Higher Education in a War Zone

Traveling back to the Baghdad airport,  Ball State representatives (left to right) Fred Kitchens, Cindy Van Alst, Mary Theresa Seig, and John Moore, program officer for Academy for Educational Development, follow security protocol in their Humvee.

The dress code for this summer included a military helmet and a flak jacket.

Cindy Van Alst, chair of the Department of Accounting at the Miller College of Business; Fred Kitchens, associate professor of information systems; Ken Holland, dean of the Rinker Center for International Programs; and other Ball State faculty ventured far from the tranquility of the Muncie campus for a week in Baghdad. There, they met educational counterparts from Tikrit University and other Iraqi institutions and laid the foundation for a three-year partnership, funded by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of State. The goal: open doors and help bring Iraqi higher education into the 21st century.

The Ball State travelers got a taste for the challenges that lie ahead immediately after their plane landed in Baghdad.

“When we arrived at the airport, they started passing out flak jackets and helmets, and it was the first time I really realized that the situation was still very serious,” Van Alst recalls. “We were under the impression that once we were in the Green Zone we would be freer to move around, but we were not. They could not ensure our safety outside of the hotel grounds.”

Kitchens was surprised as well. “It was not like anything I’ve ever experienced before. I anticipated the heat, dryness, dust—but I was not anticipating the level of security,” he says. The American visitors felt well-protected yet apprehensive. “You were looking over your shoulder all the time, not knowing what to expect and when to expect it.”

By the Numbers

6 Ball State delegates traveled to Iraq
1918 Ball State (formally known as Eastern Division Indiana State Normal School) opened
1987           Tikrit University opened
7,000 Online and distance learning students at Ball State
12,000      Students at Tikrit University
21,000 Total number of students at Ball State
$1 million  
Grant administers to Ball State by the nonprofit Academy for Educational Development (AED), United States Department of State, as part of its Iraqi university linkage program
Once settled in the safety of their hotel complex, the Ball State team began a series of meetings with Iraqi professors, getting to know one another and planning the details of their upcoming partnership. The participants from Ball State—representing accountingcomputer science, and English—will be helping the Iraqi educators move forward after decades of turbulence and war.

“They’ve been isolated from the rest of the world for so long,” Kitchens says. “They’re using textbooks leftover from the 1970s, and Internet access is so slow that only a few faculty use e-mail, if they even have computers.”

Van Alst says the project is multifaceted. The Iraqis want help revamping their curriculum and shared a stack of syllabi with their visitors. “We’re looking over them and making suggestions,” she says. They also want to make use of the kinds of technologies to which they’re only now gaining access. They’re interested in online instruction but face not only technological hurdles but local laws that currently prevent earning credit for online learning, she says.

“They’re also interested in instruction via videoconferencing,” Van Alst continues. That’s certainly something that Ball State knows a lot about, and the partners have arranged for a number of courses to be taught in Iraq via distance learning with the instructors in Muncie. It won’t be pure videoconferencing, she says—the time difference and technology issues make live distance instruction unfeasible. “We decided we would have our faculty deliver courses that are taped,” she explains, with periodic videoconference sessions to allow live Q&A and interaction.

Some of the course work sent from Muncie to Iraq will be adapted for the students, while some will be helping Iraqi professors build upon their skills, Kitchens says. Despite the ongoing security problems and the challenges of being detached for decades, “they’re very eager to do their jobs. They really want to improve their educational system.”

There are plenty of benefits on the Ball State side, too, Van Alst says. “There’s a good amount of cultural learning experience for our faculty, and the opportunity to learn more about the Middle East in an up close and personal way.” What’s more, there are significant differences in accounting law, standards and procedures, presenting more areas of enrichment for the Miller College faculty.

The Ball State delegation and members of the security company who transported them posed beneath one of Baghdad’s landmarks, the Hands of Victory, constructed by Saddam Hussein to commemorate the Iran-Iraqi war.

She hopes the partnership will provide opportunities for Ball State students as well, though details have not yet been worked out. “I’m hoping we’ll be able to videoconference and bring the two groups together. We have talked about being able to do a joint project where we would have some kind of international issue that both sides would have to address.”

In the meantime, the project offers faculty members the chance to make a difference in a distant place, Kitchens says. “As educators, we’re interested in educating anybody who’s willing to learn—it’s in our DNA. It’s a way of giving back.”