WASHINGTON — Waltham-based Raytheon Co. is planning to invest at least $50 million over the next seven years to establish a campus in Kuwait for the University of Massachusetts Lowell, officials said.
The defense contractor called the arrangement a unique way to meet its contractual commitments to invest in Kuwait, one of its foreign customers, in return for the Arab nation’s purchase of its high-tech weaponry. The university hailed the new campus as a major step in raising UMass Lowell’s international profile.
The pact, two years in the making, will offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering, business, education, and science on the campus of the Gulf University for Science and Technology, set up in Kuwait in 2002. Ultimately, an estimated 1,200 students will be enrolled for up to two dozen degrees through the UMass Lowell-Raytheon partnership.
Classes would be available beginning in January. A new engineering college will also be built on the Kuwait City campus, but the details of the construction have not been disclosed.
“It’s a big, big deal,” said Marty Meehan, the UMass Lowell chancellor, who is set to make the official announcement on Monday.
He said the new program is part of a broader plan by the public institution “to become a more international university,” noting that UMass Lowell has signed agreements to partner with 110 educational institutions in 40 nations.
While UMass Lowell students and faculty will undertake some of their studies in Kuwait, Kuwaiti students will be able to earn UMass Lowell degrees.
As many as 60 US universities had overseas campuses in a total of 39 countries in 2011, according to the Associated Press, though the number had fallen from a few years earlier, because some schools discovered the ventures were too costly and unsuccessful in bringing in new students.
“We want more students to study overseas and we want more students from around the world to come to UMass Lowell as well,” Meehan said.
What makes the deal especially unusual is the role of Raytheon, which has agreed to provide much of the funding. The rest will come from tuition and fees paid by Kuwaiti students, UMass officials said.
The impetus for the Raytheon investment is what are referred to as “defense offsets,” investments that companies agree to make in a foreign country in return for the country’s buying the contractor’s military products.
The Pentagon defines offsets as “industrial and commercial benefits provided to foreign governments as an inducement or condition to purchase military goods or services.” Traditionally, those inducements have included offering companies in foreign nations a role in producing or selling the weaponry.
One specialist in the international weapons trade expressed surprise at the UMass Lowell arrangement with Raytheon for the Kuwait presence.
“There have been cases of things like helping a country build a hotel complex. I have not heard of a case of a university campus being financed by a weapons contractor as part of an offset deal,” said William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy
Hartung said it is “hard to know if this could become a trend” but said it is “certainly an interesting way at the problem.”
He said it is common for major defense companies to outsource some of the work on weapon systems to a purchasing country. Alternatively, in a nation like Kuwait that does not have a significant manufacturing base, a defense contractor may invest directly in the civilian economy or help the government to buy civilian products.
“In an ideal world,” he added, “weapons sales would be made straight up, with no offset component. But that could obviously generate significant political pushback from the purchasing countries.”
In recent years, the Kuwaiti government has purchased billions of dollars worth of Raytheon products, including Patriot antimissile systems and radars; for example, the Persian Gulf nation reached a nearly $700 million deal with the company’s Integrated Air Defense Systems Division in Andover this year.
Raytheon said the Kuwait university project is a new approach but matches its overall strategy to invest in education in the United States, including as a way to recruit new talent.
“It is unique from an offset standpoint but it is in line with our core philosophy for community involvement,” said Kristin Hilf, vice president for communications for the company’s Integrated Defense Systems in Tewksbury.
The collaboration with Raytheon, which employs an estimated 1,000 UMass graduates, is the latest in a series of new partnerships that Meehan, a former member of Congress, has helped orchestrate between UMass Lowell and one of the nation’s largest defense contractors.
Separately, Raytheon recently pledged $5 million to help support a new research center on the Lowell campus.
“As the university’s national stature has increased, so has the willingness of Raytheon to collaborate with us,” Meehan said.
Meehan has received wide praise for his stewardship of UMass Lowell since he stepped down from his seat in Congress to become chancellor in 2007.
The school has risen 27 spots, to 156, in the ranking of top-tier universities compiled by US News & World Report, the second-fastest increase in the nation. US News also places it among the top institutions for graduates’ return on investment.
Since 2007, enrollment at UMass Lowell has climbed 50 percent, to more than 17,000, and 10 new buildings have been opened.
In Kuwait, the new UMass presence is seen as a major step toward modernizing the Arab nation’s higher education system.
“It is a milestone,” Abdulrahman Al-Muhailan, chairman of the board of trustees at the Gulf University for Science and Technology, which was established 12 years ago, said in an interview.
“We want [to partner with] one of the best schools. That is how we came to talk to UMass Lowell. It is a benefit for us but for the whole region to have such a quality, prestigious school in Kuwait,” said Muhailan.
He also stressed that more broadly the partnership would be a boon for the US ally in the Persian Gulf.
“Not only the students will benefit,” he said. “The Kuwaiti government, the industry, the private sector, will really be benefiting out of that.”
Representative Niki Tsongas, the Lowell Democrat who replaced Meehan in Congress, said the partnership “will serve as a model for institutions seeking to make the world of academia more accessible.”Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com.