New President of the American U. of Iraq Brings Experience From Afghanistan

Dawn Dekle, incoming president of the American U. of Iraq: "Iraqis may differ on what they think of America and American foreign policy, but there is no dispute that America has what it takes for higher education."
July 08, 2013

Dawn Dekle, provost of the American University of Afghanistan, is used to dealing with volatile situations that most administrators would probably find terrifying.

"We just had an attack in the city," Ms. Dekle said in a phone interview with The Chronicle, from Kabul. "Insurgents attacked a bus in front of the Supreme Court—so I had to send out security alerts." The attack by Taliban militants was not close to campus, and Ms. Dekle decided not to shut down the university but to caution students and faculty members to avoid that part of the city.

Such decision making under pressure will probably serve Ms. Dekle well in her new appointment as president of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, which was founded in 2006 by prominent Kurdish politicians and businessmen.

The 46-year-old Ms. Dekle, who has a doctorate in experimental psychology from Dartmouth College and a law degree from Stanford Law School, has spent most of her career abroad. She says that after Stanford she wanted to "try something different" and became interested in "building the capacity for American-style education in developing countries." For 12 years she worked in Singapore, helping the National University of Singapore adopt a rigorous core curriculum based on Harvard's, and overseeing a teaching excellence center for the faculty at Singapore Management University.

In 2011 she became provost at the American University of Afghanistan, which was started with support from the U.S. government. At first, Ms. Dekle questioned the move. "I was going to a country that ranks at the bottom for security and corruption, going to an active war zone. I wondered if I wasn't out of my mind." But, she says, "I wanted to be part of history. I was excited by the idea that Afghanistan was a place where they could even create a U.S. university."

She lists her main accomplishments at the university as starting a law school, creating an M.B.A. program, and preparing the university's application for U.S. accreditation with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. She is also proud that she raised female enrollment from 18 percent to 31 percent.

"To see female students walking across the stage at graduation, knowing what the Taliban had done to women's education," she says. "It was one of the best days of my professional life." (The Afghan institution graduated its first class in 2011.)

Ms. Dekle says that so far her gender, instead of being the hurdle she thought it might be in a conservative and patriarchal society, has sometimes been an asset. In Afghanistan's largely gender-segregated society, she was accepted by men and also able to meet with prospective female students, something a male president would have found difficult.

Iraqi universities don't have the same gender disparity as Afghan ones in terms of students, but Ms. Dekle will be the first female university president in the country, according to her new institution.

Ms. Dekle's experience in Afghanistan has prepared her to some extent for her next job, in the northern Kurdish city of Sulaimani. But there is "always a steep learning curve" in a new country, she says. "I've gone on Amazon and ordered every book on Iraq and Kurdistan." She plans to start lessons in Kurdish and Arabic and will conduct structured "listening tours" throughout the university upon her arrival in September.

As a private, nonprofit university that promises an American-style, liberal-arts education, the 1,000-student institution is an outlier in Iraq, where higher education is dominated by public institutions. It offers degrees in business, information technology, engineering, and international relations. "Iraqis may differ on what they think of America and American foreign policy," says Ms. Dekle, "but there is no dispute that America has what it takes for higher education."

Ms. Dekle's main focus will be on the Iraqi university's U.S. accreditation and on building its endowment. In Iraq's ethnically and politically polarized landscape, one challenge she anticipates is "making sure it stays the American University of Iraq—that it has students from all over Iraq and not just Kurdish students."

Iraqi universities have been devastated by years of dictatorship, economic sanctions, and war, and today are mired in sectarian politics. Asked what impact a small institution like the one in Sulaimani could have in such a context, she says, "it might be a small school with only a thousand students," but its graduates "are going to go out and have influence across industries, ministries, nongovernmental associations."

Iraq, like Afghanistan, is "a country trying to reconstitute itself. The whole point of the university is to build the capacity of the population for self-determination."