The Backlash Against American Universities

A generation ago, as communism was collapsing and the leaders of the former Soviet empire were scrambling to create prosperous nations from the ruins, most agreed that bringing in Western-style universities was the key to improving local business and tech culture. Whether it was a government of former dissidents in Budapest or old Soviet strongmen like Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, many leaders began welcoming in foreign professors and U.S. academic practices.

A slew of American- and international-style universities sprang up across the region—some, like the Central European University in Budapest, funded by individuals such as the financier George Soros; others, like Kyrgyzstan's American University of Central Asia, partly funded by the U.S. State Department. Several, like the short-lived American University of Baku, Azerbaijan, immediately foundered in suspicion, but surprisingly, most flourished. By 2008, the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research (known as KIMEP*), for example, boasted 110 foreign professors teaching everything from business administration to international journalism. Another Nazarbayev-supported school, the Kazakh-American Free University, managed last year to place all of its graduates in ministries or top multinationals.

Of course, it was a risky experiment: bring outsiders into a repressive society and you take the chance they'll start spreading dangerous ideas. In Eastern Europe and the Baltics, those ideas took firm hold, and in Ukraine and Georgia, Western-trained students were at the forefront of the democratic "color" revolutions. Perhaps not surprisingly, Russia quickly cracked down on Western-funded courses that smacked of democratic activism, while further east, leaders cooled to exposing their young to U.S. or European ideals.

Then came last year's crash in oil prices, and the subsequent fall in populist spending that Central Asia's petrocrats use to buttress their popularity. Soon nervous governments began cracking down on outside influence. The situation is probably worst at KIMEP, which has laid off 20 Western professors and axed an EU-funded program on local government and political science. Faculty claim the university is now purging "troublemakers": Hal Forster, a former Los Angeles Times journalist turned KIMEP journalism professor, says he was fired in March for being "outspoken" on alleged nepotism at the university. Another U.S. faculty member who spoke out against Kazakhstan's "medieval" political system was also sacked. The school's vice president, Habib Rahman, says the reasons for the terminations were purely financial. But the school did manage to find $10 million for a new building this year. Ask the students, and they're clear what happened. "We were taught Western values of democracy and the meaning of freedom of speech," says Diana, a fourth-year KIMEP student who did not want to give her name for fear of reprisals. "That doesn't fit the Soviet mentality of Kazakhstan."

Many other Western-linked schools across the former Soviet Union have recently run into similar trouble. Last year, the Soros-backed European University in St. Petersburg was subjected to sustained harassment after offering a course on civic activism: a local court ordered the school to shut down for alleged fire-code violations and top faculty members were scolded by the local governor for "training revolutionaries," according to one professor who requested anonymity. In Minsk, Belarus, the European Humanities University was forced to shut down local operations in 2005 after the Belarussian KGB launched a series of investigations into institutions with foreign funding.

In some ways, it's surprising that U.S.-style education survived for so long in such arid soil. Many of these American universities were founded with U.S. government help in the early 1990s with the specific goal of shaping hearts and minds and to "signal unambiguously that the U.S. considered the demise of the U.S.S.R. to be permanent," says David H. Swartz, the first U.S. ambassador to Belarus. That made them a strange fit for the Central Asian republics in particular, where democracy never took root.

Paradoxical as it seems, one of the former Soviet states with a more pragmatic approach is Russia itself. To be sure, the Kremlin's fear of a color revolution means that touchy political subjects aren't taught. And there are no U.S.-accredited universities or American academic programs. But Russian authorities have recently begun allowing universities to open up—even if that means greater exposure to outside ideas. Many Russian schools, for example, have started reviving academic exchanges with Western universities. Their motivation is simple: desperation. Last year, not a single Russian university made it into the top 100 of a world ranking put out by Quacquarelli Symonds, a U.S.-based compiler of international university standards. Even Moscow State University, the pride of Russia's education system, slid from 97th place in 2007 to 180th in 2008.

To stop the rot, last year Prime Minister Vladimir Putin founded two new universities, bankrolling them to the tune of $300 million. More important, "education policymakers gave a signal to Russian universities to quickly embrace all the most innovative international programs, and now nothing is stopping them from inviting or hiring as many U.S. professors as they can," says Andrei Volkov, an adviser to the minister of education and rector of Moscow's Skolkovo School of Management. Accordingly, Moscow University recently signed a cooperation deal with the State University of New York to share students and award joint diplomas, and 65 U.S. visiting professors are working in Moscow this year. Another joint agreement with the University of Southern California is due to be inked this fall.

Such pragmatism remains scarce in Belarus and Central Asia, however—a sign, no doubt, of the much lower self-confidence of those regimes. While the Kremlin remains suspicious of U.S.-funded programs, relations with Washington have warmed in recent months, and the Russian government seems to be getting over its fear of a Western-backed people-power revolution. In Kazakhstan and its neighbors, on the other hand, leaders still feel threatened. Dropping oil revenues are fueling unemployment and social discontent in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, while in oil-less Kyrgyzstan and Belarus, the governments are tacking wildly between Russia and the West. Nazarbayev, for one, is afraid that "KIMEP graduates [will] join the opposition, and that is the reason behind the [firing of] Western professors," says Alexei Malyshenko, an education expert at Moscow's Carnegie Center.

That strategy, of course, is tragically self-defeating. Former Soviet despots may succeed in keeping the West at bay. But if that means barring foreign know-how and expertise—a sure way to keep their nations in poverty and encourage their best and brightest to leave for a better education and a life abroad. That's a high price for political peace of mind.

Letter to the Editor:
While Kazakhstan's international profile is growing, it is still often misunderstood. Unfortunately, NEWSWEEK's article "Beware of Big Ideas" fundamentally misrepresents the reality in this country, particularly the president's determination to bring world-class education to Kazakhstan.

The post-Soviet states have faced enormous challenges since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. Yet in spite of moments of great hardship, Kazakhstan is a genuine success story. Kazakhstan has embraced market principles, laid the foundation for democratic institutions, and become a regional economic powerhouse. These substantial reforms are remarkable, and this process continues every day.

Education is the catalyst of meaningful and sustainable change, and KIMEP is proud to be playing a leading role in Kazakhstan's transformation. KIMEP is an exemplary institution and a model to those places where reform has yet to take hold. A champion of transparency, integrity, and freedom of thought, KIMEP is unyielding in its commitment to developing the future leaders of Kazakhstan.

I invite NEWSWEEK's readers to visit and discover more about KIMEP. I am certain they'll find KIMEP a phenomenal institution, a beacon of academic excellence, and a great contributor to the promising future of Central Asia.
Chan Young Bang, Ph.d., President, The Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research, Almaty, Kazakhstan