Dr. Bruce Boghosian

Bruce Boghosian Returns for a Second Term as AUA President

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WATERTOWN — Dr. Bruce Boghosian has spent a good part of his career as a professor in the Department of Mathematics at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and even served as department chair from 2006 to 2010, but twice he has done something very different. He served as president of the American University of Armenia (AUA), a university founded in 1991 in Yerevan after Armenian independence, from 2010 to 2014; he has returned for a second term starting this September.

Dr. Bruce Boghosian

Round One

“It was from 2010 to 2014, and one of the challenges of that time was that the university was in a period of growth. It needed to grow. It needed to add an undergraduate program. The challenges of figuring that out and the challenge of leaving the university in a better financial situation thanks to the undergraduate program, of growing the number of students, all of those things were interesting challenges to figure out,” Boghosian reminisced.

When Boghosian first arrived at AUA, there were only 400 graduate students at the university but the Paramaz Avedisian Building had just been completed at the end of 2008 and could provide room for many more students. External consultants, Boghosian said, had suggested it needed to add an undergraduate program to grow. “That was all an interesting and ultimately rewarding thing to do at the time for the university,” he declared.

He put aside his research for four years while focusing on administration, yet he found some parallels. He explained, “Mathematics in many ways is problem solving. You have conditions you have to satisfy and you have constraints you have to satisfy and you have to find a solution to it. I think of administration in roughly the same way. It is not as neat and nice as mathematics is, it is maybe not as elegant sometimes, but in the end, it is problem solving.”

Round Two

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“These years later,” he said, “I have watched the trajectory of the university and I am really impressed with the way that the university has grown, impressed with the way that it has strengthened over the years, I am impressed with the way that it now has all of the infrastructure that you would expect of an American university.”

This infrastructure includes a faculty senate with various committees and policies protecting academic freedom.

Other changes include the donation of two buildings in Yerevan, Boghosian said. After K. George and Carolann S. Najarian gifted them in 2016, they were renovated by means of various grants, and one was named the AUA K. George and Carolann S. Najarian MD Building, which holds the Najarian Center for Social Entrepreneurship, and the second, the AUA Student Residence, a dormitory which makes AUA more accessible and affordable for students from the Armenian provinces.

Now the university has entered a phase when it needs to grow again, Boghosian said. The university had to reject hundreds of qualified students with combined SAT scores in the high 700s because it again had no room. “And the challenge of that appealed to me,” he said. “It is a harder task this time, I think. It is a bigger university.”

Land had been purchased already under prior administrations that will serve as space for a cluster of three buildings with an atrium connecting all three. This will essentially allow a doubling of the population of the university between now and late 2027 or 2028, Boghosian said. At present there are some 2,300 students, mostly undergraduate with a few hundred graduate students, but when the process is complete, there will be a total of 4,000.

He noted that while most of the demand appears to be in the undergraduate program at present, the university also wants to improve its research programs, which necessarily means improving its graduate programs. Boghosian said, “I would like to see a technology transfer kind of program that exist in American universities. It is one way that the university can connect with industry in Armenia. There are the beginnings of this at this point.” The university already has the Entrepreneurship and Product Innovation Center (EPIC), which helps turn ideas into concrete business ventures through pre-incubation and incubator programs on campus. Boghosian continued, “We could go further. We could go into pre-accelerator and accelerator stages even, spinning off companies. That involves figuring out transfer of intellectual property in the same way that American universities sort out that.” In the US, around half of all research starts out in academia, he said, and it is critically important for the economy, the security and the defense of Armenia to have more research be conducted.

Finally, he wants to increase transparency and make the university more attuned to issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI, or, adding justice, DEIJ in acronym form). Aside from gender equity, there is also equity between students from the provinces and the capital, and students from abroad and those native to Armenia, which means basically making sure to give people the same opportunities to excel if they have the capability and work ethic required.

Admissions and Student Aid

Part of this equity approach is what in the US would be called a full need and need-blind policy. As Boghosian explained it, need blind means that admissions are based solely on merit, with financial factors not considered until after admission. Full need means that AUA then assesses what an admitted student will need financially based on family income, wealth and background, and provides that. The highest financial aid level the university will give is 90 percent, Boghosian said, as it always requires that students pay something.

A full need and need-blind policy is a common approach for public universities in the US but uncommon for private ones, like AUA. Boghosian said, “We are really proud to be able to offer this aspect of American education here as well.”

According to AUA Chief Communications Officer Narek Ghazaryan, in the academic year 2022-23, 79 percent of students applying for financial aid received it, with the average reduction in annual tuition being 63 percent. Furthermore, 70 percent of applicants for international scholarships received them. Such third-party scholarships are in addition to what AUA itself provides to any student.

AUA has also not been indifferent to the special situation of the refugees from Artsakh. First, it has encouraged students themselves to help in any way that they can, Boghosian says, including gathering food and household supplies for them, while law students are providing them with legal help. The AUA development team raised funds thanks to the Manoogian Simone Foundation that will allow the 50 undergraduate and graduate students currently from Artsakh to study tuition-free for the rest of this year. AUA current students from Artsakh are offered counseling.

Programs will be made available to those preparing to go to college to allow them to study English between now and the time when they can apply to AUA or other universities next year.

Dr. Bruce Boghosian delivering a speech during an award ceremony in memory of AUA fallen student Erik Hajikyan

AUA also had employees in Artsakh as part of its Open Education and Turpanjian Rural Development programs in Stepanakert. After monitoring their status until they made it out of Artsakh safely, AUA then worked to find new jobs for them in other parts of AUA, so that their paychecks were never interrupted, Boghosian detailed.

Educational Approach

AUA remains, Boghosian said, a traditional liberal arts institution, with colleges of science and engineering, humanities and social sciences, business and economics, and public health. “The barriers for interdisciplinary communication and cooperation between these fields is low in AUA,” he said, and there is a general education distribution requirement as well as a general education program.

Boghosian declared, “Our aim is to create classically educated students who are familiar with the great ideas of intellectual history, who are able to quote the works from the ancients up to the present day, who are able to keep conflicting ideas in their head at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

The specific degree fields offered at AUA were chosen based on various criteria. Boghosian explained: “The principal thing is that there must be a sufficient number of faculty who are interested in doing it and participating and working in that degree program…You also need to look at the market and whether there is a demand for these students in Armenia and whether these students will have jobs when they graduate and jobs that keep them staying in Armenia. We look at that very closely. Part of our intention is to give students the deep education that they need to thrive in Armenia.”

In addition, he said, “We want to make sure that we produce people who are able to thrive in Armenia, are employable in Armenia and can help the Armenian economy, can help Armenian security, and can help Armenian defense.”

If enrollment numbers in any area falls too low, AUA can remove program offerings, and has done so in the past, Boghosian attested.

Relations with the Armenian Government and Politics

“The Armenian government has encouraged us over the years,” Boghosian stressed. During his first term as president, he said it encouraged AUA to start the undergraduate program. Though Yerevan State University (YSU) is a public university of the Armenian state, so AUA could be considered as competition, Boghosian said that the Ministry of Education considered this to be a healthy and constructive competition. In fact, he said that AUA belongs to a consortium of Armenian universities including YSU, and enjoys good relations with YSU, which is also growing and building up its infrastructure.

Another example of government support is AUA’s collaboration with the Central Bank of Armenia, which helped AUA start its master’s degree in economics through funding. This degree program migrated to the Central Bank’s research and training center in Dilijan, and now it may be the only one of AUA’s degrees which is given entirely remotely at this point, Boghosian said.

The “Velvet Revolution” of 2018 did not change anything in the relationship apparently. Boghosian said, “When I think back on my relationship with the Minister of Education at that time [during his first presidential term] and now, it is largely the same. It is a respectful, cordial relationship. They want us to succeed. And we want them to succeed in the same way that when you get on an airplane, you want the pilot to succeed. I don’t care what his political views are. I want him to succeed because I am on the airplane. That is how I feel about the different governments that have come to power here.”

Dr. Boghosian addressing guests at the American University of Armenia

The university stayed out of the events leading up to the 2018 change of regime in Armenia because such institutional participation is not allowed by university policies, Boghosian said. In fact, during his first term, he communicated with Tufts University to find out its policies concerning political and religious activities at or by the university, and basically AUA adopted the same policies. If students or faculty as individuals want to go out on the streets and demonstrate, Boghosian said they do and the university does not ever attempt to stop them. “We’d like to think of it as an area where debate is open, encouraged, and civic participation is absolutely encouraged, but we don’t take sides and we try to teach students to respect other students’ points of view.

Debate and civic participation are encouraged. On the other hand, he said, “Partisan politics needs to be kept out of the classroom.”

However, there was a small incident at the end of this September, when some students were arrested by patrol police, commonly identified by their red berets, for having engaged in an on-campus protest. Boghosian said that the students were released within about 3 ½ hours. The AUA authorities reviewed security camera footage and Boghosian said, “Our students really were not doing anything wrong and we stand by the statement we made at the time expressing our concern.”

It was a difficult time, with the ethnic cleansing of Artsakh, and emotions were running high. Boghosian recalled that the day before this incident, a group of students tried to knock down the door of the president of YSU, so the police were probably on a hair trigger. He said, “I think they realized pretty quickly that they had overreacted and they let our students go.”

Connections with the United States

“Over the years the US government has been very supportive of AUA as representing American higher education and American values in Armenia,” Boghosian said. In the 1990s the US jumpstarted AUA’s endowment with a donation of 9.5 million dollars, according to Ghazaryan. Since then, the American Schools and Hospitals Abroad (ASHA) program of USAID has given about 15 million dollars’ worth of grants, which have been very helpful in building infrastructure.

Dr. Bruce Boghosian and US Ambassador to Armenia Kristina Kvien

Boghosian said that to his knowledge, ASHA or the US government never has asked in exchange for any modification to the university curriculum. He said, “I think that they are happy with the fact that we promote ideas like democracy and academic freedom. These are really specifically American ideas that we have here.” Moreover things like AUA’s faculty senate or its whistle blower program are giving Armenia exposure to American values too, he added.

USAID’s ASHA Program Analyst Lauren Chitty, front left, meets with Bruce Boghosian, right center, at the American University of Armenia

AUA is affiliated with the University of California (UC), which of course strengthens its American connection, and as a result of this affiliation is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) Senior College and University Commission in the United States. Many of the board members of AUA, Boghosian noted, are from the UC system. The chair of the AUA board is the former UC system-wide provost while the chair of the UCLA Faculty Senate is another board member. In other words, there are fairly high level administrators from throughout the UC system at AUA.

Boghosian said, “This is a wonderful resource because if we go to them with problems that we are having, chances are that they have experienced those problems before,” including, of course, the growing pains of new campuses.

There are also domain specific areas in which AUA has cooperative agreements with UC. For example, the Turpanjian College of Health Sciences has a cooperative agreement with the University of California, Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health.

AUA is also exploring offers from top universities in the US for cooperative agreements on teaching online courses, where AUA students can benefit from US-based courses, while American students can take courses offered by AUA.

AUA employs some faculty from the UC as well as other institutions in the US. According to the AUA Factbook for 2022-2023, 29 faculty members, 9 percent of the total, are US citizens. Boghosian remarked, “We certainly do look for faculty who have had not only training, maybe a PhD or post doc, but also some academic experience in the US. That is important for us. If we can find somebody who maybe started in Armenia and got an academic position in the West and at some point in their career wants to turn around and come back here, we love getting people like that. That is ideal for us in many ways. It sort of reverses the brain drain a little bit and we like it when we can do that.”

Financially, AUA relies a lot on its US connections. The majority of its endowment is managed by the UC system. “What that means in the case of the University of California,” Boghosian said, “is that the same people who invest the endowment of the University of California invest AUA’s endowment and they are very good at what they do. They get good returns on the funds that are donated to us for the endowment.”

Furthermore, Boghosian said, the business model of the university is to raise funds in the United States for use in Armenia. For this purpose, AUA has a board in the US for what is named the American University of Armenia Corporation, a 501c3 nonprofit corporation which can thus provide receipts for tax deductible donations in the US. Donations are then passed on to the AUA Foundation (“Himnadram”) in Armenia, which has its own board and is an Armenian legal entity necessary for issuing higher education degrees there.

While there is some fundraising in Armenia from AUA alumni and some leaders of industry, Boghosian said, “There isn’t quite the same culture of philanthropy in Armenia as there is in the US. Part of it is maybe the lack of tax-deductible donations in Armenia as there is in the US.”

AUA has one more important connection in the United States, and that is the Armenian General Benevolent Union, with its international headquarters in New York City. The AGBU played an important role in AUA’s inception, along with the UC system, the Armenian government and the US government. The AGBU continues, Boghosian said, to play a very helpful and committed role. The AUA board to this day has AGBU members, and a part of the AUA endowment is held by the AGBU.

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