A Dream Unfolds

Amit Chakma isn’t going home.

Speaking during the waning days of the fall semester, in the grips of a strangling cold, The University of Western Ontario president made it clear his upcoming trip to Bangladesh would be no homecoming. In fact, even though his journey halfway around the globe drops him less than 100 kms from his boyhood home, he has no plans to visit.

This mission, he intimates, is not about the past.

Later this month, Chakma joins dozens of international leaders in a landmark visit to the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Chittagong, Bangladesh. The highlight will be a three-day symposium held in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Jan. 20-22. Entitled “Imagining Another Future for Asia,” the symposium brings together students, scholars and global leaders to focus on four key themes confronting Asia: governance, poverty, environment and security. Among his duties, Chakma will sit as an expert panelist for a session, “In Pursuit of Excellence with Equity: Another Pathway for Higher Education.”

Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, and Cherie Blair, a leading human rights lawyer and wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, serve as co-chairs for the event.

The trip marks a watershed moment in Chakma’s presidency. He travels not as Western’s CEO or Fundraiser in Chief, but as an invited guest who embodies the opportunity offered to the students by AUW.

Even though he’ll lightly protest to the contrary, listening to him speak of his destination, you sense this isn’t a regular trip for the president.

“I get inspired at this. This is a dream that is unfolding before my eyes that I myself would not have believed it,” Chakma says. “The notion is that one day they’ll become change agents, go into their communities and transform them. I find the power of that dream to be so attractive personally.”

While Chakma may not feel he’s going home, in the end, where he comes from shaped every step of where he has gone. And it’s that journey event organizers see as offering hope and an unseen-until-now inspiration to the students of AUW.

* * *

Kamal Ahmad knows how to bring people together.

Part academic, part evangelist, part salesman, the AUW founder and acting vice chancellor has circled the globe generating support for his vision. Those who meet with him speak of his willingness to go the extra mile – literally – to lay the groundwork for a stronger university.

“A university’s success is in its ability to attract the best people – students, faculty, administrators,” Ahmad says. “When you get the word out that helps capture the attention of those who are talented. No knowledge centre isolated in itself can succeed.”

AUW’s genesis grew out of a World Bank/UNESCO task force on education. To Ahmad, the report, issued in 2000, was “a wake-up call about ignoring higher education in developing countries.”

Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise did not offer universal, step-by-step instructions for reforming higher education. It sought only to create a dialogue and spur innovation around the central thesis that higher education was no longer a luxury; it was essential to national social and economic development.

Ahmad not only understood that message, he lived it. He grew up in Bangladesh, but was educated at Harvard University and the University of Michigan Law School. He parlayed his opportunity into success. Now he wants to bring that same opportunity home to the struggling region.

“If you are to bring about changes in the societies, one of the most critical factors is leadership. So we are concerned with how to grow leaders,” he says.

Thanks to his efforts, the Parliament of Bangladesh ratified the AUW Charter, the first document of its kind in the region, in September 2006. For the 2010-2011 academic year, AUW’s students represent 13 countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Iran, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Palestine, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

“By bringing women from 13 counties, we are hoping to grow a network of extraordinarily powerful women well-positioned to bring about necessary change,” he says.

The university, comprised mainly of first-generation university students, sits at the epicenter of the problems it attempts to solve. “We are located where the challenges speak more loudly than anywhere else. You cannot live in a place like Chittagong and not be conscious of the challenges around us,” Ahmad says.

Poverty. Environment. Public health. The challenges he lists seem almost insurmountable. But Ahmad sees the steepness of the climb as part of the attraction. “For a smart people committed to change, these are exciting problems to be solved,” he continues. “Part of the tragedy of the developing world is that much of the knowledge of the world globally has been devoted to a small minority of the world. The issues of poor people require the attention of the best minds.”

AUW leases facilities in downtown Chittagong for academic spaces, administrative offices and student residences. However, the Parliament of Bangladesh has donated 130 acres of land to AUW for a permanent campus. Construction began in September 2010. As part of his visit, Chakma will tour the new facility.

“I can see the difference, not only did I see it in my family but in villages, the kind of difference women make. From that point of view, I know this institution is going to make a difference. I can just see the impact,” Chakma says. “Take 100 women graduating from the university going back to 100 different communities. What a power that will be.”

This effort has not been a one-man job.

Ahmad has managed to capture the imagination of globally prominent individuals and institutions. These people have then helped further the success of the institution. His reach crosses all ideologies. For example, sitting on his Council of Patrons are both Italian politician Emma Bonino, a member of that country’s Radical Party, and Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Secretary of State under George W. Bush. Not normal bedfellows unified under the AUW cause.
All because, as Ahmad argues, there are larger issues than politics at play.

“Women’s education in places like Afghanistan will lead more to the success of those nations than the battalions being sent,” he says.

* * *

Chakma knows this story well.

Like the young students who will hear him speak later this month, he has lived their challenges, seen their concerns.

“Women in many, many developing countries play important roles. You can see it in villages, in households. When you have women with some level of education, good things happen,” he stresses.

At this point, Chakma cannot help but reflect on his own upbringing by a schoolteacher mother. He speaks about her efforts to make good things happen in his home, and how she made sure her children embraced education. She was serious and strict, but supportive in every possible way.

“She followed our movement every step of the way. When needed, she would be tough. She would make sure we would fall in line, but at the same time, I never felt I lacked anything because of that power of her love and affective and caring nature,” he says. “That made up for the toughness she may have demonstrated in making sure we did what we needed to do.”

Chakma didn’t necessarily enjoy it at the time. Upon finishing examinations, he would often come home to more questions than he faced in the classroom. “I would be subject to a series of interrogations,” he laughs, almost nervously, at the thought.

Even as the subject matter went beyond her own education, his mother didn’t stop pushing. “It was a challenge for her, but nevertheless the questioning didn’t stop.”

But it was that constant push Chakma credits with his passion for learning today.

In AUW, Chakma sees just the ‘push’ the region needs.

“Some of the challenges those communities face, women take the brunt of those challenges related to poverty, related to discrimination, related to strong, conservative beliefs. Women are discriminated against, if not directly, then indirectly, and they are challenged every step of the way,” he says. “Therefore strong leadership from women becomes critical for these communities to succeed. The best way of dealing is through educational opportunities.”

* * *

It’s hard to explain the trip in terms of direct, immediate impact for Western. In fact, Chakma doesn’t try.

This trip represents something far different for this university, a major appearance for its president on the international stage as an embodiment of Western and the possibilities of higher education.

“He is a symbol of many things, in essence our core idea that talent is everywhere,” Ahmad says of Chakma. “He is a source of inspiration to us and our students. He shows our students the world of higher education is borderless, talents more from one place to another. Amit is the perfect friend to join us in these celebrations. I hope there is a bit of a sense of homecoming as well.”

Ahmad also sees benefits in hosting the president of a major Canadian university.

“When we think of Canada perhaps more than any society, we think of them as hugely engaged in the problems of the developing world,” Ahmad says. “We are hoping Canada will take a leadership role in women’s education across the globe.”

As the lone Canadian academic in attendance, this group offers Chamka a unique opportunity and audience, one perhaps not entirely familiar with Western. “I doubt that Cherie Blair knows about Western now. But I’ll make sure that she knows about Western after this trip,” he laughs reflecting on his “flag-waving activity” for the university. But you get the feeling he is serious. As part of Chakma’s reason for accepting the invitation, raising the profile of Western in minds of global academic and social leaders is key.

But it’s also about building long-term relationships.

Chakma first heard of AUW while hosting a tour of Dutch university presidents at the University of Waterloo. “I was very excited about it,” Chakma says. “But I just left it there, parked it there. And then when my appointment here (Western) was announced, because of the publicity it received, the founder of the university (AUW) contacted me. He said this is where we are, can I come and meet with you and share our dreams for this university.”

Only at Waterloo for a few months more, Chakma promised to contact Ahmad after he discovered what he was working with at Western.

“I found a Faculty of Education that has interest in outreach activities. I found our Women’s Studies program to be a progressive program. And a few other pieces,” he says. “So I said maybe, just maybe, we have some interest here.”

Chamka invited Ahmad for a visit. That meeting, like so many others Ahmad has taken before and after it, planted the seeds of a partnership.

“I really like Western to be a part of this because after all we’re in the business of education. And we know education makes a difference in the lives of many,” Chakma says. “The notion of helping the rest of the world through education is just such an attractive notion, such a powerful notion. I cannot think of any other activity that one can contemplate that would have more impact.”

But going into this trip, he doesn’t quite know what that partnership would look like. However, both he and Ahmad speak of Stanford University’s alliance with AUW as a perfect blueprint.

Richard Saller, Humanities and Sciences dean, spearheads the program for Stanford University and sits on the AUW International Council of Advisors.

He was introduced to AUW through Thomas and Janet Montag, Stanford donors. Janet, who serves on the AUW Support Foundation board of directors, passed AUW materials to Saller the first time they met. Soon afterward, Ahmad visited and spent an hour selling Saller and his Stanford colleagues on AUW. And it worked.

“It struck me that they don’t want this to be a ‘School for Poor Girls.’ This gives it a kind of patina that makes it more attractive,” Saller says. “By the time they graduate, these women will have a network that is useful to them.”

Now one year into the partnership, Stanford annually sponsors two postdoc fellowships for their scholars to work and teach on the AUW campus. One has gone and returned; a second is still there; a third is being advertised for currently.

In addition to the teaching agreement, Stanford has invited 25 AUW rising juniors to attend a month-long summer school on the California campus. The program features coursework, a lecture series on women and leadership as well as writing workshops. It is this opportunity to expose AUW students directly to Stanford and North American higher education that excites Saller.

“I am looking forward to this opportunity this summer,” he says. “Having a conversation with these students about a very different cultural experience is particularly exciting to me.”

If these are the types of opportunities Chakma will seek, or if he wants to get creative in another direction, he’ll have a willing partner in AUW.

“The need,” Ahmad reminds us of the institution still in its infancy, “is in virtually every area.”

* * *

When he spoke in late December, Chakma had yet to put pen to paper.

Still a month away from his visit, he expected to sit down and think through his remarks after weather cancellations and holidays were in his rearview mirror. During that point of eventual reflection, where he would put down his message to the students of AUW, Chakma couldn’t help but anticipate some emotions to rise up.

He just didn’t know when they would come.

“Maybe when I’m writing that, maybe then emotions come through,” he says. “But I am pretty sure when I deliver it. I can just close my eyes and see the potential of this place. So when that excitement shows up I am pretty sure there’ll be some emotions.”

But for a man who insists no homecoming awaits him in Bangladesh, viewing this trip not as a visit to the past, but a glimpse into his – and Western’s – future, Chakma isn’t sure from where those emotions will generate.

“Yes, there’ll be some emotions. So whether it is related to going to my native country, I am not quite sure,” he says. “I have broken through that national boundary many years back. So there will be more emotion with respect to the power of what this idea can be.

“Seeing those students will, hearing their stories, I think that will be definitely an emotional journey to visualize their hopes.”