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Professors learn about higher education needs in Iraq during visit


BLACKSBURG, Va., Oct. 26, 2009 – U.S. universities are in an exceptional position to help higher education institutions in Iraq, and Virginia Tech can be among the leaders in this effort, says Lance Matheson, a Pamplin College of Business associate professor of business information technology who visited Iraq earlier this year.

Matheson, who was Pamplin’s international programs director at the time, and Virginia Tech biological sciences professor Khidir Hilu visited three universities in Iraq as part of a six-member academic group that included faculty members from Michigan State University and the University of Idaho. The week-long trip was sponsored by the Department of Defense task force for business and stability operations in Iraq.

The group visited the University of Baghdad, University of Kufa, and American University of Iraq in Sulaimaniyah and met with university presidents, college deans, government ministers, and U.S. Embassy officials.

“There were huge concrete blast walls and security checkpoints everywhere,” Matheson recalls. “We had to change our travel routes sometimes due to the fluid security situation. Iraqis still do not have reliable electricity or water supplies; university labs are outdated and have inadequate equipment.” Despite the difficulties, he says, “people are trying to get on with their lives — they say the only thing they have is hope for their future. Everyone we met was very hospitable and gracious. They are all eager to redevelop the country and make the education system a full partner in the modernization efforts.”

Matheson notes that Iraq and the broader region of Mesopotamia of which it was part have a long history of academic development and achievement. “Baghdad was a center of learning in the Middle East for centuries.” Today, as the country emerges from decades of war and economic sanctions, he says, opportunities are abundant for universities from both countries to work together for their mutual benefit.

Recalling how excited Iraqi faculty and administrators were to meet the U.S. group, Matheson says “they are very eager to restore the quality of their education system and to work with our universities. They have many areas of interest in which we can pursue research and teaching partnerships and have followed up our visit with e-mails requesting collaborations.”

Research areas of interest to the Iraqi universities include nano-technology, genetic engineering and biotechnology, biodiversity and renewable energy. Faculty, administrators, and government officials the group met, he says, are also seeking opportunities for business, administrative, and pedagogical training; assistance with social sciences curriculum development and with launching online learning programs; co-advising of their master’s and doctoral students; and donations of equipment and books.

“The Iraqi government announced this past summer that it would like to send 10,000 students a year abroad — 8,000 undergraduates and 2,000 graduate students — preferably to U.S. universities." The details of this program are evolving, Matheson says, and developments are being monitored by Virginia Tech’s Outreach and International Affairs Office.

“There is also a great need for Iraqi faculty to visit our universities to update their knowledge and skills. Many of their older faculty earned doctorates from American or European universities, while younger ones completed their studies in Iraq.” Due to travel restrictions and economic difficulties the country encountered as a result of the embargo and the wars, however, all faculty have been cut off from newer technologies, equipment, research, and academic collaboration for years.

“We noticed that some of their research questions had already been ‘solved’ in the west, and they were not aware of newer areas of research. There is limited Internet access and no fiber-optic connection to the rest of the world, ruling out the use of high-bandwidth communication and education systems.”

The group presented a list of action items to Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Paul Brinkley and discussed future plans with him and Sami Al-Araji, Iraq Minister of the National Investment Council. Matheson and Hilu have reported on their visit to Vice President Outreach and International Affairs John Dooley and discussed potential collaborative programs. “Virginia Tech can help educate many Iraqi graduate students,” Matheson says. “There are also research and application opportunities all over Iraq that would be of interest to us.”

He says that future trips to Iraq could include faculty from agriculture, engineering, and admissions programs. “Given the high percentage of women in Iraqi academia, it is very important to include female faculty in our group. The student gender balance in the colleges we visited was close to 50:50, which is exceptional for technical fields.”

As for their physical safety in Iraq, Matheson says group members were provided very thorough security. “We had armed guards and wore body armor and helmets. We rode in armored SUVs.” In some areas, however, he says, “we never felt that we needed that high security. In fact, we did not need body armor and guards when we visited Sulaimaniyah. That part of Kurdistan is undergoing a construction boom given the stability in the area.”

Virginia Tech, Matheson says, looks forward to working with other U.S. universities and with government agencies in responding to Iraqi academic plans. “We’ll find ways for our faculty to collaborate with faculty in Iraq on research and education programs.”