of their work both here, in the region, and globally.

What are the learnings from the annual research that has been facilitated by NU-Q and would greatly help in the media sector if rightly put to use?
What I find most interesting in these studies is how the Middle East, in certain areas, is more advanced in using certain platforms than other parts of the world. The research we conduct is not to help the media sector so much as it is for others to understand how people in the Middle East use media. Our studies continue to suggest that increased access to content from around the world has not necessarily led to the abandonment of media from one’s own nation or region. In fact, contrary to the notion of a zero-sum trade-off between traditional and global culture, we see some evidence of increased use of media specific to one’s own identity alongside the expanding availability of international content. That is good news for everyone.

While there are factors like censorship and privacy that hinder many journalistic ventures, what do you think are the positives of working in this sector in the Middle East?
The right to communicate can be impeded or helped by law and regulations, but change comes slowly and incrementally. It must be guided and led by local people and wise leaders. In Qatar and the Gulf, new talent represented by our students and those at other schools, as well as young professionals in media firms are leading the way. Naturally, one has to be respectful of local customs and traditions as well as the law. People often overlook the great impact of digital and social media in the Middle East, which is being felt everywhere. To some extent, good decisions across the culture, aided by technology, are advancing freedom of expression in remarkable ways. Qatar is blessed with amazing young people eager and ready to learn more about the region and the world, and then tell stories to the rest of the world about this country and region. Through documentaries, our faculty, students, and alumni are educating people globally on the strengths and challenges facing Qatar. In a similar way, many of our alumni and students tell these stories as journalists and many through promoting the good work in the private and government sectors as professional strategic communicators.

Tell us how does NU-Q compare to what is being taught and implemented at the main campus?
The education provided in Qatar is fundamentally the same as it is in Evanston, which we call the “home campus” and of which we are an integral part. Students here get the exact same degree as well. What is different is the way we connect our instruction and research to the local culture and region to be relevant here. We have a lower student-teacher ratio here, and thus students get more personal attention. We also have what is arguably the best faculty in the world, the most modern equipment, and more. Our faculty is world-class-and has a special interest in and awareness of the country and region. Many speak Arabic and other languages as well. Our student body is very diverse-with representation from more than 30 countries. One of the distinct advantages our students do have is the opportunity to study in Evanston, receive research grants from the Evanston campus, and participate in other student-related travel opportunities offered to Northwestern’s undergraduates.