Bryn Mawr College is looking into becoming the first American women's college to set up shop in the oil-rich Middle East, but some faculty and students worry that the move clashes with the school's history of feminism and could dilute the school's stellar program.

The liberal-arts school is being courted by the government of Abu Dhabi, which is eager to collaborate with an elite women's college, said Bryn Mawr president Jane McAuliffe.

A group of faculty visited Abu Dhabi in the fall and the school expects to decide by early summer "whether a small liberal-arts college can manage something like this," said McAuliffe, an Islamic-studies scholar who became Bryn Mawr's eighth president in July.

For American universities, the offer to open global versions of themselves in the Middle East and other booming regions of the world is often too good to pass up.

Abu Dhabi, one of seven members of the United Arab Emirates, gave New York University a $50 million gift to establish an offshore campus, with the promise to fund the entire operation and parts of its home campus as well.

Other American universities are taking their programs to countries that are hungry for U.S.-style educational opportunities. In the Middle East, students can study at Cornell, Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, Virginia Commonwealth, Texas A&M, Michigan State and soon Northwestern - without ever leaving home. Other schools are heading to China, India and Singapore, a country that Bryn Mawr also considered but ultimately rejected because Singapore wanted a coed institution.

McAuliffe stressed that discussions are "in the very early stages" and declined to discuss funding. Spokesman Matt Gray acknowledged the school would benefit financially, "but that's not the driving force behind the idea."

For the 1,300-student school, exporting its blue-ribbon brand to Abu Dhabi would expand its global outreach and open up educational opportunities for women in the United Arab Emirates, just as the college did for American women when it was founded in 1885.

"Women couldn't go to colleges and universities where they could get first-rate educations at that time," said McAuliffe. "So the notion of being able to educate future women leaders in a part of the world that very much needs leadership is very exciting."

But for a women's college, there are also far-reaching concerns over partnering with the United Arab Emirates, which a 2007 State Department report describes as lacking an elected government; having curbs on civil liberties; restricting homosexuals and Israelis; and allowing domestic abuse of women, trafficking in women and children, and abuse of workers' rights.

"I'm a lesbian and I'm concerned about the ways in which lesbian and gay faculty, staff and students could live openly with their partners," said Sharon Ullman, a professor of American history at Bryn Mawr.

For some schools, such issues are deal-breakers. The University of Connecticut recently declined an offer to establish a base in the United Arab Emirates over concerns that human-rights violations would go against its anti-discrimination clause. Harvard has also cut off negotiations.

The University of Pennsylvania looked into opening campuses overseas but decided against it. "We feel that we couldn't deliver the same quality education that we provide here, and it would mean diluting our faculty strengths on our main campus," said spokeswoman Lori Doyle.

Michelle Francl, a Bryn Mawr chemistry professor who chairs the Abu Dhabi study group, said the group was trying to better understand "what the situation really is on the ground."

The country is "marvelous," she said, and rapidly changing. For instance, the government is working to enforce new labor laws.

"That's a trajectory that's going in the right direction," she said.

Another study committee member, dean of admissions Jenny Rickard, said the school did not want to "jump to conclusions" about the United Arab Emirates' rights record.

"We're in a process here of trying to understand all of this. We haven't even begun a feasibility study, and we would certainly explore those concerns," said Rickard, who went on a recruiting trip to the Middle East with representatives of four other women's colleges in the spring.

McAuliffe, who has never been to the country, said: "Places change as a consequence of the continuing education of their citizenry. We're not going there in a missionary fashion. If we were to go to Abu Dhabi, we would be going as educators, as people who have a deep interest in the education and empowerment of women."

Women's traditional roles in Muslim society make single-sex education appealing, said Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

"Middle Eastern women tend to be very protected by their families," she said.

The United Arab Emirates has tried to woo other women's colleges, including Mount Holyoke, said Schneider, a former trustee of the school. Jesse Lytle, a spokesman for the college, which has collaborated with colleges in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, said he couldn't comment on "larger projects."

McAuliffe got a call last spring from a Georgetown alumnus who had business dealings in the United Arab Emirates with the offer. As dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, she had already helped Georgetown establish a school for foreign service in Qatar in 2005.

"It's proven to be a very successful operation for Georgetown and for other American universities that have collaborated with Qatar. It's a thriving model," she said.

And one that she was keenly interested in bringing to Bryn Mawr. Recently she served on a joint British and American commission to look at the globalization of colleges, which she called "the biggest movement that our two educational systems will make in the coming decade."

While faculty have met regularly to discuss the proposal, students say they're in the dark. Few knew about it until an article appeared in a Sept. 24 issue of the Bi-College News, a joint student publication of Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges.

"They shared nothing with us," said Andrea Milne, the paper's editor-in-chief, who met with McAuliffe yesterday and was told students would have a role in the decision-making process.

Given the school's feminist orientation, Milne said, students will probably have moral and political objections. There may also be questions about exporting Western culture to non-Western countries and how a spin-off would affect the home campus.

"Are we turning our educational institutions into McDonald's?" asked Milne. "Or do we feel that Bryn Mawr is a special place? There's a large contingent of people that wouldn't want another one."

Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at kboccella@phillynews.com or 610-313-8123.