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Yerevan’s American University of Armenia Lacks Western Standards, Claims Insider

Hetq has received the following letter from someone who claims to be closely familiar with the inner administrative workings of Yerevan’s American University of Armenia (AUA). In the letter, the writer accuses AUA of being an “archaic and insular” educational environment that needs structural reform to be considered a Western university.

The writer calls for a “new management approach” to replace AUA’s “centralized fiefdom run by a few top administrators” who overlook any input from lecturers and department heads. The writer has requested to remain anonymous, arguing there’s the real risk of being fired if his/her identity is revealed. Hetq welcomes responses and comments from the AUA's administration and other informed individuals.

Trials and tribulations at the American University of Armenia

The American University of Armenia (AUA) is starting the 2023-24 academic year after over eight months of administrative restructuring and reshuffling that was hailed as “smooth transition” thanks to the “selfless” responsibility of the interim president of the university (a founding member of AUA and its previous president). As a longtime member of the AUA community who has observed the inner workings of the university and who interacts with staff and faculty on a regular basis, the transition was far from being smooth and the management of that transition has hardly been selfless.

What does it mean to be an American university outside the U.S.?

The mission of most US higher education institutions operating abroad is to foster Western style education which promotes critical thinking, freedom to express opinions and develop evidence-based arguments.

However the task of education goes beyond the student body and a key component of US institutions of higher education is to also develop a sense of ownership by the staff and faculty by encouraging debates, creating shared governance and enhance collegiality, all with the purpose of providing the students with the best content AND the environment to pursue their education and develop their analytical skills.

While some US institutions of higher education operate under difficult political circumstances where the country they operate in are quasi- or full authoritarian, at least a modicum of the principles mentioned above are always present and students are exposed to alternative views while the staff and faculty are engaged in some form of shared governance.

An archaic environment to work in

On the surface, the administrative structure of AUA is comparable to any US institution of higher education: A leadership team; structured colleges and programs; admissions and registrar’s offices, staff and faculty senate, etc. Operationally however this structure—especially the higher one gets on that pyramid—becomes more akin to a centralized fiefdom where unilateral decisions are made by a few select people who, even though might be experts in their respective disciplines/areas of specialization, rarely realize that running a US institution of higher education requires consensus, communication and collective decision-making.

The overwhelming majority of AUA’s staff and faculty are dedicated and professional individuals who make sure that the primary goal of the university is fulfilled. That goal is to provide the main clientele of the university—the students—with the best possible education and prepare them for the next stage of their professional careers. That being said there are instances where appointments are made arbitrarily, with utter and complete disregard to procedural rules, and in few cases, without any considerations of the appointees professional credentials.

In less than a year, AUA’s interim president managed to partially restructure (and the term is not used here with a positive connotation) the university’s leadership by appointing individuals who are combative, abrasive, micromanagers and with limited capacity to work in groups as well as meddle (either directly or through proxies) in the workings of the various academic and non-academic programs.  Furthermore, by appointing new or existing faculty with utter and complete disregard to any suggestions coming from relevant faculty and without due processes, the interim president of the university has bypassed due processes and projected an image of blatant nepotism.

Just because an individual previously held a high profile public position or because the president of the university likes them as an individual, should not be the basis of appointing those people into positions which are incompatible with (or even contradictory to) the requirement of those positions.

In various surveys conducted to rank top universities to work for, some of the criteria used to measure that ranking include: how much do employees (staff and faculty) feel valued by administrators; the opportunities they’re offered and encouraged to pursue; and the environments that promote a healthy work-life balance.  While those criteria are present at AUA (perhaps arguably more so than other institutions of higher education in Armenia), they are not high enough to put anywhere in the list of top 100 or even 1,000 best universities to work for.

It has to be emphasized that the above mentioned issues are not the making of a single individual, rather they are a manifestation of years, even decades, of management style which combined to worst of all worlds: remnants of soviet era bureaucracy, lack of collective governance, diasporan entitlement, and Western colonial attitude. The top leadership of the university, especially in the past 10 months or so, only exacerbated these worst practices.

The narrow-mindedness of the outgoing leadership (personified in the interim president) has also been highlighted on more than one occasion, when because of outdated ideas or anecdotal evidence, the president has come up with unrealistic and sometimes even wasteful efforts to “improve” a certain aspect of the university, rarely realizing or even being aware that the AUA with all its reputation has limitations and that promoting the university within Armenia and abroad requires a new approach different from the one used in the past 20 years.

The one perplexing issue that remains is that how could individuals who might be accomplished in their respective fields of expertise end up being so abrasive when they become administrators and completely disregard that fact that in order for AUA to become truly a western style intuition of higher education, it has to go beyond being an exclusive club of decision makers who operate as if AUA is their personal pet project.

Some people have argued that the university leadership (including the board) only has the best of intentions at heart when making decisions, but as the age old proverb states, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” and this is one instance where leading by example should not be taken up at face value.

Show me the money!

It is said that “money is the root of all evil” and that seems to also be an issue at AUA. Like all Western institutions of higher education, AUA also relies heavily on donations and competently manages its endowment funds. However, it is well known that donations made to any university come with conditions. The challenge here is to align the university’s mission and goals with those donations, something that AUA’s leadership is unable to achieve. Thus most newly created research centers or programs are based on what potential donor or a pledge of donation the university has received, rather than the needs of the university or the society.

While AUA offers competitive salaries, there are several caveats to be considered.  First of all, the beneficiaries of this good enumeration are mostly the faculty and high level staff, leaving the support staff with compensations (both salary and benefits) that are below what they would receive had they been employed in most other private sectors. Secondly, most faculty who are dependent on their AUA remuneration, are wary not to rock the boat or criticize the administration for the fear of losing their income, hence making criticism and challenging arbitrary decisions by the university leadership almost impossible. Thirdly, the lack of transparency when it comes to AUA staff and faculty pay scales is a major issue since, even though there might not be pay disparities among the faculty or among the staff, not having a clearly stated and transparent pay scales leads to speculations, envy and demoralized employees.

Finally, in a typical act of nepotism, it is not uncommon for the outgoing interim president to arbitrarily hire individuals without consultation and even without consideration of the needs of the university. Furthermore, when long-time employees are denied salary increases while a new hire is given a position (and assumingly a high salary) arbitrarily and with the sole decision of the interim president, trust in leadership is irrevocably eroded.

Silver linings and rays of optimism

Despite the challenges mentioned above, AUA remains a beacon attracting students, staff and faculty who are some of the best and brightest in their fields. The level of commitment by the overwhelming majority of the staff and faculty to help students achieve their academic goals is beyond reproach. From the moment a potential student applies to AUA until the moment they graduate they are catered to and supported by offices such as the registrar’s, admissions and student affairs (to name a few obvious ones) as well as by a team of faculty who are dedicated to teaching and helping students learn.

AUA also prides itself (rightfully) that it is an environment where corruption (at least as it relates to student enrollment and performance) does not exist. There are widespread and sometimes documented stories of students “buying grades” or even a degree at other universities, but that type of transactional behavior does not exist at AUA (at least as far as this author has observed).

Finally, despite the challenges mentioned above—or perhaps because of them—there is a strong sense of solidarity among AUA employees. It is not uncommon to see staff and/or faculty from various departments interacting with each other, sharing grievances, or collaborating on various projects. This is perhaps one of the key characteristics of AUA that regardless of having a non-visionary leadership has, and continues to sustain AUA as a leading institution of higher learning in Armenia.

After almost a year of turmoil and summarily decision making by the outgoing interim president, there is a hope that the university will undergo some course correction despite the fact that the changes he introduced will have their not so positive ramifications for the coming years.

Photo: AUA website

Comments (23)

Well put Seta. And thanks to Hetq for publishing this!
Seta, spare us your nonsense. Hetq is s***. This opinion piece is a farce. There aren't even any tangible accusations made other than "bad management style". The outgoing interim president has already resigned as scheduled, from his INTERIM position. Why on earth would he need to defend himself or his management style as he retires for the second time (after being begged by the board to clean up the mess left over by the previous president). This opiner is likely just a bitter person who got along with the previous president and got demoted or something afterwards.
Spare us the moralizing about good intentions and sacrifices, as well as the defamation of the bringer of bad news as embittered, pathetic, immoral, even conspiratorial! A charge has been brought against an institution. A reputable news outlet saw fit to make the anonymous letter public, inviting comments from the institution and those with first-hand information. That neither the AUA nor those affected by the policies of the previous administration (save for three responses here) have reacted publicly and comprehensively to the charge is telling. The silence is evidence that: 1. those in power are silent because it will eventually quiet things down, 2. those with less power or no power are silent because they are afraid or uncomfortable (or indifferent). Either way, it does not speak well for AUA. We Armenians have an almost iron-clad capacity to evade introspection and self-criticism. Here it is again, at an institution and an academic community which claims to teach (and to live by) these very principles. The public at large, media outlets, and concerned Armenians everywhere, will be much better served if this silence broke.
The author is disparaging, without examples, the outgoing interim president, a man who was asked by the AUA board to take over after the previous president's resignation. In addition to cleaning things up and preparing the university for its next president, he secured $30M from major donors in the short time period, paving the way for construction of new buildings for science and engineering. He is universally respected - by students, alumni, faculty, donors, important people in Armenia and US. Your criticism is that he makes decisions unilaterally? You have clearly never run an organization - it is not something that can be done with consensus on every decision. Organizations need strong leaders who can make the right decisions and move things forward. Clearly, You've never built anything important, anything, let alone from the ground up. And soon your name will be tainted with this pathetic attempt of a hit piece.
Anyone who is looking from outside at Armenia sees the AUA as a bright spot and counts on the institution to bring profound change in Armenia. One must be blind not to see the impact made thus far. Protecting AUA from anonymous attacks should be the duty of anyone who cares about the future of Armenia. And throwing dirt at the co-founder of AUA is a shame. He is an accomplished scholar who left his comfortable life in the US and lived in Armenia for many years. What he did for the Armenian nation is admirable. And if this particular faculty member is unhappy with how things are run at AUA he/she has the choice to leave the University.
to Lusine....Your observations are just that unless you specifically explain how you reached them. In what capacity did you interact with students, faculty, etc? Merely claiming "The university has structural mechanism in place for shared governance ...." in no way proves they are working. What proof do you have that "the Administration elicits input from such committees for consideration..." Are you a member of the AUA's administration? If so, please identify yourself as such.
This is my comment to Hetq…I need some help with the third paragraph. Disparaging, unsubstantiated accusations and unfounded criticism don’t constitute an “Opinion” piece. This article is nothing but an attempt at mudslinging at a reputable institution of higher learning and its revered outgoing interim President, who is also a cofounder and past President of AUA. The ever growing donor base attests to the transparency and integrity the University has maintained since its inception. In the past decade alone, the University has grown in leaps and bounds academically as well as physically. Through my numerous visits on campus and interactions with the students, faculty and staff, I gather that the University is constantly evolving and promoting a culture that is conducive to learning, academic freedom and professional growth, very much modeled after the University of California system with which AUA is affiliated. One does not need to conduct an investigation to witness the positive, upbeat vibe that prevails at AUA. The university has structural mechanism in place for shared governance through the numerous internal committees, such as the Ethics and Grievance committee, Code and Conduct Committee, the Faculty Senate, Faculty Search and Promotion Committees, just to name a few, where issues are addressed and recommendations are developed. The Administration elicits input from such committees for consideration, but it is misguided to expect that every such input is adopted as policy. Yet, a few disgruntled employees, or former employees, have to prove once again that Armenians are their own worst enemies. In the name of freedom of speech and hiding behind anonymity they use a public platform to vent their bitterness without even maintaining a modicum of civility. What a shame!
The author(s) of this "opinion piece" has no idea what a university is, let alone AUA. It is a pity that people like them teach and educate bright and smart kids at AUA. I taught at AUA some years ago before I left for the US. What I can say is that the outgoing interim president, who was the president back then, cares a lot about that place. For him, AUA comes ahead of everything. I observed only respect towards policies and procedures which he was constantly improving. He has pushed AUA towards new heights. Look at the data, institutional achievements, and you will see it for yourself. Moreover, I heard all the terrible things about the previous administration and the Interim president had to come to Yerevan to fix the terrible legacy they left behind. There have been multiple reports about the unbearable atmosphere at AUA before November 2022. If the author cared about the university, why s/he kept silence about outrageous and terrible decisions that the previous administration was allegedly making. If s/he did not voice a concern then, perhaps we are witnessing a mere transaction here. It is a small university. No detail is left out. The time of selective justice commandos is gone. If the author was candid enough, s/he should have told the reader how many times she had tried to bring her problems to the attention of the faculty senate, which was a well-functioning body of AUA back then. I hope it is also the case now. If s/he is afraid using all the available resources within AUA, what is the added value of bringing this to the wider public. What objectives is s/he trying to achieve? Writing an anonymous piece and asking his/her support team to write online comments using fake names is disgraceful. How is s/he is going to look into the eyes of his/her colleagues? If you have anything to say or share, go to the public only after all the institutional doors are closed.
Those who are insisting on "evidence" are asking for naming names. Naming names is never a good idea, especially for the anonymous writer. It's not names that matter, it's the actions of the administration. The writer has done more than enough in pointing out the insular, archaic actions and characteristics. Paulie has offered more specifics. Those who are insisting on names are either in denial or they are lazy.
What exactly do some want Hetq, or other media, to investigate??? The anonymous writer's allegations are too general. Perhaps Hetq can coax the writer into offering some specific examples of nepotism/mismanagement as a basis.
This is addressed to commentator Paulie.....please name names in your examples...Otherwise they mean next to nothing.
I believe the author refrained from giving specific examples because if they did, they would have exposed themselves and ran the risk of being identified (as the circle of decision makers is small). But I can give some concrete examples: How about several years back the then president and now interim/outgoing president (same person) trying to appoint a relative without due process to a position of leadership? Or under the guise of “cleaning house” he appointed people (even on interim basis) as academic supervisors working closely UNDER him (because he doesn’t seem to be able to work WITH anyone)? or how about when some faculty and staff try to reason with him on some of his arbitrary ideas/decisions and he just ignores them (this we know because guess what, faculty and staff do compare notes with each other)? Or how about unilaterally deciding to hire faculty and staff into interim or permanent positions without even considering any inputs? The list can go on and include previous administrations when individuals without the proper academic training or terminal degrees were hired without a search process or being vetted. The article highlights (granted in a non-specific way) the operational deficits and in no way way, undermines the quality of education (rather it does praise it), this is just a criticism of the management style. A style that, again according to the article, did not start with the outgoing interim president. By the way, yes there was a labor union which was active until it was viewed as a challenge by the leadership and it was eventually unceremoniously disbanded by coercing some and threatening other members in the union. Finally, while the media, Hetq specifically, is free to investigate this further, the fact that the author of this piece had to resort to such a public outlet could be indicative that: a) check and balance on the decision making processes at AUA and b) that there are no internal mechanisms to express grievances.
It is the journalistic duty of HETQ to check if the author of the letter was previously employed or is currently a demoted employee of AUA. If that's the case, HETQ should have EXPLICITLY mentioned that fact so that the readers would understand the source of the bitterness in the article.
Michael Conrad
First, the "timing" of the whistleblower's letter is unfair to the Interim President and even more unfair to AUA students. The Interim President (who leaves office on August 31) has virtually no time to defend himself internally. Students will walk into an AUA scandal on their first day of class (August 28)--just imagine how they will feel during a week when they should be very excited about the start of the academic year. Second, the "content" of the letter is unfair to the Interim President. The whistleblower accused him of authoritarianism and nepotism--without providing even one specific example to support the numerous allegations. Innocent until proven guilty. Third, the "context" of the organizational situation should be considered when evaluating the Interim President during his 8-month term. Specifically, AUA did not have an Academic Vice President (AVP) to perform key duties during this transition period. Without a competent AVP, problems will likely occur during any transition. However, an Interim President is ultimately responsible for problems that occur in the institution. . Finally, I hope that AUA will soon find and keep (for years to come) a talented AVP who will help build a collegial academic "culture" and inspire students, faculty, and staff.
The fact that the AUA labor union no longer exists proves that "collegiality and sense of collaboration for the common good" is a foreighn concept to many in the university and Armenia overall. Yes, let the AUA top brass respond, but don't hold your breath. Why would they if the claims of being "insular" and "unresponsive" to the concerns of employees are true. This is why a Hetq investigation is needed to raise the issue in a wider public format.
Taline Voskeritchian
It's unfortunate that this anonymous letter is receiving such negative reactions. I taught writing/journalism at AUA for two semesters in 2016, 2017, and although I am not privy to the recent "structural changes" the writer alludes to, the writer is correct in characterizing the top leadership of AUA as "insular" and "archaic" in its mode of operations. That does not bode well for nurturing a productive and comfortable working environment for the faculty and staff, which often battled a host of daily problems--from the dysfunctional copy center, to the erratic heating/cooling system, to the deafening noise from the street while we were trying to teach. And these are only a handful of the physical difficulties, some of which may have been solved, I hope. As for the academic dimension, these too were deficient in some key areas, of which the most salient for me was the inability or unwillingness of the administration to develop a university-wide culture where open discussion, give-and-take, collaborative thinking are the norm and not the exception. That is one of the most important tasks of a good administration! Many of my colleagues were keen, smart and highly motivated professionals, but there was, at my time, no unifying culture at AUA, the kind we take for granted in many universities. (I am wary to speak of “Western universities” as standard-setting institutions because these, too, are in deep trouble these days.) True, there was active socializing (too active, if you ask me), and some solidarity when decisions were sent from above, but that is not the same as collegiality and sense of collaboration for the common good. Despite all the buzzwords about enhancing critical thinking and evidence-based arguments and the like, AUA’s institutional culture is (or, more correctly, was at my time) reactive and often passive. That is why, I think that instead of asking the writer to give evidence or asking “Hetq” to investigate these complaints, it would be more useful to demand first that AUA respond clearly and openly to this letter. That would be a first step in putting the AUA house in order and practicing transparent, intelligent and forward-looking, and active leadership.
I agree with the other commentators that Hetq, who calls itself an investigative jorunal, needs to dig deeper into this issue. Yes, it's an opinion piece that offers no specifics and many readers are left wanting "more meat on the bone". Thw writers does himself a disservice by not providing one iota of factual evidence on which to base her claims. Even opinion pieces need a base of evidence to seem plausible.
Hetq should investigate these allegations. The AUA has millions of dollars in its endowment fund. If the money is being misspent, the donors need to know. Having well managed universities providing a quality educations is a strategic imperative for Armenia.
"Finally, despite the challenges mentioned above—or perhaps because of them—there is a strong sense of solidarity among AUA employees." How can the writer make such an absurd statement? What happened to the faculty labor union at AUA? Hetq wrote about it in 2019? It seems to have dissolved since then. What "employees" is this person talking about? Start another union and protect your interests!!! That's what's solidarity means.
Don Keydix, Ph.D.
Wrong: It is said that “money is the root of all evil”. The correct Bible verse says, "The love of money is the root of all evil." 1 Timothy 6:10 Here's the solution for these people: fire them. Armenia has enough problems. It definitely does not need it in its institutions of higher education.
Pure garbage from a bitter no body who wouldn't even know how to run a coffee shop.
Would be nice if the writer offered some examples to support his claims of mismanagement. What diasporan influence is he talking about? It's accredited by some U.S. agency and funded by the AGBU, no? Is there no independent oversight?
So AUA is run like a Soviet bureaucracy....Amazing if true given that it's diaspora funded and the top administrators are supposedly people recruited from outside Armenia. Sort of sounds like the writer has a chip on their shoulder, an axe to grind with her bosses. The alleged administrative shortcomings to one side, what' the level of education AUA students receive? I've heard the place resembles a glorified high school for the kids of Armenia's privileged classes. If the AUA, regarded as the top university in Armenia, has this issues I can imagine what's going on in Yerevan State University and other colleges in Armenia. Hetq needs to investigate this writer's allegations. It's a timely topic long overlooked. The media has little to say about the state of education in the country.

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