May 15, 2009
About two dozen of us continued the discussion of the possibilities and promise of institutional research in Muslim majority countries on Wednesday and Thursday. In many ways, what we talked about was very similar to what I talk about when I discuss institutional research or accreditation (quality assurance) or related topics in the United States. What is important to measure? How much data should we share or disclose publicly? Should we participate in efforts to rank universities? And so forth.
The difference was a striking difference of context. We discussed these issues with regard to quite new universities, many of them only a decade or two old, and most of them the first (and still rare) independent institutions in their countries. And the political context in which they find themselves is different, too, and varied among the institutions (Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia).
My role was largely that of an advisor and coach. I gave a keynote address on the first day sketching in broad strokes five emergent principles of institutional research as it has developed in the United States. I brought to the discussion the strong views I argue in U.S. contexts, especially the importance of putting a central focus on student learning (even if we can only measure it imperfectly), the importance of public disclosure, and the reasons for saying no to rankings. For me, the context doesn’t lessen the importance of these points, though I can see that there are places the political context can suggest caution in disclosure.
On Friday morning, we agreed to the formation of a new organization, a data-sharing consortium among the participating institutions from Muslim-majority countries. There was a good deal of excitement in the room, and an eagerness to reassemble the group again in a year’s time to see what we had accomplished.
After the sessions each day we were treated to wonderful glimpses of Jeddah. On Tuesday, we visited an Afghan rug market. On Wednesday, we dined at an outdoor restaurant on Jeddah food, which we discovered was a wonderful melange from across the Middle East and North Africa, and extending towards India. On Thursday, we visited a museum with marvelous paintings and artifacts (especially textiles) from daily life in Saudi Arabia. We visited Balad, the old city, and had tea in an house built in the late 19th century. And we had dinner near the sea at an Italian restaurant. After the conclusion of our work on Friday some of us swam in the Red Sea, snorkeling along a coral reef among tropical fishes: it was as if we were swimming in a fish tank.