“Wisconsin Idea” Gone Bad at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University

Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan.Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan. (Photo: lizTen major, primarily US-based universities and campus-based research institutes signed contracts in 2010 to help establish and run a major “world class” university in Kazakhstan, the resource-rich Central Asia country lorded over by autocrat, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison), beginning in late-2009, actively sought and eventually won one of those contracts. That agreement with the regime provided the go-ahead for a team of UW-Madison experts to create a School of Humanities and Social Sciences (SHSS) at Nazarbayev University (NU), named after the country’s “President-for-Life.”

UW-Madison, birthplace of the progressive “Wisconsin Idea,” has long prided itself as a bastion of liberal democratic values and for its dedication to public service and social betterment. As such, the story of its ongoing Kazakhstan involvement stands as a case study of the contradictions inherent in the rush by today’s “global universities” eager to win clients, prestige and income abroad from those regimes most able to pay – regardless of their nature.

Sealing the Deal

Documents acquired via a series of Wisconsin Open Records Law requests show that in March 2010, an eight-member high-level delegation representing NU traveled nearly 6,000 miles from its home on the Kazakh steppes to attend a brief ceremony at then-Chancellor Carolyn “Biddy” Martin’s Office atop the UW-Madison’s famed Bascom Hill.

Representing the country’s authoritarian regime, the team had come to Madison for the formal signing of an initial contract committing UW-Madison to prepare a feasibility study for the creation of a social science and humanities program for the then-dubbed “New University of Astana.” The proposed university – already projected to become a major Central Asia research hub – was at the time under construction at an estimated cost of $2 billion at the country’s showcase capital.

In Madison to witness the signing as head of the delegation was Kazakhstan deputy foreign minister and former Nazarbayev aide, Yerbol Orynbayev. The Western-trained diplomat and former in-country liaison for the World Bank in Kazakhstan, Aslan Sarinzhipov, in his capacity as acting president and CEO of the “New University,” came to sign the contract. “Biddy” Martin fixed her signature to the agreement along with the Nazarbayev insider at the March 4 ceremony.

A two-page background briefing prepared for Martin in advance of the gathering noted the work under way at Astana to establish the NU as an “English-language university based on the American model.”

After listing the names of the visiting delegates, that backgrounder gave a cursory five-sentence sketch of the country. It simply described Kazakhstan as a former Soviet republic populated mainly by Turkic, Russian and German speakers with major gas and oil reserves in its Caspian Sea region. The description also noted Nazarbayev’s upcoming 70th birthday, without giving any indication of the brutal nature of his dictatorial regime.

While the sum offered up by the NU suitors for that feasibility study totaled a mere $100,000, the UW-Madison representatives involved viewed it as the beginning of a mutually-beneficial and potentially-lucrative relationship.

Completed in July 2010, that initial proposal paved the way for a 594-page detailed strategic plan, submitted in June 2011, for a state-of-the art School of Humanities and Social Studies based on UW-Madison’s “best practices.”

An additional phase two “Strategic Planning and Assessment Program” went into operation in Oct. 2011. This entailed numbers of teleconference meetings by various working groups and multiple exchanges of visitors to Astana and Madison over the next several months.

Nazarbayev University’s Wisconsin-designed School of Humanities and Social Sciences opened for business in September 2011. A contract for “phase three” was signed in December 2012. The regular back-and-forth flow of UW-Madison faculty and administrative consultants continues to this day.

Onlookers and Go-Betweens

Among those present for the signing of the initial UW-NU agreement was Gilles Bousquet, at the time dean of the UW’s division of international atudies, director of the UW-Madison’s International Institute and vice provost for globalization. Bousquet now serves as the interim chancellor at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

“We are honored and delighted to be selected by Kazakhstan as a partner as they embark on establishing a new university to bring the benefits of education to their people and the entire region in the tradition of the Wisconsin Idea,” an article covering the event from the UW-Madison press office quoted him saying

Bousquet subsequently traveled to Astana in late-June 2011 for a two-day conclave. While there, he met then-prime minister and Nazarbayev’s chief of staff, Karim Massimov, chairman of NU’s Board of Trustees.

Interviewed upon his return about the developing UW-Madison relationship, Bousquet emphasized “the benefits that Wisconsin’s business community can derive from such [a] relationship.”

Also accompanying the Kazakh delegation was Dennis De Tray. The World Bank’s country director in Indonesia during the late-1990s – the final years of the Suharto dictatorship – De Tray subsequently became an apologist for the murderous, kleptocratic regime.

In recent years a private “development contractor” and Pentagon consultant in US-occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, he now sits as chairman of NU’s “International Advisory Committee,” a consigliere for the regime’s operatives doing business with various university partners, UW-Madison among them.

Also present at the 2010 signing: Uli Schamiloglu, chair of the UW-Madison Central Asian Studies Program and associate director of the Center for Middle East Studies. A central figure from its inception, he played the major role in forging the relationship.

Tapped to head the feasibility study, he became “team leader” of the “Nazarbayev University Project,” the main liaison with the NU’s representatives, among them Dennis De Tray.

Schamiloglu led a five-member UW-Madison contingent to Astana in April 2010. Besides visiting their NU counterparts and the nearly-completed campus, the group received a dignitary’s welcome at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They also toured the Ministry of Education and met with a group described as Nazarbayev’s “apparatus.” The next junket stops: the country’s rubber-stamp Senate and the headquarters of Nur Otan (“Light of the Fatherland”), Nazarbayev’s ruling party. They also conferred with the US Ambassador, Richard Hoagland.

Schamiloglu and Cynthia Williams, director of external relations in the UW’s Division of International Studies, flew to Astana in June 2010 to attend the official opening ceremony of NU, presided over personally by Nazarbayev.

Alongside representatives from the other major university partners, the UW delegation also attended a private audience with Nazarbayev in which he described his “Strategy 2020” for economic growth through accelerated industrialization and infrastructure development.

A duo from each of the partnering institutions – among them representatives from Duke, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, the University College of London and the National University of Singapore – also signed a mutually vetted “Principles of Collaboration” that, among other things, listed university autonomy, academic freedom, transparency, integrity and diversity as institutional goals.

Williams, upon her return, expressed the hope that the UW’s involvement in the project “can help spread the values of the Wisconsin Idea” by “inspiring Nazarbeyev University to go beyond being an ivory tower and instead to use its knowledge to serve all the people of the country in relevant ways.”

Others would continue to speak of the “Idea” as a model and inspiration for the venture. Aslan Sarinzhipov – presumably learning of the tradition via Schamiloglu and translating it as the “Wisconsin Way” – referenced it as such in his UW-Madison correspondence.

The Unspoken Problem

While UW-Madison team members involved in the ongoing project have continually spoken of the Kazakhstan partnership as a logical global extension of the “Wisconsin Idea,” none have commented publicly on the repressive nature of Nazarbayev’s regime.

Larger than Western Europe and four times the size of Texas, the former Soviet Republic shares a 4,000-mile border with Russia and a 1,400-mile frontier with China. It contains vast amounts of oil, natural gas, uranium, rare-earth minerals, wheat and livestock. As such, it has been defined by US economic and strategic planners as vital to “national interest,” despite an atrocious human rights record that actually has worsened since the UW-Madison joined the consortium of prominent universities currently “partnering” at the new university.

Nazarbayev, in 2010, enacted a law naming him “Leader of the Nation.” This made him immune from prosecution and the seizure of his assets for the rest of his life.

Critics have characterized his ruling oligarchy as an outright kleptocracy, one that has siphoned off billions to Nazarbayev and his immediate circles. Corruption and bribery at all levels of government, the judiciary included, have long been considered the modus operandi in the country.

A 2012 listing of the Kazakhstan’s 50 wealthiest individuals, holding a combined estimated wealth of $24 billion, included four of Nazarbayev’s immediate family members – two daughters, a son-in law and a grandson – as well as his minister of defense and environment minister. The average monthly wage, meanwhile, continues to hover at $600.

The US State Department’s 2012 survey on Kazakhstan’s “rampant and diverse” human rights violations cited “severe limits on citizens’ rights to change their government,” the clampdown on freedom of expression, and a lack of judicial independence and rule of law, “especially in dealing with pervasive corruption.”

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have long criticized the regime for its violations of international standards regarding workers’ rights, political repression, police impunity and intimidation and torture of those arrested and imprisoned.

The mistreatment of immigrants, exploitation of child labor and human trafficking also continue to be documented. Kazakhstan also recently revised its legal codes, mandating that religious groups register with the state. Those unregistered or denied a permit to practice their faith have come under increased repression in the past year.

Transparency Intenational in 2012 ranked the country as “not free” while Freedom House gave it a worsening “democracy score” of 6.54 (with 1 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 7 the lowest.)

In an interview following his July 2011 visit to Astana, Gilles Bousquet spoke of how the UW-Madison’s worldwide partners looked to Madison to educate “leaders who will have an impact and help change the world, like the thousands of UW-Madison graduates who have joined the Peace Corps over the decades.”

A few months later, in late-2011, the Peace Corps abruptly removed its 117 volunteers from the country following several sexual assaults and reported instances of harassment by the KNB, the KGB-styled state intelligence service.

The “Zhanaozen Massacre”

Three months after NU and its Wisconsin-created SHSS opened in December 2011, Kazakhstan state security forces opened fire on striking oil workers in the Caspian Sea oil company town of Zhanaozen.

According to the official government account, 15 died and nearly 70 were wounded. Unofficial casualty counts ran much higher, numbering into the hundreds, and many more were detained and routinely beaten while in custody as the government blacked out communications from the region.

In the immediate aftermath of the strike, the regime not only held a mass show trial and imprisoned strike leaders, but also jailed attorneys who came forward to assist the detained and opposition political activists protesting the repression.

Western academics employed at NU at the time of the “Zhanaozen Massacre” might not have had any clue about the situation.

After all, Nazarbayev family members or cronies have long controlled or own the dominant media. Independent journalists are regularly subjected to fines and criminal charges for publishing “defamatory” reports regarding Nazarbayev his family or leading government officials.

Critical reporters have also been jailed, harrassed and physically attacked, while offices of independent newspapers and websites, closely monitored by the state, continue to be shut down. The regime banned dissident newspaper Respublika in December 2012, along with the small opposition party, Alga.

The “Nazarbayev Idea”

In October 2009, Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister Orynbayev’s Office sent letters to a number of American universities announcing the establishment of “a new flagship university with the highest international standards . . . in partnership with a number of leading international universities.”

Stating that the idea for the new school came directly from President Nazarbayev, the letter spoke of the goal of creating a “knowledge based society” – adapting to the World Bank’s “knowledge bank” – to assure sustainable economic growth. In the letter, he requested an early-November meeting to discuss “partnering” opportunities.

According to a conversation with Cynthia Williams, the Kazakhs expressed a desire to meet with Chancellor Martin. Reluctant to schedule such a meeting on short notice with limited information, Williams asked Uli Schamiloglu if he would be interested in forming a group to greet the delegation.

Schamiloglu met with a single Kazakh representative over dinner on November 4, after a larger meeting was cancelled due to a flight delay. The Kazakh envoy expressed a primary interest in the UW-Madison’s biotechnology programs, but Schamiloglu introduced the idea of the UW-Madison creating a humanities- and social science-focused “liberal arts” effort at Astana.

Things moved quickly thereafter.

Schamiloglu, viewing a possible Kazakhstan project as “the opportunity of a lifetime,” actively promoted the idea to his superiors on Bascom Hill, among them the Dean of the College of Letters and Science, Gary Sandefur, and International Programs head Bousquet.

UW-Madison wasted little time in submitting a “letter of intent” in January 2010, signed by the Sandefur and Bousquet.

In Feb. 2010, Aslan Sarinzhipov and then- “New University” vice president, Kadisha Dairova – today both members of the university’s executive council – toured the UW-Madison campus and liked what they saw.

The contract for the feasibility study was hastily drawn up, vetted by a UW-Madison legal team and signed on March 4, 2010, and the first UW-Madison team arrived in Astana on April 24, 2010. In June 2010, that five-member team and Williams attended a Washington, DC, “partners’ meeting,” and Williams and Schamiloglu attended the NU opening ceremonies in Astana later that month.

The full UW-Madison team of more than 20 members planned whole departments and a full battery of courses. Administrative staff also submitted plans for a registrar’s and admissions offices, while faculty from the UW-Madison School of Library Science prepared detailed designs for the NU library and its collections.

The intent, it appeared, was to implant some semblance of UW-Madison at NU.

The “Idea”

As part of its NU pitch, the authors of the original feasibility study noted that “. . . the UW-Madison is guided by the ‘Wisconsin Idea’ ” and that, “through the Nazarbayev University project, the UW-Madison is seeking to extend the “Wisconsin Idea” to Kazakhstan and the world.”

The “Idea” came about in response to the abuses of unimpeded economic power and political corruption during the late 19th century age of the robber barons, an era void of social protections and increasing social upheaval caused by abuses of unrestrained industrial and financial might.

Idea legislation and policies proposed by progressive UW-Madison faculty brought about workers’ protections, improved practices in agriculture and rural life, environmental safeguards and public health standards. Political reforms broadened the scope of democracy by rooting out corruption, graft and behind-the-scenes statehouse corporate influence-peddling.

In 2012, as various UW-Madison faculty, staff, and administrators came and went from Astana, the university officially celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the “Idea,” articulated in the mission statement of the university, to “embody, through its policies and programs, respect for, and commitment to, the ideals of a pluralistic, multiracial, open and democratic society.”

One anniversary panel on April 26 of that year featured John Witte, an accomplished political science professor, public policy maven and grandson of the UW’s renowned Edwin Witte. Edwin embodied the “Wisconsin Idea,” going from Madison to Washington, DC, during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to become the “father of Social Security.”

Two weeks before the forum, a UW-Madison press release announced Witte was retiring from his 35-year stint in Madison. That release further announced he was departing for Kazakhstan to become dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Nazarbayev University.

Witte had already had been to Astana as part of the initial project team. He made a second journey there in December 2011 to scope out his new campus digs and to present a dusted off paper on Milwaukee’s voucher and charter schools to his future NU colleagues.

On the eve of the November 2012 US presidential election, Witte joined UW-Madison political scientist Howard Schweber, on leave and teaching in Astana, at a campus forum on what another President Barack Obama term or a Mitt Romney victory could mean for Kazakhstan.

While Schweber suggested that a Romney election would not bode well for Kazakhstan, Witte was quoted as stating,

“Kazakhstan . . . absolutely critical to the world . . . is a stable democracy that will enhance this country as well as the United States’ goals. It is also a country of peace, stability, and prosperity. All of these things the United States will benefit from.

“Some of our companies are already here. I think that they will benefit. And also, to be honest, I think that there is a greater free-market spirit here in Kazakhstan than there would be in the Democratic Party of the United States. So I think that in fact that private initiative would be well-received here. And that private initiative is not the hallmark of the Obama administration.”

A month later while serving as acting NU vice provost, Schweber spoke at a conference on the institution of the presidency and its importance in the transition to democracy. The state-controlled press reported the event under the headline, “Kazakhstan is not ready for presidential-parliamentary rule: Vice-Provost of Nazarbayev University.”

The official media report quoted Schweber as suggesting that while the office of the presidency should be separated from any specific individual as the country moved toward democracy, “probably, Kazakhstan is not ready for this transition yet.”

“Academic Freedom”

In his July, 2011 interview, Gilles Bousquet mentioned NU was the country’s first university to guarantee academic freedom “in the law.”

As if to assuage concerns and circumvent criticism, the regime’s rubber-stamp parliament passed specific legislation, signed by Nazarbayev in early 2012, granting “autonomy” and “academic freedom” to NU faculty and staff.

One line in the new law simply defined the “principle of academic freedom” as “independence of the University . . . in defining and selection of educational programs, forms and methods of implementation of education activities, and the directions of conducting scientific research.”

The new law enshrining “autonomy” and “academic freedom” also granted ultimate authority over the university, its feeder Intellectual Schools and its specially-created corporate-funded endowment to a “Supreme Board of Trustees” chaired by Nazarbayev and comprised entirely by insiders.

The meaning of the “academic freedom,” usually understood as an implicit, if not always explicit right of faculty and students to write and speak freely inside and outside the walls of the academy without fear of repercussion, has been cynically nuanced by NU.

The “guiding principle” dealing with “Autonomy and Academic Freedom,” states that the University will:

“[E]nsure independence and collegiality in management and decision making based on democratic principles and personal responsibility of each individual involved; guarantee academic freedom of teachers and researchers within their research and educational activities.” (emphasis ours)

Implicit is a clear message that faculty and staff must take care not to speak beyond the confines of their respective disciplines – or else.

The Big Picture

The ongoing “partnership” between the UW-Madison and the Kazakhstan dictatorship’s “world class” university is far from exceptional. Every major US university has joined in the highly competitive scramble for a piece of the globalized “knowledge economy” pie, this time served by far-from-democratic regimes rich with resources and strategic value.

UW-Madison’s “partnering relationship” with Nazarbayev University serves as but one example, among many, of the expanding international role of today’s global universities as major multinational corporations. In that capacity, the “global university” serves an elite function in reproducing and expanding the existing economic and political order.