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Chronicle of Higher Ed prints professor's Iraq update

August 5, 2003

The following article was originally published in the August 8, 2003, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Paradox Amid the Rubble

The room at the Al Kadhymia Teaching Hospital in Iraq had bars on the windows, lots of electrical outlets, and plenty of space to accommodate computers. I was traveling with an American computer technician and an Iraqi physician in May on a project sponsored by the U.S. Department of State to create medical-information centers at teaching hospitals and medical schools throughout the country. We were looking for places to install our equipment, and this room could have been the perfect spot.

But it was filthy and cluttered with broken desks, shattered glass, hospital equipment, and trash. Looters had left their marks. We couldn't even begin to bring in our computers.

We asked the doctors, teachers at the university, if they could arrange for custodians to clean the room -- although "excavate" was more like it. They agreed, and when the technicians and I returned several days later with the computers, the room was spotless. We learned that the doctors themselves and their students had spent hours late at night after their last rounds, washing the floors, tossing the trash, and preparing the space.

Why, I asked, did they do this? Because, they said, they desperately wanted the medical e-library we were bringing them, and they didn't want to lose the chance to get it. They were willing to do whatever it took to obtain the resources they needed to advance medical education, even if it meant working late nights at hard labor.

I can't say I was surprised. I had seen that spirit elsewhere in Iraq in my discussions and work with educators. Despite truly awful conditions in many higher-education institutions, the professors characteristically displayed a remarkable spirit. Several colleagues in the United States have asked about conditions at the colleges and universities in Iraq, and thinking through my responses, I am struck by a paradox.

On the one hand, conditions could not be worse. Colleges and universities atrophied under Saddam Hussein's starvation plan -- the way prisoners of war lose strength and weight, and become frail images of the people that they once were. Laboratories and libraries grew old and worn, research and teaching facilities aged into relics. A decade of international sanctions reduced the flow of information into and out of the country, and halted faculty exchanges at the border. Iraq's colleges and universities were frozen in time. Finally, in a cruel and punishing assault, massive looting of many campuses after the fall of Saddam's regime stripped from the bones any flesh that remained. Everything is gone.

The situation at Al Kadhymia is similar to what has occurred throughout the country. Labs are empty, computers are missing, phones have been ripped from the wall, fans and lights have been torn from their fixtures. Even the fixtures themselves on many campuses are now gone, as are the wires that once fed them power. At the University of Basrah's College of Science, faculty members used bricks and mortar to barricade the door of its aging computer laboratory, but looters found another way in and plundered the computers.

What has not been stolen has been destroyed. Chalkboards are smashed, windows broken, doors ripped from their hinges. It's hard to imagine how conditions could be worse, and impossible to understand how professors can view their campuses with anything but resignation and defeat.

But herein lies the paradox. Instead of despairing, the faculty members remain remarkably upbeat and optimistic. And this is not just a Westerner's quixotic perception: For one thing, colleges and universities did not end the semester early, even during the worst periods of the war. Imagine that! They suffered unthinkable assaults, and yet the semester went on. Most campuses continued their classes and scheduled exams. Students in their final year graduated; students in the middle of their studies will advance to the next level when they return in the fall.

Will there be a fall semester? No question about it. As part of an administration overhaul and "de-Baathification" process (whereby members of Saddam's Baath Party are removed from leadership roles), the faculties have voted their choices for replacement deans and department heads. The new leaders are now preparing for the start of classes in September, even though no one can expect much in the way of campus rehabilitation other than a good housecleaning to remove the litter and the dust blown in through broken windows. Professors are amused by questions about their capacity to continue in the face of these assaults. "Of course we'll continue," they say. The exterior may have been stripped away, but the nucleus remains.

That determination has marked nearly all of my conversations with college and university professors in Iraq, just as it did at the medical school, where the doctors grabbed the mops. Driven by the faculty's commitment, the teacher-student relationship -- the core of education advanced by the Greeks more than 2,400 years ago -- remains intact.

That got me thinking about our profession. It reminded me more than ever that education is about the coming together of people to share ideas -- the student and the teacher in conversation -- and that the academy is not so much a place as it is the host for a process. A college is not about bricks and mortar, it is about the assembly of minds. Without professors, teachers, instructors -- call them what you like -- campuses in Iraq or anywhere else would be nothing more than empty buildings.

In other words, buildings don't define a college, the people who inhabit them do. This point is all too often lost on many campuses where building construction and capital improvements often trump investment in the faculty. Socrates never stepped foot in the classroom -- his school was the town square, the marketplace, the steps of public buildings -- yet the influences of his teachings have resounded across the centuries. Educators are the hearts and the souls of education, no matter where or in what form it takes place -- whether it's in a resource-rich laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a University of Baghdad classroom stripped to the bone, or a medical school trashed by looters.

The optimistic, persistent, even defiant Iraqi professors have made it clear that they will not yield to the offenses of bullies and thieves. Such teachers will play a crucial role in the rebuilding of a country and in the preparation of its youth. Their reaction to hardship confirms that Muhammad was indeed prophetic when he wrote, "The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr."

So, to the paradox: On the one hand conditions could not be worse, and on the other they could not be better. I tell my colleagues back home that I'm heartened by what I've seen here. These colleges and universities will rise from the ashes. I also tell them how this place confirms a truth about the nature of education and about the soul of our profession: that teachers will continue to be the driving spirit of any campus, and education will flourish despite a tyrant's cruel assaults, years of sanctions, and the attacks of angry mobs.

Gary Selnow is a professor of communication in the college of business at San Francisco State University. He is also the founder and director of WiRED International, which provides computer technology to bring health-care information into troubled regions.

Read a related story on Selnow's work in Iraq and his ongoing reports from the field.


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Last modified August 5, 2003, by the Office of Public Affairs