A University’s Mission: Preparing Mongolia for the Future



View From Asia September 21, 2012, 4:00 am



New York Times
Traditional performers in Ulan Bator’s Naran Tuul Market, one of the largest in Asia.

When talking about Mongolia, the words “mining,” “strategic” and “change” seem to crop up almost immediately.
It’s easy to see why — the democratic nation of just 2.8 million people has begun exploiting its fabulous mineral wealth (gold, copper and coal, to name a few); it’s wedged between two giants, China and Russia; and it’s scrambling to managesuperspeed economic growth, which surpassed 17 percent last year.

To manage all that change, what Mongolia needs is thinking, says J. Peter Morrow, chairman of the new American University of Mongolia, which intends to offer a liberal, U.S.-style education in the capital, Ulan Bator. The university was formally established this week.

“Think” was a word Mr. Morrow used often during a telephone interview Friday; he sees it as central to the university’s mission to teach critical thinking skills. But he also added another, perhaps surprising, word to the ongoing conversation about Mongolia: “sexy.”

Closed off from most of the world for much of the last century, until the fall of the Soviet Union led to an open democracy that’s a rarity in the region, Mongolia is “quite simply a very sexy place,” Mr. Morrow said.

“Prior to 1990, no one came here. This place was unspoiled,” said Mr. Morrow, a 12-year resident who ran the Khan Bank for a decade.


Despite high growth rates, an estimated 60 percent of Ulan Bator’s population lives in poor “ger districts,” without access to clean water or sanitation.

That means the wealth to be explored is not just in minerals, but in culture and history — core components of the university’s liberal education philosophy, he said.

Classes for the university’s first freshmen will begin in the fall of 2014. The university, which currently occupies one floor of an office building on Seoul Street, already offers an executive M.B.A. and English language classes.

The university’s focus, at least to begin with, will be on environmental and business issues, to produce graduates with the hard skills the emerging economy needs, Mr. Morrow said. “We will train them. But they have to be able to think. So logically any curriculum would start with that,” he said.

Mongolia faces tremendous challenges in managing its boom, as my colleague Dan Levin wrote here.

“Mongolia is obviously a strategic place to a lot of people. It needs more education, not just to dig stuff out of the ground and sell it, but also in terms of managing the change,” said Mr. Morrow.

“For us, we believe in democracy and free markets and in that, Mongolia is a very important place,” he said. “We’re sitting in an unfriendly neighborhood that does not have democracy and free markets, we’re wedged between Russia and China. It could go very right or it could go wrong.”

Key problems include environmental degradation and accompanying health risks, said Mr. Morrow. Then there’s “the pace of cultural change,” he continued.

“No one knows what happens when you move large numbers of nomads and herders into apartments and put them on work in mines,” he said, singling out family abuse and alcoholism as major social challenges.

Governance is another. “How do you manage important government functions in the face of all that change, how do you manage taxes, royalties, how do you manage it wisely? And not just waste it, spend it and steal it?” he said.

“It’s an enormous challenge and I’m not aware of another country that is trying to do this as a significant democracy,” said Mr. Morrow.

Japan, South Korea and Taiwan became democratic only after liberalizing their economies, but “Mongolia is doing it the other way round. It’s not as easy to manage a fast-moving situation where everyone has a vote,” he said.

Some of those tensions were explored in an article in Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, which pointed out that nearly a third of Mongolians live in poverty, despite the economic boom.

The new university, whose funders include Newcom, Rio Tinto and the GE Foundation, is part of an informal chain of worldwide American Universities that includes those in Beirut and Cairo. It joins tertiary institutions already operating in Mongolia, such as the National University of Mongolia and the University of the Humanities.

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