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Innocents Abroad? The University of Wisconsin in Kazakhstan

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In a recent Huffpo column entitled"Hidden Truths About American Colleges Abroad," Jim Sleeper makes some alarming accusations. He draws an analogy between American universities that are creating overseas programs and Stalin-era apologists for the Soviet regime of the 1930s. He repeats this arguments in a longer essay posted on opendemocracy.net, and in a New York Times editorial where he draws particular attention to the role of the University of Wisconsin-Madison ("UW") in Kazakhstan. As Sleeper tells it, UW initially proposed "to design a school for the humanities and social sciences, one inspired by 'the Wisconsin Idea,' a progressive vision of labor rights and open government. Something very different was built: a $2 billion university, run by a consortium that includes the University of Wisconsin, and named for the autocratic president Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, who has a representative on the board of trustees."

The university to which Sleeper refers is Nazarbayev University ("NU"), an institution that admitted its first students in Fall 2011. Sleeper depends heavily on an article by Allen Ruff and Steve Horn (A longer version of the essay is available on Mr. Ruff's blog. I prefer that one, because it includes a picture of me with the delightful caption,"Stylin' in Astana." No one has ever described me as "stylin'" before, I think. The caption of the picture gets my title wrong, but that's par for the course.) The reason I am mentioned in that story is that I am a member of the UW faculty (in the political science department), but for the past two years I have been on leave. I spent most of that time at Nazarbayev University first as a faculty member and then for the past year as the interim Vice Provost for Academic Affairs. I am presently neither employed by NU nor a participant in the UW's project team, so I am writing from a position of experience but not immediate interest.

Dr. Sleeper's criticisms of Yale (his home institution) in Singapore or NYU in Abu Dhabi might be right on the mark. I believe that his criticisms of UW's involvement in Kazakhstan, however, are misguided.

To begin with, the University of Wisconsin is not the partner of NU, it is one of about ten partners of NU. Those partners do not form a "consortium" that "runs" the university, or anything remotely like it. NU is built on an entirely different model than NYU-Abu Dhabi's franchise model or Yale in Singapore, which features a single, dominant international partner. Instead, NU has entered into separate partnerships for each of its constituent elements: one for the School of Engineering, one for the School of Public Policy, one for each research center, and so on. Partners include many of the greatest universities and research institutions of the world: Cambridge, Penn, Berkeley, Argonne National Labs, University College London, Duke, National University of Singapore, and the University of Pittsburgh as well as Wisconsin. These partners offer advice, consultation, and services in the form of specified deliverables based on contracts with limited terms. The idea that Wisconsin somehow owns the NU project is simply wrongheaded. (Nor is UW's role secret; anyone who is interested is invited to go to this site to learn more.)

UW is the partner institution for the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, just as was initially intended. In addition, NU has sent delegations to get a first-hand look at Wisconsin's administrative practices, student self-government, and system of shared governance. These are areas in which UW stands proudly as an exemplar among American institutions; few if any institutions can match our traditions of faculty and student autonomy. Thus UW's role has been to influence (never to control) educational programs and practices in the social sciences and the humanities, and to provide a model of best practices in areas of administration and governance.

So what has been the result? In the classroom, the UW-partnered programs have opened students' eyes to ways of learning and topics that were previously unknown to them. For example, the School of Humanities and Social Sciences offers a course required for all university students--engineers, chemists, and poets alike--that examines the History of Kazakhstan from a critical perspective rather than as a post-Soviet exercise in hagiography. That alone is a remarkable innovation for post-Soviet Central Asia, but that is only one of many examples. In its first two years of operation NU has also offered courses in political theory that emphasize democratic and liberal values, a seminar in comparative constitutional design that focuses on separation of powers and protection for civil liberties, courses in gender studies that call into question the fundamental assumptions of a highly traditional society, courses in physical anthropology that cast doubt on cherished national myths, and many others.

None of this is unintentional. In addition to acting as a pilot project for the reform of the higher educational system of Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev University was created to develop the next generation of the nation's leaders. It is part of the mission of the university to introduce that next generation to the world outside Central Asia and to imbue them with values of open-mindedness, tolerance, and scholastic and professional integrity that will have lasting consequences for the future of the nation. A statement of graduate attributes that was adopted by NU this past year describes the NU graduates as "citizens of the world." This emphasis on citizenship education is the result of a calculated decision at the time of independence to pursue economic stability and growth first, democracy and reform second. Economic development has been partially achieved; the focus on the educational system, from pre-school through universities, represents the turn to the second part of that vision, presenting the remarkable prospect of a regime whose leaders are planning for its eventual replacement. It is easy to question that choice of priorities from the United States, but a quick look at the historical arc of the other Central Asian post-Soviet states suggests that the idea may not be wrongheaded.

On the research side, no faculty member has been denied support for a project on political grounds, and NU has hosted conferences on highly controversial topics such as the Soviet role in the famines of the 1930s, and secularism and religion in Central Asia. The idea of an American-style "research university," in which teaching and research are conceived of as parts of a single enterprise, was new to Kazakhstan. NU is the first designated "research university" in the country; this coming year, at least three more universities will be granted that designation, with guarantees of support for both faculty and student research.

Perhaps the most immediately palpable change concerns practices of university governance (for a university, this is where talking the talk turns into walking the walk). NU was the first institution granted the status of an "autonomous educational institution" under Kazakhstan law. Unlike all the other universities in the country that were led by autocratic presidents on management matters and answered to the exhaustive requirements of the Ministry of Education and Science on academic questions, NU was given the freedom to create its own governing structures as well as curricula. The result has been a remarkable experiment in the introduction of academic autonomy, including the introduction of a board of trustees to whom the university president is answerable, transparent systems of research evaluation and external review, and a role in governance for faculty and students. Most recently, faculty members including UW and Penn faculty were directly involved in drafting a new Charter for NU that was adopted in 2013. This document, which has the force of law, not only gives academics direct control over matters of academic policy, it also explicitly circumscribes the authority of the university President, the Board of Directors and even the High Board chaired by President Nazarbayev himself. University regulations inspired by the practices of Wisconsin and other international partners have created systems of due process for faculty, staff, and students that give real protections to academic freedom rather than lip service.

The NU experiment is not taking place in a bubble. President Nazarbayev has explicitly declared that NU should act as a pilot project to provide a model for the reform of the old Soviet-style university system, including the introduction of academic freedoms and academic standards and the introduction of shared faculty governance. The government has declared that all universities should move toward autonomous status over the next several years; starting this coming year several universities have already been granted that status based on the NU model. Visitors from other universities frequently come to NU, and NU faculty--especially School of Humanities and Social Sciences faculty--frequently visit other Kazakhstani universities to share their experiences and ideas. In matters of curriculum, teaching practices, academic freedom, research, and governance NU is acting by design as a model for other institutions to follow. And in those other institutions one finds plenty of leaders who are working hard on their own to make their institutions incubators for democratic attitudes. At the Kazakhstan College of Humanities and Law, Eurasia National University, KIMEP University in Almaty to mention only a few I met Kazakhstani academics and administrators working hard and courageously to push their country toward a more democratic future.

The academic setting is only the beginning; following the Wisconsin tradition of faculty as public intellectuals, a number of faculty in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences have been public voices for democracy as well as models of liberal education. Let me draw only on my own experiences, here. While in Kazakhstan, as an NU faculty member and member of the senior administration, in lectures and published writings I have frequently and publicly taken positions various elements in the government might be expected to find objectionable: that Kazakhstan cannot claim to be democratic until it has genuinely competitive elections, that the ongoing institutionalization of the role of the country's founding president is an obstacle to the realization of presidential-parliamentary democratic system; that certain efforts by the Ministry of Education are misguided; that constitutional guarantees of rights are will not be meaningful until they are carried into practice at the local level; that the government's economic proposals overstate Kazakhstan's significance in the world economy. I made these statements in highly public settings sponsored by the national Parliament, the President's own Nur Otan Party, the Ministry of Education and Science, and other universities in Kazakhstan. My statements in every case were translated into Russian, Kazakh, or both, and in several cases were covered by the media. It is worth pointing out that a foreign visitor making similarly provocative comments about the U.S. political system might find himself the subject of unwelcome scrutiny.

It may be rightly observed that the international faculty at NU enjoy more freedom than many of their Kazakshtani colleagues. That is absolutely true, but that's just the point of the enterprise: NU is pushing the boundaries to set an example that will inspire reforms throughout the national system of higher education and beyond. And for that matter, I have also frequently heard Kazakhstani academics, lawyers, and judges publicly and harshly criticizing their own government. International watch dogs note that press freedoms are limited, but in the age of the Internet nothing goes unnoticed, from plane crashes and corruption probes to labor unrest, terrorist attacks, and especially the killing of unarmed strikers at Zhanaozen in December 2011 and the government's response, events of which we were not only aware but which were freely discussed. The comparison with Stalin's Soviet Union, in other words, is ludicrous.

It is also true that Kazakhstan has a long way to go, and that for all the hopes of future reform at present NU remains an exception rather than the rule among universities in Kazakhstan. It also remains the case that there are tremendous obstacles to the creation of a true liberal democratic system, including inherited sometimes dysfunctional systems of government and education, deep-seated cultural factors, a still-developing economy marked in many cases by single-industry small cities and underdeveloped rural areas, a lack of a well-developed civil society, and possibly an insufficiently expansive middle class. All to say nothing of widespread corruption and repression of dissent. The success of the long-term project is not guaranteed, not least because there are powerful forces that oppose as well as support the overall vision of evolution toward liberal democracy. As a result, the roles that UW and NU's other international partners are playing may fail in the goal of nurturing democracy and liberal values to the steppes. But it will not have been for lack of trying.