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