[xmca] Chronicle: Iraq's universities near collapse (fwd)

From: Tony Whitson <twhitson who-is-at UDel.Edu>
Date: Mon May 14 2007 - 07:25:26 PDT

(c) 2007 The Chronicle of Higher Education


From the issue dated May 18, 2007
Iraq's Universities Near Collapse

Hundreds of professors and students have been killed or kidnapped,
hundreds more have fled, and those who remain face daily threats of


Saad Jawad does not like to take chances. The University of Baghdad
political-science professor goes to the campus only once or twice a week,
varying the days to throw off any would-be assassins. His courses are less
than one-third full, and he often has to wait hours until students show

When a class does finally convene, he assigns enough work to keep students
busy for as long as possible because he does not know when they may meet

"I used to attend the college five days a week, stay there, and mix with
my students," Mr. Jawad says, by telephone. "Not anymore." He does most of
his work and research at home over the Internet, and most of his private
meetings with students are by phone.

"Other than my short trips to the campus, I'm at home almost 24 hours a
day, seven days a week," he says.

The enormous challenges Mr. Jawad faces every week are just one example of
how fragile Iraq's higher-education system has become. Thousands of
academics have fled the country, classes are frequently canceled, students
often stay away for fear of attack, and research is at a standstill.

Four years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the takeover of Baghdad by
U.S. forces, the situation looked, if not promising, then at least
possible to improve. A number of American university delegations toured
Iraqi campuses, looking for ways to help revive a higher-education system
depleted of resources and isolated from the rest of the world during the
years Saddam Hussein was in power. And American advisers were lobbying
international agencies to rebuild the country's universities.

But then sectarian violence began to mushroom, and academe became one of
its earliest targets. Estimates of the number of professors killed since
the 2003 invasion range from 250 to 1,000. At the University of Baghdad
alone, 78 professors have been killed, according to the London-based
Council for Assisting Refugee Academics.

"Terrorism is targeting scholars in an almost unprecedented way," says
Allan E. Goodman, president and chief executive of the Institute of
International Education, in New York. "It's hard to say there even is a
higher-education system in Iraq anymore, with so many students and
professors being killed and kidnapped on a daily basis."

For Mr. Jawad, each day seems to bring new horrors. Last month the body of
one of his close friends, a professor at Al-Nahrain University College of
Medicine, was found a few kilometers from the university with five bullets
in his head and neck. The friend had returned hours earlier from a
yearlong sabbatical in Australia and was expecting to see his newborn son
for the first time.

A few weeks ago, one of the deans at Mr. Jawad's university disappeared
and has not been heard from since. Two months earlier, one of Mr. Jawad's
colleagues in the political-science department was assassinated one of
almost a dozen colleagues whom he has lost to Iraq's mounting sectarian

In recent months, scores of professors throughout Iraq have encountered
bullets sent through internal mail, death threats tacked to their office
doors, or anonymous voices on the phone suggesting they not show up for
work anymore. The situation has become so grave that the Ministry of
Higher Education and Scientific Research recently announced that
university researchers may come to campuses just twice a week to reduce
the risk of being attacked.

"It is difficult to say that my colleagues are longing to go back to
Saddam's rule," Mr. Jawad says. "But they are longing to go back to some
sort of stability and security,"

Near Paralysis

To John Agresto, senior adviser to the higher-education ministry in Iraq
from 2003 to 2004, it is clear why academics are targets. "University
professors are usually more secular than the general population, more
open-minded, interested in things other than religious proselytizing,
devoted to academic interest more than religious causes," he says. "Their
secular nature is what is getting them targeted."

The threats and assassinations have had their desired effect. The Iraqi
Ministry of Displacement and Migration estimates that at least 30 percent
of all professors, doctors, pharmacists, and engineers in Iraq have fled
since 2003. To stem the exodus, the higher-education ministry recently
adopted a policy that requires medical and dental students to work in Iraq
for several years after graduation in order to receive their diplomas.

"All the students that graduate go to be employed outside Iraq, so now the
ministry doesn't give them their degree right away," said Ahmad Kamal,
president of the Iraqi Association of University Lecturers and the head of
the physics department at Al-Nahrain University, in Baghdad. "All the
students prefer not to work in Iraq because of the danger." The situation
has become so grave that many graduates have chosen to leave without their

Many classes at universities across Iraq are now being taught by
underprepared master's and Ph.D. students.

"Most of the Iraqi professors do not even know how to use the Internet and
the computer," says one high-ranking administrator at a university in one
of Iraq's most dangerous regions, who asks not to be identified for fear
of retribution for speaking to an American publication. Two of his
colleagues have been killed in recent weeks, he says. He has had to take
over supervision of their graduate students in addition to his already
heavy workload.

To overcome staff shortages, many universities in Baghdad have begun
pooling their resources, says Mousa Jawad Al-Musawi, president of the
University of Baghdad.

"But of course the loss of so many professors definitely will affect the
performance of the university," he says.

According to Mr. Jawad, the political-science professor, more than 100
courses at the university have been canceled this semester for lack of
instructors. At Al-Nahrain University, says Mr. Kamal, some departments
have lost all their faculty members.

In addition to assassinations, insurgents have bombed university campuses,
killing dozens of students and faculty members. And in their quest to
secure sectarian enclaves, militias have made universities throughout the
country unsafe for anyone of the "wrong" ethnic group.

The higher-education ministry recently decided to allow students and
professors to transfer to other universities in the face of such threats.
More than 1,000 academics and 10,000 students chose that option this year.
But an even larger number of students, especially women, have stopped
going to college altogether, with some universities operating at 10
percent to 20 percent of their usual capacity.

The result is a near paralysis of Iraqi universities. Almost all academic
research in Iraq has halted because fieldwork and data collection are
nearly impossible. Even the most mundane activities have become a

"I spoke to one professor in Mosul, who has a Ph.D. from a British
university, who has no electricity so has to write his academic papers by
hand," says Elizabeth Stone, an archaeologist at the State University of
New York at Stony Brook who has been involved in research and researcher
training in Iraq. "Who is going to publish that?"

Sectarian politics have also prevented much-needed funds from reaching
universities. "The budget for the ministry of higher education and four
other ministries combined is equal to the budget of the office of the
prime minister to spend at its own discretion, which means bribes," said
Isam Khafaji, an economist and former member of the Iraqi Reconstruction
and Development Council, in Baghdad. "Terrorism is a major cause for the
deterioration of the higher-education system, but corruption is so
widespread that no money is coming to the universities."

Sectarian battles have further effects in the classroom. According to a
new Unesco report, academic posts that previously were distributed to
Baath Party loyalists are now being distributed according to sectarian

The same shift in bias can also be found in the way research money is
distributed. "The irony is that under the Baath regime, research grants
were given only to members of the Baath Party," Mr. Jawad says. "Now
grants are given to members of the sectarian and religious government
parties, so nothing has really changed."

Before the invasion, Mr. Jawad says, he used to "encourage students to
analyze, to criticize of course without touching Saddam or his two sons.
But we used to assure them that whatever they say is between the students.
Now you can speak freely about the Baath Party or the Baath experience,
but there are things, like the sectarian way of thinking or sectarian
leaders and religious leaders you cannot touch them or their thinking or
even criticize them."

The armed militias that control Iraq have also begun using their power to
control curricula.

"One Iraqi professor told me how one day, a group of thugs young men
with guns showed up in her office, demanding that she add certain things
to her curriculum," says Magnus Bernhardsson, an assistant professor of
history at Williams College and a member of the American Academic Research
Institute in Iraq, who has been involved in various projects with Iraqi
academics since 2003. "She was teaching a very traditional humanities
syllabus, with Heidegger and Kant, and they demanded she include writing
of some radical Shia cleric. Needless to say, she complied."

Unfulfilled Promises From America

Many Iraqi professors are frustrated with the unfulfilled promises made by
the U.S. government and American universities.

"In my own college, we received more than 20 to 30 delegations from
American universities and coalition forces, all giving promises, assuring
us they will help us," Mr. Jawad says. "But we never heard from them

American academics who had hoped to help restore Iraq's higher-education
system also despair. They have watched their programs collapse along with
the Iraqi security situation.

Ms. Stone, of Stony Brook, was the recipient of a
higher-education-development grant from the U.S. government to develop
training projects for archaeologists in Iraq.

"We submitted our final work plan a few days before the contractors were
strung up in Fallujah," Ms. Stone says, referring to insurgents' murder
and mutilation in March 2004 of four Americans working as security guards.
Her project was soon downgraded from three years to one, and then
"essentially the plug was pulled by the U.S. government" because of
security concerns, she says. "We tried to get Iraqi archaeologists to have
field opportunities, but it became too dangerous to do any real fieldwork
in Iraq."

The practical difficulties of communicating with Iraqi academics are
compounded by the danger faced by any Iraqi suspected of collaborating
with the American forces.

After having much success with videoconferencing between his students at
Williams and classes at the American University in Cairo and Tel Aviv
University, Mr. Bernhardsson approached a colleague at the University of
Baghdad to replicate the project with her students.

"We both agreed that it would be great to get young Iraqis and young
Americans to talk, to bring down these political boundaries," he says. But
when Mr. Bernhardsson offered to provide her with the necessary technical
equipment for the videoconferencing, he was briskly rebuffed.

"She said, 'I think I've had enough of American charity, thank you,' and
that was the end of it," Mr. Bernhardsson says. "Even having her class
associated with some American technology could have a negative affect on
their safety."

With going out to buy groceries a matter of life and death, it has also
become difficult to find academics concerned with their careers.

"We planned a training session for the use of satellite imaging in
tracking archaeological sites," Ms. Stone says, "but one of the
participants' cousins and family all got blown up a few days before, and
he couldn't just leave family behind."

Even efforts at remote communication have been hampered by intermittent
access to electricity and phone service in Iraq. "I feel badly not doing
more than I'm doing," Ms. Stone says, "but at a certain point it becomes

Topsy Smalley, an instruction librarian at Cabrillo College, in
California, got involved with professors in Iraq through a book drive she
helped organize for Iraqi universities in 2003. The first flurry of e-mail
messages she received from Iraqi professors were thanks for her books.
"The Arabs send us terrorists to kill us and destroy our country while the
Americans send us books to help us learn," read one.

But the messages soon turned desperate.

"Terrorists are the master of the city," wrote one high-ranking university
administrator last December, to whom Ms. Smalley had sent books. "I hate
to ask, but I really need your help."

One week later, he wrote: "Yesterday, six persons were killed in my area.
Three of them are my close friends. They hadn't done anything. They were
killed because they are teachers."

The following week came another message: "Yesterday was the first time in
my life I have seen how terrorists kill people. I saw them killing three
men in the middle of the street, then they cut their heads and separated
the heads from their bodies. It was really horrible."

And in January: "Today one of my friends told me that one of the
terrorists was arrested and there was a list of university professors in
his pocket. My name was on that list. He confessed his task was to kidnap
or kill us."

Ms. Smalley has been desperately trying to help the administrator get a
job elsewhere, and has contacted universities in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and
Bahrain, but to no avail."Reaching out counters, but does not erase, the
despair and constant worry," Ms. Smalley says in an e-mail message.

As her experience illustrates, the dire circumstances in Iraq have left
the majority of Western academics with but one way to help professors: get
them out of Iraq.

Groups like the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics and the Institute
of International Education have devoted much of their energy to resettling
Iraqi academics who are at risk. The institute says it used to receive
about two requests for help every month from Iraqi academics at the start
of the war. It now gets 40 a week.

"We've been doing this since the 1920s," says Mr. Goodman, the institute's
president. "Our first rescues were from the Bolshevik Revolution. You
would have thought that in the 21st century we wouldn't be still having to
do this. But this crisis could turn out to exceed all of those including
South Africa and Nazi Germany combined."

Despite the good will of universities in Europe and the United States,
resettling the professors can be tricky. Although obtaining funds is a
challenge, the largest problem has proved to be securing visas.

"The U.K. government is hung up on its policy on Iraq," says John Akker,
executive secretary of the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics.
"Because it believes things will be settled in Iraq and that there are
some safe areas, they are not giving any kind of refugee status to those
who have genuine fears for their life."

Even if Iraqi academics can get to other countries, it is often difficult
to place them at universities there. The degradation of Iraqi academe
caused by economic sanctions imposed on the country following the first
Persian Gulf war has prevented most scholars from keeping up with their

On the most basic level, many do not have adequate language skills to
interact on an American campus. While a few Iraqi professors have found
senior positions at American and European universities, and some have been
actively courted, many of them have been given research fellowships or
laboratory placements that do not require them teach.

Even those Iraqis who are qualified to teach often face intense
discrimination in the job market. "Someone at a center for
English-language studies in Saudi Arabia wrote that the policy there was
to not employ Iraqis," Ms. Smalley says.

For those fortunate enough to find accommodations, most situations were
meant to be temporary, in the hope that the situation in Iraq would
improve. But many of their beneficiaries have yet to return home.

"I'm having the Iraqi grad students we admitted doing more complicated
projects, some of them TA-ing for Arabic class anything so they can draw
out their stay," says Ms. Stone, who personally raised the funds to
subsidize the four students.

"They want to go home and train people and use their skills, but there is
no point in training somebody and letting them go home and get killed,"
she says. "I don't dare let them go home."

At the age of 60, Mr. Jawad, the political-science professor, feels that
it would be too difficult for him to begin a new life elsewhere, so he has
chosen to stay in Iraq. "Am I going to beg for some people to give me
asylum or a place to stay?" he asks.

But many of his colleagues have done just that a trend that will do
lasting damage to the future of higher education in Iraq.

"The numbers that we have lost cannot be replaced easily," Mr. Jawad says.
"These people have 10 to 20 years of experience. How can you replace them
with newly graduated students from universities in Baghdad with no
experience, with no training abroad, with no foreign languages? It will
take at least 20 to 30 years to furnish universities with professors of
this caliber again."

Section: International
Volume 53, Issue 37, Page A35

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Received on Mon May 14 08:33 PDT 2007

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