Winter 2001 (9.4)
of Western University
Baghirov, Founding Rector
Essentially, the Soviet
Union collapsed because the Western world's education system
was better developed as a tool of struggle with its emphasis
on personal freedom, honesty and lack of restrictions.
University, one of Azerbaijan's first private universities, stands
as a flagship for the country's rapidly changing educational
system. Ten years ago, Husein Baghirov, now Azerbaijan's Minister
of Environment and Resources, started Western University from
a keen desire to offer education to meet the new challenges of
The university is called "Western" because it is modeled
after Western universities in terms of its values and approach.
Much of the instruction there is conducted in English.
Left: World-renown Norwegian Archeologist
Thor Heyerdahl and his wife Jacqueline as special guests of Western
University in Baku, 1999.
Baghirov to describe this unique university's beginnings during
the chaotic period just before Azerbaijan gained its independence.
Here he discusses his philosophy about education and some of
the challenges that lie ahead for Azerbaijan's educational system.
Looking back over the past decade, it's important to understand
the impact that Soviet ideology has had on our educational system.
First and foremost, education was viewed as a tool for the development
of the Soviet military industrial complex and created to fit
the ideology of Soviet expansionism. It was used to inject the
populace with a certain set of ideological values. The Soviet
system presented a very strong vision to its people - perhaps
not the correct one - but nevertheless, a very strong vision
about the world and specifically about Russia's position in it.
Personally, I can say that there were many positive aspects to
the educational system. Consider Azerbaijan. We had the same
ratio of students per 100,000 population that Russia did. Consequently,
we achieved a very high literacy rate - about 98 percent of the
population. This was even higher than literacy rates in some
of the most developed nations.
But when we look more closely, we begin to see some of the flaws
in the system. Although the educational system had its advantages,
it was not ideal, as it was based on values that were not always
good for Azerbaijan. Eventually the Soviet Union collapsed because
it didn't embrace the values of freedom, honesty and human dignity.
Instead, it tried to shape its people into something that did
not conform to reality.
Left: Graduation Day at Western University
who were educated in Soviet Russia were encouraged to go into
fields like engineering, rocket science and computer technology.
Since the engineering universities in Russia served the military
system, they were all very well equipped and employed highly
qualified teachers who were paid top salaries.
The whole world knows the reputation of Soviet programmers, mathematicians
and physicists. How is it that the Soviet Union could compete
with other countries when it came to military science, but it
couldn't compete in other areas? Even today, Russia's military
complex is still growing; it's not stagnant like other sectors
These specialties were not so highly developed in other places
throughout the Soviet Union, however. All of the republics were
categorized on different levels of hierarchy in terms of their
relationship with Russia. Ukraine and Belarus (then Byelorussia)
enjoyed the closest relations with Moscow. The next level included
Georgia and Armenia. Perhaps Moldova could be placed into this
category as well.
The third level, characterized by more distant relationships,
was reserved for the Baltic republics - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania-and
Azerbaijan. In truth, it could even be argued that the other
Central Asian republics - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan,
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - were even closer to Russia than
Azerbaijan because they were at an initial stage of their own
development; this enabled them to better and easier adjust to
the Soviet system than Azerbaijan, which had already developed
its own set of national values.
Left: Fans of Western University's basketball
team enjoying the victory of the team's champion season in 2001.
Thus, in the Republics which were not favorites of Moscow, the
universities were slightly different from those of Russia in
terms of number of students, but they were not as well equipped
and in general offered specialties far from high technology,
giving priority to pedagogical, cultural and relevant studies.
Naturally, this restricted the access of these Republics to modern
Of course, while we were part of the Soviet Union, they never
blatantly said that Russians were primary and the other 14 Republics
were secondary. But at the same time, everyone understood that
all the Republics were not equal. Basically, it was the Russia's
history, their life, their past and their present - not ours.
We were just an appendage to them.
Prior to the Bolsheviks' descent on Baku in 1920 and the establishment
of the Soviet government, Azerbaijan was on the verge of adopting
European values and becoming a European nation. Representatives
from our government - the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic - had
begun to establish diplomatic links in Paris with Western countries.
I think it's fair to say that our chances were equal to those
of Bulgaria, Hungary or Slovakia - almost at the same level.
We could have become part of Europe. Naturally, this posed a
threat to Bolsheviks.
All of these historical realities played a role in shaping the
type of educational opportunities that were available in Azerbaijan
during the Soviet period.
Too Many Teachers
Therefore, instead of training specialists in subjects like physics,
mathematics and computer programming, Azerbaijan's educational
system was structured around preparing generalists: teachers,
cultural specialists and pedagogues. Based on their formal education,
Azerbaijanis did not receive adequate training to create their
own social infrastructure when the Soviet Union collapsed. A
society needs a certain number of physicists, chemists and engineers
in a variety of industries, except for oil, and so on; in short,
those specialties that would more adequately reflect the social
structure of the society. But you should always be mindful of
the real needs of society in order to create balanced development.
But in Azerbaijan, this principle was not followed to the extent
Left: Western University in the heart of Baku.
local Azerbaijanis were not trained in certain fields, specialists
had to be brought in from other parts of the Soviet Union to
work, especially in Azerbaijan's section of the military industrial
complex. Up until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, we had
specific towns in which 80 to 90 percent of the people were physicists,
mathematicians and engineers who had graduated from Russian universities.
One such place was Yeni Hovsani, a suburb of Baku.
Today we have too many teachers in Azerbaijan. Perhaps we need
a lot of teachers, but I'm not so sure that we need quite as
many as we have now. And today there aren't an adequate number
of job opportunities available for them. For instance, in comparison
with the U.S., in Azerbaijan the student /teacher ratio is lower,
even though Azerbaijan is a much poorer country.
We also have too many cultural specialists and too many people
trained in the social sciences. Most of our universities emphasize
liberal arts and social sciences. Universities should not be
preparing teachers for schools; they should be preparing their
students for society. It's not the business of the university
to send students to school and then just to keep them there.
Views of the West
During the Soviet era, to supplement my own education, I used
to read hundreds of books - you might say, I "swallowed"
them. These were books by authors like Washington Irving, William
Faulkner, Lew Wallace, Erich Maria Remarque. Ernest Hemingway
and Irwin Shaw had a great influence on me as did Mark Twain,
Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Frost. I also enjoyed reading works
by F. Scott Fitzgerald and J.D. Salinger and so many others.
This was like a window to a colorful world as seen from a life
in black and white.
Left: Students at Western University in the
Regional Studies Department.
All of these books had been translated into Russian. Actually,
the Russian translations were always much better than the Azeri
ones, which were often so simplistic that it was hard to figure
out why the work was considered so famous in the first place.
But the Russian translation was always good.
Those books were opening up something new, something thrilling,
for me. They were influencing and changing me step by step. I
could feel it. I began to perceive the world in different way.
I began to understand what life could be.
At that time, I didn't have a realistic picture of the West in
my mind. Those books gave us truthful, although not always realistic,
pictures of the West. By that I mean that they were based upon
values of integrity and truth.
Let's say there was an American writer who grew up in an American
environment and expressed himself by writing for his fellow Americans.
Very often, it was not just American values that he discussed,
but rather universal human values. Since American, British, French
and German writers were freer and had more rights, they could
delve into the human soul and explore and write about it. For
those of us who were living behind the Iron Curtain, their ideas
came as a breath of fresh air. It was so unique to have access
to such literature.
I had the chance to visit several foreign countries during those
Soviet years. My first trip was in July 1976, when I traveled
to Warsaw, Poland for ten days as the prize for the best student
essay regarding the ethnology of the Sumerians.
Left: Western offers new classes in graphic,
interior and landscape design to meet the needs of individuals
It's funny now when I look back on it. It seemed so vivid and
dynamic compared to the non-descript plainness and routine of
Soviet life. I was so used to boring similarities: everything
and everybody looking the same, wearing the same clothing, the
same black and gray colors. For the first time, I saw Catholic
cathedrals and churches. Later, I had the chance to visit the
Czech Republic, Spain, Germany and other countries.
I was surprised to discover that the Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks
and Germans all respected the Soviet Union - in fact, they seemed
to have an inferiority complex when they compared themselves
to us. At the time, I couldn't understand why, but now I do.
I'm a representative of a small nation now - not a large country
that stretched across 12 time zones. Today we have developed
normal relations with those countries - just as it should be.
But in the past, it was different. The Soviet Union created an
aura for itself that was based on lies and false impressions.
I developed this image of Westerners as being responsible, open,
honest, precise and detail-oriented. Later I understood that
these qualities were the result of the Western system. It is
a system that induces everyone to accept the rules; the majority
follows the distinct principles and values that the Western society
rests on. However, there are also many people in the West who,
if there is a chance to get something and be opportunistic, apparently
will. It's just that the system makes it more profitable for
them to be honest and adhere to laws; otherwise, they will not
survive in their own society. I think we should aim to create
that same type of atmosphere here in Azerbaijan.
During the Cold War, the struggle between the United States and
the USSR was not just a contest between the leaderships of both
systems. It was a struggle between two different educational
systems and the values that were disseminated to the younger
generations. For Russia, the Soviet educational system was very
effective, but, in general, we can say that it lost its struggle
against Western values.
Left: Western University library boasts of
one of the largest collections of English books with more than
beginning of the 1980s, we sensed that something was going wrong
with the Soviet system. In the middle of the 1980s, the trend
was already becoming clear. By the end of the 1980s, we were
sure that the end was near.
I was in my early 30s at the time and can still remember that
liberating feeling of seeing the streets filled with anti-Soviet
demonstrations. It wasn't a crisis for me; it was more like a
calm gladness in my soul. Probably it was my reading of all those
books that had prepared me.
In truth, the Soviet Union had disintegrated morally during the
last half of the 1980s [Gorbachev's Perestroika]. Nobody was
scared of the system anymore. And then Azerbaijan experienced
the events of January 20, 1990, which made it clear that a double
standard existed. [This tragedy is often referred to as "Black
January" because hundreds of civilians were killed by Soviet
Officially, the Soviet Union claimed to be based on the principle
that all of its peoples and nationalities were equal. But by
siding with Armenia over the Karabakh issue, by sending in tanks
to kill demonstrators in Baku that January and by organizing
various kinds of provocations, the Soviet government denied Azerbaijanis
their dignity and rights. They openly flaunted the rules, demonstrating
that they were not to be bound by the very laws they had created.
After Black January, we totally cleansed and rid our souls 100
percent from wanting to be part of the Soviet system. Many people
burned their Communist Party cards that they had spent their
lifetimes trying to achieve, despite the many privileges that
carrying those cards entitled them to. The feelings of comradeship
and brotherhood were gone. We no longer felt that we were brother
nations living together under one big umbrella. People were trying
to speak out but they were not being heard. Millions of people
stopped caring about what would happen to them if they went out
into the streets and protested.
Actually, the collapse of the Soviet Union didn't really happen
in one single act. Fifty years from now, historians will probably
write that it happened when Yeltsin and other leaders went to
the forests of Belovejskaya Pusha in Belarus in December 1991
and signed the decree for its disintegration.
But the truth is that we sensed the arrival of our independence
much earlier than that. To me, it really took place in November
1988, when continuous demonstrations were taking place in Lenin
Square [now Azadlig Square, which means "Freedom"].
Essentially, the Soviet Union collapsed because the educational
system as a tool of struggle was better developed in the Western
world, with its emphasis on personal freedom, honesty and lack
Need for Training
In 1990, amidst this atmosphere of upheaval and uncertainty,
a small group of us got together and founded the institution
that would eventually become Western University. At that time,
the Soviet Union still existed, so we had to come under the authority
of the Institute of Youth, a small semi-government organization
that offered educational and training programs.
We decided to offer basic business classes in subjects such as
management, finance and entrepreneurship. Many Azerbaijanis were
anxious to start their own businesses once they had the freedom
to do so, but none of them had any idea where to begin. So there
was a strong demand for specialized training.
In one- to three-month courses, we trained students how to register
a company, how to get access to the world market and deal with
foreign companies, how to get credit and manage money, how to
sign contracts and how to organize transportation. This was more
or less their first exposure to the Western understanding of
how to do business.
These classes soon became tremendously popular. In the first
year alone, we had more than 500 students who paid to enroll
in business courses.
We used part of the income from these management classes to offer
a second type of program: free seminars in political science.
We wanted to provide our students with alternatives, to give
them other ideas about social development, social rules, conflicts,
the nature of power and forms of government.
Just like the business sector, the political science sector had
been hidden from us during the Soviet era. Before, we had only
been allowed to learn about scientific communism, which we had
been taught was the most pure, correct and honest ideology. We
were prisoners to this limited comprehension of the world, an
artificially created ideology based on dogma and not related
Capitalism was a mystery to us. What sort of ideology was it?
Was it the opposite of communism? When we looked deeper, we saw
that capitalism contained a variety of ideologies. It was about
freedom and struggle and the competition of ideologies. It was
not the antithesis of Marxism; it was a many-sided, complex system.
It was about the freedom to live and grow and compete.
Spirit of Optimism
As we focused on these two areas - management and political science
- we soon realized that we needed to provide a more comprehensive
academic program. Just having the seminars was not enough, as
more and more young people who didn't have a higher education
would want access to them. Without the fundamental knowledge
that comes from a college education, these students wouldn't
understand the principles of economics and finance. So we applied
to the government for permission to offer training in the framework
of an academic program.
Our first class, enrolled in September 1991, had 67 students
- 30 in political sciences and 37 in management - plus 15 or
16 instructors. Three to four years later, we had grown to 500
to 600 students. For the past six years, we've limited the enrollment
to around 1,000 students. We decided not to make the school larger.
We employ about 150 teachers; about 50 to 55 of them are foreign
teachers who spend from one to several weeks or months of teaching
here, with some staying with us for several years due to the
support of international organizations. Perhaps it would be more
profitable to have more students, but Western is not primarily
a commercial venture. An enrollment of about 1,000 students seems
to be most manageable for us, and this enables us to maintain
the required quality of education.
Actually, Khazar University and Western University were both
established at about the same time, in mid-1991. Khazar got its
decree in March 1991, but only had permission to teach preparatory
classes. We received the decree from the Prime Minister's office
two months later, but we were able to take on full-time students
It was a very romantic time, back then in the early days of the
university. For the first time, Azerbaijanis felt like they could
determine their own fate. They had the opportunity to build their
own lives, careers, families and their entire future.
Our idea to establish Western University was based on idealism
as well. If we had known what great difficulties we were going
to encounter, we probably never would have started. We were naïve,
but we succeeded. We were just doing what the time and the circumstances
were leading us to do. I consider myself to be a very fortunate
man because at many points in my life I've been able to do things
that other people had said were impossible to do.
Much of the enthusiasm that we experienced a decade ago has since
been tempered by reality. For instance, many of the Azerbaijani
business enterprises that were established between 1990 and 1994
have collapsed - including the small enterprises whose managers
were trained by our university. We still have a lot to learn.
At first we thought about calling ourselves "American University
in Baku" since there was a network of such schools in various
countries. But the American Embassy was busy with various sorts
of issues and didn't respond to us about the name that we had
proposed. It was difficult period. The country was very unstable
at the time. Every six months, there was a new government. We
were in the midst of war with Armenia. In addition a civil war
almost broke out. The country was submerged in poverty. Baku
was doom and gloom. Packs of threatening barking dogs (and I
should add, biting dogs, too) filled the streets.
In the end, we settled on a different name - Western University.
The plaque outside our entrance reads in Azeri and English: Garb
Universiteti and Western University. At the end of 1992, we succeeded
in getting our accreditation from the Ministry of Education.
On February 8, 1993, we received the decree from the Ministry
Western University is not just a name - it's an ideology. As
an institution, we openly declare that we want to emulate Western
values through educational processes: democracy, respect for
human rights, liberal economics, openness, transparency, integration
into world processes and liberalism.
Actually, it's strange to think about it now, but before independence,
we didn't have this kind of free choice. We didn't even have
the right to decide whether or not to join the Communist Party.
Let's say I wanted to endorse the political ideas of Max Weber.
During that period, the only politically correct ideology was
Marxist-Leninism. All others were considered to be bourgeois
and based on lies and false assumptions.
There are other aspects of our philosophy of education that make
Western distinct. We believe that students should feel comfortable.
I don't just mean having a comfortable desk to sit at, but comfortable
in a spiritual and psychological sense as well. They have to
feel like people who belong to a normal society, with their dignity
intact. At Western, we try to cultivate an atmosphere of openness
and honesty between students and teachers. For example, students
should not feel threatened and afraid to disagree with their
In the Soviet educational system, teachers had total control
over the students. Final exams were oral, face to face with the
professor. The students were completely at the mercy of the teacher.
It was risky for students to express their own opinions, especially
during an exam.
One of the first things we did at Western was to change the examination
system. To prepare for final exams, students are given 500 to
600 questions related to a certain subject. When they take the
exam, they write their essays anonymously. Other teachers grade
the essays, without knowing the identity of the students. Bribing
a teacher in order to improve one's grade is out of the question.
We also expect
our teachers to be passionate about their specialties. Some teachers
have complained that their students don't show them respect.
A teacher has to earn respect by showing enthusiasm and mastery
for his subject, not from being assigned a certain administrative
role or privileges. A teacher can't just show up at class, spend
the day and return home and consider that he has fulfilled his
From the beginning, Western University has paid its staff 10
to 15 times more than state universities do. Even now that the
economic conditions have improved and the state universities
have started paying relatively better salaries, Western University's
pay rate is much higher. Our students pay tuition to attend,
so from that point of view, we have the ability to pay our teachers
better. But it's also a matter of principle. There has to be
a relationship between quality of work and compensation. Of course,
teachers have to make enough money to live on. In addition, this
can be considered one of the factors that prevents corruption
in the relationships between teachers and students at Western
In turn, the teachers who do the best work are paid more than
the others. Unfortunately, this is still a new concept for our
teachers and the rest of society. In the past, everyone was paid
equally. Most of us still have this strange idea that fairness
means equality. They think that no matter how hard a person works,
he or she should be paid as much as everyone else. Once some
students asked me, "Why are the foreign teachers paid more
than local teachers?"
I told them that it was because of the market: "It's not
possible to get a foreign teacher to come to Baku on the salary
that we pay local teachers. On the other hand, the local market
is full of teachers. Nevertheless we pay them much more than
what they would receive. We pay more than the market requires
so that you won't be forced to pay them for your grades."
They seemed satisfied with my explanation.
Focus on English
Western University was one of the first in Azerbaijan to use
English as the working language of the university. Depending
on the class, English is used 40 percent, 60 percent or even
80 percent of the time. Today about 60 to 70 percent of our students
are quite fluent in English. Many speak English on an advanced
Unlike other universities, we indicate on our diplomas whether
or not the student is fluent in English. The students who don't
pass the English examination still graduate. But the ones who
do pass the exam receive diplomas that show they have a good
grasp of English.
Another difference in our approach is that students are assigned
to English classes according to a seven-tiered system. This is
a new methodology for our country - to teach according to a student's
level. In the Soviet system, everyone attended the same classes
in terms of the year they were in school.
For example, in the Geography Department you might have 20 students
enrolled in the same courses, but when it comes to English, one
student might have excellent English, while another has no background
at all. It's very difficult to teach such a wide range of abilities
in the same class, so we changed the system. We separated English
and the other foreign languages from the main subjects. Students
are assigned to language classes depending on their ability,
not the year they happen to be at the university.
Why do we want our students to learn English? To gain knowledge,
to have access to the Internet, to read literature, to know what's
happening in politics and to understand new terminology. The
fabric of life these days is being woven in the English language.
Our English-language library is one of the largest in the country,
with more than 25,000 volumes, 200 periodicals and 600 CD-ROMs
- licensed copies, not $5 counterfeit versions from Moscow. The
CDs contain information about English and American literature,
American history, world history, ecology, design, management,
accounting, finance, economics and geography.
The entire English-language library catalog may be accessed via
the university's Web site at http://www.wu.aznet.org/catalog.htm. We're hoping to expand
our collection in the areas of management, accounting, sociology,
political sciences, anthropology, economics, finance and demography.
One of Western University's main goals is to help the Azeri language
develop and to prepare our students to think in Azeri. We want
to be involved in making this language more informative and more
useful. Then, others will want to learn this language.
Why aren't there any universities teaching Azeri in America for
example? Why are there no programs to learn the language [except
at Indiana]? First, we need to ask ourselves, why should anyone
there learn Azeri? We must create materials in Azeri that will
be compelling - first of all, for us, and then for others.
Today a lot of people are concerned about the large number of
students who are learning foreign languages. They think that
these foreign languages will compete with the Azeri language.
They don't comprehend that this will strengthen the Azeri language
and help it to develop. It will allow Azerbaijanis to minimize
the strong influence of Russian, which has been prevailing over
Azeri in our country.
Learning languages doesn't mean that the Azerbaijani people will
become British, American, French or German or Italian - those
countries are far away. Azerbaijanis should have access to knowledge
through foreign languages to make their own language stronger.
But our educational system is generally not oriented that way
now. In fact, there is opposition to such thinking. It's not
openly talked about, but very often people voice concern that
we are Westernizing education. They wonder, "Is it good
for us? Shouldn't we hold onto our own values?"
I always want to shout, "Show me those values. What values
will be lost if we teach foreign languages?"
Again I say this is related to mentality. We try to save something,
because otherwise we cannot say that we are a nation with a thousand
years of history. But what enables a group of people to call
themselves a nation? It's their values and traditions. Sometimes
we need to remember that the Soviet Union has had a strong influence
on our values.
Consider what the Russians did during the 18th and 19th centuries.
They translated a number of works from French into Russian. After
50 to 60 years, this language - the language of people from the
forests and steppes - became a major world language. As Russian
writers like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky started to use Russian to
express their thoughts, the Russian language grew stronger.
I'm not blaming Russians for publishing all of French poet Jean
La Fontaine's [1621-1695] fables in Russian under the name of
Krilov. They hardly changed any of the content. Russians were
proud that Krilov had written such interesting tales. Curiously,
I did not become suspicious of this fraud until I accidentally
came across La Fontaine's works later on. "Wow, these are
the Russian stories by Krilov. Let's see when they were first
published." That's when I discovered that La Fontaine had
published them long before Krilov was even born.
Here's another example. In Soviet schools, we learned that the
first steam engine was invented by Cherepanov in Siberia, not
by Robert Fulton in America or James Watt in the UK.
At the time, we thought to ourselves: "What a great nation
we are!" This strategy was especially effective on the smaller
republics within the Soviet Union. Russians were not just seen
as warriors and traders, but talented writers, engineers and
explorers as well. As a result, an image was created that persuaded
the mass of people into believing in their own significance and
ability to create a great history. That is the power of knowing
Emphasis on the
A year and a half ago, Western University became the first university
in the country to offer free Internet access to all of its students
and staff. Soon our e-mail addresses will end with "wu.edu",
just like with other universities like "indiana.edu"
or "ucla.edu". We have about 100 computers, with high-speed
connections. Some of these are located in computer centers; others
are placed in the corridors so students can quickly access their
e-mails at any time of day. This project was accomplished with
the help of NATO, USAID and the U.S. Information Agency.
The Internet has become an everyday part of student life. An
estimated 60 to 70 percent of our students use the Internet to
write e-mails, write their theses and prepare homework for seminars.
When I was a student, there were so many limitations, but today
there are none. If you want to get the best education you can,
just go and get it. The Internet offers access to anything, anywhere.
Information is no longer centralized and controlled. The Internet
gives us a chance to express our thoughts, to get a closer view
of the problems of society and to learn more about the modern
Today it's hard to find decent textbooks for Azerbaijani students.
Long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the major universities
are still using textbooks that were published during or soon
after the Soviet era. They don't necessarily mention Communism,
but they were written through the lens of Communist ideology.
Take economics textbooks, for example. During the Soviet era,
we had two textbooks: the political economics of socialism and
the political economics of capitalism. After the collapse of
the Soviet Union, all of the books about the political economics
of socialism were thrown away. But the books about the political
economics of capitalism were still being used.
These books view capitalism through the lens of Marxist-Leninism.
Although the names of Marx and Engels do not appear on the pages,
their ideas underlie the economic theory in these publications.
There's a lot of discussion about a "class war" and
the exploitation of human beings by others. It's impossible for
the writers to create anything different from this because they
have never been educated outside or had a chance to go to the
West. Even if they have been out for a short time, it has simply
created a crisis in their thinking, and the new ideas have not
penetrated deeply enough to revolutionize their thinking. The
same thing holds true for political textbooks.
From the first day, we started using economic books in English
that had been published in the United States and the UK. Some
have been translated into Azeri or Russian.
During the Soviet era, most Azerbaijani universities offered
a five-year specialist program. Western became the first university
in Azerbaijan to offer two separate degrees: a four-year bachelor's
degree and a two-year master's degree.
We think this system is more progressive. The bachelor's degree
program gives you a chance to get a basic education, go work
and find yourself. After you do that, you can come back to get
more specialized knowledge in a master's degree program.
Plus, there's no age limit for returning to get a master's degree.
We want to give students the opportunity to continue their education,
not close doors to them. Under Soviet law, no one older than
35 was allowed to return to the university to get an education
except through correspondence courses.
We've added a number of new schools and departments in the past
few years. We have a new School of Economics, which is growing
very quickly. Through an exchange with Indiana University's School
of Public and Environmental Affairs, we now offer master's degrees
in public administration - international affairs and public administration
Our new journalism school is in its second year, with just 15
to 20 students. It aims to train students in English and computer
skills so that they will have access to mainstream international
information. Unfortunately, some of our local journalists don't
yet share the same skills or ethics that most Western journalists
do. We don't want our students to emulate those journalists,
who follow our own domestic standards and are not necessarily
accurate or unbiased.
We also have a School of Computer Sciences. It's still relatively
small, with about 50 to 60 students, but it's getting to be more
and more popular. It's very difficult for us to compete in the
area of computer sciences, because many of the state universities
offer free programs. However, we are better equipped and unlike
them, we can offer our students 24-hour access to the Internet.
Our political science school is one of the best in the country.
So is our business school. Of course, it doesn't compare with
American business schools, but it is quite successful. Besides
offering majors in banking, finance and management, we are perhaps
the only university in the entire Caucasus region to offer a
degree in Tourism and Hospitality Management. This program was
established as a TACIS [Technical Assistance of the European
Community to the CIS Countries] project in cooperation with Queen
Margaret College in Edinburgh, Scotland, the Dublin Technological
Institute and the Hague Hotel Business School.
We also offer degrees in graphic design, interior design and
landscape design. One of the major differences between the former
Soviet republics and Western countries is what you see with your
eyes. Azerbaijan, especially Baku, is becoming more and more
like the West, with cleaner streets and nicer buildings. So why
did we establish this department? We want to have specialists
who can tell us how to make improvements and change our environment
to be more aesthetic.
We're not looking to develop areas that are already popular in
this country. For example, law departments are very popular right
now. In other countries, this might seem normal. But in our case,
it seems like people are studying law because they see it as
a chance to become part of the power structure. Azerbaijan is
developing fairly rapidly toward democracy. But among the people,
there is a strong belief that an affiliation to the power structure
will make their lives more protected and safer. On the contrary,
I believe that the safety of people must be guaranteed by the
law, not by an affiliation to the power structure. I don't want
to have people training with us for the wrong reasons, just to
use this university as a step up into the power structure. That's
why we haven't developed a law department, except for one project
with Indiana University's School of Public Administration, which
relates to international world law, transportation law, sea law
and European law. These are entrepreneurial areas that can be
used to help our country develop.
Lack of Initiative
I think that one of the most serious problems in our society
today is that many people lack initiative. This attitude is part
of the legacy of the former Soviet Union. Many of our people
are very often waiting for something from somebody. This category
of people is sometimes not willing to take care of themselves
- their own fate, the fate of their nation, the fate of this
city. They sit back and expect our government or somebody to
provide the solutions for everything.
During the Soviet period, many of our people lost their own sense
of will because they always had to follow the decisions of Moscow.
Either they followed those orders, or they were punished. For
three or four generations, everyone understood that taking initiative
could be punishable by death. For not doing anything, you would
not be punished so severely. But for doing something, you could
be killed. It was more dangerous to do something than it was
to be passive.
Most of our people got used to behaving in a certain way to get
their bread, their education and their work. Now that we have
to take care of ourselves, it's a big problem. Many people still
want to come, sit, do something simple, return home and basically
receive everything as a handout. They very often ask, "Why
don't I have electricity?", without giving a thought to
the fact that they are not entitled to having it if they don't
pay for it. They don't even consider that someone must bear the
costs of producing electricity.
I notice that students are also becoming more individualistic,
which can be negative. They are finding that they no longer have
to take care of social values to survive. Today, it has become
possible to be cut off from your own social environment and still
survive. Before, this was not possible.
In previous generations, people felt responsible for the next
generation. It doesn't mean that everyone was principled, but
they did feel an obligation. They were representatives of their
own generation. We see this individualistic tendency with the
large number of Azerbaijanis who have chosen to leave the country
and work abroad, where they hope to find more opportunities.
Eventually they discover that the grass is not so green on the
other side. Of course, the youth are more flexible, so they find
it easier to adapt to a different country. I think that five
to six years from now, this problem of Azerbaijan's "gene
drain" will be resolved.
I'm no longer the Rector of Western University, but I still feel
a certain responsibility for it, almost like a parent would.
I care about the things that are going on there, and I feel like
I should have some say about what should be done and how to do
it. On the other hand, I also understand that the institution
is more mature now. As is the case with my own sons, they don't
always listen to everything that I tell them. The university
has to be able to take on its own life, which may be different
from what I might imagine.
Today I am the Honorary President of the University and the chairperson
of the Political Sciences Department. Unfortunately, I don't
have time to go the university on a regular basis now. But if
I'm able to teach there once a week or once a month, I like to
do that because it helps me systemize my thoughts and stay in
touch with the feelings and reactions of young people.
Our goal for the future is for Western to become a normal university.
Once economic conditions are better and Azerbaijan is 100 percent
integrated into the rest of the world, we want the quality of
education here to be on par with other universities around the
Education in general is improving steadily throughout the country.
Even in state universities, it's getting better. Every year,
every quarter, there are significant changes. Maybe it happens
at a pace that is slower than we could wish, but there are visible
changes taking place: libraries are being renovated, new computer
centers are being opened, facilities are being cleaned up and
Ten years have passed since we started the university. Students
are marrying each other, which goes to show that the university
has become an integral part of their lives. Most of them will
be able to make good careers for themselves. Some of them, we
hope, will come back to teach and carry on our goals and dreams
for the future.
Husein Baghirov, the founder and former Rector of Western University,
is now Azerbaijan's Minister of Environment and Resources. For
more information about Western University, visit its Web site
(9.4) Winter 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2002. All rights reserved.
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