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Not Our Best and Brightest?

Not Our Best and Brightest?
June 11, 2008

The missteps in Iraq are well documented by now.

Library shelves could be lined with books that criticize the poorly constructed endgame, the insufficient troop levels and the disbanding of the Iraqi military. There have, however, been glimmers of promise that have gotten a share of ink as well. Among those success stories is the American University of Iraq, a Western-style institution in the war-torn country’s northern region that promises to “lead the transformation of Iraq into a liberal and democratic society.”

The university’s lofty aspirations, as espoused on its Web site, make the selection of its first chancellor all the more puzzling. Owen Cargol, who took the helm at AU-Iraq in 2007 and resigned in late April of this year, had a checkered past that could have been revealed to university organizers with a simple Google search. The sexual harassment scandal that brought down Cargol at Northern Arizona University in 2001 was well publicized, in all of its explicit detail, but apparently never came to the attention of the U.S. officials who trusted Cargol to help reshape the Middle East.

John Agresto, who was hired by the Coalition Provisional Authority to rehabilitate Iraq’s universities from 2003 to 2004, is now AU-Iraq's interim chancellor. Asked about the Cargol hire in an e-mail, Agresto distanced the university from its former chief.

“You should know that Dr. Cargol resigned last month and is no longer at [the university],” Agresto wrote. “We were unaware of any incidents or allegations when he was hired.”

Cargol’s 2001 resignation stemmed from allegations made by a Northern Arizona employee who alleged that Cargol, while naked in a locker room, grabbed the employee’s genitals, the Arizona Republic reported. In a subsequent e-mail to the employee, Cargol described himself as “a rub-your-belly, grab-your-balls, give-you-a-hug, slap-your-back, pull-your-dick, squeeze-your-hand, cheek-your-face, and pat-your-thigh kind of guy.”

Cargol, who at the time was a married father of two children, went on to say that he was a “sensual kind of guy” who hoped the employee could “feel comfortable enough with me (and others) to reciprocate the same level of playfulness and affection,” the newspaper reported.

Cargol's pressured resignation from Northern Arizona came just four months after he was appointed.

Agresto, who was traveling to Iraq Tuesday, did not respond to follow-up questions about the reasons for Cargol’s resignation at AU-Iraq. A spokesman for the university, however, said that Cargol had stepped down April 24 for “personal reasons” and was not in good health.

The spokesman said he didn’t know Cargol’s whereabouts, and efforts to reach Cargol for comment were unsuccessful.

American University of Iraq, which is a private, nonprofit institution, is in part bankrolled with U.S. taxpayer dollars. Congress donated $10.5 million in seed money for the university, The New York Times reported.

Cargol’s April resignation came just a few days before a graduate student at Indiana University at Bloomington wrote a blog item about Cargol's past at Northern Arizona. (The resignation wasn't announced until after the post.)

Jeremy Young, who directs the blog Progressive Historians, knew Cargol’s history well. A native of Flagstaff, Ariz., where Northern Arizona University is located, Young recalls -- with some cringing -- the short-lived Cargol era.

“Mention the name Owen Cargol to a resident of Flagstaff, Arizona -- the sleepy mountain town where I grew up -- and you will be met with a mixture of anger and sadness,” Young wrote. “Tell a Flagstaff resident that Cargol is now the chancellor of a major university in the Middle East, and he or she will probably respond with disbelief. It has been more than seven years since Cargol nearly destroyed the university that is the crown jewel of this city, but the people here have long memories.”

Young, who says he had a morbid curiosity about where Cargol had ended up, learned of Cargol’s new position after conducting a simple Internet search.

“I was like, I wonder where Owen Cargol has gone to? And I (said) ‘oh my God, he’s in The New York Times,’ “ recalled Young, who stumbled across several glowing stories about American University of Iraq that didn't mention Cargol's past.

“This guy resigned in disgrace and almost brought down the university with him, and here he is [working] with a bunch of people I have a lot of respect for," Young added.

AU-Iraq, housed in the Kurdish-populated city of Sulaimani, is indeed the brainchild of a star-studded cast of scholars and politicians. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is chairman of the Board of Regents; and Barham Salih, Iraq’s deputy prime minister, is president of the Board of Trustees. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq and a counselor to former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, sits on the board. So too does Fouad Ajami, head of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Agresto, the new interim chancellor, brings his own bona fides. As detailed in Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Agresto has close connections to Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife, Lynne Cheney, with whom Agresto served during a stint at the National Endowment for the Humanities. A self-described neoconservative who was “mugged by reality” in Iraq, Agresto “knew next to nothing about Iraq's educational system” when he arrived with orders to rebuild it, The Washington Post reported.

How Agresto and his colleagues came to select Cargol to head AU-Iraq is unclear, but Cargol’s decision to reinvent himself as an administrator in the Middle East preceded his work in Iraq. Before he took the chancellor’s post, Cargol was provost of Abu Dhabi University, a private institution in the United Arab Emirates.

Efforts to reach Abu Dhabi officials were unsuccessful.

Cargol wasn’t a faculty favorite at Northern Arizona, even before his downfall. His highest-level administrative experience prior to coming to Arizona was as president of the University of Maine at Augusta, an institution that faculty in Arizona viewed as insufficiently large and complex to prepare Cargol for the president's post.

Northern Arizona’s Faculty Senate, and a council made up of the chairs of all departments, both objected to Cargol as a candidate. The Board of Regents, however, took a chance on him.

Stan Lindstedt, a professor of biology at Northern Arizona who served on the search committee that chose Cargol, said he thought the regents were snowed by Cargol’s obvious “charisma” -- an intangible quality that would have made him a potentially fine fund raiser.

Asked what he thought of Cargol’s foray into Iraq’s higher education system, Lindstedt said “who in their right mind would do that?”

That said, Lindstedt wasn’t too surprised that Cargol had some appeal as a candidate for AU-Iraq's chancellor -- particularly if his history was unknown to those who hired him.

“It certainly looks like (on paper), here’s someone who has some administrative experiences and could do that job,” Lindstedt said. “So in a sense it’s not terribly surprising.”

 

 

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