Thoughts on AUAF (Part 2)

This blog post is the second and final account of my experience at AUAF. For Part 1, about my time as an administrator at AUAF, the link is provided here. There are a number of links to PDFs of email exchanges in this blog. These emails are saved directly from Gmail or from my cache of AUAF student emails.

It is 9 months since my termination from AUAF as Media Relations Manager. I am still in Kabul.

I have been working for an Afghan media group called GroupOne Media. For the first 6 months I served as Director of Project Management in the strategic communications division of 1TV, and then as Director of Business Development for the group’s affiliated marketing agency, Pixel. In my second role, my schedule was flexible. I knew that I could take on something bigger. For the last several years I had been thinking of when and where I could undertake some form of graduate education, but I had yet to submit any applications.

Now I was ready to get back to school, but I didn’t want to leave Afghanistan. That put me in a bit of a pickle, since the only remotely credible graduate program in the country was the MBA program at the American University of Afghanistan. I submitted my application in April 2014, and met with the Program Director, Patrick Asea, at his office. We had a little chat, and I filled him in on what I had been doing in the Afghan media sector since leaving AUAF. I also told him about my various (often self-inflicted) trials as an AUAF administrator, which he seemed to both sympathize with and find amusing.

In July I received notice that I was accepted into the program. What happens next has been divided into four acts.

Act 1: ‘Shots Fired!’ – Hostilities Begin with Patrick

The MBA program at AUAF starts with a 2-week math ‘Boot Camp’. In summary, the material is extremely complex, with many students quickly finding themselves in the weeds. Our homework assignments were not graded, so we had little idea how we were doing in terms of mastering the material. At this point I have my first terse email exchange with Patrick. He does not seem pleased about receiving any kind of feedback. At the end of the boot camp, there is a final exam. Everyone manages to ‘pass’, although no scores are given and we are never given the opportunity to see our exams.

The Fall 2014 semester starts at AUAF, which I do not take seriously. I can work remotely for my marketing agency, so I take two trips that fall (to Georgia/Armenia and Pakistan). The class that everyone is most concerned about is Patrick’s Quantitative Methods of Business (QMB) 500, which involves fairly advanced mathematics. I received a 59% on the mid-term, which was then mysteriously scaled up to a 74% without any explanation.

Before you start thinking about how concerned I must have been about this 59% (74%?) grade on the mid-term, I should note here that this was the 3rd highest grade in the class. Typical grades for other students were 20% or 30% (or worse).

Other students in the program are panicking, so I write an email to Patrick and tell him about my concerns. He replies that my feedback is “Very useful”.

Soon after the mid-term, in November 2014, my boss at the marketing agency tells me that he wants to set up a division monitoring advertising on Afghan television. I tell him that I am learning all of this advanced business mathematics (in QMB 500), and we should go ahead and spin off an entirely new company dedicated to media monitoring AND market research. We find other investors and start work renovating an office space and registering a new company. The company is given the name Afghanistan Monitoring & Research (AMR).

AMR has no past performance record but my partner’s company, Pixel, does. In December 2014 Pixel wins the contract to monitor all telecoms advertising for Etisalat, a UAE-headquartered telecoms company with a subsidiary in Afghanistan. This contract is subcontracted to AMR. By the end of December I have 9 full-time staff and I am under intense pressure to find more clients so we can break even on our operational expenses.

Back to AUAF . . .

The QMB 500 final exam, originally scheduled for December 2014, is rescheduled for January 2015.

A week before the exam, I ask Patrick about the provision of study material. He responds defensively, and the email exchange gets ugly fast.

20 minutes later Patrick emails the study material that I had requested for the class. Without my email request, the class would have gotten nothing.

With the exam days away, I find myself faced with two business development meetings with two major Afghan banks on the same day as the final exam. In retrospect, I should have rescheduled the meetings with the banks and focused on studying. At the time, though, I believed that any student could simply re-take a failed class as needed. Keep in mind, there was nothing to indicate the contrary since there was no student handbook or guidebook provided to the MBA candidates, nor were any MBA program policies published online or emailed to students.

I skipped the final exam and took the F in QMB 500. In an email sent before the exam, Patrick acknowledged that the class was not prepared to be tested on a critical chapter from the textbook.

When I went to register for class for the Spring 2015 semester, Patrick banned me from registering for both of his courses (Managerial Economics and QMB 501), based on QMB 500 being a prerequisite. Rod Monger, on the other hand, waved the prerequisite for his Financial Accounting class. It wasn’t just Monger that was arbitrarily waving prerequisites; Patrick had waved the prerequisites for an entire MBA cohort from the Ministry of Finance the year before.

When I objected to Patrick’s decision by email, what ensued was an absolute train wreck back-and-forth exchange between Patrick and I, where we took turns roasting each other in front of the entire MBA faculty and the university provost, Dr. Timor Saffary. You have to see it to believe it (scroll down in the email thread to start at the beginning).

You would think that after such a vicious exchange between an MBA candidate and the MBA Program Director, the university administration would step in and intervene. Instead there was deafening silence.

I write to provost Dr. Timor Saffary directly, to ask him if he had any comments about me being banned from continuing with the program material. He provides a canned response about university policies (which do not exist for the MBA program) and course evaluations. Keep in mind, the course evaluation period is only open for a limited period of time before the final exam. As such, I have no official means to submit a critique of Patrick’s behavior in the week leading up to the exam.

Act 2: The Failed Rebellion and Patrick’s Ultimate Demise

In the Spring 2015 semester I took the one class I was allowed to take, Financial Accounting (ACC 550). I get a B.

In the Fall 2015 semester I take QMB 500 (again) with Patrick. I get to meet a whole new cohort of MBA students, which is cool (extra networking!). After the final exam, when I check my grades online, there is no grade posted. I go to Patrick’s office and ask him about the grade. He tells me verbally that I received a C. He also adds that this is ‘the highest grade possible a student can receive for a re-take.’ I leave the office feeling content. The grade is not actually added to my transcript until 6 months later, after Patrick has been fired. I have no idea that this C on my transcript will contribute to my expulsion from the MBA program.

It is now the Spring 2016 semester. I am taking QMB 501 with Patrick.

As the semester progressed, things were becoming more tense with Patrick. While the university administration was not particularly concerned about the mountains of complaints filed against Patrick, they were concerned with his role as a ringleader in the ‘Great Faculty Revolt’ of October 2015. That month the AUAF faculty sided overwhelmingly against then-president Dr. Mark English, in a Vote of No Confidence. Patrick was one of the key organizers, alongside law professor Nafay Choudhury. Choudhury was fired three months later, on 25 January 2016. By April 2016, the administration was coming for Patrick.

April 2016 ended up being a pretty wild month for the AUAF MBA program in general and me in particular. Let me go through the important dates:

3 April 2016: Representatives from the senior class (my original class) meet with us, the juniors. The topic of conversation is Patrick. The seniors are worried that if Patrick is fired, they will not be able to graduate from the program. When one of the juniors realizes that that one of the seniors, Nargis Azizshahi, is secretly recording the discussion on her phone, chaos breaks out. Several enraged juniors physically take Nargis’ phone and delete the recording. Fear hangs in the air – Patrick is cornered and everyone instinctively knows how dangerous a cornered animal can be.

The students are split into three main groups: those that are vehemently against Patrick, those who see an opportunity to ingratiate themselves to Patrick, (and thereby win grading favors in the future) by spying for him, and those who don’t want to be involved at all. The third group is the overwhelming majority.

4 April 2016: Patrick emails all the MBA students to tell them that he will not be fired. His declaration of victory is premature; he will be fired shortly after the conclusion of the semester.

12 April 2016: I send an email to the provost, Dr. Timor Saffary, and university president, Dr. Mark English, detailing my suggestions for reform of the MBA program. I also CCed Patrick. I do not receive any response from Dr. Saffary or Dr. English, but I do receive another angry response from Patrick that included personally insulting language.

14 April 2016: I email the provost and president again, asking if Patrick has carte blanche to do as he likes. Provost Saffary responds that the rights of the members of the AUAF community, including students are “well defined”. I take issue with this statement.  

17 April 2016: I email five selected classmates I believe carry weight as leaders, from both the junior and senior classes. I want to talk about a reform proposal for the MBA program. I include Nargis Azizshahi, the senior class representative, even though she had been caught secretly recording conversations just two weeks earlier. That was probably a mistake. One of those five is a spy for Patrick, and forwards him my email.

18 April 2016: Patrick emails the entire junior class about a “special session”, scheduled for 20 April.

20 April 2016:  This was the day of the “special session” (we had received a second reminder about this session earlier in the day).

I make my way to class but I’m a couple of minutes late. Walking the long path to the ICAWED building where classes are held, I get a message from one my trusted friends in the program, “Don’t you think you should’ve been here?”

Facebook Message, Rabia, 20 April Special Session

That message at least gave me about 60 seconds to mentally prepare for the ambush Patrick had laid out for me.

I get to class and Patrick has a PowerPoint running that explains – in short – how amazing he is with all of his degrees and gushing course evaluations, and how unqualified David Fox is (me!) to make any comment about the state of the MBA program. The PowerPoint included copied-and-pasted text from the email I had sent to the five select classmates on 17 April, as well as a (completely inaccurate) table of how all of my suggested reforms were either unnecessary or already implemented or “crazy/funny” (see below photo).

PowerPoint, Patrick, Slide 2

My photo of one of Patrick’s PowerPoint slides

This was the most Alpha Male play of all time, and in Afghanistan Alpha Male tactics work. Most of the class remained silent, but a couple of students chimed in to say how they ‘didn’t want reform’, and ‘just wanted to study’. Most of the class nodded obediently in response. A class full of successful management-level professionals had been completely cowed.

Patrick’s message was simple but clear; I am the Alpha, my spies are everywhere, and if I say 2+2=5, you say ‘Yes sir.’

All my work to generate student support for a proposal of reform for the MBA program was completely crushed.

I make a post on Facebook that evening about what happened.

Facebook Post, Patrick PowerPoint

Less than an hour later I get an email from Patrick. One of his spies on my Facebook friends list had taken a screenshot of my private post and sent it to him. He writes, “There you go again on FaceBook. You don’t get. You never will. Why would you lie that I cancelled class when you were part of the chorus that REQUESTED it UNANIMOUSLY?”

The class definitely had NOT unanimously requested to cancel class. Most of the students were in shock, and when three or four students meekly asked for class to be cancelled, the rest (including myself) did not say a word for or against.

That night I emailed the senior administration, and CCed Leslie Shweitzer (a member of the Board of Directors) to file an official harassment complaint against Patrick for his PowerPoint character assassination. There was no response.

April passes. Despite focusing intensely on study for both the mid-term and final for QMB 501 (and feeling very confident about the material in both cases), I receive a D in the course. Once again, I feel that ‘Gotcha! questions not covered in the study material, as well as non-transparent grading, led to the failing grade. With the senior administration still refusing to investigate Patrick’s practice of curving exam and course grades without explanation, I have no ground to stand on to file a grading dispute.

On 30 May 2016 all the students arrive to start the summer Corporate Finance (FIN 550) course. Patrick is scheduled to teach the class, but . . . there is no Patrick. Suddenly Rod Monger bursts in, and starts going on about being exhausted after preparing the syllabus late the night before.

After the class, I ask Monger why Patrick was not teaching the class. Monger replies that Patrick is on “extended leave”. We exchange knowing looks.

Patrick had been unceremoniously fired while he was on vacation. Cold . . . as . . . ice . . .

Act 3: Expelled Over a C 

After I learned about Patrick being fired, I was euphoric. The feeling I had was birthday + Christmas + winning the lottery, all at the same time.

I was still at AUAF. Patrick was fired from AUAF. I had won. I was winner. Patrick was the loser.

Following in the footsteps of my arch nemesis, I had prematurely declared victory.

On 1 July 2017, Rod Monger, now Acting Director of the MBA program, sends out an email to the rising seniors in the program (myself among them) explaining that students will be expelled for having more than three Cs in their transcript. The email also explains that students must complete the program in three years.

This is the first time any policy of this kind has been officially shared with students.

I should have raised hell right at that moment, but I didn’t. Patrick was fired, I had won, no need to worry anymore. Monger could be cranky and verbally abusive at times, but he was a reasonable man (or so I thought).

The problem was that although Patrick was gone, he had successfully taken a giant steaming dump all over my transcript. At that point I had one F (from QMB 500), one C (from my re-take of QMB 500), and one D (from QMB 501). This was enough to put me in the danger zone. I couldn’t even contest my C from my re-take of QMB 500, because Patrick hadn’t even added it to my transcript. All the rest of my grades were As and Bs.

That summer my company received its biggest project to date, the production of a video for USAID’s Promote initiative. Again, I was stuck between my obligations to my company shareholders and staff and the MBA program. I received a C from Monger in that FIN 550 class . . . which put me one step closer to expulsion.

At the end of the summer I go to the US for my little brother’s wedding. While I am in the US AUAF is attacked by terrorists. Many of my friends were at the main West Campus at the time of the attack; I watch in horror on Facebook as they post frantically for help.

When the attack is ended, the university administration has to decide what to do. If they re-open the campus immediately for class, they face accusations that they are putting students’ lives at risk (again) by not fortifying the campus first. If they cancel classes completely for the semester, then it would mean that ‘the terrorists had won’. So AUAF took a half measure; the semester would go forward, but with classes taken online.

For the seniors in the MBA program, we had four online courses: Business Law (MGT 570), Operations Management (MGT 520), Thesis Prep Course (MGT 598), and Leading People and Organizations (MGT 500).

I have my best semester yet at AUAF; two As, one B+, and one C+ (in MGT 500), for a semester GPA of 3.4/4.

That C+, though, was enough to trigger AUAF’s newly announced “policy” regarding expulsions based on Cs. I aggressively contested the C+ (a story for another day), but the AUAF senior administration maintained their unofficial policy of backing ‘their own’ in any dispute with students.

On 13 February 2017 I receive an email from Monger that I have been expelled from the MBA program, with no option to re-apply.

 Act 4: Searching for Accountability

I had spent two and a half years working for this degree, spent well over $10,000 dollars in tuition fees, and faced extraordinary trials dealing with Patrick.

I was not going down without a fight.

On 17 February 2017 I contact USAID’s Afghanistan division in Washington DC. They forward my contact information to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) office at the US Embassy in Kabul.

On 21 February 2017 I meet with SIGAR investigators at the US Embassy. They are currently investigating AUAF for corrupt practices. Academic issues aren’t really their concern (or USAID’s concern), but they want to talk to anyone and everyone who has anything to say about AUAF. They are particularly interested in my comments related to Provost Timor Saffary.

On 25 February 2017 I meet with then-president David Sedney. He is very unhappy to see me, and almost immediately calls in Rob Monger to participate in the meeting.

I ask Sedney how we can even begin talking about my academic status at AUAF when I cannot even access my transcript. He slides a printed copy of my transcript  across the table. I quickly circle the Cs, Ds, and Fs, and ask how I could be expelled over grades issued by Patrick, who had since been fired and disgraced.

Monger replies that, “Patrick is history.”

I remind them that while Patrick may be history at AUAF, his hatchet job on my transcript was very much not history, and was very much a leading factor in my expulsion from the program.

Sedney’s body language wavers between aggravation and disinterest. He wants this issue to go away. When I ask how the QMB 500 grade mysteriously appeared on my transcript, Monger jumps in to say that they will investigate it. Afterwards I email them to follow up on this matter, but I get no response.

On 3 April I file a complaint with the Afghan Government Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE). The MoHE drafts a letter of inquiry, which they ask me to deliver to the AUAF administration. Although I had coordinated the delivery of the letter in advance, with president Sedney’s assistant, when I arrive on campus I am barred from delivering the letter and turned around. I have to send the letter by email, as a scan.

Conclusion

I think that the AUAF MBA program is an incredible asset for Afghanistan’s economic development. As someone who is deeply involved in the private sector here (as both a small business owner and a researcher on startup and trade issues), I can tell you that the business community is woefully lacking in managers that are familiar with higher-level business skills and concepts. For me, personally, I do not believe I would be able to build my market research agency, manage its finances professionally, and take on complex research projects without the classes I took at AUAF. I do not regret one dollar I paid to AUAF for tuition.

At the same time, the potential of AUAF’s MBA program can never be reached until it is managed judiciously, with firm oversight of the program’s faculty and Director, as well as clearly stated and widely published policies that are evenly enforced.

AUAF should also acknowledge (internally, at least) that its faculty and staff are more prone to mental health issues than typical university personnel in the United States. There must be a unit within the university that protects students’ rights (e.g. a Dean of Students) and keeps abusive and/or mentally unwell faculty and staff in check.

This upcoming Saturday I will resume the process of pushing forward my complaint against AUAF with the Ministry of Higher Education. Rod Monger, when pressed by the MoHE to respond to my complaint, wrote that I was expelled as a result of the “Policies and Procedures” of the MBA program.

If this is true, I would like to publicly challenge Rod Monger or any AUAF official to provide evidence that MBA program policies were published in print or online form and disseminated to incoming students. If Rod Monger cannot manage this, he should resign immediately for making false statements to an Afghan Government ministry in an official inquiry.

All students who have been expelled as a result of unpublished “policies” and mentally unwell faculty (i.e. Patrick) should be allowed to resume their studies.

With Dr. Kenneth Holland assuming the position of AUAF President last month, there is a real opportunity for reform. Dr. Holland can either choose to ‘not rock the boat’, and allow his subordinates to continue to victimize students, or he can work to bring AUAF closer to the level of a real ‘American University’, in which student education and welfare – rather than suppression of dissent – is the primary concern of senior management.

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