Commencement Remarks: President Bruce Walker Ferguson

AUIS Sixth Annual Commencement
Commencement Remarks
President Bruce Walker Ferguson, J.D.
24 May 2017

Good evening.  Ewaretan bash.  Masa’ al khair.

On behalf of the University’s Board of Trustees, I welcome you to the Sixth Commencement Ceremony of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. Trustees, government ministers and leaders, university presidents, diplomats, faculty, staff, alumni, students, families, donors, and other friends, it is our honor and pleasure to have you here with us today.

This year, as last year and the year before, we meet to celebrate the accomplishments of young men and women amidst the devastation of war and the turmoil of economic hardship.  At such a time we must begin our ceremony by acknowledging with deepest respect the sacrifices made by the Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi military, U.S. armed forces, and other Coalition military and security units, to defend a free, peaceful and just society in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. These brave men and women have earned our undying gratitude.

We also honor the memory of Mr. Nawshirwan Mustafa, an author and academic of great accomplishment, and a Kurdish leader who was born here in our city of Suli. To Sulaimani and the people of Kurdistan we offer our condolences at the loss of such an intellectual and staunch defender of the Kurdish people.

This Commencement is special for another reason. For this year marks not only the University’s Sixth Commencement, but its 10th anniversary.  AUIS is now ten years old.

How does everything around us compare to what was planned ten years ago?  In 2006 the McKinsey consulting group prepared a study that discussed the formation of a new American university in Sulaimani. It forecast that by the year 2011, the University would have 1,450 students, and by the year 2021, 6,000 students. The study recommended that the University first offer a preparatory program together with majors in administration, economics, and science, followed in 2017 with majors in law and humanities.

While the study did not anticipate the fall in oil prices, or the war against ISIS, it is impressive how close AUIS has come to the study’s forecast. We now have 1,500 students and plan to increase enrollment further following recognition by the Iraq Ministry of Higher Education.  We have a strong preparatory program, the only such English language program in Iraq to receive US accreditation.  We offer majors in business administration, engineering, IT, international studies, and English. New majors are planned.

Two factors have instrumental in the success of the University to date. The first is its founder, Dr. Barham Salih.  Many of you know Dr. Barham as a statesman and politician, the former Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region and Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq. But Barham Salih is also an innovator, a man intent on bringing educational, social and political innovation to the region as quickly as possible.  This University is a testament to his vision, energy and commitment. Today, on the tenth birthday of his baby, we thank him for making this day possible.

The second key factor in the University’s success is the widespread support it has received from investors and government. Generous financial assistance has been provided by corporations and individuals as well as by the Government of Iraq, the U.S. Government, and the Kurdistan Regional Government, led by Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani.  President Jalal Talabani’s early backing and support was of crucial importance.

The Kurdistan Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research has provided regulatory flexibility needed to introduce American-style education to the region. AUIS is a private, independent university with no owners, operated for the public benefit and not for profit, governed by a Board of Trustees and working toward full US accreditation.  It is different from every other university in Iraq, and the Ministry’s support has been crucial to our progress.

This widespread support reflects the fact that AUIS is not just a university for the city of Sulaimani, but a university for the entire Kurdistan region, for the country of Iraq, for the broader Middle East, and perhaps someday for the rest of the world.  This vision of AUIS is still as important and compelling today as it was ten years ago.  As we celebrate the University’s tenth birthday, I ask each of you to help realize this vision.

All of the students here tonight have been at the University longer than I have. So I’ve sought to learn from you since I joined AUIS last summer.

Some of you I met as we picked up trash at Lake Dukan, part of a project led by the Environment Keepers student club. I learned that AUIS students are far ahead of other university students in Iraq in their environmental awareness and responsibility.

Some of you asked me questions at Town Hall meetings.  We discussed the recent recognition of AUIS by Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.  We are the first private university in the Kurdistan Region to receive such recognition, which will make it easier for our graduates to find jobs and apply to graduate school.  In April one of our adjunct faculty received the University’s first Fulbright Scholarship, made possible by the new recognition.  

Several of you have asked me whether AUIS is like the universities I know in the United States. In some ways AUIS is just like a US university.  In other ways it is very different.

Courses here are taught in English, many of them by native English speakers. The University’s students learn to think for themselves, to trust their own opinions and judgment. They learn how to lead constructively, how to disagree by using facts rather than emotion, and how to work as a team. They display the virtues of generosity and community spirit.  All these things may be found at a good university in the United States.

Each one of our graduates, though – including every single student here tonight – is fluent in at least two languages. Many of you speak three or four languages. Such ability can be found among US university students, but it is rare, and it is rarely celebrated.  Here in the Kurdistan region, among neighboring Turkey, Iran, and the rest of Iraq, where we hope to build bridges to these places and the world at large, the ability of AUIS graduates to understand and be understood in more than one language is vital to their success. Employers and graduate schools alike prize the ability of our students to speak not just English, but other languages as well. In this way AUIS is different than the typical US university. For this time and this place, AUIS is better.

As I have grown to know you, I have become more and more impressed with how smart and talented and motivated you are.  It is hard for me to say goodbye.  It is harder for faculty, for they know you even better. We take comfort from the fact that while you are no longer our students, in just a few minutes you will be transformed into  – alumni! This gives us a good excuse to continue to see each other. In the years to come I hope you will return often to the University.

Now it is my great pleasure to introduce this year’s Commencement Speaker, Mr. Ricardo Karam. Mr. Ricardo, a renowned television presenter, producer and talk-show host, has traveled from his home in Beirut to join us today.  He is the founder and CEO of RK Productions, which produces and distributes television series, documentaries, interviews and other programming in English, Arabic and French.  In 2010 he founded Takreem, an organization aiming to promote philanthropy in the Middle East by honoring those who excel in their fields and are philanthropic.  He has received numerous prizes and awards, including the Ordre National du Merite Francais, and in 2013 was named one of the “Ten Most Influential Men of Beirut.”  Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Ricardo Karam.