A few years ago, Chris Hall was a state senator from midcoast Maine. He had quit a job as a steel and mining executive, deciding "never again" to do the weekly commute from Portland to New York. But a defeat in 2004 opened the door for Mr. Hall to become the first president of one of the more unusual colleges in Europe: the American University in Kosovo.
After decades of repression and war, Kosovo's schools were in tatters. A privileged few studied abroad. But AUK, formed three years ago with funds from the Albanian diaspora and the only multiethnic private college here, aspires to help the somewhat battered new state build its next generation of leaders. It's a mission the Oxford-educated Hall deeply believes in.
Kosovo's declaration of independence on Feb. 17 may have brought angry protests from Serbs 30 miles away on the Ibar River, but Hall has a college to run. He sits in on statistics classes, juggles scholarships and budgets, coordinates with Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology, which grants AUK degrees, and hires Fulbright scholars.
He's added a public policy program to what is now a business degree and helped create one of the freest weekly political forums in Pristina, albeit one in English. He wants the small school to breathe the values of civil society and intelligent democratic sentiments.
Most important, Hall and many students say, AUK offers Kosovar youths a school where they encounter Western-style debates, interaction, and educational standards.
Student Tefta Kelmendi first considered going abroad for college, since there were "many other possibilities offered to Kosovar students for study abroad and scholarships," she says. But AUK allowed her to "be part of all these significant changes that are taking place" in Kosovo, so she stayed.
The college opened in 2003 in a crowded house with few facilities. But two years ago, AUK moved to a small complex in a hilly suburb, with lecture halls, information-technology facilities, and a cafeteria-cum-student hangout. Some 34 professors – from the Balkans as well asthe US – staff the school. Enrollment is 450, but Hall and company plan for 600. Last year, the school celebrated its first graduating class, of 57.
Of those, more than 40 now work in Kosovo, a point of pride for Hall and the AUK board, whose members include prominent American Albanians like businessman Richard Lukaj and Ron Cami, a partner of the New York law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore. Students come mostly from the Albanian diaspora in 11 other countries, including Syria, Nigeria, and Algeria. Four Serbian students attend – and have not left despite Kosovo's declaration of independence.
AUK is "a success story in a part of the world with few success stories at this point," says Louis Sell, a former US diplomat and an AUK board member who helped bring Hall to the school. Mr. Sell feels that after Kosovo's declaration of independence, a school of public service at AUK will make a contribution. The school is seeking $3 million in scholarships as part of a larger Kosovo package now before Congress. Kosovo "is a part of Europe that is nominally Islamic, but overwhelmingly pro-American. The US has been quite cautious in the money it gives. But we hope that is changing," Sell adds.
After Hall lost his senate seat in 2004, he ran into Sell, who lives nearby. Sell knew that Hall, a Briton turned naturalized American, had a longstanding interest in the Balkans. Hall was in one of the first tour groups to enter Albania in 1990 after it had been closed for decades. Sell, with other US diplomats, had worked with the Fund for the Reconstruction of Kosovo, made up of Albanians, to establish a nonprofit college in Pristina with $4 million left over from the monies collected from the diaspora.
Hall, who was going to be in Belgrade, agreed to pop down to Pristina. While the college was "this overstuffed house on a hill," as Hall recalls, he was "deeply impressed" with students. "They don't have the worldliness you find in so many American kids of this generation," he says.
Before 1999, Kosovar students lived in a virtual police state under the Serbs. After NATO intervention, they were going to schools that "suffered every conceivable form of setback. But Hall found "a degree of idealism and passion for learning that I had not expected.... [We] don't have the drugs and crime you would expect, either."
Hall taught public policy courses for two years, then agreed to be president in the summer of 2007. That meant living away from his wife, Jackie Wardell, who heads a staff of 80 at a community bank on the Maine coast that does a small business lending to women and minorities.
"We thought about it long and hard. It took a lot of searching," Hall says, adding that his administration's motto in working out knots and kinks in a highly sensitive locale is "to be diplomats – friends with everybody and allies of nobody."
"Kosovo has a population of incredible talent and energy; I wouldn't be here if I weren't optimistic," he says. Some of his biggest battles in what he calls "management by walking around" is raising faculty expectations of students: "I don't want to hear that we have to go easy because these are poor Kosovars. They have the talent to be every bit as good as RIT students."
Robert McCloud, an IT professor here on a Fulbright from Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, describes Kosovo youths as a bright and innovative generation who haven't been exposed to enough differing ways of thinking. But being isolated, he says, "They are much too self-taught." he says. In his graphics classes he tries to get them to expand into different types of software. "Everything is done in Photoshop. They buy the software for $1.50. So finally I tell them, don't show me any more Photoshop!"
For Hall, AUK's success is measured by the help it offers the new state. With a pedigree name (American University) and English fluency requirement, in gritty Pristina the school has a reputation as elite. Only about 20 percent of students are on scholarship, and the tuition is $4,000 a year, hefty by Kosovo standards. Still, an AUK degree is not "a passport out of town," Hall says.
Hall, who deeply loves Maine and its people, says he is giving AUK "three years, about right for this kind of commitment."