July 12, 2012 12:00AM
On the occasional lists of dangerous jobs, university professors aren’t even an after thought. But this summer, when Dean Cortes went to teach, he wore a Kevlar vest and rode in a caravan with well-armed South African guards.
Cortes, professor and chair of the Department of Economics, Finance and Banking in Pittsburg State University’s Kelce College of Business, spent a month teaching business professors in Iraq. He was a participant in a project sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that is designed to help Iraqi business schools rebuild and update both their faculties and curriculum.
Cortes said the opportunity to teach in Iraq was unexpected and not one that he initially considered for himself.
“Last year, Paul Grimes, our new dean, passed out a flyer from USAID to the department chairpersons,” Cortes said. “They were looking for faculty members for a project in Iraq. He told us to see if anyone was interested.”
Cortes said he did as asked and the response from faculty was not surprising, considering the daily stories of bombings and attacks in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.
“Some of them laughed,” Cortes said.
Despite the initial reaction, something in the project intrigued Cortes.
“I looked at that description and it fit so well with what we do here in the Department of Economics and Finance,” Cortes said. “I thought, ‘Our faculty members are great folks. We can do this kind of project!’”
Soon, Cortes began thinking about applying himself, but his children were initially opposed. Cortes gathered more information and corresponded with others who had participated. A professor who had just returned from Iraq gave him a detailed description of the work and the strict security.
“By Mother’s Day, I had a lot of information, so we brought it up with the kids,” Cortes said. “They said, ‘OK, Dad. It’s fine. You’re going to be guarded by a South African security force. That’s great.’”
On June 4, Cortes arrived at a secure residential compound in Baghdad. He joined more than 100 expatriates who were working on projects ranging from agriculture and local government to the justice system and finance and banking.
The compound was a self-contained city, Cortes said.
“They had several homes that they converted into housing and offices,” Cortes said. “There were four gates. T-walls (steel-reinforced concrete walls designed for blast protection) were all over. There was a lot of security, including K-9 units, rooftop sentries and cameras, of course. The sentries were very unobtrusive, really. You didn’t see them most of the time, but they were there.”
Cortes said the compound included a grocery store, clinic and cafeteria. Residents would gather outside a small bar they called the “casbah,” Cortes said, to watch the European soccer matches at night on a large-screen TV.
Despite the heat, Cortes said, he played basketball on the court inside the compound.
“It was like a prison yard,” Cortes joked.
For the first few weeks, Cortes never left the compound, where he worked to prepare for five days of workshops. He also prepared a distinguished lecture speech that he was to give to Iraqi private bankers. The speech was canceled, however, because of a travel ban imposed as a result of a massive religious pilgrimage.
The workshops took place as scheduled, however, and each day Cortes was taken to Al Mansour University where business professors from several universities gathered.
“We always traveled by convoy,” Cortes said. “We were accompanied by South African and Iraqi security forces. We were in the middle in a huge bullet-proof van, like a Suburban, and I wore a Kevlar vest.”
Cortes said the similarities to scenes he has seen in some movies extended to the people around him.
“The security people are very nice folks,” Cortes said. “They are very professional. Of course, for security reasons, they only use code names, so I had security team leaders with the names of Zorro and Matrix.”
Once in the safety of the classroom, Cortes was on familiar ground. With the help of simultaneous translation, he walked the professors through the course of study he had planned.
“They were very receptive,” Cortes said. “There were many female professors there, too. They had a lot of questions. I really enjoyed the fact that they participated with my exercises and group discussion. There was a lot of back and forth, so I wasn’t just lecturing and boring them to death.”
Cortes said the gulf between his classrooms at PSU and what he found in Iraq is wide in many ways. Resources, including simple technology like videos and the Internet are in short supply. The professors’ biggest complaint, however, was about centralized control.
“Their biggest complaint was basically government,” Cortes said. “They’re still very much centralized. They’re still very much controlled by their Ministry of Education. Any changes they want to create have to go through the ministry and there’s still a lot of control from the top.”
Cortes said that although many of the professors he met were well educated, decades of isolation have taken their toll.
“It’s not that they don’t know the material,” Cortes said. “It’s maybe that some of the material that they have is kind of old. They’ve been isolated for so long and now they’re trying to get back in the mainstream.”
Cortes said that as the day neared for his return to the U.S., he was for the first time aware at how violent the world out the blast walls of his compound was for ordinary Iraqis.
“I woke at five o’clock in the morning to what sounded to me like thunder,” Cortes said, “but I knew there was no rain there. I heard two muffled explosions that seemed a little bit far away, but the third one sounded really near. It rattled the first floor and some of the light bulbs downstairs fell down. That afternoon I saw the reports that 14 people had been killed in the market by a car bomb. That’s what’s sad. A lot of this violence is against soft targets -- Iraqis just going about their daily lives.”
Still, Cortes thinks there may be some reason for optimism.
“Eventually, this country will grow and prosper again,” Cortes said. “Hopefully for the better. You’ve got a country that has a lot of resources particularly oil. It’s just a matter of time. Once they get their act together politically, with all the religious strife. This is a country that’s going to prosper.”
Cortes said he hopes that in some small way he has helped that process along.
“It’s a nice start. I think I’ve created a good starting point and a good relationship, not just with USAID, but also with these universities. I think it’s a big win for us to pursue these relationships,” Cortes said. “It was a different experience. I think we are contributing to the rebuilding of that nation and it’s a good feeling.”