Swarthmore a model for Asian liberal arts school

This past week, Swarthmore College played host to two visitors from the soon-to-be-built University of Central Asia. The university, which is aiming to open in 2010, will be made up of 3 different campuses spread out over Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The project is the brainchild of the Aga Khan Development Network. Mark O’Brien, Dean of Faculty at UCA, and Nasreen Dhanani the Director of Research at UCA, are visiting small liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore and Haverford so that they can learn how to re-create a small, liberal arts environment at UCA. The two have spent this week speaking with students, faculty, and administration. On Monday night, they hosted a Fireside Chat to discuss the initiative with Swarthmore students.

The chat started out with a discussion of the political and economic realities of the region. All three countries are still relatively new, and have a long way to go before they can determine what their role in the world is. None of the three governments of the countries involved have the resources to undertake such a project. There is also a great deal of corruption in the government in these countries, and lack of a desire among corrupt civil servants to enact any kind of change. The initiative aims to create a new generation of thinkers and leaders who will “bat the old heads,” said Dahani.

Eventually, each UCA campus will include an undergraduate school, a graduate school, and a School of Professional and Continuing Education. The latter of the three is already open, offering students who have already received some education the opportunity to acquire professional skills. The undergraduate school will be something of a hybrid between liberal arts school and a professional school. “We can’t have a completely open ended liberal arts program.” explained O’Brien. “While [at Swarthmore], you have the opportunity to go onto grad school to acquire more specialized skills, that same is not true for the countries in this region.”

The initial faculty of the university will be composed of “Westerners”, which will include faculty from Japan and China. While there are already many good professors and lecturers that are teaching in the Central Asia region, UCA does not want to “suck up the talent from existing universities.” Instead, they will pay very high salaries to professors from outside of the region. “We will have to pay them very well because, though the campus is nice, the environment is not.” explained O’Brien. “However, we can’t sustain that, it’s not economically feasible.” So instead, the university will recruit Central Asians who they feel will be assets to the university, and pay for them to educated in the West. These students will then come back and teach at the UCA campus. As Western faculty will withdraw, Central Asians will have the opportunity to advance to positions higher positions such as Deans and Provosts.

The initiative faces several challenges. The first is creating an ethos and culture– “You come to Swat, and you know what you will get: a small school, an intellectual environment. How can we recreate that when we are starting from scratch?” asked O’Brien. Another challenge is finding the right students. “There is a fear that the students recommended to us might be something like the Headmaster’s daughter. We need to be incredibly proactive in finding students.” continued O’Brien.

Dahani worries about whether students will co-mingle and attend campuses outside of their own countries. “It’s strange because, ethnically, they are all the same.” said Dahani. “But over the last 15 years, there has been a very strong movement towards developing national identity and turning inwards.” Dahani hopes that living in dorms will force students to bridge these divides. Swarthmore students suggested that cultural groups and events will enhance this process.

Finally, O’Brien and Dahani agreed that it would be difficult to get students to think critically and analytically. “Students who come from school systems in these countries have the mindset of ‘tell me what to think, tell me what to do.'” explained Dhanani. “The professor is like God.” According to Dhanani, this is a direct result of the educational system implemented by the Soviet Union. While the U.S.S.R’s educational systems produced stellar physicist, engineers, and mathematicians, it did not teach its students how to think for themselves. “That was forbidden. The last think you thought of was anything socially or politically outside of the bubble.” says Dahani. Since all graduates were guaranteed a job, there was no need for innovative independent thinking. “That system of thinking doesn’t work for today’s world.” said Dahani. “We need to train a generation of new thinkers.”

Swarthmore students expressed enthusiasm about the idea, and commented that it was very ambitious. “You know, everyone that I talk to always says ‘Wow! This sounds incredibly difficult, I don’t know how you’ll do it!’,” said O’Brien. “I wish someone would once say ‘This sounds pretty feasible!'” he joked. But ultimately, O’Brien believes that they will accomplish their goals. “It will be difficult. The students will stumble.” he admitted. “But in the end, it will become a world-class institution that will produce some of the finest thinkers in the world.”

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