Universities in Iraq

I was traveling last week so I didn't get around to posting this when it came out, but I recently wrote an article about Iraqi universities and the challenges they face for The Chronicle of Higher Education. The article is behind the subscription wall, but here's the beginning:

Eight years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and a few months after the withdrawal of the military forces from the country, Iraq's universities, devastated by years of dictatorship, sanctions, and war, are still struggling to recover. The security situation has improved since the deadly, dark days of 2006 and 2007, when the country teetered on the brink of sectarian war, hundreds of professors were assassinated, and thousands more fled the country.

Today some of those refugee scholars have returned. The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research has a bigger budget and new, ambitious plans. Iraqi universities are looking to the outside world, hoping that international partnerships will help them reform their curricula and retrain their staffs. The government is investing more in public scholarship programs to send thousands of graduate students to study abroad and make up the country's new teaching cadres.

On the other hand, Iraqi universities remain highly centralized, politicized, and in need of systemic reform. The country is ruled by parties representing Iraq's Shiite majority, which was discriminated against under Saddam Hussein. But today, Sunnis and secular Shiites worry that academic standards and freedoms are still threatened by sectarianism and religious and political ideology—just in reverse. They complain of discrimination and say that university appointments are being made on the basis of religious affiliation and political connections rather than academic qualifications.

"Before, the Baath Party was controlling all universities, and you had to be a high party official to be university president or dean," says Nadje Al-Ali, a professor of gender studies at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, who has worked on several efforts to connect Iraqi academics with their counterparts in the region. "Now each political party controls a university—the only pluralism is the plurality of dictatorial parties that are using the same methods to exert control."

The four major universities in Baghdad, for example, are each headed by a president that represents a particular political party or faction. I don't know Iraq well, but if the universities are anything to go on, the new, "democratic" country touted by US officials is a deeply dysfunctional one where sectarianism and the threat of violence shadows everything in a very oppressive way. I found it telling that not a single Iraqi academic who is currently inside the country would speak to me on the record.