The American University of Armenia (AUA) inaugurated a new building called Paramaz Avedisian on 1 November 2008, bringing state-of-the-art educational facilities to Armenia and the South Caucasus.
The building is a five-story, 10 thousand square meters edifice of tufa, basalt, and glass curtain wall, designed to accommodate the latest in video, computer, and telecommunications equipment. It includes large classrooms with central cooling and heating systems, wireless Internet connections, a video conferencing room, a café, a bookstore, a gym, and exhibition space. The new building will house all 7 units of the University. The old building, which was originally designed to host the Communist Party of Armenia SSR conferences, will be used for administrative and nonacademic purposes.
According to AUA press release, the new building was designed by Mr. Ronald Altoon, principal of Altoon + Porter Architects of California, USA. At the opening ceremony, Mr. Altoon noted that the building provides “alternative solutions to the university's energy needs.” These include simple concepts, such as setting the building orientation to minimize heat gain in the summer and maximize both heat gain and sunlight exposure in the winter. They also include “more sophisticated innovations,” such as a breathing stone wall that adds insulation, and light shelves that reflect low winter sunlight deep into the south-facing rooms.
The construction manager, Mr. Faraj Yeretsian, an Armenia-educated Lebanese citizen noted that the building is “over-designed” to withstand any earthquake. “The design was based on a University of California design, so it meets California construction codes. California schools have one of the highest standards for construction and I think we managed to keep that… Both California and Armenia are earthquake zones, so the most important design element is the cutting-edge technology used to make the building structurally sound.” said Mr. Yeretsian. This is the first structure in Armenia to be built with post-tensioned concrete, a method for overcoming concrete's natural weakness under tension.
He accepted to return to Armenia although he was happy in Lebanon. “But the project was for an educational institution, and because I've always felt indebted to Yerevan Polytechnic, I decided to take it,” he said. “I thought if I succeed, in a way I will repay my debt. It meant a lot to me that it was an educational institution. I wouldn't have accepted the offer if it was for any other kind of project.” [Yerevan Polytechnic, now called the State Engineering University of Armenia, is an under-financed and under-equipped institution with a run-down campus]
According to Ms. Danielian, Vice President of AUA, the new building “will allow the University to expand its academic programs, research activities and enrollment capacity as well as ease space and size limitations in the main building.
This was echoed by Mr. Agbabian, the University's President Emeritus who told the Armenian Reporter that the University “plans to expand its academic programs to cover areas not covered now and to attract a larger number of students from outside Yerevan.” (It is believed that student enrollment has declined in the past 2 years). The University strives to become “a regional educational center in the Caucasus, providing not just local service but service to the region at large.” One of the other options that has been selected is to expand into adult and professional education field.
For its expansion plans, other than the new building, the University counts on its American accreditation, obtained in 2007 from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). WASC is one of the 7 regional accrediting bodies recognized by the US Department of Education.
In general, during its fundraising drive in the past several years, the University has emphasized the following objectives to explain the need to have the new building:
> Continue university’s social and economic impact
> Make Armenia a regional education hub
> Enable the growth of research programs
> Sustain accreditation expectations
> Enrich the quality of day-to-day student life
> Double student enrollment
> Showcase a model facility for the country and the region
A Pioneer in Post-Soviet Region
Founded in 1991, the AUA is one of several bi-national public institutions that were established in Armenia following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Bi-national public institutions such as AUA, the French University in Armenia (UFAR), Russian-Armenian University (RAU), and the European Regional Academy (ERIICTA) are institutions that are set up in collaboration with foreign public institutions, use a language other than Armenian as language of instruction, enjoy public status in Armenia, and award graduates double degrees, one recognized by the state of Armenia and the second one by that of the partner country.
Undoubtedly, AUA is one of rather successful bi-national public institutions. The University has been able to effectively:
> Set ambitious objectives and high quality standards
> Benefit from collaboration with a strong foreign partner, the University of California system that federates prominent universities such as UCLA and UC Berkeley
> Ensure the support of the most powerful Armenian diaspora organization (UGAB)
> Mobilize the financial support of the U.S.-based diaspora, one of the richest Armenian diaspora communities
> Mobilize the moral and intellectual support and dedication of the U.S.-based Armenian academics
In its 17-year history, AUA has awarded 1,800 Master's degrees in Political Science, Business, Engineering, Public Health, and Law, as well as Certificates in Environmental Science and Conservation.
Interestingly, however, like the other bi-national public institutions, or maybe more than any of them, AUA has evolved at the margins of the Armenian academic life. Its impact on both public and private institutions has been rather limited.
One of the probable reasons behind this marginalization is the dominance of a certain diasporan “ghetto-mentality” at the leadership level as well as within the institutional culture. This mentality has been continuously nurtured by the very strong ties that bind AUA to the U.S.-based diaspora; and this inspite of a large number of non-Armenian faculty.
Pictures above: The inauguration ceremonies started with the blessing of Catholicos Garegin II, the leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The consecration was followed by an inspirational speech on the importance of education.
This is yet another example of the cultural regression that we are experiencing in this country. Only 2 months after the controversial comments by Mr. Armen Ashotian, the Chairman of the Parliament’s standing Committee on Science, Education, Culture, Sport and Youth Affairs, on the construction of a chapel within the National Assembly premises – negating the most basic principles of secularism and the impartiality of the State – the American University of America, a public Armenian institution affiliated to the University of California, a public and non-confessional institution, inaugurates its state-of-the-art facilities with a Medieval-style religious ceremony.