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Visit to Iraq reinforces Sanderson’s belief in value of liberal arts education

Union Provost Carla Sanders gives a presentation during a four-day workshop in Erbil, Iraq. (Photo by Katherine Bomboy)
Union Provost Carla Sanders gives a presentation during a four-day workshop in Erbil, Iraq. (Photo by Katherine Bomboy)

JACKSON, Tenn.Feb. 10, 2010 – Sitting in a room with 50 academic vice presidents and faculty leaders of various educational institutions, Union University Provost Carla Sanderson was right at home – even if she were on the other side of the planet.

Sanderson spent four days in Iraq in January, sharing her expertise with academic leaders who want a more democratic form of higher education in their country. She left encouraged by the progress the group made, and hopeful for the future of education there if war can be averted.

“I leave recognizing that they are at a very fine starting point for reform, and hopeful that education can be the vehicle they need to turn things around as a nation,” Sanderson said.

Sanderson’s trip was part of a U.S. Agency for International Development grant with the U.S. Department of State, and came about in part through her experiences as a commissioner for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, an entity of the U.S. Department of Education.

Iraqi universities have an open admissions system, Sanderson said, so the educational levels in a given classroom are far apart. Students typically have to take no admissions tests, and the course of study they pursue is based upon how they score on other aptitude tests – students who score the highest have to study medicine, students in the next highest level have to study engineering, and so on.

Because students there have no choice in what they study, Sanderson said they have little motivation to perform well academically. Plus, the government completely funds education, so the students have little personal investment in the process. Ongoing wars over the years have disrupted the educational process and been another roadblock to the nation’s educational growth.

But despite the shortcomings, higher education leaders in Iraq understand that their system lacks quality, and they want to take steps to overhaul their institutions and provide more accountability for quality, Sanderson said. Thus the reason she was invited to make presentations on such topics as the U.S. model of accreditation, how schools develop new programs and ensure excellence in existing programs and how faculty members envision new majors.

The four-day workshop was held at the Cultural and Social Center of Salahaddin University in the city of Erbil, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Dlawer A.A. Ala’Aldeen, Iraq’s minister of higher education and scientific research, convened the workshop and addressed the group as it began its work.

“The strongest outcome to the workshop was in them formulating a clear idea of where to start in the process of moving from where they are now to where they want to be,” Sanderson said.

Prior to leaving for Iraq, Sanderson was concerned about how well her presentations would be received. Her fear was a gulf between what she was saying and where they Iraqi leaders were, but Sanderson said her fears were unfounded. Those in attendance appreciated her presentations and embraced what she said.

But even though the attendees were able to map out a plan for the future, Sanderson recognizes that more war would unravel everything the educational leaders are trying to accomplish. She hopes that the vision of leaders like Ala’Aldeen will prevail in the war-torn nation that for centuries has turned to violence as a means of solving its problems.

“The understanding the Kurds have of the world is war,” she said. “It’s what they’ve known for generations. Kurdish students are not studying anybody else’s history and problem solving through what we could call liberal arts education. Nothing like that.”

Still, Sanderson chooses to believe that somehow, in the midst of their struggles, they will look to education and not violence to address their conflicts in the future.

“A true liberal education – opening their eyes to other civilizations and how they have evolved as strong nations – can be an important first step to addressing their problems,” Sanderson said. “The fact that there are so many people who get that – among those who have fled and have now returned to Kurdistan to invest in its future -- is a deep encouragement.”

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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