The University for Peace – once almost ruined by conflict, questionable financial practices and lack of performance – has come a long way, say its boosters.
For one thing, says Vice Rector George Tsai, “We now have more professors than gardeners.”
He laughs as he says it, of course, but he is only half-joking.
“During the 2001-2002 academic year, we had more gardeners than professors – seriously,” he says.
The UnitedNations-chartedUniversity for Peace (UPEACE), formed in 1980, had few graduates, even 20 years after its creation.
Having produced its first significant graduating class just five years ago, in 2003, the graduate school institution – set up in Costa Rica near Cuidad Colón, west of San José – has now revealed plans to double within five years the number in the current class, which is about 150.
Many have questioned what was going on at the university during its first 23 years, but those at UPEACE are keener to look ahead and focus on their more recent achievements.
The university, funded almost entirely by international donations from organizations and governments, was on the brink of collapse at the dawn of this century.
In 1999, its budget was just $750,000 and was shouldering an inherited deficit. Last year, expenditures stood at nearly $7 million and the university has increased the number of master’s programs from six in 2004 to 10 available this academic year.
During its first 20 years, not a lot seemed to take place at the secluded campus, and few are willing to dwell on the period.
But the campus, tucked deep inside a thick jungle about 30 minutes drive west of the capital city, is plush and immaculately maintained, a detail perhaps carried over from when the university had more gardeners than professors.
During Tsai’s nearly five-year tenure, the university, at least on its face, appears to have been transformed.
Tsai acknowledges that UPEACE had at one point looked doomed.
“When I joined and I looked at the first shortfall projections, I was really worried. I did not know exactly how long we could maintain this place.”
Now, says Tsai, UPEACE can look ahead with some cautionary confidence.
“While we are not really comfortable – we still have financial needs – we are getting solid support from loyal donors and we are expanding our activities,” he says.
Help from High Places
Much of the progress can be put down to a revitalization process launched by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Up to last August, some $46.5 million had been raised in the more than eight years since its inception. And there are now nearly 400 graduates, the largest number of them, 154, from the United States.
Before, the university’s future looked bleak. Former rector Martin Lees, a Scot who led the institution out of the precarious period, acknowledged in a 2003 interview with the Times Higher Education Supplement magazine in London that it was “an introverted little place. It wasn’t reaching out all over the world. It wasn’t particularly spectacular.”
The school was also mired in controversy. In 2003, it evicted the Radio for Peace International, its erstwhile partner, after a bitter rental contract dispute – hardly the kind of publicity an institution that promotes conflict resolution needed (TT, Nov. 14, 2003).
A year later, UPEACE’s council president, Maurice Strong, was forced to move back to his native Canada amid allegations by the Costa Rican government that he wrongly sold land donated to the Earth Council, which was closely tied to the university (TT, June 4, 2004). Strong later was implicated in the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal. The university appears to have weathered the storm surrounding those damaging scandals, with Annan’s financial recovery plan apparently still on track.
Lees had attributed the financial problems, in part, to a lack of focus on the university by U.N. headquarters in New York City.
After the intervention of Annan, all that appeared to change.Among the donors are the Canadian International Development Agency ($7 million), Finland ($1.4 million), the Korean private sector ($1 million) and Norway ($2.1 million). Interestingly, Nicaragua – one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere – has even donated to the cause.
John Maresca, who took over as rector last August amid controversy over his business and military connections, vowed to get donations from the U.S. government. The backlash over his appointment apparently set those efforts back. His plans to lobby the United States are ongoing, UPEACE officials say, but they offered no details of the progress.
Tsai says UPEACE is now firmly focused on three main goals: strengthening face-toface teaching; creating programs in other parts of the world; and sharing knowledge through distance learning.
He says partnerships already are in place around the world. The institution offers a dual master’s degree in natural resources and sustainable development with the American University in Washington, D.C.
Elsewhere, Tsai says, the development of an Africa program, run by a Rwandan university professor, is one of the most important achievements.
The Africa link would appear to fit with UPEACE’s aim to harness talent and foster peace in Third World countries, where many of the world’s most brutal conflicts occur.
However, one overseas venture had to be abandoned. A Canadian campus, opened in July 2005 as the Toronto Centre, lasted just over a year after funding ran dry from the Ottawa government.
The make-up of the student population can also put a strain on funding, says Tsai. Just $5.5 million has been generated from tuition and other non-donor sources during the revitalization period, just over 10% of total income.
“This can be explained by several factors,” says Tsai, giving as an example “the needs and the composition” of the student body. “We are trying to train students from developing countries. Many cannot find the money to pay for tuition.”
The long-term aim is to create an endowment fund, which, Tsai says, would free the university from the constant anxiety of wondering where the next donation is coming from.
The endowment, he explains, would generate interest income that would support the day-to-day running of the institution, while short-term projects could be funded by governments and other bodies.
However, Tsai says, the institution is aware of its potentially damaging dependence on one source of cash.
“A critical weakness of our funding is there is a high reliance on governments,” says Tsai. “(So) we are now expanding our fundraising with foundations and the private sector.”
Visiting professor Liana Babbar, who lectures in the department of natural resources, reckons UPEACE has “extraordinary potential to become a major world player.”
She says the quality of the courses is high, but she laments that the current conditions under which the university operates do not allow more research or greater involvement with the community.
Tsai acknowledges the institution needs to improve its research activities. “We are (doing research) but not enough,” he says.
Despite the general optimism, some anxiety still seems to hang over the institution.
Two students who at first discussed their life at UPEACE at length, describing it as a tough but unique place to study, later asked The Tico Times that they not to be quoted in this story.
Bryan Kay, a freelance journalist from Great Britain, lives in San José.
Pieces on UPEACE
• Established in 1980 by the United Nations General Assembly
• Located 30 kilometers west of San José, in a nature preserve that includes the last remaining primary forest in the Central Valley
• Enrolled 124 students from 37 countries in 2007
• Grants degrees at the master’s and doctoral levels
• Has offices and programs in Addis Ababa, New York, Toronto and Geneva
• Funded almost entirely through donations from organizations and governments, including the Canadian International Development Agency, Finland, the Korean private sector, Norway and Nicaragua.