One of America’s highest ranked universities with a heavy emphasis on the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is the Georgia Institute of Technology. Tomorrow, however, a new “Georgia Tech” begins operation, specifically Kutaisi International University (KIU), located in the Republic of Georgia, nine times zones from the U.S.’s Georgia Tech in what is aptly termed “Eurasia,” somewhat European in character, but also with the location and many attributes of some Asian lands. I attended a Zoom webinar with leaders of the new school and I felt excited, thinking that they potentially are creating a new higher education Golden Age in a part of the old Soviet Union.
Bidzina Ivanishvili is Georgia’s only billionaire oligarch (worth $4.8 billion according to Forbes), and his Cartu Foundation has given nearly $1.2 billion to establish KIU, emphasizing scientific fields and business management at first, although probably offering a smattering of humanities-type courses. To get expert guidance, KIU’s Rector Alexander Tevzadze and his colleagues called on Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Hermann, who served for 24 years as the successful president of the Technical University of Munich (TUM), rated one of continental Europe’s top five schools in international rankings of universities. KIU also is bringing in several professors from TUM to help at the beginning.
To be sure, Covid-19 has slowed things down, but only a bit. Instead of the anticipated 1,000 students initially, KIU expects about 250 students to show up for classes beginning tomorrow. The school aims to be high quality, with selective admissions, hoping to draw students from many countries, a near necessity given Georgia’s modest population of about four million.
It is perhaps ironic that a country that gave the world Josef Stalin and Lavrentiy Beria (Stalin’s top secret police officer) is starting a university that in large part imitates the American model (a residential school with student dormitories), and, similar to Stanford, the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins universities in 19th century America, was created by the philanthropy of a wealthy businessman.
Long term, I doubt KIU’s goal of 60,000 highly qualified students is doable without enormous international support, and certainly that will require some new funding from state subsidies, research grants, further donations and/or student fees. Still, I also think successful enterprises usually come from visionaries who think big. Steve Jobs started a business, Apple Computer, in his parents’ garage that, less than a half century later, is a two trillion dollar enterprise.
Long term, if KIU is to grow very large, it is likely it will have to expand its emphasis beyond the STEM disciplines. Booming nations need scientists and engineers, sure, but also accountants, architects, financial service gurus, playwrights, economists, philosophers, and possibly even a sociologist or two.
The location in Kutaisi seems to me, who has never visited there, a smart move. Kutaisi is one of the world’s oldest cities, inhabited continuously for more than 2,500 years. A town of 140,000 or so people, it is big enough to provide the infrastructure that a great university needs, but not overwhelmed by overcrowding and related problems —a town roughly similar in size to that of great American Big Ten universities located in Madison, Ann Arbor, and Champaign-Urbana.
The Republic of Georgia and KIU remind me of America during its Golden Age for higher education. The nation has high economic growth, like the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. In the five years before Covid (2014 to 2019), Georgia’s per capita income rose an extraordinary four percent per year, adjusting for inflation. That equals, roughly, the experience of other formerly Soviet-controlled territories and some neighbors (e.g., Poland, Estonia, Armenia) now free of the Soviet yoke and current Russian territorial mischief and rampant plutocracy; these countries could supply KIU with students. The country is Western-thinking, optimistic and rapidly growing, unlike current America and western European welfare states mired in protests, disunity and low economic growth.
KIU may well flounder. But it seems to have a good plan, excellent German guidance, and lots of youthful aspiration and exuberance. I, for one, will be watching its future sympathetically and carefully.