Bousquet Reflects on Kazakhstan Initiative







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Gilles Bousquet, dean of the Division of International Studies and vice provost for globalization at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, recently traveled to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, where UW-Madison is engaged in a ground-breaking higher-education initiative. Bousquet talks about the initiative and his experiences in Kazakhstan.

Question: Why did you travel to Kazakhstan?

Bousquet: The leaders of Kazakhstan, a country rich in oil, gas and minerals, have made it a top priority to invest in education. For a long time, the government sent hundreds of students on fully-paid scholarships to the United States and Europe to get an advanced education. Now, the country’s leaders want to provide a world-class education at home and have launched an ambitious international higher-education project—the establishment of Nazarbayev University, an English-speaking university for Kazakhstan and Central Eurasia.

Nazarbayev University represents a bold and innovative experiment in higher education. It recently became the country’s first university to be guaranteed academic freedom in the law. Its leaders have committed to adopting the best practices of top research universities.

To do this, they have sought guidance from a set of premier institutions from Europe, America, and Asia, including University College London (for first-year foundation, and for a School of Engineering), Duke University (for a School of Business), Singapore’s NUS (for a School of Public Policy), and i-Carnegie (for a School of Science and Technology).

UW-Madison has been invited to advise and guide the establishment of a School of Humanities and Social Sciences at this new university—which is named after Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s president and inspiration behind this project. Specifically, we are providing our Kazakhstani colleagues guidance toward creating five departments within this new school.

The university asked UW–Madison to develop a curriculum that focuses on the liberal arts, with flexibility and choice in curriculum and opportunities through a rich co-curriculum to cultivate leadership skills and community engagement. This is important, because a liberal arts education plays a critical role in developing creativity and innovation, which are needed throughout all sectors of the economy and society. Through the liberal arts, young people acquire the communication, critical thinking, and analytical skills that are essential for success in today’s world.

UW–Madison is no stranger to Central Eurasia. We are one of the very few places in the United States that teaches Kazakh language and culture. We have a well-known, federally funded Center for Russia, East Europe and Central Asia (CREECA), which has great expertise, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, but also in education and agriculture.

A group of experienced UW–Madison faculty and staff has been working with Nazarbayev University for more than a year. The group met in Madison regularly to discuss the approach, philosophy of the project and the scope of our participation. Almost all have been on site—some several times. At the group’s most recent meeting, I was enormously impressed by the enthusiasm for collaborating with Kazakhstani colleagues, the pride for what has been accomplished over the past year, and the overall positive energy and purpose of this project.

Nazarbayev University invited all of its international partners to meet in June in Astana, the Kazakhstani capital, for a two-day seminar, to update officials and the public on the progress of the respective units that the various partners have helped to establish. It was a unique occasion to meet the extraordinary men and women in Kazakhstan who are opening up, with incredible energy and resourcefulness, the future for their fellow Kazakhstanis and others throughout Central Asia who desire a high-quality education.

Q: What is most memorable about your experiences there?

Bousquet: First, I was impressed by the place, the location—the geography of Central Eurasia and Kazakhstan in particular. A month earlier, I was in Eastern China. But going to Astana brought home for me the immensity of our world; Kazakhstan has barely 16 million people, but covers an area four times the size of Texas.

As I talked to people and looked around, I began to recognize that this is an extraordinary crossroads of the world, between Russia in the north (which has still a strong influence, such as the language), the West, the Middle East (particularly Turkey), and increasingly the Far East, with its long border with China. Another neighbor is Iran, with which Kazakhstan has a strong dialogue around issues of nuclear activities; Kazakhstan made a strong gesture when it became independent 20 years ago by renouncing all forms of nuclear armament and weapons testing.

In short, this is a fascinating area. In a globalizing world increasingly viewed as a network of geopolitical centers, Kazakhstan and Central Eurasia are becoming increasingly important. The United States has come to view Kazakhstan as a key partner in the region. Kazakhstan has made important strides in recent years, and it will be interesting to see how this country faces the challenges of economic, social, and political reform in the years ahead.

Second, I am impressed by the tremendous interest for this new university project. The partners were invited to a long press conference, with multiple local media and Kazakhstan’s largest TV station, which interviewed each of us individually, with genuine interest and pointed questions, such as: “Is there a department of philosophy in the new School of Humanities and Social Sciences?” Not yet, but students will get a strong foundation in the liberal arts, including courses on critical issues in the humanities, religion and history. The partners also met for nearly an hour with the prime minister, who listened as each partner gave a briefing on the development of NU and reiterated the vision behind this unprecedented investment in education.

My most vivid memory, however, was touring the new university’s main building and meeting eager students. I had multiple opportunities to talk with both undergraduates and graduate teaching assistants, including many who had earned their advanced degrees on U.S. campuses.

In the newly outfitted library, the head librarian proudly showed us the fresh-smelling shelves being filled with books ordered by the new faculty. The School of Humanities and Social Science, which did not exist a year ago, now has 15 faculty who have just signed multi-year contracts and several more about to do so. This library was designed with input from leaders in library science from UW–Madison, including one who is a legend in Central Eurasia.

I came across three students huddled around a large computer screen discussing mathematical formulas. One told me in excellent English how fortunate they felt being in this university and how excited they were that we had come to see it. With excitement in their eyes, they asked, “Will we be able to come to visit your university?” In short, yes, student exchange programs and faculty collaborations are part of our long-term plans for our relationship with Nazarbayev University.

Q: How does this initiative benefit UW–Madison students and faculty?

Bousquet: With the recent events that have mobilized our attention on and off campus, it’s understandable why someone might ask why we should be spending time and efforts elsewhere. My response is simple: By stepping outside of our familiar and contentious environment, we can get a better sense of the extraordinary reputation that UW-Madison enjoys around the world. Whether in China, in Central Eurasia, or anywhere else, the University of Wisconsin is regarded as one of the premier research universities on the planet.

It’s an incredible thrill to hear university leaders, World Bank officials, and government leaders, among others, introduce the University of Wisconsin-Madison as “a top 20 university in the world” and sense their knowledge and respect for our research powerhouse and the worldwide reputation of our faculty.

Our partners around the world—alumni, and leaders in education, business and government—look to us to educate not only smart graduates, but leaders who will have an impact and help change the world, like the thousands of UW graduates who have joined the Peace Corps over the decades. Our students and faculty continue to make a difference every day. Right now, we have dozens of interns, volunteers, researchers, scholars, and teachers sharing and advancing knowledge around the planet. To do this, we must step away from the confines of our campus.

With this initiative in Astana, our faculty already see the potential for cutting-edge research, notably in the social sciences in this complex, changing region of the world. In addition, Nazarbayev University is eager to offer our new Ph.D.’s opportunities to start their academic careers in an ambitious, well-funded setting. Our students of Russia and Central Eurasia in a range of disciplines, starting with language and culture, also will be welcomed in Astana.

Beyond academics, I think about the benefits that Wisconsin’s business community can derive from such relationship, capitalizing on the university’s close association with the state itself. Clearly, the University of Wisconsin’s increased visibility across the region and beyond, with World Bank officials and other international agencies associated with the Astana project, can lead to global opportunities for the state.

The fact that Kazakhstan’s deputy prime minister signed the initial relationship between UW–Madison and Nazarbayev University speaks to the importance of this connection. Like other world regions, Kazakhstan has made it a high priority to move from a resource-based economy to one based on knowledge and innovation. Central Eurasia is showing openness to investing abroad in advanced technologies. Meanwhile, technology transfer and innovation marks an important intersection where universities and businesses in Wisconsin can collaborate.

Deepening our academic connections in this region also contributes to developing the kind of talent necessary for our state to be a successful global player. This translates into economic growth and more job opportunities for our graduates at home and abroad, as well the people-to-people relationships that are essential for lasting peace and understanding.

View photos from the June 29-30, 2010 OSCE High-Level Conference on Tolerance and Non-Discrimination in Astana, Kazakhstan.