Sulaimaniyah, Iraq – In a makeshift university classroom in northern Iraq, from the back of the class, Kosar Osman voices what would be a radical goal in the Middle East – a meritocracy.
"Right now, if you don't have a relative somewhere, you won't get hired," says the student at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS). "When we graduate, we're going to have a lot of talent and ... qualifications.... [Iraq needs] people who really serve their country, not just themselves and their families."
In a region of authoritarian teachers and governments, the one-year-old AUIS is trying to reinvent university education and produce independent-minded graduates who can help rebuild Iraq in the process.
"The whole of their high school training has been people standing up in front of the room lecturing to them," says provost Joshua Mitchell, who is on leave from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "They think they're supposed to sit there quietly and listen. We're teaching them in this first year ... substance in their course work, but we're also teaching them how to be a new kind of student."
Most of the students have never written an essay or worked with computers. But they seem to be absorbing the lessons.
"If people want to stay here and help Iraq everything has to be changed," says Dea Dlawar, sitting at her desk wearing pink and purple hand-warmers. She says she wants to go into politics.
In Iraq, as in other parts of the Middle East, the brightest high school students are channeled into engineering and medicine. The country is awash in natural resources but has a severe shortage of managers and technocrats to run the government ministries administering them.
Mr. Mitchell, who helped start a school of foreign service in Qatar, says the private university aims to produce graduates who will be indispensable to government ministries as well as socially responsible entrepreneurs. The students are expected to engage in community-service projects.
"We want to build a vibrant entrepreneurial class – people look at America and they say it's casino capitalism, it's rampant individualism. But the point is, America has survived for the last two or three hundred years because it has ... self-interest but also a deep commitment to community service," says Mitchell.
"We are focusing on areas where Iraq's future depends on critically," says Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, the university's founder. "Management, IT … you have too many engineering faculties but you don't have a good-quality business school, you don't have a good-quality IT school."
Two hundred and fifty-six students are enrolled here, about 20 of them in an MBA program, with the rest pursuing undergraduate degrees. Most are Kurdish but some are Iraqi Arab and Turkmen. Mitchell says the university is operating on a shoestring budget. If they can raise the money, officials hope to start an agriculture and public-health program – and, eventually, petroleum engineering.
Mr. Salih says they also plan to launch a research center "in the truest sense of an American institution – free thought and free, genuine research in issues of Islam, current Arab democracy, federalism, whatever it is."
But with a student body that Mitchell says has grown up with no political vocabulary, they are starting with the basics.
"I asked them what they were going to do this year in my meeting the other day with the academic students.… [They] said they were thinking of forming a student government," says Mitchell. "I said 'What are you waiting for?' And they said, 'we know we need to ask your permission.' "
Mitchell says that he told them his permission was not required. " 'This is something you are born with – you have the right to do it,' " he informed the group.
Salih, who is British-educated, says that free thinkers are key to a free society. But "reforming the state education system is not an easy notion – you cannot easily reform it from within. You have to create models that can be emulated," he says, looking out over the growing construction site of a new campus that hopes to accommodate 1,000 students in the next four years.
The students look as if they could be from almost anywhere. On the bulletin board at the temporary campus, there are notices for women's basketball, a drama club meeting, and volunteer opportunities at an orphanage. During break, students sit on the building steps in the winter sun – boys on cellphones, girls in tight jeans sitting with girls in head scarves. In an improvised cafeteria, students eat take-out pizza from cardboard boxes.
In one of the English-language classrooms, 20 young men and women pore over what is likely to be an apt lesson on life in the office.
"There are many problems in this office," instructor Peter Friedrich says, enunciating carefully as the students recite along with him.
"I'm 'going' to Hilla," he says. "What tense is this?"
"Present continuous," replies a student who, like the rest of the class, spoke barely any English two months ago.
Mr. Friedrich says he was teaching in an inner-city Los Angeles school when he read about AUIS.
"There's a lot more in common than some people might imagine with teaching here," he says. "The pure devotion of the student body."
The school has 15 faculty members. "Everyone has a story," says Mitchell, whose own story includes being born in Egypt and a stint as a professional country-and-western singer before finding his calling in teaching.
In this fractured country, many of the students believe they're doing more than getting a good education.
"It's a way of helping my country," says Mohammad Ahmed, who, at 23, is one of the oldest in the class and one of about 10 students from the south of Iraq.
At $10,000 per year few Iraqis can afford the tuition but almost all the students are on full scholarships or sponsorships by community and business leaders. Many come from modest backgrounds.
"We don't want this to be an elitist institution just for the boys and girls of the rich," says Salih