News and Events

Targeted Iraqi Scholars Get Wall Street Aid from Russo, Kaufman

By Yalman Onaran

Professor Abdul Sattar Jawad fled Baghdad the day after he saw a carload of men with machine guns pointed at his house. He didn't want to become one of the 250 Iraqi scholars killed since 2003.

``Academics are targeted because they don't share values with the mob, with extremists,'' said Jawad, who's 63 and currently teaches Arabic literature at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

As sectarian violence in Iraq spreads and President George W. Bush spars with U.S. lawmakers about the war, a group of Wall Street executives is trying to save Iraqi scholars so the country can one day rebuild its education system.

Thomas Russo, vice chairman of New York-based Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.; Henry Kaufman, a former Salomon Brothers economist; and Henry Jarecki, ex-chairman of Moviefone Inc., are spearheading efforts to raise $9 million to set up a university program for about 200 Iraqi professors in neighboring Jordan.

``This is an imaginative and inventive approach to a heartbreaking problem: the destruction of what was once one of the Middle East's strongest academic communities,'' said Lisa Anderson, dean of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in New York.

Russo said he and Jarecki held more than a dozen meetings in late May with university professors, ministers and royalty in Jordan, including Princess Ghida, sister-in-law of King Abdullah, and won support for their idea. The executives are lobbying the U.S. government and colleagues on Wall Street to pitch in.

90-Year-History

The project is an extension of the Scholar Rescue Fund, founded in 2002 with a $10 million initial endowment from Kaufman and managed by the New York-based Institute of International Education.

The institute, best known for administering the Fulbright scholarships, has saved academics throughout its history, starting with Russian professors threatened by the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.

``Over the last five, six years, we'd been getting 50 applications a month worldwide, from some 100 countries,'' Jarecki, 74, said in an interview. ``Now we're getting 50 applications a week from Iraq alone.''

Kaufman, who achieved fame on Wall Street when he predicted interest rates accurately in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, was 10 years old when his family fled Nazi Germany and came to the U.S. The experience has made him sympathetic toward others whose lives are threatened, said Kaufman, who sits on Lehman's board.

`Lucky to Escape'
The institute rescued more than 300 scholars from Nazi Germany during World War II.

``We were lucky to escape the Holocaust,'' Kaufman, 79, said in an interview. ``Now there's a different holocaust, and academics are being targeted again.''

At least 70,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the U.S. invasion in 2003 and more than 3,400 U.S. troops have died. The conflict has invaded university campuses, where militias often wield control and target academics they deem sympathetic to the West, said Jawad, who left Baghdad in 2005.

A bombing outside a Baghdad university killed at least 70 students and staff in January.

``The idea is you take this intellectual capital, preserve it somewhere outside and don't let it crumble,'' Russo said. ``If that capital is wiped out, the country cannot have a future.''

The project aims to set up a virtual university in Jordan so the Iraqi professors can continue to teach their students back home. Academics would make compact discs, or CDs, of their courses for shipment to Iraq.

Role of CDs

CDs, which can play on personal computers, are more useful than Internet content because access to the Web is sporadic in Iraq, said Alan Goodman, chief executive officer of the Institute of International Education.

The professors would be dispersed among different Jordanian institutions depending on their needs and concentrate on the sciences. They also can teach local Jordanians and students among the 700,000 or more Iraqi refugees in the country, Goodman said.

Russo, 63, told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice of the project in April during a financial services forum in Washington. Rice ``seemed understanding,'' Russo said, though the government hasn't committed any funding. Goodman said the program has no party affiliation and most of the scholars it rescues are scientists with no hard-line views.

Without backing from the government, Russo, Jarecki and Kaufman may have to rely on personal and corporate donations to finance the university. Buoyed by $36 billion of bonuses last year alone, Wall Street executives are one of the biggest sources of individual contributions to charities.

Fuld Encouraging

Russo said his boss, Lehman CEO Richard Fuld, has encouraged his efforts on the Jordanian project. Fuld wrote a personal check to rescue an Iraqi scholar after hearing from Russo about the difficulty the Scholar Rescue Fund was having in raising money. Since then, Fuld has been funding grants regularly, Russo said.

“The power of Wall Street has always been behind the efforts to rescue scholars from troubled spots around the world,'' Goodman said. ``It's sad that we're still doing it. You'd think that in the 21st century scholars would be safer and academic freedom established.''

To contact the reporter on this story: Yalman Onaran in New York at yonaran@bloomberg.net