In the Wake of War, What About Universities?

YORK, England—Extraordinary days can start in simple ways.

An organizer of a conference I was attending told me that I would be taking a taxi from the Holiday Inn to the University of York with a man named “Richard.” The next morning, as I was waiting outside the hotel’s entrance, I spotted a man who appeared to be on the alert for a ride.

I asked him if he was Richard. “Yes,” he said.

Richard K. Mibey turned out to be a mycologist who was born in Kenya. He has studied in Swannanoa, North Carolina, Stillwater, Oklahoma, Brussels and Munich. He has discovered more than 120 species of fungi, worked on a project mapping underground biological diversity in tropical countries and searched for endangered and rare plants in Kenya. He helped to discover environmentally friendly fungi that can control a noxious weed in Lake Victoria.

Richard K. Mibey (Ian Martindale)

He is also the vice chancellor of the University of Moi, in Kenya, unfortunately now known for having a college that was attacked in April by Al Shabaab militants. One hundred and forty-two students, four university guards, and two police officers were killed. The militants lured many students out of dormitories before slaughtering them, and then hunted others down in the corridors.

The conference that Richard and I were both going to was a gathering of academics concerned that higher education is increasingly caught in the crossfire during violent conflicts, hurting both universities themselves and the conflict-affected societies they are supposed to serve. The conference hoped to finish drafting a “York Accord” to prevent and repair damage done to universities by war, terrorism, and other violent conflict.

I’m an optimist personally but a skeptic by profession. It’s a journalist’s job to puncture outright deception, grandiose claims, and naïve hopes.

I had my doubts that a gathering of people in York, England, would do much to help students and professors in Kenya, Yemen, or Syria or change the minds of fighters for Al Shabaab, the Taliban, or the Islamic State.

In the back of a taxi in York, Richard and I wended our way through the historic city’s streets, past the remnants of Roman walls and all of the city’s archetypal English architecture—pubs, churches, and a castle. I had not yet realized who Richard was and, curious as always, asked about his work with students, his career, and the size of his university—50,000 students. He had to close his central campus recently, he said, due to some election-related ethnic conflicts among the students.

Sultan Barakat (Ian Martindale)

At a university conference center, I met one of the meeting’s conveners, Sultan Barakat, a gracious man who is the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, in Qatar, and who, in 1993, founded the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit at the University of York. He has spent much of his career studying issues such as education in emergencies and post-conflict recovery.

His discipline interests me because lately I have been reading about the post-World War II period. Governments had declared peace but the conflict raged on in retributions against collaborators, real and imagined. Ethnic Germans living outside Germany were the victims of unleashed hatred for the Nazis. Some of the troops who were supposed to be keeping the peace were plundering and raping. None of the books I have read yet about that period mentions schools or universities. The civilians who survived the war were just desperate for something to eat.

That history has made me think about Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Syria. Even when the uniformed soldiers, tribal fighters and semi-organized groups of militants have declared some sort of truce, if ever, what will the next phase be? And what about the countries’ universities?

Sultan Barakat and a colleague, Sansom Milton, a research fellow at the University of York, have thought about this subject. Just before the York conference, they wrote a paper, “Houses of Wisdom Matter: The Responsibility to Protect and Rebuild Higher Education in the Arab World.” The paper gives an unflinching account of recent damage to higher education in the Arab region. But it also offers up seven principles to protect and rebuild higher education, including the creation of “networks of solidarity” that would try to shelter universities from conflict and create swift responses to institutional harm.

The paper’s authors makes practical arguments for why reconstruction assistance should include a focus on higher education. (Support for education, in general, is increasingly being seen as a “fourth pillar” of humanitarian assistance.) “As reconstruction investments start to flow,” the authors write, “jobs requiring some type of post-secondary education often emerge suddenly and in great numbers. Without qualified candidates for these jobs, affected countries risk failing to capture these employment opportunities.”

“Early investment in the rebuilding of higher education,” they added elsewhere, “can create safe and open environments that can function as islands of stability.”

In reconstructed universities, students can learn to engage in the dialogue that might prevent further conflict, I believe. It is naïve to assume that education will prevent war—highly educated men and women go to war all the time. But if education doesn’t prevent war, ignorance certainly promotes it.

At the York conference, Richard Mibey spoke about how he had closed the college that had been attacked, gotten counseling for the 506 students who had survived and counseling for all of the students’ parents. He and fellow administrators tried to get surviving students food, clothing, shelter and new documentation of their citizenship and education, since they were not allowed back on the attacked campus. He tried to integrate the surviving students into the central campus. He had no budget for any of these expenditures, he said, suggesting that countries might set up emergency funds to cope with such incidents. He also recommended that affected faculty members could use sabbaticals to give them time to recuperate emotionally. The attack has changed him personally, he says. In every room he is in now, he checks where the exits are.

Others at the conference came from a variety of countries, including India, Liberia, Jordan, and the Kurdistan region of Iraq. They spoke about how universities that have autonomy can rebound from conflict more quickly than those that are dependent on a central bureaucracy. When students can move from one country to another with ease because of similar educational requirements, speakers said, they have more educational options in the event of disruptions. Strong international partnerships give universities institutional friends who will try to come to their rescue in times of trouble.

Carol Madison Graham (Ian Martindale)

After the conference ended, I talked to another attendee, Carol Madison Graham, at the York railway station. She was the cultural attaché with the American Embassy in Beirut in 1984, the year two gunmen assassinated Malcolm H. Kerr, the president of the American University of Beirut, as he stepped out the elevator and walked to his office. “It was a terrible day,” she said. That assassination, in the middle of the Lebanese civil war, came in the wake of the 1983 bombings of the American embassy and military barracks for French and American forces. The two bombings together took 363 lives.

I’ve seen the memorial to Malcolm Kerr outside the administration building on the American University of Beirut’s campus, and stood in contemplation of that terrible day, but I never met him. His assassination happened two years before I began my own 25-year-career at The Chronicle of Higher Education in the United States and long before I helped found Al-Fanar Media, which aspires to be a Chronicle of Higher Education for the Arab world. But Malcolm Kerr sounds like the kind of man I would have liked.

He has been described as modest and unassuming, as someone who could banter in colloquial Arabic with Beirut shopkeepers as well as sit with the students in the dormitories. He was killed for the position he had, not for who he was. ”Malcolm Kerr was a friend of Lebanon, a friend of the Arabs and a friend of Islam,” his longtime associate, Kamal Salabi, chairman of the history department, told The New York Times. ”He was the best kind of American who came to the Middle East.”

I envy Carol for having known him.

So what then of the York Accord? Is it naïve as we contemplate horrors such as the assassination of Malcolm Kerr more than 30 years ago or the attack in April on a Kenyan college? The York Accord is unlikely to stop the Islamic State, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab or even the air forces of Arab countries and Israel from damaging universities.

The accord’s organizers themselves acknowledged the difficulties they face. “We have a great mountain to get this on the agenda,” said Jorge Sampaio, a former president of Portugal and now chairman of the Global Platform for Syrian Students, which helps connect Syrian students with international scholarships.

But perhaps the accord might make it the norm for universities to prepare for attacks and to plan to rally around each other in the wake of devastation.

Perhaps the accord might strengthen international networks that could bring the assistance of people like Richard to others who face similar attacks in the future. Such networks could help universities, after attacks, get back to doing what they should be doing.

Understanding the taxonomy of fungi and the intricacies of Arabic literature. Creating knowledge. Inspiring students. Building nations.

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