Anglo-American University was founded in 1990 by Jansen Raichl and Dr. Vlasta Raichlová, who strived to create a higher education institution that would combine the best of the Central European traditions with American and British academic principles. AAU is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, making it the oldest private university in the Czech Republic, which is an incredible achievement. At the Lennon Wall congratulates the entire AAU community on this memorable date! The university has undergone a lot of changes throughout the years. We decided to interview Alan Krautstengl, President of the Anglo-American University, about himself, his accomplishments, and the issues of AAU.
You started as a Professor of Mathematics and taught at several universities in the United States before you became the President of AAU in 2005. Why did you choose a career in academia in the first place?
Making a career in academia has been a natural process for me. I earned a M.Sc. in Mathematics at Charles University in Prague. However, I’ve always been attracted to the life, history and philosophy of the United States. Shortly after the fall of communism I considered continuing my education in the USA. In 1990 I went to the States and, for the first 4 months, I worked as a waiter in a resort in the Catskill Mountains, Upstate New York. With the money I made I travelled around the U.S. and visited several universities looking both for a place where I could study further and for financial support. Аt Kent State University (OH) I was fortunate enough to meet Richard S. Varga, the youngest full professor of Mathematics in the history of the United States. Right after having received a Ph.D. at Harvard, he was designing mathematical models used by nuclear submarines for the U.S. navy and then he wrote a book called Matrix Iterative Analysis which became “the Bible” in the field. He was interested in the research I did and I became his student. Working with him was challenging but it opened many doors for me, including the possibility to continue working in academia. I got an M.A. and Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics at Kent State University and in my dissertation I was able to solve a 25 year old open problem from Numerical Linear Algebra. It helped me to win a competition from among 200 applicants and become Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Case Western University (OH). Later I continued teaching at Black Hills State University (SD) and as an Associate Professor at the University of Puerto Rico (PR). My family and I decided to return to the Czech Republic when my wife was pregnant with our second child. I taught at different universities in Prague and for two years was a Vice-President of one of them. When, in 2005, the position of President of Anglo-American University opened, I applied for it without knowing anybody there and happened to get the job! The field of Applied Mathematics is closely connected to business, industry and finance. For instance, at Case I was an advisor of a biomedical Ph.D. student working on a project of designing an artificial heart, and I had another engineering student designing precise car parts for a motor company. We had joined seminars with NASA. My field is universal and it gave me connections to different practical areas which is beneficial in an academic career as well.
What have been the proudest moments of your presidency so far?
Of course, the WASC candidacy. This is a form of formal affiliation. AAU is the first and only non-U.S. university in the whole world to have achieved it. It is a big deal not only for the university but also for this country! Another thing would be the victory of the battle with the Ministry of Education about the English translation of our institution. We faced an opposition when we wanted to be called Anglo-American University in English. But we stood up for what was right: went to the media, made the issue public, got the support of the U.S. and Canadian embassies. It was something that had been unheard of before. The fact that the institution can use “Anglo-American University” as the official translation of “Anglo-Americká Vysoká Škola” to represent itself is an incredible achievement, too.
What does a typical day of a President look like?
I work until late at night answering emails due to the time difference with the United States, but I like to have my work done so I usually go to bed after midnight. In the morning I spend around an hour writing more emails at home. As I get to the university, I have meetings with the staff, faculty and students. All the important decisions are discussed with the Collegium of the President. My duty is also to work closely with the Board of Trustees and its committees. A large part of my time is spent outside the premises of the university because I meet with media, potential donors, supporters, recruiters, partners, and representatives of higher education from all over the world. I’m trying to represent AAU and form a good name for the university. I certainly don’t have a usual week: the weekend doesn’t exist for me. People from my office are not surprised if I call them over the weekend and ask to do certain work. On the other hand, I tolerate flexible time arrangements. My job is never boring, I really enjoy it. Unfortunately, as being the President is extremely demanding, I don’t spend as much time with my family as I used to.
It is impossible not to talk about our recent move to the Thurn and Taxis palace. What were your expectations of the new campus, did they meet with reality? And what were your first impressions of the palace?
Several years ago it became apparent that the old AAU campus, the palace of the Knights of Malta, didn’t meet the needs of the university. Also, the financial conditions could have been more favorable. One of my duties as President is to look for another option if something is overpriced because at the end of the day you have to work with the tuition paid by our students. And, of course, we needed more space. I remember how one of my colleagues said: “I saw the place, it’s too much like a palace so it won’t be suitable for a campus,” and I asked her to show it to me anyway. When I saw it I thought: “This is it,” and really wanted to make the move happen. Close cooperation with Prague 1 helped us a lot. I have to salute the courage of the current mayor of Prague 1 who wanted to use the palace either for educational or cultural purposes. However, if it had been turned into a museum, the income for Prague 1 wouldn’t have been enough to cover the expenses. Prague 1 has invested over 150 million CZK in the reconstruction and we are paying them 9 million CZK per year, which eventually will cover the reconstruction. It is slightly more than we paid in the previous place but for over double the size, and the palace exceeded my expectations. There are some flaws, but overall it is fantastic! We are very proud to be here and we also hope that it will attract new students. One of the first conditions which I insisted on was that the nicest rooms will be converted into classrooms because the students are the purpose of our existence. Now we have a symbiosis of historical beauty and modern technology in the building, new cables and projectors don’t interfere with the beautiful chandeliers.
One of the major accomplishments of 2015 is the institution’s recognition as a Candidate for Accreditation by the WASC Senior College and University Commission that is responsible for academic accreditation of western American colleges and universities and foreign institutions of American origin. What does the accreditation mean for the university in general and students in particular? What benefits does it provide?
The Candidacy does not legally assure eventual accreditation. However, it is a major step. We’ve already passed Eligibility and now are a Candidate which constitutes formal affiliation with WASC. The next step is full Accreditation. The WASC commission has already expressed the belief that AAU has all the capabilities to get accredited. Typically an institution has a period of 5 years between Candidacy and Accreditation to improve. Interestingly, when we were given a report about what the Commission thinks has to be developed, unlike other universities which usually contact WASC when they are ready, we were simply informed that the team will visit us again in March 2016 and the vote about the final accreditation will take place in June 2016. It means that by Christmas we need to send them a report about our progress. Our time is short: we need to work very hard together. It’s either going to be a phenomenal success or a failure! If AAU gets accredited it will mean that the diplomas of the students will become extremely valuable. The university will have the same accreditation as Stanford, Berkeley and Chapman. It will make a difference on the job market. One thing is to have a degree and another thing is what type of a degree you have. The WASC accreditation will automatically increase the value even of those diplomas which were given before the accreditation took place, and those who will get a diploma after a positive vote will have a WASC accredited degree. For the university, the process of accreditation is beneficial itself. We had to enhance a lot of areas which had a positive effect on everybody in the community. Of course, this will attract more quality students from all over the world.
Could efforts to be accredited be run by the wish to get more U.S. full-time students?
First of all, I don’t see anything wrong with getting more degree-seeking students from the U.S. AAU is and has always been open for students from all over the world. I’m against any positive or negative discrimination based on the place of origin. For me, a good student from Kyrgyzstan is better than an average student from the United States, a good student from the U.S. is better than an average student from Ukraine, a good student from Ukraine is better than an average student from Russia and so forth. We want to have quality students. Nationality, gender, and race are completely irrelevant. A university should be a place to bring different nationalities together and show them that they have something in common. Of course, we would like to have more quality full-time American students because now the majority of them are study-abroads. Although cooperation with CEA is beneficial for the university and exchange students spread the good word about AAU in their mother universities, it is very important that we keep the ratio of degree-seeking students to the study-abroads heavily in favor of the former because we don’t want to become a transit place. Yes, we would like to have more American full-time students, but we would also like to have more full-time students from Finland, Argentina, or China, it doesn’t matter! We want to have more quality students without compromising the quality of admissions. In 10 years this university can easily have over 5000 students! We only need enough qualified faculty and enough space.
Is the tuition fee going to increase in connection with WASC Accreditation?
The level of the tuition is determined by the Board of Trustees upon the recommendation of the President. Eventually we should raise tuition in order to attract high profile international faculty. You can’t increase tuition without any ground behind it – WASC accreditation would be the ground. But in my opinion, increasing the tuition will be just fair because other universities offering a comparable level of education are much more expensive. This is not on the agenda right now and we wouldn’t like to affect current students. However, if you are building a Mercedes you don’t sell it for the price of a Volkswagen Golf, otherwise you wouldn’t have the money for the quality parts of the Mercedes.
With the expansion AAU is able to host more students. Don’t you think that facilities such as the library and computer lab should have been enlarged as well?
There are a lot of suggestions, complaints, and possibilities to do things differently. No choice is perfect. Once we enlarge, this could be an option. We would also like to have a separate room for members of the faculty who do research. Currently we only have an open space for chairs of the departments. One should also consider the fact that many students have their own laptops and use the AAU wi-fi connection. The computer lab is mostly to be used for instruction. But when the changes are to become necessary, we’d like to get an input from everybody, not only from the administration. The upcoming Breakfast with the President is one of the means to learn opinions of the students. I always believed that having direct contact with the students is beneficial. It might bring up some issues that I’m not aware of and give me a chance to explain why certain things are done in certain ways even though we all can agree that they could’ve been done differently. We can find new solutions together.
After the move to the new campus and with the newly accredited BA program Visual Art Studies, AAU lacks any facility that would be similar to the IArtI SPACE. Does AAU plan to reopen the gallery, if so when and where?
The space that we have can be used differently. For instance, the gift shop has been suggested. We are now in “pilot operation,” trying to learn how to use the new space in the best way. We need to decide on such issues together as a consensus. Now I can’t promise it but I can’t exclude it as well. But it’s a good point and there are rooms which theoretically could be used for the IArtI Space.
How do you view the relationship between the university, its neighborhood, and the city? Do you think we should develop stronger bonds with Prague 1?
There should be a very respectful and transparent relationship. This is the key. It should be friendly, but most importantly clear and beneficial for both sides. Eventually we plan to expand the campus and want to even use some buildings for dormitories! We maintain a fair relationship with Prague 1 and are proud of it. The city has been spending 1 or 2 mln CZK per year just to prevent the Thurn and Taxis palace from falling apart. Now they don’t have to spend money for simply keeping up the building thanks to our transparent relationships.
Are you planning on expanding cooperation with foreign universities? If so, which countries do you intend to work with?
Currently we cooperate with more than dozens of universities and if we count the universities where we send our students for a semester abroad, then it’s hundreds of universities! We work together in terms of student exchanges, faculty exchanges, and joint research programs. I just signed a contract with one of the deans of Harvard University about their summer program here, so now one of our partner universities is Harvard! We want to be cooperative in terms of a geographical and academic perspective.
Many students were concerned about the selfie competition and its relevance to academic awards the winners received, namely the reduction of tuition fees. How will you comment on that?
This is one of activities which wasn’t initiated by me or the administration but by students. I want to interfere as little as possible. It might be a bit controversial but as long as it doesn’t discriminate, offend or hurt anybody, I say let it be! I believe that the students should take as many initiatives as they want and that it is the last part of the job of the President to interfere. Students have academic freedoms to do that.
AAU is following the Anglo-American model of education. However, unlike U.S. colleges, AAU lacks official sports teams which could foster school spirit among students. Instead, we have a lot of student clubs becoming more and more active. How else would you like to foster the community sense at AAU?
I’m happy to see the increasing initiative from the side of our students! We should definitely encourage extracurricular activities. However, this is the job of the Student Council to come up with such ideas. I personally was very glad about the newly established Chess Club because I used to play chess myself professionally in high school. Speaking from the administration, any meaningful proposal will be certainly met with a positive response. I think our own dormitories would foster school spirit. I would also like to see closer cooperation between AAU alumni and current students, one-on-one guidance is a great idea. We are on great terms with our alumni. For example, I just received a touching email from our former student who is now a Czech ambassador to Denmark excusing himself for not making it to the 25th Anniversary Celebration and saying how proud he is to be a part of AAU. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we could get inspired by fine American and British universities in terms of keeping up school spirit and use their experience.
Lots of our students are missing a place to study at night. Why does the university not have a 24/7 study zone?
It never occurred to me. Maybe it should. But this is a question of convenience, security and accessibility. It’s a good idea and we could think about it.
Another academic year is coming to an end. When you look back at the beginning, what did you want to achieve and were those goals met?
It was a tough year. We had to make sure the reconstruction was completed successfully, that the university moved without interrupting its operations. One of the most important things was the defence of Anglo-American University in front of a commission in California. One of the members of the commission was the Provost of Stanford University! It probably was the same as passing the State Exams is for the students. It was not easy and it was a great accomplishment. 2015 can be called the best year of AAU’s existence so far! Of course, there is tons of work behind all the success. I remember myself sending the final report to WASC from my computer the night before Christmas Eve… It was tough to put everything together in such a short time but we did it!
Where do you see AAU in 5 years?
Quite at! What is happening with WASC is so profound that any people don’t even realise how significant it is. When I got here in 2005, AAU had 250 students and was heavily in debt. Nobody knew if the university was going to survive. It was like an airplane going to hit the ground. We touched the grass at the beginning and it was extremely challenging but we managed to push our plane up! We replaced the gas engine with an electrical motor. And now with WASC we are switching to nuclear fusion power. I believe in 5 years that AAU will be one of the best schools in Central Europe and everybody will know it.
One of the biggest issues for university graduates is to find a job in the tough economic conditions of the modern world. Moreover, our students are worried that the competition among the growing number of university students is becoming too tense. What career advice would you give to the students of AAU?
With a WASC accredited diploma you won’t have competition in this country. Make sure to sell it right. It won’t be only the potential employer doing you a favor by giving the job but it will also be you doing a favor by choosing their company. Work closely with the alumni, take advantage of the Career Days and be proud of the fine institution you have graduated from!
Mr. President, we would like to end on a light note. How many bow ties do you have?
I don’t know exactly… (laughs) Maybe ten!