New leader hopes to get Asian University for Women on track

The Asian University for Women (AUW) in Bangladesh has been through a rocky period in its short history. But its new vice-chancellor hopes to put the university on track to do what it set out to achieve – enable more women from all backgrounds, including the poorest, to obtain a high quality university education.

Vice-chancellor Fahima Aziz was appointed four months ago after a seven-month search for a new university head in the wake of damaging reports of internal management disputes.

When her appointment announcement was made in April, she said: "I am drawn to AUW because of its mission to educate women for lives of leadership and service. I am a passionate supporter of women's education and educational access in general. AUW embodies all of these values.”

However, she comes after a difficult time for the private university.

Aziz is the fourth vice-chancellor to be appointed in as many years at the institution that was set up in 2008 and has many prominent supporters, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Its current chancellor is Cherie Blair, wife of former British prime minister Tony Blair.

The university has seen many faculty firings and resignations in the past year, and allegations of poor governance were made in Bangladesh’s English-language newspaper New Age, which carried out a lengthy investigation into the university’s management.

Recruitment of academics

Aziz, an American national of Bangladeshi origin and a former economics and business professor at Hamline University in St Paul, Minnesota, said she would focus on securing quality academics and attracting more students to the university’s temporary campus in Chittagong.

And while she would not spell out any reforms made to ensure senior management stability in the future, she told University World News: “Yes, in the past there may have been some disagreements as to how the university was being run and how some decisions were made. But I have the full responsibility and autonomy to oversee and operate the university.”

The recruitment of new academics was continuing, which she sees as a sign that the international academic community has faith in the university. New faculty members “were very well aware of the negative publicity, but they still chose to come,” she said.

Currently, AUW has a faculty of 44 members and 13 fellows, mostly on one- or two-year contracts and many of them are from the US. They include newly qualified lecturers and those on sabbatical or leave of absence.

“This hiring model has worked well for AUW,” said Aziz. “However, in the long run we would like to have long term contracts for continuity in their relationship.”

Instability at the top

Aziz’s term of office comes after some instability at the top. The first vice-chancellor, appointed in April 2008, was Nancy Dye, a former president of Oberlin College in Ohio, but she exited in August the same year.

Singaporean academic Hoon Eng Khoo was provost and acting vice-chancellor until May 2010. She has gone on to become a founder member of the Asian Women’s Leadership University, which is expected to open in Malaysia in 2015.

Muktadir Kamal Ahmad, the US-Bangladeshi lawyer who launched AUW, then took over as acting vice-chancellor. In July 2011, an American engineering professor, Mary Sansalone, was promoted to the vice-chancellorship from her position as provost and chief academic officer.

However, she left the job just a month later and Ahmad was back in command until Aziz’s appointment in April this year. Media reports alleged that there had been clashes between Ahmad and past vice-chancellors, as well as problems in university management.

Jack Meyer, chair of the board of the AUW support foundation, which raises money for the university, and who stepped down from this position in July, said in a letter posted for a time on the university’s website in April: “Founding a first-class university for women in Bangladesh is not an easy endeavour. Mistakes were made.”

The letter, in response to the local newspaper investigations, admitted that staff turnover “at all levels – administration, faculty, staff and board – has been unacceptably high”, and blamed “difficult living conditions in Chittagong” and the “start-up nature of the programme, which has resulted in many – too many – changes in direction”.

Problems have been "left behind"

Aziz is confident these problems have been left behind. She claimed to have an excellent working relationship with university founder Ahmad, who now heads the AUW Support Foundation. He is focusing on raising funds – a tough task given the current global economic situation, she said.

This is in line with the university’s original intention of providing opportunities for women, whatever their background. In a letter to the New Age, reproduced on the AUW website, Ahmad wrote: “So long as a young woman demonstrates the requisite intellectual wherewithal and courage, AUW will strive to get that student in the university.”

Initial funding came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Goldman Sachs Foundation, the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, the Citigroup Foundation and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), among others. Jack Meyer was also a significant donor.

But the funds raised so far have not been enough to build a dedicated campus on the 53 hectares (130 acres) of land in Chittagong provided by the Bangladesh government, and the university currently uses leased premises.

However, according to Aziz, operating from temporary premises “has not been an impediment in learning as we have built a very fine functioning campus”.

Student recruitment

With 541 students from 12 Asian countries – including Afghanistan, Vietnam, China and the Palestinian territories – the university will see its first graduates in May 2013.

The new academic year starting this autumn has 104 students and Aziz wants this number to increase steadily. “We want to grow slowly and thoughtfully but in 20 years, I hope, we [will] have 3,000 students,” she said.

This target number would allow for economies of scale with regard to the number of programmes, classrooms, faculty, students, student-faculty ratios and overall operating costs.

Aziz said the university was looking at new source countries for students and holding interviews to recruit new country coordinators. The coordinators will in turn recruit women students between the ages of 17 and 21 from high schools and help in admissions tests that include Skype interviews. A vast majority of students are provided with full scholarships.

“This is a challenging aspect of the admission process, where we have to identify dedicated coordinators,” she said.

AUW uses a US-style curriculum and offers a one-year pre-university programme and a four-year undergraduate programme including bachelor courses in liberal arts and sciences, Asian studies, biological sciences, environmental sciences, politics, public health, philosophy and economics.

The university is trying to obtain accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges in the US. It has also announced that it has established a student exchange programme with the Paris Institute of Political Studies, in France, and a visiting faculty initiative with the University of Trento in Italy.