Laying a Liberal Arts Foundation, On Shaky Ground

Rather than build a branch in the Gulf, Bard College’s approach to internationalization has been to develop “deep partnerships” in countries in transition or conflict.

September 1, 2010

Where there’s volatility, says Susan Gillespie, there’s also opportunity.

Gillespie is vice president of special global initiatives and director of the Institute for International Liberal Education at Bard College, in the Hudson River Valley of New York. Whereas other U.S. universities have established overseas branch campuses bankrolled by oil-rich nations -- initiatives inspired in part by promises of profit -- Bard has gone to places where resources are scarce but problems are plentiful. Bard’s signature international initiative has been to establish dual degree programs in countries that are post-Communist, post-conflict or -- as in the case of its partnership with Al-Quds University, a Palestinian institution in East Jerusalem -- at the crossroads of continuing conflict.

In the 1990s, Bard started an undergraduate honors college in Russia, called Smolny, in collaboration with St. Petersburg State University. Bard also offers a dual credit-granting, semester-long program at the University of the Witwatersrand, in South Africa, focused on human rights. Most recently, and still pending approval by Bard’s accrediting agency, the college signed on to offer a dual degree in collaboration with the American University of Central Asia, in Kyrgyzstan.

The partnership with the American University of Central Asia was announced in March. In April, anti-government protesters deposed Kyrgyzstan’s president, and the southern section of the country erupted with ethnic violence in June. The New York Times reported that hundreds of people, mostly Uzbeks, were killed.

“The unrest has for us simply reinforced the importance of our relationship with the American University of Central Asia, and the need to have a strong American partner to engage with them,” says Jonathan Becker, Bard’s dean of international studies. “It has strengthened, not weakened, our resolve.”

“These are places where the educational systems, like other social systems, are undergoing a lot of change, and they see opportunities to gain something from liberal education. As I see the world today, there are probably 100 countries like that,” says Gillespie, who has described Bard’s strategy as the cultivation of “deep partnerships” with foreign universities. “We have been drawn to places where democratization is an issue. We’re interested in openness and in learning from these situations as well as contributing in ways we can.”

“[Bard] didn’t go to the easy and fashionable places and [it] didn’t go to the low-risk places,” says Alan Ruby, a lecturer at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and an adviser to a university in Kazakhstan. “Kyrgyzstan is not exactly what you’d call a low-risk environment. They’ve had quite a lot of turmoil. It would have been easier to go almost anywhere.

“They’ve clearly chosen places where the capacity for incremental improvement’s much larger. They’re going to places where there’s not a lot of engagement by others, and they’re very deliberately offering a dual degree rather than [just] a Bard degree, so they’re trying to build the local institutional capacity by the very act of duality,” Ruby says.

“For a very small institution, it is definitely punching much above its weight, as they would say in boxing circles.”

The Al-Quds-Bard Connection

The Al-Quds-Bard partnership is the broadest of Bard’s “deep” partnerships. Bard jointly operates an undergraduate college with Al-Quds -- the Honors College for Liberal Arts and Sciences -- and a master of arts in teaching program. The primary language of instruction is English. This fall, Bard will also establish its first of several planned laboratory schools -- a high school for girls -- in Abu Dis, where Al-Quds’ main campus is located.

Photo: Bard College

The central square at Al-Quds

Political realities infuse the atmosphere and geography of the campus. “From our classes you can see the wall” that separates Jerusalem from the West Bank, says Robert Weston, assistant dean of the Honors College. “What you have is a community that considered itself a neighborhood in Jerusalem lopped off from Jerusalem and it became a kind of no man’s land, because it’s not really in the West Bank and not really in Jerusalem.”

“Having taught at Bard College, on a beautiful bucolic campus in upstate New York, one can expect certain protocols from students with regard to tardiness, absences, things like this,” Weston says. “But when you’re living in a place where there’s kind of a permanent state of exception, the student excuse of why he doesn’t have his homework can take a completely different direction. It’s very difficult to think of basic classroom protocols in the same way when students are passing through checkpoints to go to school.”

The Honors College, established in 2009, is the first liberal arts institution for Palestinians. “The idea that a doctor, someone who wants to study medicine, should read Plato or take a creative writing class or a sociology class or whatever it is, that’s an unusual idea,” says Weston. A signature element of the Honors College curriculum is a two-semester freshman seminar, based on the “great books” model. The college offers majors in biology, chemistry, computer science, economics and finance, environmental studies, history, human biology (for pre-medical students), human rights, literature and society, media studies, political science and urban studies and spatial practices.

The plan is to expand the Honors College to 400 students in four years. About 80 freshmen enrolled in its first year, “from all different regions of the West Bank,” says Weston. “From the area of Hebron, from Jericho, from as far north as Jenin, with a concentration of students both from greater Bethlehem and Jerusalem. We also had students from refugee camps.” Between 25 and 30 percent of those first students are Christian, and the rest mainly Muslim. The college is currently admitting its second class of students, and its second academic year will begin this month.

The two-year, part-time MAT program, meanwhile, enrolled 52 students -- all in-service Palestinian teachers -- in its first class, and another 83 in its second, bringing the total number of students to 135. A goal, says Ric Campbell, Bard’s dean of teacher education, is to de-emphasize the role of rote learning in Palestinian education, and promote critical thinking and an inquiry-based approach to learning, instead. Campbell says he is especially pleased that some supervisors from the Palestinian Ministry of Education – professionals who are charged with observing and evaluating the performance of teachers – have enrolled in the MAT program. “We may have significant impact not just at the classroom level but at the larger bureaucratic level in the ministry,” he says.

The U.S. Agency for International Development funded 50 full-tuition scholarships to support MAT students in the first class, and Al-Quds-Bard has pledged free tuition to the second MAT class, as well. There are also 10 full scholarships, funded by the U.S. Consulate, for Honors College students. The Al-Quds-Bard partnership is paid for with a mix of U.S. government funds, private donations, and foundation support, including a $1.5 million grant from the Open Society Institute.

“The goal is to move away from donor support into sustainability along tuition and fee income lines” as the college grows, says Aileen Hanel, the program manager for the Al-Quds-Bard partnership. “We’re moving toward more financial sustainability as the two programs make a name for themselves, which they really are.”

There, Smolny College, in Russia -- which now has an enrollment of about 500 students -- might provide a model. “It has a diverse funding base at this point,” says Gillespie, the vice president of global special initiatives. “At the beginning we were scrounging around for $25,000 to exchange faculty.” In addition to attracting foundation support over the years, Smolny now has an $11.5 million endowment, half of it held by Bard and half of it held by St. Petersburg State. The college enrolls two types of Russian students: so-called “budgetary” students, whose tuition is paid by the government, and students who pay tuition themselves (although they may receive scholarships of varying amounts). The college also derives revenue from American students who study there for a summer language institute, a semester, or an academic year – 30 are to enroll this fall. There are plans to develop similar study abroad options for American students at the Honors College in Al-Quds.

Gillespie wrote a chapter about Bard’s strategy of developing “deep partnerships” for a 2009 book on study abroad and global citizenship. She wrote: “Partnerships are ‘deep’ to the extent that they engage our ethical, intellectual, and philosophical capacities, as well as our well-honed professional skills. In Bard’s case, the ‘deep partnership’ we maintain can be defined as long-term shared endeavors that include the exchange of students, faculty, and curricular elements.

“Creating deep partnerships, in which we attempt to live up to the principles of mutuality and equality, also suggests an interest in the reform of educational practices and institutions both abroad and at home.”


“These are the right people to help at the right time,” says Leon Botstein, Bard’s longtime president, of the partnership with Al-Quds. “Where is the help needed? Not in oil-rich Abu Dhabi.

“We see ourselves as a private institution in the public interest and we want to set an example for an academic institution to actually do things with both its freedom and commitment to certain values, which have to do with the nature of freedom and democracy and free expression and the connection between education and democracy.”

Domestically, Bard runs a prison education program, two early colleges, public high schools in New York City, and a satellite teacher training program in California’s low-income Central Valley. Revenue generation is clearly not the goal for such initiatives, although Bard does enjoy positive returns when it comes to its reputation.

Bard’s collaboration with a Palestinian institution, however, has been the cause of some criticism. Botstein -- conductor laureate for the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra -- says he’s received criticism from the right from those who view the provision of new programs and resources for Palestinians as a betrayal of a commitment to Israel, and who see Al-Quds as a radical institution. On the left, he’s received criticism from people who feel that Al-Quds isn’t radical enough. “This is just the nature of the beast.”

But, says Botstein of his view, “There’s no question that educational cooperation between America and the Palestinian Authority is an important opportunity if in fact there’s going to be some real effort to solve the political conflict in the region and help build a viable Palestinian state in a two-state solution.

“This is not about politics in a short-term way. It’s certainly about politics in a very, very long-term, idealistic way.”

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