Dr. David Evans for Forbes Bulgaria: 'AUBG is confident in the excellence of the education and student experience we provide'
We are republishing an interview AUBG President Dr. David Evans gave for Forbes Bulgaria in March 2022.
Dr. Evans, it's been a year since our last meeting on the pages Forbes. What has changed at AUBG in the past 12 months?
We continue to work on a promising strategic plan for the university, but our progress has been challenged by the obstacles posed by COVID. While we have learned a lot about remote instruction and virtual meetings, in many cases it’s clear that we could have made more progress, more easily, were we able to meet face-to-face more often. We have experienced some favorable developments: our enrollment has actually increased a little each of the past two years, and our Executive MBA program in Sofia has just started a new, large, highly qualified student cohort, which shows that the program is in demand and appeals strongly to a select audience of current professionals.
We also have a new Vice President for Strategy and Institutional Effectiveness, Karina Ulucheva, who is providing great support for our strategy and implementation plans, and a new Vice President for Finance and Administration, Dilyana Mileva, who continues strengthening the university’s financial position and controls. We have brought new energy to our student affairs division with the appointment of long-time colleague Sabina Wien as Dean of Students, and the overall leadership team is strong and cohesive. I thank all of them, along with the faculty, for helping us manage through the unprecedented COVID situation in a way that has preserved the university’s essence and laid the foundation for an even better future.
We have also become much more aggressive in promoting our students’ civic engagement, and our collaboration with the Municipality of Blagoevgrad. There are many opportunities to work together to improve our hometown, which will benefit everyone who lives here and make Blagoevgrad a more attractive destination for potential students and employees. For example, we have created a wonderful project, devised and led by alumna Tsvetana Haydushka ’20, to enhance the local historical museum through improved signage, digital documentation of the collection, and improved social media, a terrific program that I hope serves as a prototype for more as COVID restrictions lift further.
Do you observe stable new trends in academia and students that might have not been relevant now if the pandemic had not happened?
Certainly for AUBG, and for many other institutions around the world, the experiences we’ve had in remote and hybrid teaching will permanently affect the way we deliver our programs. For us, what this probably means is taking advantage of our ability to hire adjunct faculty for special courses from anywhere in the world, and greatly increasing our collaboration with global universities in consortia to which we belong. We have already begun sharing courses with several institutions around the world, and this process promises incredible opportunities for cross-cultural, global learning for our students. While I suspect we would eventually have arrived at the same place, it would have taken at least several years longer without the adjustments the pandemic forced upon us.
Are you optimistic about the future of students who had to study, and some of them even graduate, in this challenging environment?
Students over the past two years have definitely endured hardships and disadvantages that may end up hindering them in some ways in the future. At the same time, our students have shown remarkable resilience and adaptability as we have had to adjust our operations multiple times to follow government orders and other challenges. I don’t think the students have lost much in terms of educational quality, but they absolutely have lost great networking, team-building, and personal development opportunities, which are such a critical part of what we at AUBG think is important. That said, in the past few weeks, as restrictions have loosened slightly, campus life, club activities, and so on, have resumed something like their pre-pandemic form. While it will take some time and continued improvements in the pandemic situation for us to be back in full swing, recent days have been like the first days of spring when the flowers are blooming after a long, gray winter. I think our students will take the lessons of the last two years and find ways to turn them to advantage personally and professionally, and I’m confident that they will be successful in whatever ways they choose to define their success.
What are the challenges that AUBG is facing today?
We continue, of course, to face the uncertainty of the COVID pandemic. We had planned to have something close to a normal semester this spring, with a GreenPass campus but minimal additional restrictions, then in December the Omicron variant came along and once again changed everything. This kind of shift has happened several times in the past two years, and it makes planning extremely difficult, and imposes many stresses on the community. If we can arrive at some kind of stability—even if not a “normal” situation—things will be much easier.
We are also concerned about the geopolitical situation. We recruit students from all over the region, and so are affected by anything that happens in any nearby country. We have a great history of helping students during times of conflict—for example, with students from the former Yugoslav republics during the 90s and early this century—and hope to continue to be a symbol of international, multicultural friendship and mutual understanding.
AUBG is confident in the excellence of the education and student experience we provide, and hope to increase our undergraduate enrollment substantially over the next several years. Growing enrollment is not simple, and to succeed we need to do a lot of things right, and to have external circumstances cooperate as well. I am confident we can do excellent work on the things we can control, and we will hope for the best for those external circumstances.