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Iraqi Academe, How Can We Help?

March 16, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Iraqi American academics gathered this weekend to discuss “How can we help Iraqi academia?” and “How can we help in reforming curriculum and teaching methodologies at Iraqi universities?”

In panel discussions on those two topics Saturday, scholars offered a variety of perspectives on steps forward -- with many questioning the wisdom of a government plan, announced last May, to send 10,000 Iraqi students on scholarships overseas (a third and final panel Saturday focused on the secondary question of which specialties should be supported).

A. Hadi Al Khalili, the cultural attaché for the Embassy of Iraq in Washington, which sponsored the conference, described the five-year fellowship program as “very ambitious and very useful as an investment in the future of Iraq.” But several others worried about brain drain. “We can’t use failed policies again and again and again,” said Qais Al-Awqati, a professor of medicine at Columbia University. “What will happen is what happened here. Which is that we’re all here, basically.”

Attendees gathered here (at the National Academy of Sciences headquarters)to discuss what’s happening there -- and how to connect the two places. Iraqi university leaders are in fact eager to collaborate. A delegation of seven Iraqi university presidents visited the United States in February with partnerships, for research and faculty exchange, in mind.

However, "a common theme" of that visit, and another one involving Iraqi education leaders, was: "We're not connecting with U.S. universities. ... How are we able to connect universities, institutes, associations, societies, between the United States and Iraq?” asked Karim Altaii, a professor of integrated science and technology at James Madison University and a fellow at the U.S. State Department. “Should we start with university consortiums?... Should we start a brand-new NGO that is completely dedicated to Iraqi higher education?"

“How would the Ministry of Higher Education get in the picture?" Altaii asked, pointing out that Iraq's higher education system is centralized whereas the United States' is decentralized.

Muthanna H. Al-Dahhan, professor and chair of chemical and biological engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology, offered a long list of ideas for discussion. “Everything will help, no matter how simple and how easy," Al-Dahhan said.

For faculty, he suggested collaborating on opportunities for sabbaticals and, for students, he posed the idea of organizing training programs for standardized tests needed for entry to foreign universities (like the Graduate Record Examination and the Test of English as a Foreign Language). He also described sending American faculty to Iraq for short but intense workshops. “The first important thing is substantial funding, funding and funding,” Al-Dahhan said. “Without resources given to universities and colleges, nothing will happen.”

Another idea was to conduct department-level reviews of Iraqi institutions and, more specifically, to send all-star teams of scientists to evaluate Iraq’s medical colleges. “Look at the department, recommend what needs to be done and hopefully the government there can help set up or take in these recommendations,” said Salih J. Wakil, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Baylor College of Medicine.

He continued: “You can bring in here the 10,000 students. That’s good. I’m not quite sure that I would do that. What I would recommend is -- yes, we could bring some students. But more importantly I’d like to take people from here to go there and teach … give them an appointment.”

“The best thing we can do is do science there.”

The structure of the two-day conference was such that Saturday's schedule featured the series of three panels and Sunday's involved “action working groups." Many were raring to get right to the action part. During the Saturday of speeches, some expressed their restlessness in the form of written questions on index cards.

It fell to the moderator of the panel on curriculum to read the anonymous inquiries aloud. “One of them begins ‘speeches, speeches and more speeches.’ And the other says, 'Can we move from theory to 1, 2, 3 … implementation plan?'”

Some panelists were similarly action-oriented. Ihsan A. Al-Shehbaz said they cannot hope for others to revive Iraqi higher education but must do it themselves. He cited a laundry list of ails in need of attention.

"We lack, I should have said just one word -- everything,” said Al-Shehbaz, an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and head of the Department of Asian Botany at the Missouri Botanical Garden. “No new foreign graduates, no latest texts, library materials, latest informatics, modern labs, research funds, supporting staff, international exposure, workshops, international collaboration, incentives, competition. But most importantly, we lack diversity. My colleagues who teach in my field translated books 30 years ago, 35 years ago, and they continue to use the same books over and over again. “

As for him, “I will arrive home just before midnight Sunday and Monday morning I’m going to Iraq,” Al-Shehbaz said Saturday. He's visiting as part of a project on the country's flora. “I sent 40 copies, free, of a book authored by four friends of mine, the latest in my field. And we’re going to give them to professors and top graduate students for free. I’m going to give two seminars and we’re planning to give intensive courses in my field.”

The goal of mutual exchange was a major theme of the conference, one complicated by another theme that kept coming up -- the difficulty Iraqi students and scholars face in obtaining visas to come to the United States.

“I think we should all just make an official request to the State Department to facilitate visas for academics, to stop placing these obstacles in their way,” said Zainab Bahrani, a professor of ancient Near Eastern art and archaeology and director of graduate studies at Columbia. "Because they say that they want to help Iraqi academia and this is a place where they can just make it easier. So let’s ask them officially, all of us as a group. Let’s just ask them to make this easier.”

 

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