Teaching and Learning in Romania

October, 2004

by President Donald P. Wharton


American studies, American style: President Wharton with his students at Babes-Bolyal University. Photo courtesy Donald Wharton.

In November, I had a unique opportunity to teach a weeklong seminar in American Studies to master’s level students in Romania at Babes-Bolyai University in the city of Cluj-Napoca. In addition to being the historic and cultural center of the region, Cluj is home to several universities, and students make up nearly one quarter of the city’s 400,000 residents.

The Transylvania region in which Cluj is located is, literally, the land beyond the Carpathian mountains, a dramatic timbered and alpine region shaped like a reversed letter “C” with the opening facing west toward Hungary and the curve of the letter facing (north to south) Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, the Black Sea, Bulgaria and Serbia.

Named for the Romanian bacteriologist Victor Babes and the Hungarian mathematician Janos Bolyai, the modern university traces its roots through several iterations and name changes to an institution established in 1591 by Prince Istvan Bathory.

Prior to the overthrow of the communist dictatorship in 1989, the university enrolled just over 5,000 students; today, under the dynamic leadership of its rector (president, in American terms), Dr. Andrei Marga, it enrolls more than 40,000 students in baccalaureate, master’s, doctoral and post- graduate programs.

The dramatic growth in the university is also testament to the value which the Romanian people place on education and the national desire to expand educational opportunity to a much increased share of its citizens. Babes-Bolyai is today both a multicultural and multilingual university—its classes are taught in Romanian, Hungarian and German (a few, like mine, in English)—with expanding international connections to Western Europe and the United States.

The Romanian people I met were warm, friendly, generous, proud of their country and very interested in and curious about America. My wife, Carol, and I were received with great hospitality and treated most kindly and considerately during our entire stay. The university has its own guest hotel about a 25-minute walk through a pleasant city park from the main building of Babes-Bolyai.

I am especially grateful to Professor Marius Jucan, director of the American Studies program at BBU, who arranged my class schedule, and Christina Rotar, who assisted with all the associated logistics. And our very special thanks are due to Rector Andrei Marga and his wife, Delia, who graciously invited us to their home, as well as meeting with us at the university during our stay. I was also able to meet with several deans and department heads during my visit and to discuss with each of them ideas for an expanded exchange between Plymouth State and Babes-Bolyai. As a starting point, Rector Marga and I signed an agreement to do so at the end of my visit.

University buildings are primarily clustered around the city center, though some newly-acquired facilities are further removed. The architecture of the city and the university is a mixture of gothic, renaissance, baroque and art nouveau. Unfortunately, the architecturally-oppressive poured concrete tenements throughout the city are a grim reminder of the political repression of the communist regime. On one of the sidewalks off the main city square, Piata Unirii, there is a modern sculpture of several abstract upright forms commemorating the students who were shot during the 1989 uprising which ultimately overthrew the Ceaucescu dictatorship; it is a powerful and sobering reminder of the price of freedom.

Today, Romania has a parliamentary form of government, but struggles to overcome the residue of its past. The corruption widespread under the communists is lessened, but still a problem and a legacy which burdens government administration and the drive for economic efficiency and progress. The countryside is beautiful but poor, with only the main roads paved, and horse-drawn wagons are still a principal conveyance for many rural families. The spirit of reform is strong, however. Romania hopes to join the European Union in three or four years. Open trade and communication with the West in the years since 1989 have already expanded commerce considerably, and at least half of the stores in downtown Cluj bear the well-recognized names of global companies. Today, all of Eastern Europe is at the center of intense and exciting development.

I found the best evidence for a bright future for Romania among my students in the American Studies seminar which I taught at the university. My 13 students—11 master’s candidates and two undergraduates—were wonderful: bright, engaging, well-prepared, interested and interesting. Every class was a pleasure for me, and they, too, said they enjoyed it. In Romania, the teaching style of professors is still overwhelmingly a lecture method in which students are expected to take notes but not to question or engage in discussion. At our first class, my students quickly demanded to know, “Is this class Romanian or American style?” They were delighted with the answer, and I with them. They asked lots of questions, we had great discussions and I learned a great deal from them, too. Carol came to class one day to take pictures and to talk to the students. They were fascinated by her, and she by them. Today, back in New Hampshire, I often look at our Romanian photos, but I always come back to the ones of my students. I think of each of them: Claudia, Mirela, Ioana, Luminita, Laura, Anca, Adriana, Blanka, Loredana, Alexandria, Otilia, Gabriella and Tavi (who was absent the day of the group picture, but made amends by driving Carol and me up into the mountains for a quick tour the day before we left—I have a picture of him in a PSU cap). We are an ocean away, but connected by memory and mountains. After the last class they all took us out for coffee, down in the catacombs of Cluj, and we heard more about professional plans, personal hopes and ambitions. I hope to see them all again. The developing PSU/BBU relationship is of great mutual interest to both universities. We both share an interest in greater international exchanges and experiences for our faculty, students and interested alumni. We both have much to teach each other and to learn from each other. We both have rich histories and cultures to share. Together we can do many exciting, interesting and mutually beneficial things.

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