Nur University: training a new generation of leaders

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia - Since its founding in 1982, Nur University has broken much new ground in Bolivia. It was among the first in a new wave of private universities to be founded in Bolivia in modern times and the first to be established by a presidential decree.

In 1986, Nur set up the first graduate school of any kind in Bolivia. And it has led the way in a series of educational innovations here, from a pioneering effort in distance education to the use of flexible course scheduling to allow students with work or family obligations to pursue higher education at their own pace.

More important, from the point of view of its founders, Nur has also been tangibly successful at fulfilling its own mission: that of helping to train a new generation of leaders in Bolivian society.

Since opening its doors less than 20 years ago, a number of its graduates have already gone on to positions of influence throughout the country. Individual graduates have, for example, served on the national medical college board, occupied a position as a departmental-level director of the national census program, established a highly successful low cost health centers program throughout the country, acted as director of a major Bolivian television channel, and held key posts at the Bolivian embassy in Brussels.

Perhaps the most prominent of Nur's graduates is Roberto Fernandez, who was appointed mayor of Santa Cruz in 2001. Santa Cruz is now Bolivia's largest city, with a population of more than a million people, and Mr. Fernandez has already begun to apply some of the leadership principles he learned at Nur in his administration.

Since taking office, for example, Mr. Fernandez has asked all municipal employees to devote some time each week to voluntary service projects in the city, such as picking up litter at parks and green areas, painting buildings or helping at the hospital.

"Everyone in the city administration does it, my secretary, my advisors, employees, on the weekends, and, of course, myself," said Mr. Fernandez, who received a degree in business administration from Nur in 1999.

The inspiration for the policy, he said, came from his experience at Nur, which requires every student to do a 120-hour community service project and emphasizes concepts of moral leadership throughout its curriculum.

"At Nur, we were obligated to be involved in service, and out of that you begin to realize that service is so important," said Mr. Fernandez, who has also employed a number of Nur graduates and professors in his administration. "I see it as solidarity, as unity, as not just being interested in the problems of others but to become directly involved with the solution of the problems. And this whole principle will be advanced in my administration."

It was out of exactly such an ideal - that its graduates would go on in Bolivian society to promote such principles - that Nur was established, said Jeremy Martin, one of Nur's founders and currently its director of institutional development.

"We were looking for a way to contribute positively to the development of Bolivia and we were convinced that education is the hub of any integral development process that seeks an improvement in the quality of life, and that what Bolivia really needed was a new kind of leader," said Mr. Martin, who, with nine other Bahá'ís, founded Nur. "Latin American nations were then, and still are, moving towards democratic institutions and consolidating them, and our idea was to contribute to this process, especially with a focus on increasing levels of participation, and encouraging leaders to have a broader vision of service to society."

Nur has grown substantially since opening its doors in 1985. That first year it enrolled 97 students. By 1990, it had 993 students. It currently has an enrollment of some 3,000 students in undergraduate and graduate programs, plus another 1,000 in outreach projects, such as its various moral leadership training programs.

Of these, 51% are women and 49% are men. Approximately 40% of the students receive financial assistance from the University through scholarships, discounts based on economic need or work-study positions. The University employs 180 full and part-time faculty and administrative staff and has an annual operating budget of approximately US$ 3 million.

Nur currently offers undergraduate degree programs in administration, agri-business, agricultural economics, animal husbandry, accounting, public relations, commerce, communication science, public relations, education, international relations, systems engineering and computer programming.

Graduate level programs include masters degrees in public health, business administration, international commerce, sustainable development, university education, human resource management and business finance. Specialty and diploma programs are also offered at the graduate level in financial engineering, senior management, marketing, human resource management, animal husbandry, sustainable development and hospital management.

In 2001, Nur established a software training center in collaboration with Microsoft and Cisco systems, offering certificates in the training programs of both companies.

Nur has also launched a number of outreach programs aimed at the overall development of Bolivia and surrounding countries, as indicated in the accompanying article on Nur's moral leadership program. In addition to promoting its overall framework for moral leadership, Nur has extension programs to encourage and train NGOs in participatory development practices, in early childhood education and in public health training and promotion. In all of these programs, the university seeks not only to collaborate with other social actors in society, whether businesses or NGOs or government, but also to learn from such efforts.

"The role of a university should not just be transmitting accumulated past knowledge from one generation to another," said Eloy Anello, another Nur founder and president of its board of trustees. "It should generate knowledge that's relevant to the development process and that is needed by society."