MESSAGE OF MERIT In Azerbaijan, Sabic-El-Rayess sought to

MESSAGE OF MERIT In Azerbaijan, Sabic-El-Rayess sought to "carefully initiate conversations on moving higher education to a less corrupt and more merit-based model.”

The Republic of Azerbaijan, which sits between Russia and Iran on the Caspian Sea, is a dictatorship with an elite ruling class. Corruption is widespread in its higher education system, with promotions and grades often obtained via bribery and “favor reciprocation” rather than merit.

So why would the government invite Amra Sabic-El-Rayess – an authority on how corruption in academia strengthens anti-democratic ruling elites and fosters the resentment of those excluded from the mutual back-scratching – to come speak to the heads of some of its biggest universities?

“I’m someone who was educated in socialist Yugoslavia, who has experienced discrimination and ethnic persecution by virtue of being Muslim yet who has adapted well to the American and Western system of higher education. That gives me the legitimacy and credibility to deliver a message that might be resented if I lacked those experiences.”
—Amra Sabic-El-Rayess

“Azerbaijan, as one of the world’s first oil producers, has been dependent on oil as its main source of revenue for a very long time,” says Sabic-El-Rayess, Associate Professor of Practice in TC’s Department of Education Policy & Social Analysis. “Most recently, the country has used oil revenues to fuel its economic transformation in the early 1990s, leading to a significant poverty reduction. But, with oil prices in steep decline, the country needs to transform again and equip a new generation with the skills to develop other industries, such as tourism, agriculture, transportation and logistics – and education is critical to making that happen.” At the same time, the U.S. State Department, which arranged for Sabic-El-Rayess to make the trip, sees Azerbaijan as a key player in the region and is anxious to exert continuing influence there.

Then, too, Sabic-El-Rayess, who fled her native Bosnia during the violence that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia, was a logical choice for other reasons.

“I’m someone who was educated in socialist Yugoslavia, who has experienced discrimination and ethnic persecution by virtue of being Muslim, yet who has adapted well to the American and Western system of higher education. That gives me the legitimacy and credibility to deliver a message that might be resented if I lacked those experiences,” says Sabic-El-Rayess, whose name was put forward by a former student of hers who was a top Azerbaijani higher education official.

[Read a story in The Columbia Journalism Review, prominently featuring Sabic-El-Rayess, on how immigration reporting overlooks women.]

Sabic-El-Rayess knew that, in delivering her lectures, she “needed to carefully initiate conversations on moving higher education to a less corrupt and more merit-based model.”  Many of the discussions she participated in focused on the kinds of changes necessary to lessen corruption in higher education institutions and improve the skills and degrees that universities would need to offer to support Azerbaijan’s ambitious economic agenda. She never made the assumption that any of her listeners were themselves participants in corruption, and was careful to use examples of corrupt practices drawn from her research conducted in other nations.  Still, in one institution during her first day in the country, a top official rose after she had finished speaking and told others in the room that unless they addressed the problems Sabic-El-Rayess was describing, the nation would make no progress.

“I think Azerbaijan's interest is driven by economics. But then again, change often is.”
—Amra Sabic-El-Rayess

Sabic-El-Rayess had some other encounters that served as disturbing reminders of political tensions back home. Her appearances were widely publicized in the Azerbaijani press, and at one point she was scheduled to be photographed with the American ambassador. But the session was canceled when the ambassador, an Obama appointee, abruptly retired from his job, leaving the United States with no senior diplomatic presence there.

Overall, Sabic-El-Rayess believes her trip was a success, though she has no illusions about what success ultimately signifies.

“If you look at Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to allow women to drive, that’s not coming from being more progressive or enlightened,” she says. “It’s driven by the realization that you can’t depend on oil wealth, and that to capitalize on other industries, you need women, because they make up half the labor force. So I think Azerbaijan's interest is driven by economics. But then again, change often is.” – Joe Levine