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Kyrgyzstan: Top University Rocked by Dispute

Clash between two senior academics resolved by sending both on sabbatical – but the row may not be over.
By IWPR

Funding for the American University in Bishkek, one of the biggest educational institutions in Central Asia, may be under threat following a management crisis and allegations of interference by the Kyrgyz government.


The American University – Central Asia, AUCA, was established in 1997 with funding from the United States government and the Open Society Institute, OSI, a non-government donor organisation set up by the US philanthropist George Soros.


On February 19, a dramatic statement was released by four of the six US members of the university’s board of trustees – which also has nine Kyrgyzstan nationals - recommending that the funding for the institution should be suspended because it was “no longer independent”.


The four Americans said an ongoing management conflict reflected a situation where the board was being used as a tool for outside interference in the institution, posing a threat to its independence.


Commenting on the allegations, staff member William Hansen, who is director of the East-West research centre at AUCA and professor of the international and comparative politics, told IWPR, “There has clearly been interference in the work of the board of trustees by some people within the Kyrgyz government.”


Hansen believes that the US State Department and the OSI will stop funding pending assurances that the principle of independence will be maintained.


The deputy head of the Kyrgyz president’s office, Bolot Januzakov, denied the board members’ accusations, saying, “This is an incomprehensible and tactless statement. The Kyrgyz government has never interfered in the affairs of AUCA, but has always been supporting all undertakings and suggestions of the university leadership.”


The Americans’ statement referred specifically to the way the board of trustees was being run, allegedly with some members being pressured by the authorities.


But it is only the latest move in a row in which the staff, not the board, are the principal players. The clash involves AUCA’s president David Huwiler – an American – and its provost or senior administrator Camilla Sharshekeeva, from Kyrgyzstan.


Like the trustees, the academic personnel are drawn from both US and Kyrgyz nationals in an attempt to make the university truly international.


However, in the case of the individuals appointed to the two top jobs, an AUCA staff member who asked to remain anonymous, said, “It was not only a struggle for power between personalities, but a conflict between two styles of management.”


Observers of university politics told IWPR that the confrontation between Huwiler and Sharshekeeva had been brewing for a long time, coming increasingly into the public domain and creating opposing camps, one supporting the president, another backing the provost.


The conflict was apparently resolved on February 16, when the board announced its solution – both president and provost were sent on sabbatical leave effective from March 15. “The time has come to seek new leadership,” a statement from the board said, while praising “the contributions of these two outstanding leaders”.


The board summed up the problems as follows, “In the past year… increasing conflict and tension have polarised the university and, in particular, threatened the core values of academic freedom and free inquiry, and interfered with the continuing progress of this unique institution.”


Explaining the decision to a student meeting the same day, board member Marat Tazabekov apportioned the blame equally, “Two people in senior management have become ineffective. No decisions have been implemented.”


Huwiler disputes the claim that overall management had been poor, telling IWPR that “the university has been managed very effectively” – and noting that an inspection team from OSI and the State Department had confirmed this.


Instead, he traces the problems back to June 2002, when Sharshekeeva returned from six months’ absence when she had served as Kyrgyzstan’s education minister, “Problems occurred when the provost returned to campus and objected to the reforms that were being put in place such as a transparent hiring policy, a policy prohibiting nepotism etc.”


Sharshekeeva disagrees, telling IWPR that Huwiler had not gained an understanding of the way things are done in Kyrgyzstan, “He rejected my offer to help him better understand local people. I’d like the next president to have a command of the local [Russian] language.”


The row may not be over. Supporters of Huwiler say that in reality, the board decision is not even-handed, and that in fact the majority of trustees have engineered his ouster. They claim that while it is clear the president has been removed permanently, there is scope for Sharshekeeva to return to AUCA once the dispute has blown over.


“Some members of the board of trustees claim that the decision treats them equally – it does not,” said Hansen. “The decision by certain members of the board of trustees was a coup d’etat orchestrated by Camilla Sharshekeeva, in which an honourable man, Dr Huwiler was forced out of his position. He did an outstanding job in his almost four years.”


But students who favour Sharshekeeva told IWPR that they could not imagine the university without her. “I personally think that she set up this university, and she has to continue developing it. It is her creation,” said student Khalil Khalilov.


“Many students came here just because of Camilla Sharshekeeva,” said another student, Roza Alisherova. “If [she] is no longer with the university, it will be a huge scandal as the majority of students supports her.”


With more than 1,000 students from 27 countries currently enrolled at the school, AUCA is the only university in Central Asia which offers an education to young people from the US and Canada as well as Afghanistan, China, and the former Soviet Union. Courses are taught in English and Russian.


It is a showcase for Kyrgyzstan, as the authorities well realise. “President Akaev has always emphasised that we should contribute to AUCA becoming the university of the highest standard in Central Asia. The recent events will damage the reputation and the image of this school,” said presidential aide Januzakov.


Observers agree that the crisis could be extremely damaging to the university’s hard-earned reputation.


“The conflict has already affected the university’s reputation in the region,” Muratbek Imanaliev, a former Kyrgyz foreign minister who now teaches at AUCA, told IWPR. “There have already been some scandalous articles published. I think that not only instructors but also some of the students may leave the university. All this could impact on the quality of education.”


Board member Tazabekov puts it in even starker terms, “The problem now is that we could lose AUCA.”


Ainagul Abdrakhmanova is an IWPR journalism intern in Bishkek.


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