The Corner

Trouble Brewing for the American University of Iraq?

There’s an interesting piece in the American Sociological Association’s Footnotes in which an American academic, teaching at the University of Kurdistan in Erbil, describes an escalating incident involving academic freedom and university administrators that culminated in security forces with automatic weapons frogmarching him onto an aircraft:

We established a faculty association and urged changes through proper procedures. The administration resisted every step. The doors of the Governing Board were closed to us, leaving no room for grievances. Many faculty members became fearful of dismissal for expressing their views. One indeed was formally threatened with dismissal merely for expressing his concerns to members of the committee charged with those concerns. In one case, Daniel Wolk, in his role as Chair of the nascent Faculty Association, felt compelled to question the hiring process for new administrators that flouted written university procedures and offered only token faculty involvement… Within a week, Wolk was summarily dismissed with a letter allegedly emanating from the Governing Board. There were no grounds explained to him (either verbally or in writing), no attempt to go through academic disciplinary procedures, and not even a notification to the Head of Department. Wolk was forced to vacate his office immediately and leave his apartment and the country within 15 days… Security officers with automatic weapons appeared at Wolk’s door to evict him forcibly.

The article does not mention two things: First, the board of the University of Kurdistan is a who’s who of the Kurdish political elite. The university itself was founded by Nechervan Barzani, the region’s former prime minister and the nephew of regional leader Masud Barzani. Second, while regional prime minister Barham Salih declined to discuss the issues with the American professor, he did have his chief of staff do so, almost immediately after which the deportation order was issued, apparently with the approval of Barham’s office.  Freedom of speech and democracy are Kurdish talking points, but they are for external consumption only.

The incident should raise concerns about the American University in Iraq-Sulaimani, a noble enterprise spearheaded by Barham Salih but one which, alas, appears as politically vulnerable, as Barham has placed politicians rather than academics into high positions on its policymaking body. It does not bode well that the response of AUI to questions about its regents has been simply to remove the link to their names. Some AUI regents appear to be behind efforts to prioritize politics over academics at the University of Kurdistan.  Let’s hope that the American University of Iraq will remain more American than Iraqi. Perhaps soon the American University of Iraq will take steps to reduce its own political vulnerability by limiting the potential for political influence and abuse on its governing board of regents.

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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