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Odds and Ends: Leading Lady
Odds and Ends: Leading Lady

Dawn Dekle is making history as the first female president of an Iraqi university

Rick Tulka

Dawn Dekle embraces a challenge. After serving as provost of the American University of Afghanistan for two years, in September 2013 Dekle became the first woman to lead an Iraqi university when she took over as president of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, in the country's Kurdish region. Her desire to further higher education, create a safe and open learning community, and be a part of history drew her to the area that she now calls home. "People may disagree about American foreign policy, but everyone agrees about the value of an American-style education," she says. Outsiders might think security issues are a top concern (they generally aren't in the mostly peaceful, prosperous, and pro-U.S. autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan), but Dekle's focus is on gaining U.S. academic accreditation, which would be another first for the country. "I see AUIS as serving an important role in thought leadership about quality assurance and the future of higher education in Iraq," she says.

What did you expect before you arrived at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani last year?

I was very excited and honored about becoming the president of AUIS. I expected that I would be on a steep learning curve—a student of the culture and history. I can definitely say that everything has exceeded my expectations. I found a welcoming community, an enthusiasm for the future, and a shared vision for where we can take AUIS in the next phase of development.

How did your tenure at the American University of Afghanistan prepare you to lead AUIS?

Both Afghanistan and Iraq are in the spotlight of current affairs. They are undergoing significant transformations, and I feel privileged to have a front-row seat to history. AUAF taught me many things, most of all that despite chaos and uncertainty, people by and large are genuine and good, and want the same things for their families, independent of what culture you come from or your view of global politics.

What's campus life like?

It is vibrant and has a healthy buzz. The students are enthusiastic to learn, and they have just formed their first student association, with an elected president and other senior officers. I am invited for informal meetings with students, and I try to visit one class per week. I also walk around campus and talk to students or take photos with them and ask how they are doing to pick up the mood of the campus. On weekends, I like getting out to see Sulaimani and the region, which is really beautiful. I enjoy trying the cuisine, visiting art galleries, and sitting in coffee shops to people watch.

What are the challenges of being a female president in the region?

Prior to moving here, I thought I would have many challenges given what the international media has covered about the status of women in this part of the world. Much to my surprise, it has been a nonissue. Everyone has been accepting, open, and welcome to my position and my leadership of the university. It brings me a lot of satisfaction to meet with female students and ask them about their dreams and aspirations. I want to be a role model for them.

What do you want people outside Iraq to know about the university?

It is one of the region's best-kept secrets. It is one of the good news stories coming out of the region. I want people to understand that what they see on TV is not the whole story. That by investing in education you are investing in the future of the region, stabilizing the economy, and providing opportunities for this next generation of leaders. Supporting AUIS is a sign of faith in the future and a chance to begin again in the cradle of civilization.

—Interview by Theresa Walker




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