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Dan Davidson '11: High concerns about Iraqi higher education

I sometimes call Brown my "dream school." We benefit from vast academic and social freedoms, and can explore countless disciplines in a safe environment. For our peers in Iraq, however, college life is often more like a nightmare than a dream.

The State Department's 2008 Human Rights Report on Iraq noted that universities are yet another battleground for sectarian factions. Militias and terrorist groups use violence to control schools' operations and policies. Hundreds of professors have been killed, and countless more have fled the country.

At one of Iraq's most storied universities, Baghdad's Mustansiriya University, around 24,000 students risk their lives to pursue their educations. They see their friends blown up in suicide attacks on campus. A blast wall surrounds their school buildings. The New York Times reported that since 2007, "more than 335 students and staff members" have been killed or maimed. Policymakers in the United States are surely aware of the terror Iraqi students face every day. Yet the current administration's rhetoric seldom suggests Iraq's higher education woes are on the radar.

When President Obama announced his plan to end the war in Iraq earlier this year, there was no mention of supporting the country's educational infrastructure.

Meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki last week, Obama stressed that security, good government and fair elections are the keys to success. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared at a conference aimed at spurring investment in Iraq, and underscored the importance of economic development.

The administration is certainly not wrong in placing great emphasis on Iraq's security, government and economy. After meeting with the Prime Minister, however, Obama claimed that focusing on these issues will help turn Iraq into a country where "children are well educated."

I believe the administration should consider a strong Iraqi higher education system a prerequisite for stability and prosperity, not a benefit to be reaped in the future.
The 9/11 Commission Report found that poor education and violent extremism are often linked. If the administration is concerned about security in Iraq, they must support education at all levels.

Educational attainment is one of the strongest predictors of electoral participation — if more Iraqis pursue and acquire college degrees, we should expect more civic engagement. As for economic progress, it is self-evident that Iraq will struggle to compete globally without growing its college-educated population.

Though, even as we are told Iraq is improving, the situation at Mustansiriya remains grim. Last week, Prime Minister al-Maliki ordered the school temporarily closed in an effort to dismantle the Students League, a gang terrorizing the community.

Professors and administrators say that the group "controls campus activities and security, as well as aspects of grading, admissions and even which courses professors teach." Those who speak out publicly against the Students League are often killed.

The U.S. must put pressure on Prime Minister al-Maliki to resolve this situation. His decision to close the school came after years of compelling evidence that Mustansiriya was spiraling out of control. Al-Maliki finally acted only after a professor came to him covered in blood from a beating the Students League gave him.

Some allege that the prime minister's hesitance to act stems not just from a lack of concern (which would be alarming enough). Certain administrators and professors at Mustansiriya, along with Iraq's minister of higher education, claim that there are close ties between al-Maliki's Dawa party and the Students League. 

Allegations aside, what is happening at Mustansiriya University and other schools throughout Iraq is of grave concern. Students and professors are frequent victims of civil and human rights violations. It is hard to imagine how Iraq can fully recover from the ousting of Saddam Hussein and ensuing sectarian warfare if the higher education system is left to rot.

U.S. Agency for International Development touts monetary assistance to Iraqi universities and a program designed to build professors' skills as major successes of their efforts in higher education. While these programs are well-intentioned, at a place like Mustansiriya, they are useless. Professors' skills are of little relevance if gangs use violence to control every aspect of teaching. Students may appreciate a newly renovated classroom, but they still have to risk beatings or worse just walking around campus.

The U.S. must continue to work for a peaceful and prosperous Iraq. Our focus, however, should be deeper than keeping tabs on how many bombs go off a day and how much foreign investment is occurring. Strengthening Iraq's universities is one of the best ways we can help that country stabilize, by building critical human capital. Ignoring the problems at institutions like Mustansiriya will only undermine our efforts to foster a better future for the region.


Dan Davidson '11 is a political science and music concentrator from Atlanta, Georgia. He can be reached at daniel_davidson@brown.edu




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