In Switzerland, Landegg International University wins increasing attention

Less than five years after launching major new degree-granting programs in "integrated studies," the Bahá'í-inspired institution gains official recognition by the Swiss government and assembles a global student body.

WIENACHT, Switzerland - Although African herself, Njeri Mwagiru was turned off by brochures from top universities in North America that touted special clubs for Africans, Indians and other major ethnic and racial groups.

"There just seemed to be a lot of separation on those campuses," said the 20-year-old Kenya native, discussing her decision to come instead to Landegg International University, a Bahá'í-inspired institution of higher learning in the foothills of the Swiss Alps. "It seemed to me that things were designed so that people of different cultures could stay apart.

"But here at Landegg, the emphasis is on having people of different cultures get together - and that is what I was looking for."

Entering her third year in Landegg's Bachelor of Arts, Ms. Mwagiru is happy with her choice - a choice made somewhat venturesome by the fact that Landegg's degree programs are only five years old.

But she has indeed found the kind of unity amidst diversity that she was seeking, and Ms. Mwagiru also believes she is receiving a topflight education, one with a distinctive approach.

"It aims to combine various disciplines of study so that they make more sense and the education is more applicable to life," said Ms. Mwagiru, enrolled in a program that brings together the fields of psychology, human development and education.

"And it has delivered everything in terms of the education I expected," she continued. "We have lots of contact with the professors and many in-depth discussions. The school has a general belief in the uniqueness of the individual - and at the same time the unity of all."

Ms. Mwagiru's description of her experience at Landegg quite accurately matches the university's stated goals, which are to develop and practice a new "integrative" approach to education that combines modern scientific thinking with spiritual and ethical values in a way that meets the needs of an interdependent and global civilization.

"Our curriculum seeks to make sure that the students not only receive the latest academic and scientific information about what they are studying, but that they will also be exposed to the various ethical considerations that pertain to it - and that they will then learn how to apply it in the real world," said Hossain Danesh, president of Landegg.

On 20 September 2001, Landegg received an important new level of recognition for its approach, when it was formally registered by the cantonal and federal authorities as a private university in Switzerland. To achieve that, the university had to meet the rigorous criteria set by the government at both levels.

"One of the most significant implications of Landegg's new status is that the Swiss Government has recognized the legitimacy of an approach to education that is global in reach and that has as its basis the idea of applied spirituality within a framework of integrated studies," said Michael Penn, who served as vice rector at Landegg from 1998-2000 and is currently an affiliate professor.

"It is a recognition of the idea that an institution of higher learning can, in an academically rigorous way, apply principles of ethics to the interrogation of social problems in the world," said Dr. Penn, who is professor of psychology at Franklin and Marshall University in Pennsylvania, USA.

Landegg is also winning recognition in other important ways. A high percentage of its graduate students have gone on to doctoral programs at universities such as Stanford and Cambridge. And it has launched a major peace education project in Bosnia and Herzegovina that is winning praise from government officials.

A gradual evolution

Landegg's evolution into a full-fledged university has been a gradual process. Located on some 31 acres on a hillside overlooking Lake Constance in the rustic Swiss village of Wienacht, Landegg International University was previously known as Landegg Academy, and it was used primarily as a conference center.

In that role, Landegg was the site of a number of significant meetings, including a series of "International Dialogues on the Transition to a Global Society." The first such Dialogue was held in September 1990 and included the participation of Federico Mayor, then UNESCO's Director-General; Karan Singh, a leading Indian author and diplomat; and Bertrand Schneider, then secretary-general of the Club of Rome.

In addition to such high-level gatherings, Landegg was also host to a number of international programs, focusing on peace and world order studies for young people.

Currently comprising some nine buildings, the campus was originally built as a holiday retreat in the 19th century. In the 1980s, the campus was acquired by the Bahá'í community of Switzerland, which undertook the renovation of its main buildings and established it as a conference center.

In the mid-1990s, it was decided that Landegg's role as a center of learning should become formalized, and Landegg's functions were transferred to an independent board, whose charter states that the university will be operated as an independent university, directed by an international governing board.

In September 1997, Landegg formally inaugurated a new program of graduate studies, offering a Master of Arts degree in eight areas, including conflict resolution, psychology, education, and religion. In 1998, Landegg began to offer undergraduate degrees as well and by 2000, the school began seeking formal recognition as a university.

Over the years, Landegg has opened active scholarly exchange programs with a number of universities, including the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Beijing University in China, the State University of Sergipe in Brazil, and the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, in the USA.

Currently, Landegg offers undergraduate degrees in four areas: economics and international development; political science and international relations; psychology, human development and education; and the integrative study of religion.

Graduate degrees are offered in six areas: consultation and conflict resolution, moral education, applied ethics, the integrative study of religion, leadership and management, and spiritual psychology. A certificate program in information technology has also been launched this year.

In all subjects, the school seeks to take an integrative approach, said Dr. Danesh. That approach strives first to study all of the relevant theories and models that currently exist in a given field. Professors and students are then encouraged to create a new model, based on the new insights into human nature and those universal ethical and spiritual principles that are present in the spiritual and philosophical heritage of humanity. The final goal is to see the theory applied in practice.

"For example, if we are studying conflict resolution, we first study all of the different theories and models of conflict resolution," said Dr. Danesh. "And we keep them. But we have also developed our own model, which we call 'conflict-free conflict resolution'(CFCR)."

The new CFCR model, Dr. Danesh said, does not accept that conflict or aggression is an inevitable feature of human nature. "Rather, our new theory suggests that conflict is a reflection of the different stages in human development and evolution and that it reflects the absence of unity," said Dr. Danesh.

Global Campus

Although the Landegg campus is relatively small, with a capacity of approximately 100 full-time, on-campus students, its reach is global. At any given time, only about one third of the school's students are on campus. The rest study from afar, using an array of distance-learning technologies but principally email and the World Wide Web.

The global diversity of the student body is another hallmark of the Landegg experience. For example, the 30-some young people in the undergraduate program come from 20 different countries. The graduate student population of approximately 120 students is equally diverse.

"We have students from countries as diverse as Mongolia, Russia, the United States, Venezuela and China," said Graham Hassall, associate dean of undergraduate studies. "This is one of the wonderful things about Landegg, the global nature of our very small campus."

Nyambura Mwagiru, 21, Njeri's sister, said she was indeed attracted to Landegg by the global diversity of its student body. "Just being able to sit down and talk with people from so many different places is one of the best things about Landegg," said Nyambura, who, like her sister, is in the psychology, human development and education program. "We learn from each other, and have time to reflect and grow."

The faculty of Landegg is similarly global in its diversity. Composed of more than 70 professors, many who are affiliated with other colleges and universities around the world, only about 15 are on campus at a given time. Nevertheless, the ability to draw on well-respected academics from more than 20 countries contributes greatly to the internationalism of the educational process at Landegg.

The school has also had a surprising degree of success in placing its graduates. Although only about 30 students have so far received graduate degrees from Landegg, a number have gone on to highly regarded graduate programs.

Jenni Menon of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, for example, has been accepted this year into a doctoral studies in psychology and education at Stanford University in the USA; Tania Sargent of Zimbabwe is currently in her second year at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania in the USA; and Meiko Bond of Japan went on to do a master's degree in criminology at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.

"Landegg was instrumental in helping me get into my current PhD program," said Ms. Menon, who received an MA in moral education from Landegg earlier this year. "As a student at Landegg I feel I was simultaneously exposed to a rigorous theoretical and practical service-oriented type of learning. A unique aspect of Landegg is that this approach occurs through an effort to integrate the scientific and the ethical/moral and spiritual aspects of knowledge and investigation. I think that this unique integrative approach sounded appealing to Stanford."

Ms. Sargent likewise feels her experience at Landegg contributed greatly to her acceptance as a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania last year. "I was still very surprised when I was accepted and given a good scholarship offer," said Ms. Sargent. "Some people used to ask me, 'Why are you going to such a new school, don't you need to get real credentials?' But getting an MA from Landegg obviously doesn't hinder you from going somewhere else."

Ms. Bond likewise found that some of her friends questioned her decision to go to Landegg to get a master's degree in conflict resolution in 1996. "They would say, 'Will it be recognized by an established university? Will it look good on your CV?,'" said Ms. Bond, who is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Manchester. "But I thought it would be an exciting place to study. And in the end, I did end up at Cambridge. So now my friends have changed their minds."