April 2, 2002
Purdue faculty return from Afghanistan after fact-finding trip
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. The airport had no electricity and was littered with burned-out hulks of aircraft. The hotel rooms were riddled with bullet holes and had no hot water. The city was largely in ruin.
Yet, the optimism is apparent in Kabul, report three Purdue University professors just back from a weeklong fact-finding visit to Afghanistan. They are involved in an effort to help rebuild that nation's Kabul University, and possibly Afghanistan's entire system of higher education.
"I was really surprised by the level of destruction," said Kevin McNamara, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue. "Yet, students including women are flocking back to the university."
McNamara traveled to Kabul with Zarjon Baha, a professor of building construction management technology, and Dennis Engi, a professor and head of the School of Industrial Engineering. The trip was paid for with private gifts to Purdue.
The three faculty members met with Afghan government and education officials to assess the needs of a university that was devastated by years of civil war during the 1990s and the Taliban rule that followed. Buildings have been badly damaged and gutted by scavengers, who have removed electrical wiring and other valuable equipment and materials.
"The labs are either totally empty or they have equipment lying around in heaps, essentially unusable," Engi said.
Most of the university's faculty members do not have advanced degrees; textbooks and other educational materials are in scarce supply; and the curricula require serious attention. Add to those woes Kabul's overall condition, and higher education officials in Afghanistan will have their hands full rebuilding the university, the Purdue team reported.
"As we rolled down the runway, we could see burned-out hulks of airplanes that had been destroyed," said McNamara, who had lived in Afghanistan during the 1970s as a Peace Corps volunteer. "It's a very different place than it was 30 years ago."
He estimated the majority of residential buildings are in rubble. Mass transit and the nation's agricultural system are crippled.
Yet, academic life has re-emerged.
About 20,000 people have taken entrance exams for the next semester, and Kabul University officials expect to enroll 4,000 to 5,000 students. Many of the prospective students are women, who were forbidden from attending college under Taliban rule.
Baha, a former engineering dean at Kabul University, stressed that Afghanistan's government and educational institutions must be restored if the nation is to achieve true stability. Restoring higher education in Afghanistan will aid in the fight against terrorism by helping to improve the quality of life and the economy.
The three professors met with Afghanistan's minister of higher education Sherief Fayez, and other officials and faculty from six schools within Kabul University.
"Because the facilities are so badly damaged, that creates an interesting challenge," Baha said. "How do you rebuild? Do you build traditional laboratories and facilities, or do you consider some of the more modern techniques in computer modeling and simulation? This will be a challenge to our university and many others that may get interested in this project."
The Purdue professors said they were warmly received by the Afghan people, who are eager for change after years of oppression.
Baha, Engi and McNamara will meet this week with other Purdue faculty. Next, they will confer with Afghan expatriates, with whom they had consulted before the trip, and then prepare a proposal for rebuilding Kabul University and higher education in Afghanistan. The proposal will be submitted to national and international funding sources.
Restoring the university will take tens of millions of dollars and require the creation of a large consortium of American universities made up primarily of land-grant institutions, the professors said.
However, aid to Kabul University shouldn't have to wait entirely until a comprehensive plan is approved.
"We have to do something now," Engi said. "We can't wait six months. Some of the things they are asking for can happen with little or no cost. We have the expertise and ability to address some of the minister of higher education's immediate concerns."
For example, Purdue faculty can help create an Internet site for Kabul University and begin drawing up plans for integrating the city's polytechnic institute with the university. The technical institute has been operated by Russian educators and primarily teaches vocational education. Combining the two institutions will provide two technology tracks: one geared toward learning a trade and the other toward earning a five-year engineering degree.
The Purdue team was the first group to visit Afghanistan for the purpose of meeting with the minister of higher education and the Kabul University faculty.
Fayez signed an agreement in February to work with Purdue in rebuilding Kabul University. The agreement provides the impetus for Purdue to seek funding from federal and international agencies to aid in the rebuilding mission.
This recent visit and previous meetings with Afghan officials and others mark the beginning of an effort that could take a decade to achieve. The rebuilding plan will focus on three schools within the university: agriculture, engineering and technology.
Purdue has a long history of "institution building," or creating educational institutions from scratch, in Africa and South America. Purdue faculty and their peers at several other American universities were instrumental in developing the engineering program at Kabul University during the 1960s and 1970s.
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