Most days I walk safely across campus at the University of Denver, out of harm’s way. I always scoffed at the portrayal of Indiana Jones as a university professor. I considered it exaggerated fictionalization and sheer imagination that university professors might find themselves in danger out in the field.
Then, last year, I found myself in a bunker in a concrete compound surrounded by a security detail in Kabul, Afghanistan. Islamic extremists had bombed the parliament building about 400 yards away, and I took refuge in the safest place I could, waiting for the danger to pass. How does a Denver business school dean find himself here? I was asked for help by the State Department.
Afghanistan is one of the most misunderstood and volatile countries in the world. It has been part of a critical trade route in central Asia for more than 2,000 years with many merchants and entrepreneurs. More recently, it has been known for sectarian violence and for housing extremist religious groups rather than for trade.
Since the attacks of 9/11, the U.S. has paid particular attention to Afghanistan in an attempt to prevent future terrorist acts. Experts estimate that the we have spent as much as $1 trillion on the war in Afghanistan over the past 15 years, and more than 2,400 U.S. soldiers have lost their lives there.
Afghanistan remains an important territory geopolitically, and the U.S has struggled to achieve stability and safety in the region. But after 15 years with American “boots on the ground,” it is imperative for Afghanistan to find its own footing. And that was part of my mission.
Last week, I traveled to Afghanistan on my third trip in the last year as part of the U.S. government’s workforce development program. The goal is to build a functioning, self-sustaining business economy there to provide services to citizens and, therefore, some degree of hope for the future.
I believe in the power of education and of a private-sector marketplace to give people access to better opportunities and a path out of profound poverty. Business schools are uniquely qualified to help build the economy in Afghanistan and in similar regions by developing human capital and transferring technical skills as well as business principles around entrepreneurship and critical thinking. They are a natural platform because, ideally, they intersect the academic, public policy and business environments and have the resources to help build more solid economic foundations in developing countries.
My first task in Afghanistan was to bring representatives from business schools, policymakers and business leaders together to create the first-ever MBA program in the country. We drafted the coursework and secured the approval of the Ministry of Education. Now we’re working to educate the faculty, which is unfamiliar with many of today’s common business concepts.
Our goal is to show teachers how to inspire students to be creative and entrepreneurial, and to encourage students to interact with their professors through classroom discussions. The hope is to bring faculty from Afghanistan to the United States to experience teaching methods that facilitate deeper learning and to engage with our community. I would also like to prepare our students and faculty here for today’s global economy by taking them to Afghanistan.
There is certainly a steep road ahead for the country to absorb new ways of thinking about business, but we are already making progress. The government officials and others we have interacted with are open and willing to developing the private sector. Most MBA graduates in Afghanistan will end up in government positions, so the new MBA curriculum is already reaching the country’s future leaders.
While much of Afghanistan’s future depends on what happens militarily and politically, I believe that by developing the private business sector there, we can give people hope and gradually improve the situation for individuals, organizations, communities and, eventually, the country.
Elrie LaBrent “Brent” Chrite is dean of the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver.