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UMass Boston’s effort to aid Haitian university at a standstill


University of Massachusetts Boston’s efforts to help the State University of Haiti upgrade its business school have come to a halt since the January earthquake, which seriously damaged the school’s building in Port-au-Prince.

“We haven’t been able to do much since the earthquake,” said Alix Cantave, deputy director of the Trotter Institute at UMass Boston. “The university has been unable to open. There have been no classes, and it’s unclear when they’ll be able to open.”

The tuition-free State University of Haiti is the country’s largest university, enrolling — before the quake — 15,000 of its 40,000 college students. The quake destroyed eight schools within the public university, and damaged the buildings of the other three.

Most of the country’s 159 colleges sustained extensive damage, and only a few have managed to reopen, operating out of tents or rented quarters. Most are scrambling to find the space and funding to resume classes in September.

The overall goal of the UMass Boston partnership is to help the business school produce “qualified middle managers” to run Haitian government agencies and private enterprises, according to Higher Education for Development.

The private organization in Washington, D.C. manages four partnerships between American and Haitian universities. The others involve the University of Florida, Virginia Tech University and Missouri Southern State University.

With $300,000 from the US Agency for International Development, UMass Boston has been working since 2008 on revising the curriculum, improving instruction and expanding library holdings at the National Institute of Administration, Management and International Studies, as the business school is formally known.

The schools have exchanged professors, produced a faculty manual on how to find business information online, and co-sponsored seminars for Haitian students on research methods. UMass Boston also gathered books donated for its partner’s library.

In that initial round of cooperative efforts, UMass Boston began to sense that the business school’s structure was limiting the improvements that could be made.

Without state-of-the-art computer facilities, for instance, no matter how many books were shipped to Haiti, the school’s students would not have access to the digital databases that American college students often use for research. “It would be much more efficient to create a virtual library,” Cantave said.

Difficulties were encountered implementing the new curriculum, he said, because faculty members do not spend full-time working for the business school.

The salary is so low that they teach at other colleges and also work a full-time job, all necessary to make a decent living. That situation is typical at Haitian colleges, according to several people familiar with higher education there.

“We find that to be a major, major obstacle to any kind of real reform,” Cantave said.

The standstill in the partnership since the earthquake has prompted him to circulate a proposal to expand UMass Boston’s collaboration from the business school to the entire State University of Haiti, in order to address structural issues related to the faculty and governance. For example, the university’s deans tend to do their own thing because each is elected by its own school, instead of being appointed by academic higher-ups, as is the case at American colleges.

With many colleges in this country and others eager to help Haiti’s beleaguered colleges, Cantave is proposing a “multi-university consortium” to engage in “conceptualizing, planning, designing and building the university system anew” over the next year and a half.

His proposal is being circulated at UMass Boston, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities based in Washington, D.C. and to other interested parties.

Top administrators at the State University of Haiti and its business school could not be reached for comment.