Open The Door To Knowledge - GAU

Open The Door To Knowledge - GAU

An American adventurer discovered Georgia in his search for novelties. R. Michael Cowgill is the President and co-founder of the Georgian-American University. He is also the First Vice-President of the American Chamber of Commerce and the first non-native Georgian to become an Executive Member of the Georgian National Academy of Sciences.

Everyone is scared of my red pen,” says R. Michael Cowgill, who was raised in the family of a publisher, and has always felt comfortable in the world of print media. “I was a teen editor,” Cowgill recalls with pride. The Milan Standard, a newspaper founded by his father in the small town of Milan, Missouri, is still being published. The Cowgill Jr. has continued his career, albeit nearly 10,000 kilometers away from his adopted home in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Cowgill chose to give this interview in a free format, as he settled comfortably into his couch.

Georgian American University (GAU) was established as an MBA project in 2001.”The initial capital used to invest in it was so small, it could serve as a case study for the Harvard Study Program. But the founders of the university returned their investment within the first 2-3 years. The current EBITDA of the company has increased one-hundred times already,” explains Cowgill.

Over the years, GAU has expanded, and now offers four schools at the university, these include the Business School, the Law, Social Sciences & Diplomacy School, the Informatics & Engineering School, and the Humanitarian Sciences & Liberal Arts School. The location of the university has also changed several times over the years. In 2011, GAU purchased the former Institute of Seismology and Geography building located at 8 Aleksidze St. The building was purchased at a state auction. In 2013, GAU received $3.5 million in investment from the American OPIC Fund. They then designed and renovated the structure in compliance with OPIC standards.

GUA was established as the MBA project of Elene Jamarashvili during her study at Atlanta State University. Initially the university was designed as a School of Law with graduates granted a Juris Doctorate (JD) degree and a Bachelor of Law degree (LLB). Despite the fact that there was sufficient business interest in GAU from the very beginning, it was nonetheless quite difficult to find suitable investors that could meet the university’s specific criteria – western standards and absolute transparency. Therefore, Cowgill decided to invest a large portion of his own money into the project.

“I became interested in the project because I knew that all the necessary ingredients for success were already on hand. However, we made some changes, and opened a business school,” the American entrepreneur notes. According to Cowgill, ownership, curricula and management are the main American characteristics of GAU. The university has 11 owners, and one of the shareholders is a legal entity. The main principle of the university has remained unchanged since its inception: GAU is managed as a business, which focuses on providing high-quality higher education.

“Our success is based on strong management, a team of highly-qualified lecturers and staff, and our honest and socially responsible fiscal policy,” explains Cowgill, adding that “GAU always takes into consideration the requirements and needs of its students and partner organizations.”

In fact, GAU Career Services provides effective communication between potential employers and the students, and supports students/graduates in their quest for internships, and jobs in the marketing and career services sector.

Cowgill says that there are plenty of challenges in the education field, and that the level of competition is fierce.

“There are approximately 25, 000 students in Georgia, and about 40, 000 student vacancies at various universities,” notes Cowgill. The situation is complicated by the creation of the free programs provided by the state university. Needless to say, luring students from American Universities to Georgia is not an easy task.

“The desire to do this is often one-sided. It is extremely hard to convince American students to participate in exchange programs. We are currently implementing a project with the US Air Force Academy. We will be hosting a second group of cadets this year,” he says, explaining that the recent devaluation of the national currency is one of the main obstacles for the university:

“The Georgian national currency’s exchange rate concerns us all, since many of us have loans in US dollars. The devaluation of the national currency has a negative impact on every sphere. The Georgian-American University has a fixed tuition fee in GEL, and in the event of any changes in this regard, it will only favor the applicants,” he notes.

The average annual undergraduate tuition fee at private Georgian universities is about GEL 3,000-7,000. Based on student scores earned during the national exams, the state co-funds tuition fees (state grant), and the universities have their own discounted policies. GAU also tries to remain attractive to applicants in terms of its affordability. In fact, due to the new tuition fee policy, GAU has become more affordable. This year the university launched a more flexible payment system, as well as a GAU grant.

At present, the Georgian-American University has 3,000 alumni who, according to Michael Cowgill, act as ambassadors of the university and their country abroad. Cowgill is no stranger to this type of ambassadorship.

“I was studying electronics engineering at the University of Missouri. I left school in the second semester and traveled to Indonesia, where I started working at the Bechtel Corporation. I wanted to see the world,” he recalls fondly.

After two years working successfully at one of the largest engineering and construction companies in the world, the young Cowgill returned to school, only this time he chose mechanical engineering. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas, Cowgill earned his MBA at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I studied at night, and worked at the Bechtel Head Office during the day,” he says.

Michael Cowgill came to Georgia 18 years ago, but it was the field of engineering that brought the American ‘markscheider” to Georgia. From 1999- 2003 he worked as the pipeline advisor for the Government of Georgia, providing strategic, regulatory, and technical assistance for the implementation of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Oil, and South Caucasus Natural Gas Pipelines. However, there is a more important link that ties this American businessman to Georgia. Cowgill has a nine yearold daughter – Anna Mari Tskitishvili-Cowgill. His sons from his first marriage – Graham 32, and Robbie 30, live with their own children back in the United States.

In the GAU President’s office, my attention is diverted to one particular painting on the wall. It was Zaal Sulakauri’s painting featuring an American boat with the sails of the Georgian flag. Cowgill says that studying at the Georgian-American University guarantees successful employment on both the local and international markets.

“Our clients are state, private and non-governmental organizations. They are potential employers, and therefore, we give our students the type of education that is in compliance with the needs of potential employers,” he says.

Judging by the successful careers enjoyed by many GAU alumni, this plan is working incredibly well.

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