Weathering a Soros storm

February 19, 1999

James Sadkovich describes his disillusion with the management of the American University in Bulgaria

Named after the founder of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Blagoevgrad is a small town tucked into the Struma river valley south of Sofia. Home to the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Org-anisation until King Boris suppressed it in the 1930s, it hosts the American University in Bulgaria, an institution funded by George Soros and the United States Agency for International Development, and sponsored by the University of Maine.

AUBG's classrooms and administrative offices are in the former regional Communist Party headquarters, brooding over the town's main square. Its students are drawn from the region's best high-school graduates. They all speak and write English well and have salvaged the reputation of the university with their intelligence, ingenuity and hard work.

I had accepted a position as an associate professor of history and arrived in Blagoevgrad on the heels of a storm that had blown down trees and left the streets littered with debris. In the aftermath, I was not too dismayed to be housed in a student dorm, whose rugs were filthy and whose narrow rooms students shared with cockroaches from the restaurant below. The restaurant played loud music well past midnight and the small bathroom stank after a summer drought had dictated severe water rationing.

Still, I was optimistic. The square was impressive, the mall pleasant, the prices absurdly affordable for an American, and the promise of helping to mould a new institution attractive.

My office was being used to store materials while other offices were finished. The books for my courses had not arrived. Like the eight boxes of books I had sent for the library, they had been delayed or lost. The weekend before the beginning of term I was the only staff member without an office and my family were about to be kicked out of the dormitory to make way for students.

It was not an auspicious beginning. But the problem was neither Bulgaria nor Blagoevgrad. Put simply, AUBG's administration had done little to assure our well-being. When I mentioned this to the US ambassador, his comment was instructive. My marine guard is treated better than full professors at AUBG, he said. But even though USAID was funding the university, he would not intervene because he did not want to micro-manage the institution.

My arrival just after a storm was symbolic, because I found AUBG itself in a tempest. The university had gone through four presidents and a succession of deans and provosts in three years- by the time I left, the count was up to six or seven, both interim and permanent.

The dean who had hired me in March did not survive long enough to greet me.

He had been moved to another administrative post and an interim dean had been appointed. My first six months were consumed by the question of whether this dean would become permanent. She was appointed to a four-year term in an acrimonious process that polarised staff and put me on the wrong side of the administration - I had been the other recommended candidate.

Several people began to check the dean's CV, which the president apparently had not done. She had only one PhD, zero publications, not the four claimed, and she had no major papers. The president let her stay on until summer and then resign, alarming staff who thought they were on her hit-list. The majority of staff demanded, and the president reluctantly agreed to, her immediate resignation.

Everyone assumed it was I who had checked the dean's background - I had asked a friend to check after learning others were doing so as well, and written to Soros and USAID, in the vain hope something might be done to reestablish something like a normal atmosphere. But someone else had exposed the dean. Nevertheless my position as persona non grata with the administration was reinforced.

I spent two more years at AUBG, helping to write a faculty handbook, sitting on committees, chairing one or two, advising student organisations, playing at local charity concerts, organising a student-faculty musical group, going to conferences, writing, and teaching as many as 155 students a term. But there was never any question that my three-year contract would be renewed despite a petition requesting my retention signed by about two-thirds of the student body.

The independent student newspaper published a long article questioning whether there was any democracy at AUBG, an institution ostensibly established to teach liberal Western values.

The official student paper also raised questions, but obliquely, because two of the staff most loyal to the president oversaw its publication. The student representative labelled AUBG "the last bastion of communism in Bulgaria" and called for the resignations of provost and president. A student protest temporarily halted registration and forced the president to fend off embarrassing questions regarding hiring and firing criteria and high faculty turnover.

None of this really mattered. In my last year - for the first time - the administration mustered a majority of votes in the faculty assembly, the result of years of weeding out staff whose views did not coincide with the president's.

The tragedy is not so much that the administration won or that faculty lost, but that the students and Western values lost. Students learned three things: keep your head down, your mouth shut and get whatever you can - scholarships, work study, recommendations. For them, not much had changed.

James J. Sadkovich was associate professor of history at the American University in Bulgaria.

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