A Glimpse into Rebuilding Higher Education in Iraq

IIE-SRF’s most recent Iraq Scholar Rescue Project conference in Erbil, Iraq was, with 200 Iraqi scholars in attendance, our biggest academic conference to date. This is the ninth conference we’ve held in the region and the fourth on Iraqi soil.

As I met with attendees and observed the crowd, I thought about the very first such conference we held, shortly after the program began in 2007 (five years after the 2002 founding of the IIE Scholar Rescue Fund), and considered its impact on not just the lives of the scholars who participate, but on the future of higher education in Iraq.

Since 2003, hundreds of Iraqi scholars have been killed, targeted specifically because they were academics. Thousands were threatened and forced to flee the country. IIE launched the Iraq Scholar Rescue Project in response to these threats against the intellectual capital of Iraq. It was a large-scale academic emergency and IIE-SRF met the challenge in a major way.  As of today, the project has assisted more than 265 of Iraq’s most senior and threatened professors and researchers in a wide range of academic disciplines by getting them out of immediate danger and into temporary academic positions at universities, colleges and other institutions of higher learning in 14 countries—with a majority staying in the MENA region.

We held the first Iraq Scholar Rescue Project conference in Amman, Jordan in 2007, at a time when it would have been impossible to hold such an event in Iraq. The fact that just a few years later we can put on these conferences twice a year in Erbil is a testament to the pace at which much of the country is rebuilding. But perhaps the greatest proof of the improving situation is that more than 60 of our scholars, professionals who once felt so threatened that they picked up their lives, careers and families to find safe haven, have returned to Iraq and are teaching again.

Those who have not yet been able to return come to our conferences and network with their colleagues. They connect with one another and form a system of support that multiplies the impact of the Iraq Scholar Rescue Project a hundred fold. Scholars who must remain outside of Iraq work to help their colleagues within Iraq connect with the outside world. In doing so, they are helping to internationalize and advance higher education in the country.

This most recent conference on best practices in modern teaching methodology and excellence in university teaching had a special focus on ways that students and professors are using technology universities around the world. Iraqi professors who have worked or are currently working at international campuses shared their observations on technology in classrooms abroad; American professors from three universities across the U.S. joined us here in person to discuss how they use everything from computer assisted language learning to social media to enhance student learning; and Professor Ken Bain joined us via Skype from Washington, D.C. to do a question and answer session with our audience.

There are still many, many challenges for our scholars and higher education in Iraq. Security remains a serious issue, blackouts are commonplace and scholars are still threatened. But when I think back to the mood at our first conference in Amman, to the deep concern for the future that hung in the air and compare it to the optimism that I encountered last week, I have great hope. It is crucial that we continue to support Iraqi scholars and assist them in not just rebuilding their lives, but rebuilding higher education in their home country and connecting it to the world.