Ambassador praises Iraqi university changes

    Former U.S. ambassador Joseph Ghougassian, an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority who collaborated with the Iraqi Education Ministry, spoke on his efforts to restore and modernize Iraq’s higher education system at the Great Hall on Oct. 25.

    Ghougassian began his talk with descriptions of Iraq’s higher education system during the rule of Saddam Hussein. According to Ghougassian, Iraq has 17 universities and numerous other technical schools that are comparable to American community colleges.

    Hussein established 11 of these universities during the 1990s, mainly for political reasons, without ensuring that the necessary learning resources were available at each campus, Ghougassian said. During his 15 months in Iraq, he observed that universities significantly lacked proper libraries, Internet services and laboratories for student use.

    “Why would [Hussein] create all these universities at a time when Iraq was financially strapped?” Ghougassian said. “For the shrewd politician, he did not want to see the Iraqi youth in the streets, and given the economic conditions of Iraq he did not want to see the youth doing nothing.”

    There was also little room for academic freedom in Iraq, as students were mainly trained to memorize facts, and Iraqi professors were forbidden to go abroad for academic purposes, Ghougassian said. These restrictions on Iraqi higher education greatly hindered academic progress.

    “Iraqi professors were prohibited from traveling abroad to participate in seminars or to perform research,” Ghougassian said. “There was no opportunity for them to go abroad [or] to know what was going on in their own field.”

    After joining the CPA in May, Ghougassian worked with the Iraqi Education Ministry to introduce several reforms into the country’s education system in the aftermath of U.S. military action in the country. University faculties began electing new presidents and deans for their campuses in a free and fair process, and exams were reinstated so that students could graduate, he said.

    Ghougassian also worked to introduce the first nationwide round of Fulbright Scholarships in Iraq, allowing 25 Iraqi students to participate in foreign exchange programs. However, he said that he experienced trouble in securing exchange agreements with American universities.

    “I must say that American universities have not been receptive to the Iraqi students’ and universities’ needs,” Ghougassian said. “American universities are not very much into charities.”

    Before it disbanded on June 28, the CPA appointed a new minister of higher education for Iraq. Ghougassian emphasized the personal pleasure he received from using education reform to influence politics.

    “It was such a gratifying moment to really feel the satisfaction [and] self-fulfillment by finding yourself in a situation where you really become an instrument for peace and higher education,” he said.

    Humanitarian assistance expert Dr. Eric Greitens, who served as the event’s moderator, reflected upon the importance of rebuilding educational institutions after the war in Iraq.

    “I think we have to understand that, as an outside force, we’re dealing not with victims, but with survivors of a war,” Greitens said. “The extent to which our programs are successful is when there’s a productive synergy between what we’re offering and what the people desire, and the extent to which there’s trouble when there are two visions coming into conflict.”

    Ghougassian’s lecture was sponsored by the International Affairs Group, an International House organization whose mission is to increase student awareness and understanding of the global community.

    “I think IAG is a really good forum for promoting discussion,” Eleanor Roosevelt College senior Libby Loft said. “I wasn’t aware at all of the lack of opportunities that the Iraqi students have in higher education.”

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