How American Academics Have Turned their Backs on Iraqi Students

Mar 30, 2004 by

Christina Asquith
Special Middle-East Correspondent

For university president Dr. Taher Al Bakaa, rebuilding Iraqi higher education was never about American aid.

Christina Asquith

Granted, it will take hundreds of thousands of dollars to physically rebuild his university, Al Mustansiriyah, the second largest in Iraq, due to the draconian effects of 10 years of UN sanctions, followed by post-war looters. Lecture halls have been burned to the ground. U.S. soldiers are still occupying dormitories forcing students into hotels.

But what Dr. Al Bakaa really needs-what gives him a thread of hope for the future of Iraqi education-is not money. It is intellectual ideas. It is free.

“We want exchange programs, and partnerships with American universities,” Dr. Al Bakaa says. “We have lived under a dark regime for 35 years. We want to see what is happening in the rest of the world.”

But in America, scholars have turned their back on Dr. Al Bakaa and the 21 colleagues who make up Iraq’s recently-formed Council of University Presidents now struggling to hold together the nation’s higher education system.

Their new cell phones are not ringing. Their new email addresses have got no new messages. In the last year, only one high ranking US academic– the president of the American Association for Community Colleges– invited his Iraqi counterpart to New Orleans for a week-long trip of workshops.

Where are the conference sponsorships? Where are the invitations to partner, to take part in seminars, to access online-university libraries and join online discussion groups?

From across the globe, in the richest university system in the world, interest in Iraq’s emerging higher education system has been muted. Help from American professors has not materialized.

Why wouldn’t an American university want to play a role in what is unquestionably the most interesting higher education revolution taking place today? Iraq universities– once the best in the Middle East in sciences, medicine and math- are facing an opportunity to rebuild themselves after 35 years of tyranny. Older professors who studied for their PhD in England and America in the 1960s, are awakening from a Rip Van Winkle sleep. They are rising from their grave of academic isolation. They are enthusiastic about rebuilding; and they consider their colleges a blank slate. Iraq is the hottest international policy issue going at the moment.

Is it a safety issue? Dr. Mehrdad Kia, director of international programs at the University of Montana, told me: “I think many universities are waiting for the situation to settle down.” It’s true- at the moment Iraq is dangerous and growing more dangerous each day. Dozens of westerners traveling around Iraq have been gunned down in broad daylight, including 5 Baptists missionaries working on a water purification project.

But, helping Iraq doesn’t require traveling in country. UK research councils have offered fully funded scholarships; The British Council has funded Iraqi representatives at two conferences; the University of Westminster held an “International Symposium on Higher Education in Iraq” in January; and three training courses are being run by the University of Birmingham and the British Council for Iraqi administrators. That’s just for starters-and this effort comes from universities with a tiny percentage of the money that US universities.

Is it money? USAID, the primary contractor in Iraq, offered $20.7 million dollars in grants last summer to US universities willing to partner with Iraq. The response was disappointing. USAID officials had to extend the deadline application a month to provoke more interest. Still, the largest grant — $5 million-went to the little-known College of Continuing Education at the University of Oklahoma.

“You see no school with any major standing or with any great deal of experience in the Middle East having a part in any significant way in the USAID program in Iraq,” said Keith Watenpaugh, history professor at LeMoyne College, who visited Iraqi universities shortly after the war.

The reason, Watenpaugh says, is ideological opposition to the war: “They’re saying, it’d be great if we could give money to Iraq to do this but I’m not using the money to buy a dominant role for the US in Iraqi higher ed.”

The U.S.’s top man in Iraq on higher education, Dr. John Agresto, says he is similarly frustrated.

“I call the American colleges and they say ‘I don’t want anything to do with that. That’s Bush’s war.”

Could it be true that US intellectuals are putting partisan politics over Iraqis’ one opportunity at freedom?

It is understandable to have opposed the violent, perhaps unnecessary war; and to oppose the entire notion that America should be meddling in the Middle East. Academics often live in a world of theory, and theoretically, arguments against the war are valid.
The Bush administration has aggravated those opposed to the war further, by appointing John Agresto as his senior advisor to the Ministry of Higher Education. Although he is former president of St. John’s University in New Mexico, he has no background in the Middle East. And his conservative reign as acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under President Ronald Reagan was unpopular among many academics. He has not been able to foster the kind of partnering among Middle East experts needed to truly help Iraqi higher education.

Such arrogance has been par for the course in the Bush administration’s dealings in Iraq. It is frustrating to those truly interested in helping Iraqi universities.

But the war has happened. There is nothing that can change that now. Sadly, it won’t be the Bush administration that pays the price if no US universities come forward to help Iraq.

Anyhow, concern among Western professors that the US is meddling in Iraqi higher education simply misses the point. Agresto and his staff of 11 spent the first few months aiding the ministry in creating a budget. Bricks and mortar is still at the forefront of most university president’s demands. Yesterday, I watched Agresto spend two hours inspecting dormitories that the US military-finally-is returning to Iraqi college students. Iraqi professors are more worried about being assassinated than indoctrinated.

Meanwhile, there are small milestones being reached: At Dohuk University, a large public university to the north, the president wants to open a College of Humanities where students will be required to take classes like Philosophy of Democracy, Human Rights and Comparative Religions. He needs help.

The Council of University Presidents which meets monthly, no longer has to ask permission from the minister of higher education to leave the country. Nor does the minister have the ability to fire and hire university staff. That’s now done by a US style procedure that involves peer review and voting. Professors salaries have been doubled to $500 a month/average; campus rebuilding project are– slowly- happening; weapons scientists are being retrained. Dr. Al Bakaa wants to build a preeminent science center at Al Mustansiriyah University. He needs help.

But these changes are happening slowly, without any support, and being threatened daily by deadly forces. While Americans academics are sitting around discussing and criticizing the war, the opportunity to improve Iraq higher education is slipping away.

Across Iraq, religious groups are making inroads into the universities, assassinating professors and threatening presidents. In mid March, religious infighting between Sunni and Shia groups on Al Mustansiriyah campus shut down the university entirely. These groups are so dangerous that US education advisors can no longer even visit campuses. Students tell me these groups are outsiders who come onto campus, recruit a handful of students, and then provoke the rest to cause instability and promote themselves. They are hijacking campuses and trying to turn them into Islamic centers. They may be small, but they are violent and, in a society without any government or police force, they are highly effective.

“Without the security, the life is worth nothing,” says Al Bakaa, who himself is thinking of resigning.

Most Iraqis oppose fundamentalist groups. They don’t believe religion belongs in university lecture halls. They are fighting these groups.

But they are getting tired, and they are afraid. Iraqis who want education free from politics and religion are in a fight for their lives.

If Iraqi higher education slides into an Islamic state, those who support Bush’s can relish in knowing that yes, they were right-the war was a failed idea. But they will find themselves on the same side as Al Quaeda and the Taliban. Their victory will come at a deep and painful price for students who have suffered enough. It means the abolition of a class of educated professionals needed to resist the influences of their radical Islamic neighbors, and to lead them out of the dark ages and bring back a renaissance of literature, culture and ideas.

“These professors protesting are using very nice classrooms and offices and libraries and labs, and they have nice students from nice neighborhoods and they had very good chalk,” said Suhail E. Hamamah, a lecturer in the University of Technology. “Don’t tell me these people understand what it means that faculty can now go up to a president and say, ‘that’s wrong.” Don’t tell me that they understand how the students feel to be walking with their heads up for the first time. Whether they were with Bush policy or not, the war has happened and no one can make it go back. So we say please, let them put their hand in Iraq and take us out of our grave.”

For those who fear heavy handedness in Iraq are also missing the point. Iraq is already getting an influx of American values and morays through satellite television and open borders. Western influence is pouring into Iraqi campuses. Women are wearing more provocative clothing; boy girl couples are on the rise; military-style haircuts are springing up; students say they all have satellite televisions piping in Britney Spears, Sex and the City and pro-wrestling.

Hence by shunning participation in Iraq, US academics are ensuring that only the worst of western culture comes in with none of the good parts. Iraqis need the intellectual ideas and technological advances that make American universities thrive-they need to be exposed to the democratic process in which the US universities function- the discussion, the deliberation, the debate.

Right now, Agresto, for all his ideological imperfections, is all Iraq Council of Presidents has. They credit him with changing how they think, encouraging them to discuss and debate subjects, rather than order demands. To take initiative, instead of feeling timidity to do anything wrong.

Dr. Al Bakaa likes to say: “We are a like body on an operating table in a surgery room. We need blood. Someone must come forward and donate blood.”

Right now, Dr. Agresto is all Iraqi academics have. One man, and Iraq deserves more. American professors should rise above partisan politics and reach a hand out to their Iraqi colleagues as a show that they value democracy and academic freedom for Iraqi people above all else, and above being right.

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