Why Baghdad Needs an American University

Adam Niklewicz for The Chronicle

December 16, 2013

As minister of higher education for Iraq, I am deeply concerned about the direction in which young Iraqis seem to be going. Years of war and continuing sectarian violence are pushing an entire generation toward a culture of violence and sectarianism. It is vital for Iraq and the region that we reverse this trend and do so as quickly as possible.

Our educational system, especially in higher education, is in dire need of improvement. Where once Iraq's universities were the flagship institutions of the Arab world, today they struggle just to survive and provide a safe environment for learning.

But the youth of Iraq need much more than just a safe haven for study—they must learn once again the tolerance, mutual respect, open-mindedness, and critical-thinking skills that made Iraq an intellectual capital and haven for all of the Abrahamic faiths for centuries.

To restore that greatness, we need a new university. But not just any university. The 21st-century youth of Iraq need a new American and international university that will lead the way for Iraq's higher education in the coming decades.

We have one already—the American University of Iraq, in Sulaimani—but we need another one. Our first one, serving mainly the northern part of Iraq, has contributed greatly to the progress that has been made there since it was founded, in 2007. But we also need one in the central part of Iraq, in Baghdad, to serve Iraqis outside the northern area.

Why an "American" or "international" university? What is different about such an institution that our own universities cannot provide? Why is an American education unique, and why can't our children get that in Baghdad now? What advantages will young Iraqis have in today's world if they have an "American" education? In short, what would an Iraqi graduate of this university be like?

A Western education seeks to produce students who are critical and imaginative thinkers, who are able to draw on the world's knowledge in all areas of thought. Ideally they welcome diversity in society as a source of strength and cultural richness and learn compassion toward others. Their education seeks to make them capable of distinguishing fact from opinion, intellectually curious and aesthetically aware, and adept at both synthesis and analysis.

In the American education model that has been so successful in the United States and abroad, especially in the Middle East, students here would be broadly educated in the liberal arts and sciences, but with depth in those areas that will lead to successful careers in Iraq and the region. They will be especially proficient in reading, writing, and speaking English, as well as in their native Arabic and other languages of our country and the surrounding region.

In addition, they will be knowledgeable about American and Western values and cultures and ready to continue their higher education in the United States or other Western countries, having gained the intellectual preparation needed for long-term graduate study and the degrees that are accepted almost everywhere. This education will enable them to create and enjoy opportunities for lifelong learning, be willing to assume leadership roles as students and citizens, be prepared to respond flexibly to the changing demands of the world of work in Iraq and abroad, and be useful to society and happy with themselves.

Can such an education be offered in a non-American college? I think not. In order to receive a true Western education, a student has to be with American and European professors, as well as other nationalities who have been educated in North America, Europe, or American universities abroad. We have seen the effect that such institutions as the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo have had on generations of young Arabs. We want that today in Iraq.

Students here need to use Western textbooks and to study Western history and society as well as our own Arab values and traditions. They should study subjects that rely on research and knowledge from the United States and other countries, and develop long-term personal relationships with Western-educated students and professors.

And they need to understand that we Iraqis must look at ourselves and our current problems with brutal honesty. We cannot be afraid to discuss them and try to find ways to solve them through our democratic institutions. We must not hesitate to talk about ourselves, examine ourselves openly, and try to work together to resolve issues. We must try to value our differences and look for strength in diversity, to govern by consensus, not decree. And that is perhaps the most important lesson to learn from a truly democratic education, one that can be learned only by example, by immersion in the educational culture of the West.

Iraq needs a second English-language university, one that is overtly American or international in its orientation, curriculum, standards, and values. We want an American partner, but we also want a European partner to ensure that the institution has the broadest possible intellectual basis. We want it to be a place where Arabs and Kurds, Muslims and Christians, Shias and Sunnis can study together in peace. To paraphrase the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., we want a university where all students are judged by the content of their character and not the language they speak or the way they pray.

Is it possible to have such a university in today's Baghdad? I remember well how the American University of Beirut stood strong throughout the Lebanese civil war, and how the American University in Cairo stood firm throughout the Egyptian upheavals and various regional conflicts. They were able to stay open and maintain themselves as islands of coexistence and tolerance because of the faculty and staff members and students who loved their universities and were determined to make them succeed.

In Iraq today we are, sadly, part of the sectarian tensions in the region as the war in Syria spills over our borders, and the conflicts of our past continue to fester. But this violence serves only to show why we need a new university now more than ever.

I have no doubt that young Iraqis and the staff and faculty members who support them will make that university work and succeed and stand strong in the face of any challenge this region can throw at it, just as our sister universities in Cairo, Beirut, and Sulaimani have stood strong before.

Such a university could well be the greatest legacy that the United States and all of Iraq's supporters abroad could leave to the next generation of this country's leaders. Our youth deserve this chance.

Ali Mohammad Al-Hussein Ali Al-Adeeb is Iraq's minister of higher education and scientific research.