President David Huwiler: AUBG Is Among the Most Diverse Universities in the World, Including USA

Bulgaria-US Survey » EDUCATION | Author: Valeriya Krasteva |November 23, 2010, Tuesday // 18:36
Bulgaria: President David Huwiler: AUBG Is Among the Most Diverse Universities in the World, Including USA AUBG President, David Huwiler. Photo by AUBG

Exclusive interview of (Sofia News Agency) with the President of the American University in Bulgaria, David Huwiler, for Novinite's "International Survey Bulgaria-USA."

Dr. David Huwiler has been the President of AUBG since 2007. He has an outstanding background combining experience in the US higher education and leadership in American Universities abroad.

Prior to coming to AUBG, he served as the first board-selected president of the American University of Central Asia and was later elected the founding president of the American University in Nigeria (AAUN).

Dr. Huwiler holds a doctoral degree in English and American Literature from the University of California at Davis and a master's degree from the California State University at Los Angeles.

You have said in an interview that one of your goals as a President of AUBG is to complete the new Skaptopara campus. Now that this has been completed, what is your next goal?

We are making significant progress in that area. In January we opened a brand-new energy-efficient residence hall. This year we will begin construction on the 10,000 square meter Student Center, which will include a full gymnasium, performing arts center, fitness center, caf?, etc.  Then the next (and final) big project will be a new Academic-Administrative Building.  We are also working on outdoor athletic facilities.

But even while we are finishing the campus, there are other goals: we want to continue to increase the number of students on campus to about 1400 (from 1100 currently).  We will reach the target within three years.

We want to push up the quality still higher and attract more of the very best students.  We are already the most selective American university abroad, but we want our standard to be equivalent to the very best universities in the United States.

Finally, we want to increase the amount of financial support that we can offer to top students.  We have started a fundraising campaign, and one of the most important goals will be to offer more financial support to outstanding students both from Bulgaria and elsewhere.

What is the mission of AUBG?

Last year we revised the mission statement, which is intended to be a short statement of what we are trying to do.  I will also include here the new "Vision Statement," which describes what AUBG intends to be in five years, as well as a statement of values, which, unlike the mission and vision, do not change over time.

The mission of the American University in Bulgaria is to educate students of outstanding potential in a community of academic excellence, diversity, and respect and to prepare them for democratic and ethical leadership in serving the needs of the region and the world.

We envision a community of diverse and creative students of outstanding potential living and learning together in an engaging and rigorous academic environment on a campus which offers world-class academic, recreational, and residential facilities.  Mentored by internationally respected faculty committed to the liberal arts tradition, graduates will be fully prepared for lives of professional achievement, personal fulfillment, and service.

The values of the University do not change over time but are fundamental to our identity, to who we are. Both our vision and our mission are informed by the values that were shared by the University's founders and which have guided the University since its inception in 1991: We believe that all of our programs and activities must be characterized by the highest standards of excellence. We are committed to the values of a diverse and inclusive campus community. We believe that all of the University's activities must be characterized by the highest standards of integrity. We embrace the values of open, democratic, and participatory governance both within the University and in the broader community. We are committed to the values of freedom of thought and expression. We understand that the most effective way to prepare students for successful and meaningful lives is through a rigorous academic program characterized by active and engaged learning within the context of the American liberal arts tradition. We are committed to the quest for new knowledge and support faculty and students in their process of discovery and creativity. We believe that the University has a responsibility to contribute to the welfare of the broader community and to promote social responsibility among all its constituents.

In your opinion, what differentiates an AUBG student from a student studying at a Bulgarian university?

Well, our admissions requirements are unusually rigorous. We require the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) of all applicants, and we accept only students who have excellent scores.  Of course since instruction here is in English, we also require that all of our students are fluent in the English language.  Many of the students who come to AUBG wish to go on to a top graduate school in Western Europe or the US, and they believe that an AUBG education will help them achieve that goal.  Our students tend to be unusually ambitious, and perhaps a little more adventurous than others.

What is the current ranking of AUBG among other American universities and universities in Europe?

The major ranking services (such as Webometrics and Academic Rankings of World Universities) do not include AUBG in their ranking for a variety of reasons—primarily because as an American university located in Europe we do not fit into any of their categories.

I would note, however, that our standardized test scores put us among the very best of American universities.  I will also mention here that our graduates get into excellent graduate schools—and this is one of the most important indicators of quality.  For example, this past year six of our graduates went on to the London School of Economics.  Two went on to MIT.  Others went to Stanford, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Vanderbilt, Georgetown, and many other elite graduate programs.

The tuition, as well as the cost of living in AUBG, is one of the least expensive comparing to the other American universities. Do you think that the quality of the education at AUBG has been affected by this fact?

My opinion—which is, of course, biased—is that there is no university which offers better value than AUBG.  We offer a very high quality education which equals or surpasses what would be available at many institutions in the US.  The top American schools do charge much more tuition.  Some also have very large endowments.  A few top schools like Williams or Amherst have endowments of over USD 1 B.  In order to compete with these institutions, we must, of course, find ways to reduce our costs.  But long ago we made the decision to make quality our top priority.  To save money, we do two things: first, we limit the number of specialties that we offer.  The top schools will offer major programs in, for example, Japanese studies even if they have only two or three students who are interested.  We cannot afford to do that.  In addition, we do not offer majors in the natural sciences (although we do offer excellent general education courses in the natural sciences).  Major programs in the natural sciences tend to be very expensive, and there are Bulgarian universities which offer excellent programs in those areas, so there is no need for us to duplicate those programs.

Bulgaria's accession to the EU has opened the door to a free, or much cheaper, higher education. Has this changed AUBG's popularity among Bulgarian and Romanian students?

Yes, some Bulgarian students now choose to study in the EU, since costs became much lower after accession.  The proportion of students that we enroll from Bulgaria and Romania declined after 2007.  In general, our view is that the wider availability of options for Bulgarian students is a good thing for the country—although we do sometimes see excellent Bulgarian students choose very weak universities elsewhere in Europe—and some of these students later transfer to AUBG when they discover the size of the classes and the quality of instruction do not meet their expectations.  Some are also surprised by the total cost of studying in Western Europe.

Still, many top Bulgarian students continue to choose AUBG.  We offer very high quality, we offer small classes with much personal attention, and our degrees are recognized both in the US and Europe.  We also have extraordinary scholarship opportunities for Bulgarian students: any Bulgarian with an SAT score (Math + Critical Reading) of 1300 or higher has a 100% tuition waiver (thanks to support provided by the America for Bulgaria Foundation).  We also provide financial support to any graduate who goes on to one of the top 20 graduate schools in the United States (thanks to a USD 6 M bequest from Ani Tchaprachikoff).  So a top Bulgarian student will be supported both at the undergraduate level and in a top grad school.

Neither the US, nor the Bulgarian government provides any subsidy to AUBG. So who are the main sponsors of AUBG?

We have many individual donors who support us—and we also receive substantial support from foundations and other entities.  Two of our largest supporters are the Open Society Institute and the America for Bulgaria Foundation.  Since I arrived at AUBG three years ago, we have received about USD 27 M in gifts and grants.  We would not be able to offer the education that we do with only the revenue from student tuition.

Prior to coming to Bulgaria, you have been the President of the American University in Nigeria and the American University of Central Asia. Could you point out some differences between the three universities, the regions and the people?

Well, each of these institutions, in spite of common denominators, is very different.  AUBG is more developed than either: we are more mature, our quality is higher, and we have more complete campus facilities.  We have full U.S. accreditation, which neither of the others has.  And our student body is much more diverse.  This year AUBG has students from 40 countries—which makes us one of the most diverse universities of our size anywhere in the world, including the US.

Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the foundation of AUBG. How, in your opinion, has the university influenced Bulgaria and the Balkans?

That's a very interesting question, and, of course, we will be reflecting on that a great deal this year.  My opinion is that AUBG has had an effect that goes far beyond its relatively small size.  We have had an impact on economic development, and our alumni have started major new companies, particularly in the technology areas.  Our graduates have leadership positions in Bulgaria in many international corporations: Motorola, GE, Citibank, Avon, and many, many others.

The effect that we have had on social and political developments in the Balkans is more difficult to measure, but I think equally significant.  From the very earlier years, we have had students here from all parts of the Balkans.  Having top students from Kosovo and Serbia and Albania and elsewhere in the Balkans living and studying with one another has, in a small way, promoted mutual understanding and the values of tolerance and respect.  That tradition continues here, as we now have significant numbers of students from Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, etc.

How many new students have been accepted for the 2010 fall semester and from how many nationalities?

The number of new students on campus this year is about 300.  Of these, 240 are first-year, degree-seeking students, a few are transfer students, and about 50 are visiting or exchange students.  The number of nationalities this year hit 40—the largest in our history—and includes about 50 students from the United States, another record for us.

How did you decide to come to Bulgaria?

Well, for many years I have been interested in international education.  Back in the 80's and 90's, while I was still working in the United States, one of my tasks was to internationalize our campus in Vermont, and I developed programs which brought many international students to our campus, initiated many new study abroad and exchange programs, and opened branch campuses in international sites.  When I was asked to consider the presidency of the American University in Central Asia, I moved abroad full-time, and I've been working internationally ever since.

I have known about AUBG since it was founded, and have long been interested in this University.  I visited Bulgaria and AUBG long before I had any idea of becoming AUBG's president.  Of all of the American universities abroad, this one best represents the classic American model: the selective, residential, very high quality liberal arts institution.  When the presidency of AUBG became available in 2007, I immediately expressed interest, and I have found this University to match my own interests and experience perfectly.

Tell us some things you like and do not like about Bulgaria.

Well, the physical beauty of the place is extraordinary—the mountains, the lakes, the Black Sea coast.  Each new area that I explore brings new delights and surprises.

The richness of Bulgaria's history fascinates me, and I enjoy exploring the old sections of Bulgaria's cities: Sofia, Plovdiv, Veliko Tarnovo, Stara Zagora.  Personally, I find the wonderful old churches throughout the country particularly interesting.  There are, of course, the ones that are well known: Boyana, Rila, Rozhen.  One favorite is the old St Sofia Church (where my new son was baptized in May) across from the Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia.  But everywhere I go I find churches that are beautiful and surprising: the magnificent  old Church of Konstantine and Elena in the old city in Plovdiv; the wall painting in the refectory of the Church of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin in the Monastery of Bachkovo; even some of the very small monasteries, such as the one on the mountain high above Kresna.

I enjoy the people here very much.  There is a deep appreciation of education, and learning has long been a priority in Bulgaria.  Bulgarians are passionate, and whatever they do they tend to do with great intensity.  They are remarkably hospitable and welcoming, and the community of Blagoevgrad has warmly accepted the large influx of new people from all over the world.

The question about dislikes is more difficult, but there are a few minor annoyances: it is very difficult to find a restaurant in Bulgaria that is not filled with smoke.  There are a few favorite cuisines that are hard to find in Blagoevgrad.  But on balance, my wife and I love living here, and the few inconveniences are vastly outweighed by the pleasures of this remarkable country.

You have been the President of AUBG since 2007. Have you visited Bulgaria before that?

Yes—twice.  The first time was about a decade ago, when I spent time exploring Sofia, visited Rila and AUBG, and spent time talking to then President of AUBG, Julia Watkins.

What has changed in Bulgaria in the past three years, in your opinion?

In spite of the economic crisis, it seems to me that economy of Bulgaria is strengthening relative to other countries in Europe.  I think that politically the country has made clear progress, and clearly Bulgaria is becoming more integrated into the EU in many ways. The aspect that I follow most closely of course is education, and I think that Minister Ignatov has introduced some important reforms which have the potential to propel Bulgarian into a position of leadership in the EU.

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Tags: David Huwiler, AUBG, American University in Bulgaria

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