A Tangled Tale in Tbilisi

August 29, 2006

When the e-mails began flying last week, they laid out what seemed like a very provocative and sexy tale: An accrediting agency recognized by the U.S. Education Department had given its approval last year to a campus in the Republic of Georgia tied to an unaccredited Hawaiian university that had been run out of business by state regulators there.

As several educators and government officials who monitor the behavior of unaccredited institutions shared information among themselves and with reporters, they threw around loaded phrases like "diploma mill" to describe the now-defunct American University of Hawaii. They also suggested that the accreditor, the American Academy for Liberal Education, had failed in its mission of ensuring quality control by accrediting the Georgian institution.

Peeling back the layers, however, suggests that the situation is not nearly as clearcut as it initially may have seemed. First, despite questions raised by some of the critics about the legitimacy and quality of the American University for Humanities Tbilisi College Campus, it appears to be a real place. It is operating with the full authority of Georgian authorities, and the review by the American Academy for Liberal Education -- which included three site visits, including an independent assessment by two strongly credentialed faculty members at American universities -- found an imperfect institution, but a serious one.

"Our report hardly offered an A+," Stephen C. Zelnick, associate professor of English and former vice provost for undergraduate education at Temple University and one of the independent reviewers, said in an interview Monday. "There were a lot of failures in management and resources, but everything that was related to hardcore education -- preparation of the faculty, seriousness of what happens in the classroom, writing assignments and how they're treated, the curriculum itself -- all looked pretty good, once you made the correction for the limited resources in the post-Soviet world."

Some of the critics say that even if the Tbilisi institution is legitimate, Hawaii's prosecution of the American University of Hawaii and its owner, Hassan H. Safavi, who founded and partially owns the Tbilisi campus, should have raised enough red flags to deter the American Academy for Liberal Education from accrediting the Georgian institution.

"Given the interaction of Safavi with the State of Hawaii, [AALE] should have been extremely cautious about looking at its programs," said George D. Gollin, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who closely tracks unaccredited degree-granting institutions. "If issues are raised about the apparent integrity of a school's administration, an accreditor has an obligation to think about whether the administration will run that campus in the same fashion."

Officials at AALE bristle at the suggestions both that they accredited a seriously flawed institution -- "this would be pretty far down the line of a duping process, and a lot of good people would have to have been bamboozled," said Jeffrey Martineau, AALE's director of higher education, who visited the Tbilisi campus three times -- and that they failed to sufficiently take the legal situation involving the Hawaii institution and Safavi into account. They note that while a Hawaii court found Safavi to have violated state law by awarding degrees without accreditation and fined him $500,000, state officials never accused Safavi of running a diploma mill.

"We have monitored the situation all along," said Jeffrey D. Wallin, AALE's president. "It is important to us that when we saw what Safavi was being accused of, there was no hint that something shady was going on with regard to the quality of education. Had it been there, we might have made a different decision."

A Circuitous Path

Depending on who you ask, Hassan Safavi, who also goes by Henry, is either a convicted criminal or a patriot. Most agree that he is smart and somewhat arrogant, traits that emerge as you talk to him. A British-born Iranian, he describes himself as having been educated (through to a postdoc) at the University of Manchester and other universities in Britain and Geneva, of having played a hand in the early years of the Open University, and of making it a personal mission throughout more than 35 years as an educator of trying to provide "American-style liberal education in countries that had a grave need," like those in the former Soviet Union and Pakistan, said Safavi. "My hope is that if we had enough of these small colleges, perhaps they could fight off enough of those small madrassas that the enemy is using so well."

As he tells it, Safavi has followed a circuitous and at times mine-laden path in pursuit of his fond hope. He created what he calls a "consultancy" in Delaware years ago to provide curriculums and course materials for foreign institutions that sought to establish liberal arts programs. In 1994, he was asked, he says, to help found the American Universiti of Tbilisi in the newly independent Republic of Georgia, an institution he also owned in part when it opened in 1995. Around that time, he said, he worked as a consultant for the Southern California University for Professional Studies, a for-profit institution in California, and through that arrangement he inherited a share, in 1996, of the American University of Hawaii.

Between then and 2003, Safavi said, the university, which offered no classes itself, helped to establish liberal arts programs at institutions in numerous foreign countries -- 32 in all, he said -- "providing syllabi, making announced visitations to the campuses, providing quality control," in his words. (One of the partner campuses was the institution he partly owned in Tbilisi, which became known as American University of Hawaii, Tbilisi Campus.) The Hawaii institution was highly successful and popular with politicians in the state, Safavi said.

But in 2003, he said, several years after a change in Hawaii's law governing unaccredited institutions, state regulators prosecuted him, accusing him of misleading consumers by implying that the degrees his institution offered had the approval of accreditors and the state.

As the litigation unfolded, Safavi agreed to stop using the name American University of Hawaii, and he changed the name of the Delaware consulting operation he'd long had to American University for Humanities. Most of the programs that the Hawaii institution had operated in other countries had been shuttered by 2005, as Hawaii officials aggressively informed the foreign institutions about his legal troubles, but his newly renamed entity, American University for Humanities, took over the relationship with the institution in Tbilisi.

Throughout this period, Safavi sought accreditation for the Tbilisi campus from various entities, he said, including the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and the American Academy for Liberal Education. He first approached AALE in 1999, but was told that it would not consider accrediting the campus until it had been operating for 10 years.

In 2004, as the 10-year anniversary of the Tbilisi campus's founding neared, Safavi applied for AALE approval, and the accrediting agency, which is known as a maverick with an ideological (read: traditional) bent, began its process for "programmatic" accreditation of campuses, which includes a self-study, a mountain of paperwork and multiple visits. Unlike institutional accreditation, which allows an institution's students to qualify for financial aid from the United States government, programmatic accreditation does not offer the keys to that particular lucrative kingdom.

The visit in mid-May 2005 by Temple's Zelnick and Margaret Downes, a professor of literature and language at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, notes that the campus was a "campus of the American University of Hawaii," though the institution's name changed to American University for Humanities just as the accreditation process was unfolding.

The reviewers, who spent three days in the ramshackle office building in downtown Tbilisi that houses the institution, its 125 students and 30 mostly part-time faculty members, found a place that "has made remarkable progress in its ten years of existence in a troubled political and social setting," their report said. "The commitment to liberal education shines through in many ways, most particularly the variety of disciplines students are exposed to and a commitment to free discussion and inquiry." They said they were particularly impressed by the commitment and passion of the institution's poorly paid faculty, which is led by its rector, Alexander T. Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies.

It also found, however, that "there are essential AALE standards that the AUH-T seems not yet to have met satisfactorily," the review team continued. "The rigorous reasoning standards AALE recommends are uneven through the curriculum. Samples of student work we reviewed do not seem, in a few cases, to have received thorough attention from instructors.... The natural sciences and biological sciences, though represented adequately by general courses, lack a laboratory opportunity for students or even laboratory demonstration, because there is yet no facility to make that possible."

Wallin said that AALE officials monitored the situation in Hawaii throughout this time but determined that because the litigation was not final, he "did not think it would have been fair to the institution or to faculty or students" to delay a decision pending the final outcome.

In June 2005, based on the largely upbeat report of the reviewers and the fact that the Tbilisi campus has the appropriate authority from the Georgian government to operate, Wallin and Martineau said, the AALE's Board of Trustees approved the accreditation of American University for Humanities Tbilisi College Campus.

An E-Mail Chain

That decision went largely ignored until last week, when a series of e-mails involving the Hawaii official who had prosecuted Safavi, Jeffrey Brunton, circulated in the closeknit world of accrediting experts and those who track potentially fraudulent institutions.

They traded e-mails tracing the transformation of American University of Hawaii into American University for Humanities and speculated that AALE had failed to rigorously review the Tbilisi institution even though its relationship to the shuttered institution and Safavi should have raised enough red flags to warrant significantly greater scrutiny. Their casual use of the phrase "diploma mill" to describe American University of Hawaii -- even though even Brunton, the Hawaii official, acknowledges that state officials "do not allege it" because "we have no idea ... about the quality of education they're providing" -- has Safavi threatening legal action against any who have used the term to describe his current or former institutions.

Wallin provided a reporter with a copy of a letter he sent Safavi on June 14, after the publication of a "final judgment" from the Hawaii court, which he said "raises serious questions that need to be resolved at the earliest opportunity."

He asked Safavi to explain in writing his relationships with and among two American University institutions and the Tbilisi campus, and to say "why the Hawaii court's judgment should not reflect negatively on the overall integrity of the institutions and its management as well as the quality and integrity of the educational objectives of these and any other institutions of higher learning with which you are connected and that are either currently accredited by, or are under consideration for, AALE accreditation or membership." At least two other foreign institutions affiliated with American University for Humanities, in Lebanon and Singapore, are now seeking AALE approval, and Wallin said those institutions' applications are on hold for now.

The AALE president said he thought it unlikely that the Tbilisi campus's accreditation could be threatened, because "we are accrediting the college, not accrediting the person." He added: "If we’re going to take this place’s accreditation away, we have to find a link" -- a way in which Safavi's legal troubles in Hawaii is "making the Tbilisi campus less of a good campus. We'd have to look through everything again, and ask: Is there any failing, anything wrong that’s attributable in part to the ownership?"

Safavi, who wrote two replies to the AALE's June letter, said he was hopeful that the agency's officials, if they reconsidered the Tbilisi campus's accreditation, would put more stock in the judgment of the outside reviewers and others who've attested to the quality of the campus than in the legal action against him in Hawaii, which he calls ill-founded. He said he was confident that the accreditor would find no evidence that the quality of the education has been subpar or seriously deficient in Tbilisi.

Have any of your institutions granted degrees without requiring work or engaged in the other sorts of activities that critics suggest, he was asked? "Over my dead body," Safavi said. "I am an obsessive educator. If one slimy fish has gone through my net, I will hang myself."

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