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Dr. Haak’s Journey, a Stranger in a Familiar Land


It is a trial of willpower to face oppression and obstruction and continue onward because you hope someday it will change. Such is the temperance that Dr. Harold Haak, President Emeritus of California State University Fresno, found during a faculty exchange to Armenia last spring. Working through a sister university relationship between California State Polytechnic Pomona and the State Engineering University (SEU) in Yerevan, his task was to follow up and further advise on practices Armenian administrators learned from a previous journey to the United States. Also he was there to make recommendations for future American advisors, lecture to students, offer suggestions from a western point of view, and to enjoy the hospitality of the country and its people. He stayed in Yerevan at the Armenian Hotel which, “Always had electricity and for two hours a day had hot water.” His first impressions of the three months ahead of him were, “I have great admiration for Armenians doing the best possible in terribly difficult conditions.”

Dr. Haak’s agenda was certainly consuming of his tour. Split between two universities in Armenia’s capital city, he was challenged to meet the needs of different institutions. The State Engineering University, formerly the Polytechnic, drew from his administration and governing experiences while Yerevan University benefited from his leadership skills. SEU is hoping to break away former Soviet administration models in favor of a more western approach. Using his background as former president of California State University Fresno, Dr. Haak worked alongside SEU staff to initiate such programs as alumni associations, entrepreneurial fundraising, program budgeting, and setting up a board of trustees.

“These are radical changes, the idea of having a board of trustees between the institution and the State is something the Soviet approach didn’t include.” Yerevan University, about twenty minutes across town, is well established but looking to make subtle changes. Here Dr. Haak was able to spend more time with faculty and students becoming involved in Armenian university life. “Yerevan University is interested in building curriculum that stimulates and influences the country’s growing market economy.” From his own field he was also able to lecture on political science — American style. Armenian political science is theory based reflecting Soviet influence, American curriculum draws from historical reference. These opportunities allowed the differences between American and Armenian student culture to manifest themselves. “I literally had to stop and tell them to be quiet.”

It seems young Armenians so enthralled to be in university have no inhibition to exchange ideas with each other even in the middle of the lecture. Remarking about how dressed up students came to class Dr. Haak was told that because city night life is so limited the university has become a social meeting center as well. All of this however has not kept either university from educating and nurturing the bright and competitive minds for which Armenia is historically famous. Something that could prohibit this generation of mathematicians, scientists, and researchers is the current information blockade that surrounds the country. Cut off from former contacts in Western Europe, the faculty do their best despite the lack of journals, travel and internet access. “Armenians are survivors, right now the survival position is to hold on to what they have and find new ways to use it.”

If necessity fosters creativity then Armenians have perfected the art of innovation. An example of their ingenuity supplied Dr. Haak with a computer. Wanting to document his journey and reports he borrowed a typewriter. Unfortunately it burned out rather quickly. Through several contacts he was able to use a Polish made computer. Constantly saving for fear that power fluctuations might wipe out his efforts, he cherished his ability to touch type. For although the output was in English the keyboard was in Cyrillic.

The timing of Dr. Haak’s journey was also adventitious. He was on hand for the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the victory in World War II. “I had my photo taken with Armenian veterans dressed with all their decorations, their first impression was they thought I was German.”

Unfortunately, though many of the delegates were fellow guests at his hotel, he did not attend the enthronement of the new Catholicos, His Holiness Karekin I. “I had met him once before here in Fresno, but that didn’t allow me an invitation.” The most touching experience was of course the 80th Anniversary March to the Monument of the Martyrs. “Being a part of marches in Fresno gave me great appreciation of the tragedy that this march represented, especially being with people who were directly affected.”

Given the opportunity, Dr. Haak would love to revisit Armenia. He also encourages American students to take advantage of the exchange relationship between universities and spend a year in Armenia. The University itself has much to offer as well as the country, its people and history. The hardships associated with the blockade are apparent but are outweighed by the enthusiasm of the people. Dr. Haak expressed, “The potential for a turn around is right there, I feel it could happen soon.”