How Is Bulgaria Like New England?

By David R. Evans

This question probably seems like a lead-in for a funny non-sequitur, but bear with me for a moment.

The American University in Bulgaria (AUBG), where I currently serve as interim president, was founded in 1991, soon after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, originally as a branch campus of the University of Maine. Like several other international institutions, AUBG is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education, so we’re at least an honorary New England institution. This strategy streamlined initial accreditation and provided us with a base of institutional resources to start from scratch in a country that had no tradition of American-style undergraduate education. We have long since become completely independent, but our roots in New England remain fundamental to our institutional identity.

Our mission was, and remains, to promote democratic values and open inquiry and to provide opportunities for students to experience the freeing—liberating—benefits of the liberal arts. We strive to create engaged, effective citizens, critical thinkers and excellent communicators empowered by their education to take an active role in their professions and communities and always work to make the world better.

In this respect, AUBG embodies a modern version of the ethos that founded so many colleges in New England and spread across the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries. While unlike many such institutions, we have no history as a training ground for the clergy, the parallels remain clear: Our founders envisioned a better world and hoped, through establishing this institution, to play a definitive role in bringing that better world into being. In a country where, for nearly a half-century prior to our founding, the absolute last thing the communist government wanted was engaged, empowered democratic citizens who had learned and been encouraged to question and critique everything, our project and mission to bring the outcomes of a good liberal arts education to Bulgaria have been genuinely revolutionary.

AUBG also shares with many small New England colleges some significant challenges. Most importantly, Bulgaria, like many parts of New England, is in a serious demographic crisis. Bulgaria is a small country with a population of just under seven million people. Its population peaked at nearly nine million in about 1985, and has been declining ever since. Moreover, its fertility rate has been below replacement since about 1985 and is now at only 1.6 live births per woman, while the replacement rate is about 2.1. Because AUBG, like most private colleges, is significantly dependent on tuition revenue, and because our primary market is Bulgaria, the steady decline in our national population is something to take very seriously. We are, in short, deep into the worst nightmares Nathan Grawe has recently articulated in his indispensable book, Demographics and Demand for Higher Education

Unlike institutions in the U.S., we face another specific enrollment challenge. When AUBG was founded, Bulgaria was not a member of the European Union, and the university quickly became an—if not the—institution of choice for Bulgarian young people seeking a top-quality education conducted in English. However, since Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, such young people have a range of options throughout Europe at very favorable prices and have chosen particularly to pursue higher education in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Because of generous public support for higher education in the EU, there are some parallels with the challenges the “free public college” movement poses to private institutions in the U.S., but the complexities of language and culture further complicate these situations.

In Bulgaria and most of our primary markets extending throughout Eastern Europe, we face another issue in that we proudly promote American-style liberal arts undergraduate education (though honestly more in philosophy and educational practice than in our majors, which are highly weighted toward careers in our service region in business, IT, journalism and communications, and politics).

Where in the U.S., comparable institutions face increasing skepticism about the “liberal arts” in general, in our area, the question is more about what a liberal arts education actually is, and how it differs and adds value to the undergraduate experience. The public universities of Bulgaria, of which there are many, tend to follow the European model of institutional specialization, with strong specific emphases rather than a deep investment in broad liberal education. (The technocratic and often applied focus of many of these universities is also surely a relic of communist practices as well.) In that context, as sadly often in the U.S. as well, our stress on general education is often seen as alien and unhelpful, a useless distraction from the actual business at hand. In many cases, our programs require an additional year to accommodate our curriculum’s required breadth, as we follow the traditional American four-year bachelor’s model, and this added time requires a real commitment on the part of our students and their families.

I bring a very particular, painful experience to my work here, because I was the president of the private Southern Vermont College when it closed last spring as a result of declining enrollment and the associated financial stress. I have seen first-hand the challenges that face private colleges in a highly competitive market, with a product not fully understood or appreciated by its clientele, and presenting a value proposition that is not always evident to the people who most need to embrace it. There, our mission was to provide a strong, broad education to a student body comprising mostly first-generation students and students from diverse and high-need backgrounds. Over time, and exacerbated by the broad declines in high school graduates across our region, it became increasingly difficult to manage institutional finances to support affordable access for them and thus to convince them to invest in our institution despite our evident success in supporting students to graduation and successful careers.

At recent professional meetings back in the U.S., in conversations with colleagues, I have been struck by how comparable, if not similar, our challenges are. Like many colleagues, I take strength from the power and importance of AUBG’s mission and from the tremendous success of our alumni, and work constantly to ensure that this mission can endure in the context of unprecedented challenges to a basic model that has, as New Englanders know, developed and supported exceptional leaders for over three centuries.

David R. Evans is interim president of the American University in Bulgaria.

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