At Astana’s Nazarbayev University, Vice Dean of Research of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences Elizabeth Van Wie Davis and the rest of its diverse international staff are pulling together to build something new – “the national Kazakh university,” as she describes it. The school, which has been tasked with developing a new, Kazakh identity, is being created much as the nation around it is – by a growing team of people from dozens of countries, with dozens of different backgrounds, working toward a goal they are defining as they go.
In a move that echoes Kazakhstan’s multivector foreign policy, Nazarbayev University (NU) has chosen to solicit a number of international partners, rather than just one. This is in keeping with the university’s mission to develop its own identity, Davis said in an interview in her campus office on last spring. “We’re looking at a series of partners, and they’re bringing in a diversity of experience, a diversity of suggestions, curriculum focuses, philosophies, all of it. [This is] helping Nazarbayev University, certainly, along the road of becoming an international university … and the idea of course is that we’re developing our own unique, Kazakh identity.”
“It’s exciting,” Davis said. Gesturing to her window, which looks out on one building and the skeleton of another, she said, “It’s literally growing. When I started here in August, that building was not there! There was a construction site there, there were concrete pillars, but there was no building. And now it’s not only a building, it’s got three schools in it! It’s just amazing.”
Within the complex of mushrooming buildings is a diverse faculty and student body that are growing as well, and which Davis calls the university’s greatest strength and greatest challenge. “I have forgotten how many countries we have represented here – I want to say it’s something like 83; it’s a ridiculously large number of different nation-states that are represented at NU. And then when you look at our Bolashak [winners of scholarships to study overseas] as well – they didn’t all go to the U.K., they went everywhere.”
The methods, interests and points of view thus gathered represent a varied palette of options for developing the university, the vice dean says. “It can be a source of frustration: ‘I’m used to doing things this way and now I have to recognize that there’s this whole other series of options.’ But the opposite side of the coin is that this is our strength. … It is a real positive driver in creativity, in coming up with new ways to do things, better ways to do things, more and more options.”
The challenge, of course, is not to let all the options lead to chaos. Davis says so far, they’ve avoided that. “We don’t always do it right and we don’t always do it perfectly. … [But] we’re always conscious of the fact that we are building something for a specific people, for a specific purpose, in a specific place. Now, of course, Kazakhstan itself in some ways is recreating itself, so it’s not always crystal clear exactly what that is, but we really understand our purpose.”
Developing – and Developing Relationships
This year’s undergraduates have one more option to continue at NU: they’ll be able to apply for the graduate program in economics, which Davis and the team have just finished. Work
began on the program in September; by March, it was done, she said. Now, just weeks after finishing, she says they’re already looking ahead two or three years to what the Nazarbayev University Ph.D. in Economics would look like.
And though the ink is barely dry on the new master’s degree program she helped create, Davis already has another project going: launching the new China Studies Center at NU, which was approved the day before this interview. Davis’s background is in Asian and particularly Chinese studies – in addition to other publications, she’s the author of three books and numerous articles on Chinese development and foreign policy. The China Studies Center will bring together even more parts of her career and is in some ways a more exciting development personally, she said.
“Kazakhstan is very important to China. It’s clear everywhere you go,” she said – and it could hardly fail to be, as a major energy producer and a country linked with China in countless ways. “And the Kazakh government, of course, recognizes this, but they want to – like the educational process – they want to have a very deliberate, thought-out relationship with their giant neighbor to the east,” Davis said.
Kazakhstan wants to be measured about the way the relationship develops, Davis said. “There’s every reason to believe that this will be a relationship that has to grow, that has to expand, and I actually admire Kazakhstan for wanting to control the pace at which this happens. But it will definitely happen. That’s one of the reasons for the creation of the China Studies Center, to make sure this happens but in a thoughtful, well-researched kind of way.”
Davis’s past and present work is also connected through the Colorado School of Mines (CSM), where she worked for the five years before coming to Nazarbayev University. CSM is now establishing a partnership agreement with Nazarbayev University.
Oil, gas and minerals extraction are very important parts of Kazakhstan’s economy, and CSM has one of the top petroleum engineering programs in the world, Davis noted. “They’ll come and start with a graduate program and eventually establish an undergraduate program here to work on geology, petroleum engineering and mining engineering, to set up some of those programs here and to work with some of the existing extractive industries here.”
CMS brings an international and community-based perspective to extraction, she said. “They’re very interested in issues of sustainability, working with communities that already exist in the area and that will exist in the area.” Kazakhstan has suffered terrible environmental devastation in its past, Davis notes, and there is a drive to ensure that extractive industries work in the country in a way that is minimally destructive.
Expanding Under Observation
The university’s constant, rapid expansion is being watched over by a quality assurance committee, Davis notes, and while there is a drive to be developing all the time, maintaining the university’s standards is extremely important. Nazarbayev University has joined the EU’s Bologna Process, a series of voluntary intergovernmental agreements aimed at ensuring that higher education qualifications are comparable across member states. NU’s quality assurance committee’s job “is to make sure that we’re creating degrees that are in keeping with international degrees,” Davis said. The idea is that soon, an NU degree will raise no more questions than a degree from a leading European university.
In designing degrees, Davis and the team have two objectives. “One is to make sure that our graduates from the master’s degree could go on and do a Ph.D. anywhere in Europe, Australia, the United States, Canada, and that they’d be prepared to be competitive in this forum. Then the other is to make sure that … the Bolashak students who have already gotten an undergraduate degree abroad … can come into our master’s program and not feel like anything is being dumbed down for them or anything else. So we’re trying to make sure, coming in and going out, that they feel like they’re in a program that would exist [overseas].”
There are also other international checks on the school’s programs and students. The new economics degree, for example, was reviewed and given feedback by the former head of the economics program at the Colorado School of Mines and the head of applied economics at the University of Wisconsin, NU’s partner in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, as it was being developed, Davis said. There are also two requirements of international involvement in the new program: there must be an external member on the graduate admissions committee and an international faculty member on each thesis committee. A professor at Duke University will be the one to review new applicants, she reported.
“We’re constantly checking quality control,” Davis said. “Are we perfect? No, we’re not. Is it getting better year by year? I can tell you – I started in August, so I’m on month seven now, and I can see in seven months the changes, day by day. Just like you can see Astana grow. … We’re seeing at this university such rapid growth, but we’re really concerned about quality control, because the project doesn’t succeed if we’re not doing the quality control work.”
In the end, she says, at a university with a stated goal of sending and receiving students from overseas, you can’t hide from quality control issues: either NU’s graduates will be prepared for and accepted into the international programs they apply for, or they won’t. This year, the undergraduate program’s first cohort graduated in mid-June – a telling moment for the school and the staff. “There was a lot of tension to see where is our first undergraduate graduating class, where are they going to get into? And partly it’s because we’re excited for them and we love them and care about them, but partly it’s to see, ‘Did we hit the benchmarks? Are we good enough that our students can go on to graduate programs abroad?’ … We’ve gotten back early returns and so far we look like we’re good!” Davis reported.
The stress and intensity and noise of such a determinedly growing university may not be for everyone, Davis says, but for people with the right temperament, it’s a thrill. “For us, the exciting part is to come to a place that is determinedly recreating itself and, from my perspective, having been in academia my whole life, recognizing that education is a fundamental part of this.” Kazakhstan is looking at its next generation, she says, and trying to make sure they are internationally competitive. “The mission to help create international-class education in Kazakhstan is such a powerful mission, and it really drives us. It takes all of our different countries and all of our different experiences and all of our different Kazakh Bolashak returnees and pushes us all together to make what is going to be Nazarbayev University. So it’s .. fun!”