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American university stalls deal with AUM over concerns

Chancellor Kelly Damphousse for Arkansas State University and President Lewis Walker, President of American University Malta.

An agreement between the American University of Malta (AUM) and Arkansas State University (ASU) is “on hold” while ASU officials review the partnership due to a number of concerns over the controversial university.

The agreement signed in March resulted in questions from faculty members of ASU over how the AUM had fired all of its staff, bar Provost John Ryder, last year, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports.

Ryder had previously been a professor and former president of Khazar University in Baku, Azerbaijan – a country with many links to Malta and the Labour Party government that approved the AUM project.

Kelly Damphousse, ASU Chancellor, visited Malta to sign the agreement and to meet with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in a trip that cost over $7,000 (€6,400), the Gazette reveals.

Read: Smoke and mirrors – The personal account of an AUM staff member

The Gazette’s article touched on how “other universities in the United States have backed off partnerships with the university after receiving criticism”.

Since the beginning, the AUM has been shrouded in criticism and allegations of corruption and wrongdoing.

It was also revealed by US-based Inside Higher Ed that contracts included multipage confidentiality agreements barring staff from talking about “business operations, commercial and financial activities relating directly or indirectly and in any way whatsoever to the AUM.” 

All staff, even after being fired, were gagged. They cannot apeak about their experiences but this did not stop a number of individuals coming forward under the condition of anonymity.

A former faculty member that spoke to The Shift two years ago said she doubted whether it was a university at all. Another former faculty member detailed the problems in an article for The Shift.

In terms of student enrolment figures, Ryder has been consistently evasive. An early promotional video for the university stated that they planned to enrol 1,000 students in the first year rising to a total enrollment 4,000 by the fourth year.

The Times of Malta then reported that only 15 students enrolled in the first semester. Ryder then stated that the AUM student body numbered 23. An anonymous source then told to the Times that a total of six new students had enrolled in 2018-2019.

It was then reported that students from non-EU countries had absconded from Malta into Europe, allegedly using the visas granted to gain access to the Schengen Zone. Ryder admitted in an interview that foreign students had used the university as a way of getting into Europe but claimed the AUM was “trying to stop it”.

As recently as August, the AUM had its plans to build a large student accommodation block behind the Cospicua campus refused by the Planning Directorate. The final decision will be taken by the Planning Authority on 12 September despite the fact that the proposal violates a number of planning policies.

The university and the government have also been criticised for a lack of transparency in terms of agreements and contracts, the use of public land at Zonqor for a second campus, and alleged ethical wrongdoing by the Board of trustees including Adrian Hillman, who is under criminal investigation in a magisterial inquiry that started two years ago and which has still not been concluded.

Petra Caruana Dingli at The Shift News

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