The AUK aims to establish itself as an institution with a reputation for excellence. How do you define excellence in the context of AUK’s strategic plans? At The American University of Kurdistan (AUK), excellence is defined in terms of our mission which is, I believe, one of the strongest and most powerful of any in higher education today. In part, the mission reads that AUK is committed to shaping leaders for local and regional communities by “offering quality education, research, and career-oriented programs . . . The University practices the highest standards of intellectual inquiry and scholarship . . . Academic freedom, equal opportunity, and unity in diversity are the hallmark components of AUK’s educational model.”

As I stated at our recent grand opening, an education at AUK is values-based. We will demonstrate excellence by creating a robust, challenging curriculum featuring innovative academic programs with performance indicators and student assessment outcomes clearly articulated. We are not just going to graduate students. We are going to graduate the future leaders of Kurdistan….the future leaders of the MENA region and of the world. Our students will enter a global society and to ensure their success we are going to internationalize our student body and our curriculum, eventually bringing to this campus the best and brightest students from throughout the Middle East, from Europe, from Asia, from the United States and beyond.

As the world grows increasingly smaller, internationalizing our curriculum is not only the smart thing to do, it is the right thing to do. We will ask that our students at AUK increase their knowledge of the cultures, traditions, religions, politics, and languages of all parts of the world. We will teach our students to be multi-cultural and tolerant of all races, creeds and political affiliations. This type of inclusive education is the best and the fastest way to combat extremist groups such as the so-called Islamic State… the best and fastest way to bring peace to our world.

What do you consider the most pressing issues for higher education in Kurdistan and how will the AUK respond to these issues? I would answer this question with two words: access and internationalization. Regarding access, I’m constantly surprised at the number of students who are denied any type of higher education in Kurdistan. Entry into programs is based entirely on test scores. Although in the United States, test scores are important, they are only part of the admissions process. Personal interviews, public service, work experience and volunteerism are all considered just as important as a test scores. Let’s say a young man or woman has a low test score but has worked as volunteer in a hospital for the past three years or has worked as a computer technician while going to high school. Shouldn’t those experiences be considered as well as a score on a single test? All students should have access to some type of education after high school. In the United States there are community colleges, vocational schools and more. Graduating from these kinds of institutions allows students to be prepared for the work force and to become productive citizens.

We will promote a spirit of inquiry by creating a multi-cultural, intergenerational, and highly accessible institution that values and nurtures an innovative, reflective and experiential approach to educational excellence.

The second pressing issue for higher education in Kurdistan is internationalization of the curriculum. We have to begin stressing the importance of the “education of the student as a whole person.” In other words, students need to graduate with employable work skills, for sure, but they also need to be holistically educated with skills in the humanities, sciences, mathematics, world history and more. They should possess knowledge of different cultures, religions, political systems, and have a deep understanding of current events. They should be encouraged to think creatively and independently; they need to be challenged to think for themselves, to think globally, as citizens of the world.

How will the AUK work toward improving the scientific research and critical-thinking skills of its students? I took this presidency after hearing the Chairman’s vision for the future of AUK. His Excellency Masrour Barzani envisions a strong, independent University that is recognized as an outstanding teaching and research institution. With that in mind, we will empower our students to think critically and to think for themselves. Again, as I said at our grand opening, we will challenge our students to effect personal, social, political and environmental change within a global context. We will promote a spirit of inquiry by creating a multi-cultural, intergenerational, and highly accessible institution that values and nurtures an innovative, reflective and experiential approach to educational excellence. Excellence in scientific research can be achieved by building lasting partnerships with business and industry as well as with other educational institutions on a local, regional, national and international basis. AUK has already begun to develop a strong international presence by building relationships with a wide range of colleges and universities. This will allow AUK to strengthen its research-based curriculum and, as a direct result, the critical-thinking skills of its students.

Can you brief our readers regarding AUK’s expansion strategy in the medium term? What are your targets and priorities in terms of opening new departments, research centers, and staff and student numbers for 2017 and beyond? We are in the process of developing a strategic plan that lists our goals and objectives for the current year and, then, for three- and five-years out. We are working hand-in-glove with the AUK Board of Trustees, the Minister of Higher Education, the Governor’s Office and many other private and public agencies to define our expansion strategy. We are starting small, with only four active departments including design, business and finance, politics and public policy, and computer science. However, we are conducting market research to determine the feasibility of starting programs in engineering, health sciences, international studies, education and arts and sciences. The normal structure for any university is to have various colleges that are then comprised of different departments. For example, we may eventually have a College of Engineering that could potentially house departments with architectural, agricultural, computer, and petroleum programs. We don’t want to start any program that doesn’t fulfill a real need in the region, such as nursing or teacher education. This new University won’t ever be as large as, say, the University of Duhok. It is unlikely that AUK will ever grow larger than 4,000 students. That is a very nice size because it allows you to have resources for truly innovative, outstanding programs but also to be able to give individual attention to your students.