Home > Education > Views on Iraq’s Higher Education beyond 2003

With Little More Than Hope, Iraqi Colleges Try to Rebuild after 35 years of Ba’ath rule, educators contend with too much violence and too little money.

An interview report with Dr. Tahir Al-Bakaa by Christina Asquith

Baghdad, Iraq
Behind coils of barbed wire and stacks of sandbags, the new minister of higher education laid out his plans to the presidents of Iraqi universities. Saddam Hussein was imprisoned. The American advisers had departed. Iraqi academe was on its own feet.

“Everything will be different now in Iraqi higher education,” Taher al-Bakaa told the Council of University Presidents, the new governing body for higher education, in June at U.S. headquarters here. “We will be open. We will be free. The ministry will not be a heavy blanket on your universities.”

The first topic of discussion was not new curricula or laboratories, however, but security. University presidents, who already have personal bodyguards, were concerned about radical Islamic groups, looters, death threats, and angry students.

After a tumultuous academic year under U.S. guidance, the true test of whether Iraqi universities will emerge from 35 years of dictatorship and war as an independent and free-thinking system is about to begin.

The American team assigned to advise Iraqi higher education dissolved on June 16. Its leader, John Agresto, returned to the United States that month. On paper he leaves behind the structures for a self-governing system, including a democratic procedure for hiring and firing administrators, and a “declaration of academic freedom and responsibilities” that forbids religious and political intimidation. Those steps were hailed as major changes after 35 years of centralized control and intimidation by Mr. Hussein’s Baath Party.

But the United States and its allies have provided relatively little money to make that structure work — less than 15 percent of what elementary and secondary schools have received, for example.

What’s more, the universities must still operate amid considerable violence. In the past year, dozens of intellectuals — including the former president of Baghdad University; the deputy dean of the Medical College at Basra University; and Abdul Latif al-Mayah, a political-science professor at Al-Mustansiriya University — have been assassinated by unknown assailants. Student demonstrations and Islamic militias have shut down campuses. The university presidents voted to postpone student elections in the spring, the first open voting scheduled on campuses in three decades, out of fear of student-on-student violence.

In this climate of terror, few feel safe to speak freely.

Nonetheless, Mr. al-Bakaa, the popular minister selected by the United Nations in June, plans changes intended to bring Iraqi higher education into the 21st century. He wants a more market-oriented university system, one that will help graduates find jobs in the private sector. He wants to loosen the Ministry of Higher Education’s control of university affairs. He wants all campuses wired for e-mail and Internet access. He wants professors to encourage debate, discussion, and inquiry — activities that, in the past, could have been punishable by death.

Mr. al-Bakaa hopes that if he rushes forward with physical improvements, campus Internet cafes, modern lab equipment, and opportunities to travel, then students will turn away from darker religious fanatics, and civil order will prevail. But to put his sweeping plan into effect, he and the university presidents are counting on promises made by foreign governments, primarily the United States, and the World Bank, promises that include millions of dollars in aid, scholarships, and partnerships but that have yet to be fulfilled.

It has been a year, and so far those promises have proved largely empty.

The Lost Year

Along the sand-colored, shaded walkways of Al-Mustansiriya, Iraq’s second-largest university, Taquey al-Mosuwy points out the rehabilitated science center and the new computer lab. Vice president of the Baghdad institution, he estimates that 85 percent of the damage done by postwar looting on the campus has been repaired, all by Iraqis themselves.

“The Americans have done nothing all year but make promises,” Mr. al-Mosuwy says, as three armed bodyguards hover close by.

By almost all accounts, the past 15 months of U.S. involvement in Iraqi higher education has been disappointing.

Of Iraq’s two dozen ministries, the one for higher education was the last to receive funds, and it got the least. The Ministry of Education, which runs the country’s elementary and secondary schools, has benefited from a $65-million contract won from the U.S. government by an American company for rebuilding efforts, as well as $103-million from the World Bank and $100-million expected from other donor nations. The Ministry of Higher Education, however, received less than $20-million in benefits from contracts between the United States and American universities early on, along with about $20-million from donor nations, and so far nothing from the World Bank.

“We did a lot, but we haven’t been able to give them much material support,” said Mr. Agresto, the U.S. senior adviser, before he left Baghdad. “All is not lost, but we’ve lost a year.”

Iraqi higher education was in a shambles after the war. An estimated 80 percent of the country’s 22 universities and 43 vocational colleges had been damaged, some beyond repair. One campus of Iraq’s third-largest institution, Basra University, was a collection of empty hulks and piles of rubble. The higher-education ministry estimated a nationwide rebuilding cost of $1.2-billion.

“We’re not talking about libraries and labs; we need chairs,” Salman D. Salman, Basra’s president, said in December as he stood in a classroom with no windows or door. “We need 15,000 chairs.”

The American senior adviser for higher education at the time was Andrew P.N. Erdmann, a 36-year-old policy planner at the U.S. State Department with a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University. He was a member of the Pentagon’s first team to arrive in Baghdad.

Without phone service or a banking system up and running, Mr. Erdmann and his team spent April through August 2003 organizing bricks-and-mortar projects just to keep universities open for exams and professors paid. He oversaw the controversial policy of removing top members of the Baath Party from government posts. As a result 1,400 professors were fired. (Through an appeals process, most were allowed back this year.) And “National Class,” a Baath indoctrination course taught at all universities, was abolished.

In May, for the first time in more than 50 years, Iraqi academics were allowed to elect their own university presidents. Over the summer, exams were held. The U.S. military took charge of a few reconstruction projects, using frozen Iraqi assets.

In September Mr. Erdmann passed the reins to Mr. Agresto, former president of St. John’s College in New Mexico, who had been acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under President Ronald Reagan. His aim was to rebuild Iraqi higher education intellectually as well as physically.

Long on administrative experience, Mr. Agresto knew little about the Middle East. What’s more, his forte was the liberal arts, while Iraqi universities emphasize the sciences and mathematics. Some Iraqi academics felt that the nation needed to strengthen those disciplines to help rebuild the country, but Mr. Agresto wanted to shore up the liberal arts in order to help with building a democracy.

“I worry about a country where history and heritage and literature aren’t prized, where philosophy and political philosophy and normative studies aren’t basic parts of the curriculum,” he said in March. “For a country to produce leaders, it has to be a country where people can think clearly and write persuasively and understand more than just their specialty.”

Tension at the Top

Coinciding with Mr. Agresto’s arrival, each member of Iraq’s multiparty Governing Council appointed one new minister. The choice of the minister of higher education went to the Iraqi Islamic Party, a fundamentalist group. They picked Ziad Abdel Razzaq Aswad, a petroleum-engineering professor and member of a radical Sunni Islamist group.

Mr. Agresto arrived with the intention of making universities modern, decentralized, internationally oriented establishments, free from religious influences. Mr. Aswad was a force in the opposite direction. He wanted more centralization of the ministry. He expected professors to ask the government for permission to travel, as they had under Mr. Hussein’s regime. He wanted the ministry to again control the hiring and firing of deans.

“The minister wanted to stay in the past,” says Mohammed Nasser, who is in charge of finance and administration in the Ministry of Higher Education. “He didn’t give any authority to university presidents. He even used the organizational chart from Saddam’s time.”

Mr. Aswad’s office agreed to an interview with this reporter, but he did not show up for it. Several subsequent requests for interviews went unanswered.

Iraq’s first opportunity to get international aid for higher education came in Madrid in late October, at the International Donors Conference for the Reconstruction of Iraq. The possibility of major infusions of cash made it a crucial event for Iraqi institutions.

Even so, Mr. Aswad hesitated about going. In the end the higher-education minister was not one of those chosen by the country’s interim Governing Council to attend. Mr. Agresto went, along with another ministry official.

Mr. Agresto told the conference that the country needed $690-million for “rebuilding the intellectual life of Iraq” and $75-million to “restore basic laboratory and scientific equipment,” among other facilities, over the next four years. He says donor nations at the meeting were receptive to his presentation and promised to help.

“I left roughly calculating that we had $400- to $600-million in pledges,” he says. “I thought it was a big success.”

In order to receive the money, the Ministry of Higher Education had to work through the World Bank to submit proposals to individual nations. According to Mr. Agresto and other ministry officials, however, Mr. Aswad was uncooperative, refusing to take phone calls from World Bank officials until Mr. Agresto urged him to do so, and failing to meet with them until February, six months into his term. Then he accused the officials of insulting him, Mr. Agresto says.

“He said, ‘I’m here to get the money, and the World Bank said, ‘No, we have to work together,’ and the minister said, “I heard you have money to give me,’ and he ended up walking out of the meeting,” says Mr. Agresto.

World Bank officials who attended the meeting were not available for comment. A spokesperson did confirm that no money had been made available to higher education in Iraq, and that there were no immediate plans to provide any for this academic year.

Members of the Council of University presidents were frustrated. Some blamed the U.S. government for allowing Mr. Aswad to hold the post and blamed Mr. Agresto for not stepping in.

“Dr. Agresto is a very good man, but he was not strong enough with our minister,” says Mahmood Abdul Husain, president of the Commission of Technical Education, which comprises 43 institutions in Iraq, including Kurdish-controlled areas of the country.

But there was only so much that Mr. Agresto could do without the backing of the ministry, say others. “The minister fought Dr. Agresto on everything,” says Suhail Hamamah, an engineering lecturer who was a project manager in Mr. Agresto’s office and his personal translator. “He didn’t trust the Americans.”

The senior adviser was up against other obstacles as well. By April the security situation in Iraq had deteriorated so much that Mr. Agresto and the other Americans rarely left the Green Zone, the heavily fortified four-square-mile American compound in Baghdad. Two entrances had been bombed. Mr. Hamamah was receiving death threats. Mr. Agresto also had to negotiate relations between the administration of Al-Mustansiriya University and the U.S. military, which had occupied the dormitories, displacing 1,500 students, and had twice raided the campus.

“Lack of money got in our way. The military got in our way, a lot,” Mr. Agresto says. “We were really naive thinking we could just come over here and build a democracy. Democracy is hard.”

In the spring, when Congress appropriated $87-billion for Iraqi reconstruction, Mr. Agresto requested $120-million for higher education. He got $8-million. The window of opportunity was closing.

In June, when the United States officially handed over power to the Iraqis, all of the ministers were replaced. Mr. al-Bakaa, who had been president of Al-Mustansiriya, was appointed minister of higher education. In one of his first acts, he rallied a team of academics to meet with the World Bank in Beirut. They asked for $120-million in the first year. The response was disheartening.

“They told us the money had already been spent,” Mr. al-Bakaa says. “They said, ‘Maybe, maybe, come to Washington in September and ask again.'”

Reluctant Professors

All Iraqi universities and colleges reopened after the war, but attempting to carry on has often seemed to students and staff members like an exercise in futility. Some students and professors lost theses, lectures, and years of research in the looting.

Heavy traffic, bomb threats, and U.S. roadblocks have made attendance spotty on campuses in Baghdad. With no electricity, students had no fans, air-conditioning, or lights to study at night. They were often asked to phone their professors the night before an exam to see if it was still scheduled.

Professors, many of whom have received anonymous death threats and seen their colleagues assassinated, were sometimes reluctant to show up for work.

Protests by students and staff members against the U.S. attack on Falluja shut down most universities in April. The University of Karbala was taken over by supporters of Moktada al-Sadr, a radical Islamic cleric, in the same month, and not even Mr. al-Bakaa, the minister, is certain of its current status. Westerners and some Iraqis traveling on highways outside Baghdad have been kidnapped or ambushed. As a result information about life on campuses in Karbala, Mosul, or Basra is hard to obtain.

“It was a very difficult school year,” says Hussain Ali, who graduated in June from the College of Engineering at the University of Baghdad. “The university was closed three times for more than a week. Many of us couldn’t get to college because of the traffic. Professors were killed by students. The students say, ‘If you don’t pass me, I’ll kill you.'”

Worst of all, professors and students say, is that after 35 years of intellectual repression and 14 years of U.N. sanctions, the intellectual renaissance that Iraqi academics had hoped would follow Mr. Hussein’s fall has not come about. Many blame terrorism and antiwar politics in the United States.

At the University of Baghdad’s College of Political Science, Riyadh Aziz Hadi empties a small box of business cards onto his desk. “Look, look at all these,” says Mr. Hadi, dean of the college, pulling up the cards of American professors who have visited him. “We have had many offers and received many delegations here, and still we have nothing. It’s just been talk.”

On Mr. Agresto’s watch, 26 Iraqi students traveled to the United States on Fulbright scholarships, and five professors visited American universities. Dozens of other Iraqi professors participated in pedagogical training in Kurdish-controlled areas in July. Individual Iraqi professors have organized a few other scholarly partnerships, and British universities have helped with revising curricula and inviting professors to conferences.

But most Iraqi academics have felt little positive change since the Americans arrived. While the universities have a strong base of older professors who were educated abroad in the 1950s and 1960s, the majority of their younger colleagues hold “homemade Ph.D.’s,” as they are called, meaning that the professors were educated in outdated programs and haven’t seen a new journal is 15 years.

We want adoptions [of Iraqi universities by foreign counterparts] and scholarships,” says Wail Nourildean al-Rifaie, president of the University of Technology, who has raised money on his own to send curricular material to British universities for revision. “The young professors need to see how the rest of the world works.”

Some American professors say the issue of safety has discouraged them from pursuing projects in Iraq.

“The security situation deteriorated so quickly it was difficult to get people’s attention — and it seemed there were more pressing needs than exchanges,” says Richard Couto, a professor of leadership and change at Antioch University. He visited Baghdad twice last year and proposed taking Iraqi professors to the United States for training in the latest research techniques. But over time he lost motivation, he says: “I also despaired of the hopeless mess that we seem to have made in Iraq and that there was any solid ground on which to stand and work for change.”

The most substantial American aid to Iraqi higher education has come from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which offered $20-million in grants to five American universities to set up partnerships with Iraqi universities. The programs have been slow to get off the ground because of security, but Assaf F. al-Assaf, a professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center who is heading a $4-million effort, says Iraqi professors at most universities now have cellphones, e-mail, and videoconferencing. He has held meetings with Iraqi professors in Amman, Jordan, and has flown five Iraqi academics to the United States. “You can still do business,” he says.

He suspects, however, that for political reasons some American professors won’t participate in the aid programs. Many felt insulted by the appointment of Mr. Agresto, with a background in liberal arts, not Middle Eastern affairs. Others are antiwar. “Professors think, ‘I am a liberal Democrat and that is a Republican war,'” Mr. al-Assaf says. “I heard it from at least one professor: If I help you, then I am helping Bush.”

Introducing Democracy

So it falls to Iraqi academics to rebuild their system of higher education.

Mr. al-Bakaa is busy trying. He wants to shift resources to Iraq’s technical colleges, which can train students in the skills needed to help rebuild the nation. To do that, he has already eliminated 134 Ph.D. programs at Iraqi universities.

He had hoped to decentralize the admissions process, but individual campuses are not yet equipped to process applications. He also wants to do away with “curriculum books,” in which the ministry dictates what professors can teach.

The ministry’s operating budget has not yet been set for next year. This year it will spend $184-million to keep the country’s higher-education institutions running.

Meanwhile, professors and students are struggling with a new academic discipline: democracy. At the University of Baghdad, Mr. Hadi, the political-science dean, says his college stripped Baathist propaganda from all course work and added a course called “Human Rights and Public Liberties.”

The university has also created a Ph.D. program called “Democracy and Human Rights” and a course called “Political Development in Iraq.” Both are likely to criticize Mr. Hussein’s regime.

At all universities, the Baath Party indoctrination course has been replaced with a course in democracy and human rights. In most cases, however, students say they have been presented with no new books or ideas; they just share photocopies of lecture notes by professors who haven’t left Iraq in decades.

“The class is OK,” says Yassir Nassir, standing in front of a lecture hall on the campus of Al-Mustansiriya. “We discuss security and how to provide security in a democracy, and we look at the crisis in Najaf and Karbala,” which have seen clashes between the forces of Mr. al-Sadr and U.S. troops.

Changing the curriculum depends first on maintaining security on the campuses and persuading students not to turn to radical Islamic groups for stability. Those groups are his highest concern, Mr. al-Bakaa says, adding that the only way to keep them off the campuses is to hold dialogues with them and talk them out of interfering with education so he can move forward with intellectual concerns.

Some students say the slowness of reform efforts allows fundamentalist religious groups to gain a foothold at the universities and misrepresent democracy to students who have little understanding of it. Students on many campuses say the groups have been pressuring young women to wear the Islamic head scarf and breaking up boy-girl couples strolling on the campus. Some students believe that the religious groups are behind the assassinations of professors.

The uncertainty is fatal to freedom of speech. In April members of Mr. al-Sadr’s militia descended on dozens of campuses in black clothing and armbands, holding rallies and threatening students. Even administrators were hesitant to oppose them. Many women covered their heads just to be safe.