Interview with Kamal Ahmad

Kamal Ahmad and Women@SCS Undergraduate Elizabeth Kemp

Women@SCS interviewed Kamal Ahmad, President and CEO of the Asian University for Women Support Foundation and guest speaker at a joint TechBridgeWorld/Women@SCS event.

1. When did you become interested in being a leader in higher education for women in Asia? Was this a gradual interest from much earlier in your life?

I don’t think I am a leader in higher education. If you’re asking when I became interested, that probably goes back several years. I’ve always believed education was a key instrument of change. I grew up in a society where every day you see half of the population is not recognized for its full worth. I became involved in the late 1990’s in a study on higher education in developing countries. After a while the study ended and I asked others, “What can we do with what we’ve learned… Do we stop now? Or do we do something with what we’ve learned?”

Much of the idea for the university came from a series of talk-fests in that study. I talked with a lot of people on it for several years afterwards, while still working as a lawyer. Then I switched to working on the university full-time and started a group in Boston to mobilize people and resources around the world for this university.

2. Were you involved in being a leader early on, even as an undergrad?

I grew up in Bangladesh in a time when the country suffered from civil war. The country was devastated from both man-made and natural catastrophes. I grew up in a family of educators so there was a constant search on how to address the problems one encounters every day. I set up my first education project when I was thirteen or fourteen, a school for children who worked as domestic help. It was my first taste of this sort of program.

Resistance from community was the first challenge. The schools became very popular; children came in to get basic literacy training. Those who employed these children as domestic help, when we asked them about their support for this program, said “Yes,” that they would let the children go to the school. However, a lot of people don’t really want to give up their child domestic helpers for 2 hours every day so those children can get basic literacy.

Children still kept coming and learning. This program showed that even with limited resources, you could get people together to do something that needed to be done. The fact that I was thirteen didn’t matter.

3. What makes Chittagong, Bangladesh an effective location for running a university? What has been taken into consideration, in terms of the location of the university?

The decision to locate it in was not entirely ours. We made an agreement with the Bangladeshi government. We would build if the government were to ratify a special charter with two main points: to give the university the freedom to pursue any academic objectives without discrimination, and to donate at least 100 acres of land on which we would build on, land that is close to an international airport. Reasonably, Chittagong is the only major city in Bangladesh with 100 contiguous acres of land still available for development. We think it is a good place because even though it is an urban setting, it is close to rural areas so you get the quietness and space that is conducive to thought and study. On the other hand, Chittagong is also a city without a lot of infrastructure – the electricity, water, and gas are not reliable. So when we build this campus it’s not just a campus; it’s a whole town. We’re building water filtration, water treatment, and electricity. That’s a reason why it’s taking longer to build. Our projection is that we’ll take seven years to build, bit by bit. We could probably build faster, but we do not have all of the money upfront, so we are building as we get the funding. As more students come we’ll get to the next phase. Full-scale construction starts in 2009. Site planning has been happening so far, and there are security and staff already.

4. Why did just the agreement to build the university take so long?

I’m not sure why it took so long to make the agreement. Anything new, out of the ordinary, I think, is suspect. We were in negotiation with many different parts of the government and ultimately with the parliament itself. Ultimately, though, we got enormous support as demonstrated at the official land grand ceremony. The long arm of the government reaches into everything. The prime minister was coming. There was actually a U.S. congressional in town. The night before, we got a call that the community really wanted to come and see where the university would be built. Over 15,000 people came for the opening ceremony, lining up around the ridges around the hill to see this event. This happened, after the long lengthy process to get the charter through the parliament. The government is very used to getting into everything so having them say they will stay out of the university was difficult. But in the end, we got a unanimous vote.

5. What is your vision for the university’s demographics within the next ten years, with regards to the number of students, as well as the backgrounds of the students and faculty recruited?

In the next 10 years the university will hopefully be at its full enrollment of approximately 3000 students. Demographically, the goal is first of all on the economic side; half of the students will be from families who have never sent children to college before. The determinant is that half of students would be first generation university entrances, so their parents have not been to college. The other half of students would come from any station in life. In terms of country, 25% must be from Bangladesh. The other 75% are predominantly from South and Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Pakistan and India. Over the next 7 years the students will also come from West Asia, and the Middle East. We are open to refugees from anywhere in the world.

6. What language will you be using as communication, since your students will be from so many countries?

The medium of instruction is English. Those who do not know English well enough come a year early and go through intensive English program.

7. Do you expect older students to be enrolled?

One of the things we’ve discovered is that poor families start kids so late that they graduate so late from high school. The ages are 17 to 25 in the access academy, the prep course. We have designed our campus to accommodate single mothers, so we expect more mature students, even students who may have children. What happens is that the divorced women have the freedom to come to the university, so they have the liberty to opt for going away. The question is who takes care of their babies. Our university will have a child care center for these mothers.

8. Are all of the faculty members at the university going to be women?

It’s important to have role models of women leadership. The leadership of the university is all women right now, so for 18 year olds entering the university the most important person is a woman – to have a brilliant woman teacher is important. Our intention is that the faculty will be mixed, in order to get the best faculty.

9. Annual tuition at the Asian University, though much lower than typical college tuition here in the U.S., is still unaffordable by most students in the area. How are you and the community helping to get underprivileged students through higher education?

Our notion is that those who can afford to pay will have to pay. As for those who cannot pay, we will be sure not to be imposing any hardship on them. We often tell them that it doesn’t matter if they have shoes or no shoes. 130 students so far, who could not afford much, have been provided travel, clothing, stipend, and all tuition. It wouldn’t be possible for them otherwise. This is a challenge. Much of what I have to do every day is trying to raise money, because there are no other options – you can’t set up a center of excellence without a constant source of support. Fortunately, there is an emerging consciousness for women; we feel the responsiveness for building such a place may be emerging. We have a foundation with networks in the UK, Australia, Hong Kong, and a center in the US. It’s a global effort to rally support for this university.

10. How has the public received the mission and visions of the new university? Are there both avid supporters and avid opponents?

I think any new project is bound to have some objectors because it introduces a new set of dynamics – in the economy, for example. We’ve had some opposition from Islamic fundamentalist groups, because we are introducing the concept of a women’s liberal arts education with so many internationals. Surprisingly we have also had opposition from progressive radicalists, who argue that a women-only college is a throwback in modern times. By and large, we’ve been fortunate to have so much support.

11. How have challenges in your previous education and work experience prepared you for being a successful leader?

I have held 2 types of jobs – international development jobs, and being a lawyer. Having worked with world banks, and the UN, helps to give me understanding of how these institutions work. The other job is a corporate lawyer in mergers and acquisitions, and that helps with the legal things, such as contracts, and deals with government. There are significant legal implications from the charter, from negotiations with the government, to everyday contracts.

12. You have way over the number of needed applicants. What does this show?

It shows: number 1, the dearth of opportunities. Also it shows people have a lot more courage than we thought. For a girl in Pakistan to hear about it and say “I’m going to Chittagong,” is a big thing. But they are doing it, and doing it with the full commitment. Only 2 students have left in 6 months – one just decided she wanted to go to medical school.

It also shows how people spread the word by mouth. Sometimes it’s an aunt and sometimes it’s a teacher who persuades students to go. There’s an outreach country coordinator in every country from which we are recruiting, responsible for applications, which involve an entrance exam and interviews. Then they help successful applicants handle passports, visas, and inoculations.

13. What places in the world have you visited?

I’ve been to Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka in the process of recruitment effort. We have an admissions director who travels more extensively.

14. What is the intended student to faculty ratio?

Classes are very small. We have about a 1 to 10 faculty/student ratio. Computer science is one of the big elements even though it’s liberal arts.

15. How is Asian University, technologically, at the moment?

Teaching is quite different – we need to teach early in morning while there is light, since we only use chalkboards. We have managed to have decent internet with decent bandwidth. Obviously technology makes a difference but the most important thing is the human contact. This is a project that can’t be done through internet because of the chemistry of people interacting directly.