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In Kazakhstan partnership, UW-Madison globalizes the Wisconsin Idea

Since 2010, UW-Madison has partnered with Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan. 

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If the guiding principle of the Wisconsin Idea is indeed to bring knowledge beyond the state’s campuses, UW-Madison’s partnership with Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan may be the most extreme manifestation of that goal.

“It takes 29 to 32 hours to get there,” Elise Ahn, the project manager for the partnership, said. “If you’re lucky.”

Despite this distance, UW-Madison faculty and staff have been making the journey to Astana—the capital of Kazakhstan—since the partnership began in 2010. For the past seven years, UW has been advising Nazarbayev as it develops its School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Since its inception in 2010, NU has sought the aid of UW-Madison and 12 other international universities in its mission to become a world-class research institution.

According to Yoshiko Herrera, the partnership’s director, the relationship was originally intended to serve NU’s engineering school. But when a Kazakhstani delegation visited in 2009, their tour coincided with a campus visit from President Barack Obama, complicating their schedule.

“Just to fill their time, [College of Letters and Sciences representatives] and others said, ‘Let’s tell them about a liberal arts education’” Herrera, a UW-Madison political professor, said. “Because of that visit … they decided to start a school of social science and humanities.”

The current contract between the universities includes a variety of areas in which UW-Madison provides consulting, including academic advising, library development and student mental health and well-being. The partnership has provided these administrative bodies with an opportunity to share their expertise.

“There are all kinds of administrative structures within UW that are quite rigorous, but typically … these other units don’t get to share their knowledge,” Ahn said. “From a higher education standpoint it’s really interesting because [the partnership] kind of moves away from the more traditional model of research exchange to include these different units.”

And while such administrative processes seem simple at UW-Madison, they’ve proven to be difficult for a country born from the Soviet Union. The Soviet system tended to be highly bureaucratic, and moving away from that model has been a challenge.

“When you think about the collapse of the Soviet Union, there’s a lot going on. We basically have to recreate a lot of different structures,” Ahn said. “Even a small thing like, ‘How do you set up a library structure to promote research?’ … This is the kind of stuff that you don’t think about until it isn’t there.”

The library partnership has been an example of how UW-Madison has helped NU despite these lingering bureaucratic tendencies. UW-Madison staff have aided the promotion of digital projects at NU’s library, and have helped NU transition to a more modern classification system.

“I have been told by a number of people at Nazarbayev that the library partnership … is critical to their future,” Ed Van Gemert, UW-Madison’s vice provost for libraries and university librarian, said.

Making these changes wasn’t easy: The two universities’ time zones are 11 hours apart, and UW-Madison staff would often teleconference with Astana early in the morning or late at night. The distance, Ahn said, compresses the time UW-Madison staff have to build relationships.

“It’s challenging for a lot of people on both sides to make that effort,” Ahn said. “I mean, it’s hard for a lot of people to call their parents. So proximity is challenging.”

The benefits have not been limited to Nazarbayev, though. In a tangible sense, the partnership is financially beneficial for UW-Madison, which makes money by providing NU with consulting services. But the collaboration has also allowed staff to better understand a culture known to many Americans solely through the movie “Borat.”

“Everyone who has gone from UW-Madison to Nazarbayev has had a wonderful experience, and has come back feeling enriched,” Van Gemert said. “So even though we think we’re giving more, I think we’re getting as much as we’re giving.”

Herrera said some think it’s wrong for UW-Madison to reap benefits from a nation that is democratic on its face but authoritarian in reality. Although Kazakhstan is making some progress toward democracy, elections remain unfair and the country ranks poorly in measures of corruption and press freedom.

However, Herrera thinks promoting higher education in such a country will have positive consequences.

“These are flawed political systems but … civil society ties, these horizontal linkages, are not making us worse off,” Herrera said.

Ultimately, the partnership’s mutual benefits has led the schools to expand their relationship. In 2016, UW-Madison started providing services for NU’s School of Engineering, and Nazarbayev students studied in Madison through the Visiting International Student Program.

Despite these forthcoming plans, the partnership’s future is somewhat of a paradox: if UW-Madison does a good job improving NU’s programs, NU may no longer need any help.

“The aim is, essentially, to work yourself out of a job, right?” Ahn said. “It should really move from being this contractual partnership to being more of a collaborative institutional relationship.”

No matter how long the partnership with NU lasts, Ahn said the collaboration has been positive, and has been an example of the Wisconsin Idea in action.

“The role of the university goes beyond just teaching and learning,” Ahn said. “[It] has been to bring knowledge and the community together, and I think that’s captured very much in the ethos of the Wisconsin Idea.”

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