The Corner

Academic Freedom at the American University of Iraq: A Response

Mr. Agresto is less than candid. He considers me a one-time friend. He recalls meeting; I do not, but will take his word for it. If we did meet, it was once and fleeting. Regardless, Mr. Agresto is aware that he has declined opportunities to meet and talk for several years. The idea that, after having taught for a year in Iraqi Kurdistan, my concern about the potential of political interference equates to having “it in so badly for the American University of Iraq” is thin-skinned and wrong-headed.  

Mr. Agresto should get his facts straight: The American University in Iraq has defined the Board of Regents and Trustees as “the official policy making group for The American University of Iraq – Suliamani,” and added, “It is charged to provide overall direction for the University.” Mr. Agresto notes the impressive c.v.’s of the trustees. I concur and have counted many as friends from a time before Mr. Agesto’s introduction to Iraq. Many of them are more involved in fundraising, however, than in academic support.

The issue, however, is the presence of career politicians: Jalal Talabani, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, Ayad Allawi, and Nechirvan Barzani. Talabani and Nechirvan Barzani have histories of political interference in universities, one of the reasons why the American University in Iraq became necessary. Old habits die hard. There certainly are political pressures in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, and it pays to have friends in high places. However, Iraqi Kurdistan is not alone. The same might be said for Egypt and Lebanon. But in those places, the administrators minimized the potential for influence by limiting the role of politicians.

The American University of Iraq is still growing. In its formative years, it is necessary that it develop as a truly independent body. If it is to have the confidence of ordinary Iraqis who understand Iraqi politicians and their efforts to permeate and co-opt every institution, then it is necessary Mr. Agresto take a firm stand and remove any affiliation and appearance of influence that Iraqi political leaders have at the American University of Iraq. Every year, it becomes more difficult to make that change.  

Mr. Agresto certainly knows the history of universities in Iraqi Kurdistan. Universities have been founded for negative, not positive reasons: At first, political parties refused to cooperate with each other and so founded their own universities. Then, political patronage compromised universities to the point where the government recognized the need for reform. But rather than undercut patronage, they simply founded new universities. These, soon, began to suffer the same political interference. Meanwhile, they spread expertise too thin. If the Kurdish universities were combined or consolidated, not only could Iraqi Kurdistan diminish the negative impact of its own internal regionalism, but the resulting university would be able to compete to the highest standards.

The American University of Iraq, of course, is different. But if it is to set an example for the rest of Iraq and also continue to the same standards as other American Universities overseas, Mr. Agresto should just say no to currently serving politicians.  

If Mr. Agresto cares to discuss, he is welcome any time in my office even if he has made clear for years, alas, that those who question or possibly disagree are not welcome in his.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.


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