Rebuilding Higher Education In Iraq

October 13, 2003

Baylor University is positioned to participate in rebuilding a nation, according to three Baylor professors who returned in late summer from a needs-assessment mission to two Iraqi universities. 
The professors -- Dr. Bill Mitchell, director of Baylor's Center for International Education; Dr. Bill Baker, Arabic language professor; and Dr. Mark Long, director of Baylor's Middle East Studies Program -- arrived home from a nine-day trip to northern Iraq on Aug. 12. They were accompanied by Dr. Dick Hurst, a medical doctor and Baylor graduate from Tyler, Texas. 
Though the reconstruction effort began in May when the war officially ended, little had been done for northern Iraq's educational needs until Baylor sent the team in response to a request from the president of Dohuk University. Baylor and Dohuk signed an exchange agreement in 1996 -- among the first Iraqi universities to have an exchange agreement with a U.S. institution -- but no activity followed during Saddam's years in power. 
Drs. Mitchell, Baker and Long -- all retired U.S. Air Force officers with extensive Middle East experience -- made the five-hour drive to Dohuk from Diyarbakir, Turkey, through remote areas of southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq, crossing the Habur Gate checkpoint. The professors have a command of a variety of the region's languages, including Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew, which was put to use during their journey. 
A robust city of 250,000, Dohuk lies in the Kurdish sector of Iraq and is home to Dohuk University, a school of 3,000 predominantly Kurdish undergraduate and graduate students. The school organized initially with medical and agricultural faculties in the 1960s, then expanded to liberal arts. 
The Baylor team conducted needs assessments for Dohuk and Mosul universities, and made initial contact with the presidents of Salahaddin University in Irbil and Sulaimani University in Sulaimani, a city named for King Solomon. 
At each of the universities, the team met professors, often American-trained, who were limited by a lack of books, journals and other educational materials. 
Dr. Mitchell says Baylor is looking at how they can a make humanitarian educational contribution to the reconstruction effort in Iraq. "The higher education system was essentially destroyed by events preceding and following the war. Saddam allowed it to become politicized and corrupt, then campuses were physically destroyed by vandalism after the war by the Iraqi criminal element," he says. "They need support in curriculum development and facilities, equipment, library support, infrastructural support -- virtually every area." 
One telling sign of dictatorial rule could be seen in the universities' libraries, which the team noted were smaller than many Americans have in their homes. 
"If Texans just took duplicate books off their shelves and sent them to Iraqi schools, it would be a wealth to the institutions," says Dr. Baker, who grew up as the son of Baptist missionaries in northern Israel. "Any help we could give them would be welcomed and greatly appreciated. We have so much and they have so little." 
Of the universities the team visited, Mosul University, 50 miles southeast of Dohuk, suffered the most from vandalism. During the unrest, vandals looted and set fire to the school's computer lab, a tactic Dr. Long says was used to destroy records of Saddam's supporters. The university owned more than 4,000 computers before the war, but because of looting, they lost all but 500, including everything in the computer center. Fewer than 25 home computers donated by professors now comprise the computer lab. 
The professors talked with the lab's director, who told them he watched 25 years of his life perish the night looters set fire to the computer center. "For the Baylor team, the trip was both heartbreaking and energizing," Dr. Long says. "The devastation and poverty broke our hearts. But we found the resilience of the Iraqi people and their desire to partner with Baylor University in helping rebuild higher education in the country to be extraordinarily encouraging." 
The group saw active Christian churches throughout the region meeting with missionaries supported by Texas Baptists. In one village, an impromptu outdoor worship service began as Kurdish villagers gathered around the team to pray and sing. 
When they returned to the United States, the team met with Baylor administrators to prioritize the needs of the Iraqi schools, Dr. Mitchell says. "We are working with the administration to determine what should be addressed first, and we are communicating with the various deans and department heads to determine exactly what kind of support we can offer in various academic areas," he says. 
"There is, unquestionably, a difficult road ahead, but I am confident Baylor and other American universities will be part of a remarkable transformation in Iraq," Dr. Long says. 
This fall, Baylor shared with other American universities about Iraq's educational needs. In late September, Dr. Mitchell reported to the Mid-America Universities International Conference, an annual meeting of directors of international education and coordinators of international programs, which was held at Baylor this year. A few days later, he reported to the Consortium for Global Education, an association of private colleges and universities. 
Dr. Baker noted the contrast between the American and Iraqi environments. "Everything is orderly here, and everything works the way it should. We assume the electricity will be on every day, and if we need a car part, we know we can get it. Life isn't so easy there. They can't take anything for granted." 
Dr. Long agrees, adding that they were well received in Iraq. "I visited with many Kurds, and they all expressed their appreciation of the U.S. They asked us to remember them," he says. 

Editor's Note: Contributions to the Baylor Assistance for Iraqi Higher Education fund can be mailed to the Office of International Education, Baylor University, PO Box 97012, Waco, Texas, 76798-7012