Ethiomedia interview with Prof. Abigail Salisbury
April 24 , 2008
Abigail Salisbury: I definitely agree with the State Department’s conclusion. I believe it is accurate not only because of my experiences, but because of what I have heard from others. Another American who taught in Ethiopia several years ago told me she was given a faculty-approved lesson plan and was told not to teach anything else at all. I was provided with a book of lecture notes that had been compiled by an Ethiopian professor, and was told to teach from that book, but I also brought in outside sources and gave examples from my past work experience. As I mentioned in my article in JURIST, my employment contract required that I not advocate any political views whatsoever.
Abraha Belai: Academic freedom is considered one of the cornerstones of higher education all over the world, particularly in the U.S. because it allows both students and professors the freedom to explore all fields of knowledge without fear of punishment or government retaliation. Could you describe for us the state of academic freedom when you were at Mekele University, and please explain how the government defines “advocacy”?
Abigail Salisbury: Academic freedom was quite limited, as I saw it. Part of the problem was that there was a very real danger of instructors being fired due to student complaints. Students have been permitted to have several instructors removed, simply because they didn’t like the way they were being taught. There were constantly petitions against instructors based on some perceived bias against someone’s gender, religion, geographic origin, etc. Once, my class was interrupted for about thirty minutes while the administrators chastised students for submitting a completely false accusation against an instructor, but the woman eventually stopped teaching the students anyway because she couldn’t stand to be around them. I complained to the dean and vice dean many times that the students were just allowed to run wild, and that the students were controlling the instructors. Students commonly visit professors’ offices to beg for money or otherwise harass them. Because of that environment, there was a fair amount of animosity and there wasn’t much motivation for any real exchange of ideas, whatever the political situation. It was rare to find an instructor in his or her office. I’m not sure exactly how the government defines “advocacy”, but in practice the definition seems to be speaking positively about views it opposes. The meaning is probably left open to interpretation on purpose.
Abraha Belai: Many Ethiopians do not know how expatriate professors are recruited to teach in the country. How did you get recruited and what were the terms and conditions of your employment?
Abigail Salisbury: There is an American professor who is permitted to select a number of people for employment at Ethiopian law faculties each year. I sent a resume to him because he had enabled a Pitt Law professor to teach at Mekele University a few years ago, and I admire her work. I was offered the position of assistant professor in January 2007, and was instructed to choose two cities in which I would like to work. I chose Mekele because I knew a professor who had taught there, and Addis because it is the capital city. I was assigned to Mekele but was not told which subjects I would be teaching, so I brought along a variety of source materials. Seven others were sent to Ethiopia after having followed the same process. I was provided with very little practical information, and had to figure out what to do as I went along. I had been led to believe that I would be given housing along with other instructors, but when I arrived I discovered that I was the only American at Mekele University and I would have to find my own housing. I was assigned to teach International Human Rights Law just a few days before the start of the semester, and several weeks passed before I signed a contract, which specifically required that I not advocate any political views. The law faculties had not properly prepared for the American instructors, and one instructor left after never having been paid or reimbursed for any expenses. I was told that two more instructors quit and returned to America later on. There are also a number of professors from India. They are hired through a different program and seem to have a better time of things than the Americans.
Abraha Belai: Let me go back to the academic freedom issue. It seems intense intellectual debate in American universities is an accepted way of life, and university professors often lead not only academic discussion but also debate over public policy. How did you feel about the terms of your working conditions given your experiences in American higher education?
Abigail Salisbury: The American and Ethiopian university curriculum could not be more different. In American higher education generally, but in law school specifically, students are expected to take responsibility for their learning and to engage in vigorous, informed class discussions. The first day of class, I tried to get my students to tell me their names and what interest they had in human rights. Even if I specifically asked a student his or her name, the student would just sit there and look away. I knew from that moment there would be no discussions in class. I desperately tried getting students to react even through simple means, saying things such as, “Who agrees with that idea? Raise your hand if you do.” Nothing would happen. “Who disagrees? Raise your hand.” No hands went up. The students wanted only to be given facts to memorize, and became angry if asked to analyze ideas or provide their own thoughts on something. I was utterly shocked at the students’ expectations. Clearly they had always been taught that way. Other foreign instructors told me they had similar experiences.
Abraha Belai: When you signed your contract that you will “never say anything against the government or ruling party” did you find that clause in the contract stage? Did you ask for an explanation of what it means?
Abigail Salisbury: I was surprised to see the clause in the contract, but there was nothing I could do. It was a non-negotiable form contract written by someone at the university. Thus, I chose not to bring it up with the dean, lest I be labeled a troublemaker at the outset.
Abraha Belai: You have indicated in a previous interview that you were summarily dismissed after your article came out in JURIST online. Who gave you the word you were being let go and what reasons were given to you?
Abigail Salisbury: The day following the publication of my article, I noticed that it could not be accessed online from Ethiopia. That night around 7 p.m. I got a phone call from the dean of the law faculty, who told me to appear at his office the next morning. No explanation was given. At his office, I spoke to the dean and two other law faculty leaders. They said secret proceedings had been started against me because my students had complained that they weren’t learning anything. I had been telling the dean that the students weren’t learning for months. I had told him that they couldn’t understand me and that they said the reading materials I assigned were “over their heads”. I had also experienced terrible behavior, such as students yelling at me or walking out of class, telling me what to do, asking for money, following me home, and sexually harassing me during my office hours. I had asked the dean, vice dean, and higher-up professors for advice dozens of times, but had never been given any help. The dean told me that I would be permitted to write a letter arguing why I should not be fired, but that I would never meet my accusers.
Abraha Belai: From what you are saying you did not even get a simple due process hearing where you can confront your accusers or present evidence in your own defense. That must be hard for a lawyer. Ordinary Ethiopians are used to such arbitrary procedures, but I wonder how you felt as a lawyer and law professor to be denied basic due process, something at the core of all human rights issues?
Abigail Salisbury: When a student habitually harassed me and another female professor, the dean told me that he couldn’t expel the student because he had due process rights. The double standard was infuriating. It just proves that what is taught as theory in the classroom is never really put into practice.
Abraha Belai: According to a government mouthpiece publication, you were dismissed from your position for “incompetence”. That charge surfaced after your JURIST article appeared. The vast majority of people familiar with your article believe you were fired in retaliation for your article. Were you officially served termination or dismissal papers stating the reasons for your termination?
Abigail Salisbury: The dean and the two other university leaders told me that they personally wanted to see me stay in Mekele and hoped that I would work on a textbook for them. Two days later, the dean told me the result of the “hearing” was that my contract would be terminated. I had not been allowed to appear at the hearing and I do not know anyone who attended it. I never received official notice of termination. The only documentation was a directive given to the finance office telling them to pay me the previous month’s salary because I had been terminated.
I only started to hear that “incompetence” language when I requested that I be paid three months’ severance pay, as required by my contract. The university officials told me that I would not be paid anything because I had been fired for “incompetence”, and the clause did not apply in the event of termination for cause. There is nothing in the contract to that effect. I find it interesting that I was accused of “incompetence” when I have more years of education than the dean, and there were many lecturers who had only recently finished their undergraduate education. The dean mentioned my JURIST article and said that the content was all lies, and that I don’t know how to write. Things would have been different, he told me, if only I knew how to write properly.
Abraha Belai: Did any Ethiopian faculty members come to your defense, or did any of them share with you privately that they agreed with you but were afraid to say so in public?
Abigail Salisbury: Everything happened so quickly that no other instructors knew what had happened except the people in my expat social group. I was advised by Americans to leave the country as soon as possible because of potential danger, so I never had a chance to say goodbye to anyone. I called my Amharic teacher and gave him my stove and other kitchen items. I called an Ethiopian instructor who had become my friend and told her that she could get my house key and take my furniture. She told me she had no idea what had been going on and hadn’t heard about student complaints or any hearing. I had to leave for the airport before dawn the next day, and that was it. I spent a few days in Addis with some friends before returning to America.
Abraha Belai: Were there other expatriate professors at Mekele or any other university in the country who came to your defense or shared their views privately with you; and do you feel your dismissal had a chilling effect on them?
Abigail Salisbury: Again, everything happened so quickly that no one would have had any time to act. I was friends with some Indian professors who taught at the other faculties, but they couldn’t say anything without being implicated. I was never really put in contact with the other American professors working in other cities, and they wouldn’t have had any influence anyway. Some other Americans who did have some influence tried to call certain people to change things, but I was still terminated.
Abraha Belai: One of the major issues in your JURIST article was your position on HR 2003. Do you personally believe that HR 2003 is a good thing for Ethiopia, and if so why?
Abigail Salisbury: My article is really a chronological record of how I arrived at my current opinion on H.R. 2003. Initially I thought it was a bad idea, but I have become convinced that the U.S. has to take this stand. I don’t know how much it will change things in Ethiopia because Prof. Robert Pape’s research indicates these economic sanctions may actually strengthen regimes. However, the U.S. has an unfortunate history of cooperating with oppressive rulers to serve our own purposes, and I think H.R. 2003 represents an important policy change in that regard. If my experience has taught me anything, it has shown me that other nations must use whatever resources they have—whether financial or otherwise—to change the human rights situation in Ethiopia. I have been told by many people that if I had been an Ethiopian citizen, I probably would have just been sent to prison for what I wrote. Aid money can be a strong motivator, and making contributions contingent on human rights improvement will hopefully force the government to make some changes.
Abraha Belai: One can guess that after the JURIST article came out, you received email or other communication from those who liked and did not like your analysis. Could you tell us what you thought of the responses?
Abigail Salisbury: Some of the things people said about me online or in e-mails to me were so wrong that I didn’t even recognize myself as the person they were depicting. My friends and family started sending me quotes which were particularly funny because of their false accusations. I was accused of everything from being an agent of the Eritrean government to grading my students based on how much they liked President Bush. By the time I returned to America, I had stopped reading anything written about me and had decided to delete any e-mails I received about the article. When I was asked to do the radio interview it took quite a while to convince me that there weren’t any ulterior motives.
On the other hand, there were many incredibly kind and supportive responses to the article. I remember right after being told I was “incompetent”, I read a post by someone who said he or she envied my students for having me as a teacher. Comments like that were really touching and made me feel a lot better about what was happening to me. It seemed so poignant under the circumstances. A number of people wrote posts wondering if I would be fired, and their concerns turned out to be justified.
Abraha Belai: Let me turn to the issue of educational quality. What is your general impression of the quality of legal instruction at Mekele, and indeed, your impressions of academic quality at Mekele University in general?
Abigail Salisbury: I think the education given there is very poor. I spoke to some of the foreign employers who have hired graduates of MULF (Mekele University Law Faculty) to work in their businesses, and they tell me that these graduates have no idea what they are doing. The instructors themselves are so young and inexperienced that I don’t see how they could provide much to the students. Staff turnover is incredibly high, with a new dean every year. When I told them that in America our professors are usually very accomplished scholars and are significantly older than the students, they were shocked. After graduating from MULF with a four-year degree, students can become judges right away. Such a scenario is unthinkable in America.
Abraha Belai: Do you think some of the law students, and may be even faculty, could misconstrue or misunderstand your observations about their academic preparation and how they related to you while you taught at the university?
Abigail Salisbury: I know it might look as if I am retaliating because I am angry about being fired, but I was complaining to the dean and vice dean about many of these problems for months before my termination. I don’t have any agenda to push and I know other Americans who have had great experiences teaching in Ethiopia. I’m not angry at anyone in Mekele, and I even donated textbooks to the law faculty’s library before I left. Maybe if people hear about some of the problems in the education system they can help to improve it. It wouldn’t surprise me if many of the troubles I had were due to cultural misunderstandings on both sides.
Abraha Belai: It seems some of your law students may have had issues and complaints about their education. What are the 2 or 3 main complaints you got from students at the law school when you were there?
Abigail Salisbury: There are no course materials for the students. They can’t understand what is being said. They don’t want real-world examples, only terms and facts to be memorized.
Abraha Belai: How do you evaluate the standards and quality of legal education at Mekele University, and how would you compare it to U.S. law schools, particularly with respect to the professors’ breadth and depth of legal knowledge and education to teach law?
Abigail Salisbury: The system really needs to change from one of memorization to one of analysis if things are to improve. The university graduates someone in the Spring semester and that person can teach classes independently in the Fall semester. One professor I met had only one year of legal education, and had actually been trained in journalism. The scarcity of qualified instructors explains the desire to bring in foreigners, but some Ethiopian instructors seemed a bit angry that outsiders came in and were paid more. I understand, because I would also be angry if someone from another country came to America and was paid ten times my salary for essentially the same work I performed.
The students at MULF complained if I asked them to read three or four typewritten pages, and usually didn’t do the reading anyway. Other instructors told me that their students were generally ill-prepared, too. They hadn’t done their assignments, they brought nothing to take notes with, and some even arrived visibly intoxicated. I gave weekly quizzes and often received papers with a name, ID number, and the statement, “I have no idea.” They just handed in that paper to get a point for attendance. The administrators believe that they are turning out world-class academics, but the students are nowhere near university-level. American legal education is a graduate degree and is very rigorous.
Students must read dozens of cases and treatise excerpts every night, often totaling hundreds of pages. In addition to class work, American students participate in demanding activities such as moot court, law review, client counseling competitions, etc. Outside of law school, students frequently work long hours as interns or law clerks.
Abraha Belai: When students asked you not to show their work to government officials as you indicated in your JURIST article, what was your initial reaction? Did you ask them why they were afraid, and did you reassure them?
Abigail Salisbury: I was shocked when I read those requests. When I saw the first one, I actually put down the pile of papers and went off to think about the situation. I returned to continue grading the next day and decided to set aside the paper with that first request until I figured out what to do with it. As I went through the remaining essays, I found a few dozen more notes just like it. I really didn’t know what to do, but I went before my classes and said that I had read these things. I told the students not to be afraid, and I encouraged them to talk about their concerns. Of course, they said nothing. I stood at the lectern for about fifteen minutes with total silence in the room, hoping the awkwardness would prompt someone to speak. No one offered any information, and so I had to continue with my planned lecture and pretend that nothing had happened. No student ever personally approached me after that day.
Abraha Belai: Is it your impression that only students were afraid to express themselves, or do you feel from informal conversation that the professors are also equally afraid to talk about politics and other issues in a critical way?
Abigail Salisbury: The official position from the administrators and instructors is that everyone is free to express their views openly. I told everyone that I was writing an article about the forum, and no one ever discouraged me from doing so. Another professor even helped me with translation. The faculty occasionally held research days for instructors to present papers and exchange ideas. The discussions often got quite heated. I gave a talk at one of these events and the instructors seemed open to questioning the presenters that day.
Abraha Belai: In your JURIST article you wrote, "A number of students wrote that they would never give their real opinions to an Ethiopian professor because they fear being turned in to the government and punished. Others begged me to take their work back to America with me so that people would know what was going on.” Did you get the feeling that your students were so afraid that they were simply going through the motions of learning without being critical about the knowledge they receive, and avoided class discussions for that reason?
Abigail Salisbury: As I have mentioned, the students resisted any attempts I made to engage them in critical thinking. They want to memorize information without actually processing or internalizing it. That mindset may be due to fear or could just be a result of prior schooling. I don’t know. Class discussions were non-existent because students never prepared for class and wouldn’t speak. Friends who were in Ethiopia to train people in other fields, not at the university, had similar problems and some Ethiopians told us that part of the problem is that the culture discourages people from expressing their views.
I was asked to give a couple of guest lectures at an English school run by my Amharic teacher. I was stunned when kids aged ten to seventeen were incredibly gracious and full of informed questions for me. When I had to leave, students followed me out onto the street and begged me to answer more questions. They were leaps and bounds ahead of my own university classes not only in English proficiency, but also in terms of inquisitiveness and maturity. That was my experience. I can’t tell you what accounts for that difference.
Abraha Belai: You indicated there were some language issues. But you taught law in English and the language of the law seems pretty challenging to the lay person. Do you think your law students were particularly disadvantaged because the language problem was compounded further by the difficulty associated with understanding complex legal concepts and principles?
Abigail Salisbury: Legal terminology can often seem like a foreign language to a native English speaker, and American law students certainly don’t enter law school understanding everything that is said. I got a lot of blank stares from my Ethiopian students. That’s why I took Amharic lessons. I always asked, “Is it clear?” and “Are there any questions?” in Amharic. Actually, if you look at my vocabulary in Amharic--small though it is--you will get a good idea of what the class environment is like. The students really don’t speak English well enough to be taught exclusively in it, and so even the best instructors would make no difference. Even though the university claims to use only English, it was common knowledge among the foreign instructors that many classes were taught in Amharic. The students wanted us to write out literally every word of our lectures so that they could go back and try to understand something of what was said. Some of the Ethiopian professors couldn’t even carry on basic conversations with me in English, so I have no doubt that they conducted classes in Amharic. All faculty communications were written in Amharic and I would have to find someone to translate. I was told not to bother attending meetings because they would be conducted in Amharic or Tigrigna. I missed a lot that way. The only memos I could read were from the association of disabled students. They took the time to translate everything into English just for me, so we joked that they were accommodating my language disability.
Abraha Belai: Does the law school have a library sufficient to conduct sound legal education?
Abigail Salisbury: The library is tiny and needs donations. The law school has a brand new building but no books, furniture, or computers to fill it. I should note that the reason American law libraries are so vast, however, is because we operate under a Common Law system which requires lawyers to refer to past precedent. Ethiopia uses a Civil Law system, so that lawyers need only look up the relevant statutory provisions in the Civil Code. Even so, the library at MULF should be larger. I believe a grant from the EU just provided a number of new books, but they need more. Computers and internet access are another big resource issue. Few instructors--let alone the students--have those tools.
Abraha Belai: A government mouthpiece claimed that you had pressured your students to accept the “the rightness” of HR 2003? Did you pressure any students to do so?
Abigail Salisbury: Comments like that are ridiculous, especially since my syllabus specifically told students that they were free to express their ideas, that they should respect each others’ opinions, and that they shouldn’t feel that they must agree with me. In class, I gave weekly quizzes asking students to offer their own ideas on various issues. I explained that they were being graded on how they thought, not what they thought. I only talked about H.R. 2003 for part of one lesson, in fact, and it was because a student asked me what I thought of it. I used the opportunity to question the effectiveness of economic sanctions, and encouraged students to think of possible alternatives to them. I think that anyone who has spoken to me for even a short while realizes that these kinds of accusations are without merit.
Abraha Belai: You taught human rights law, how did you reconcile what you observed or read about in the international human rights reports about the rule of law and human rights with the subject matter of your course?
Abigail Salisbury: Once I started to comprehend the real human rights situation in Ethiopia, I was shocked that the government lets the universities offer human rights classes at all. I would always tell my students that even though I often talked about America to illustrate points, I use America as an example because I am most familiar with it, not because I think it is perfect. No nation follows the principles and rules of international human rights law perfectly. What is important is that we keep trying to get closer and closer to the ideal and that we push other nations to do the same.
Abraha Belai: What do you think is happening to the recruitment program that facilitated your employment there, and are you doing anything to help others American professors being recruited to teach in Ethiopia?
Abigail Salisbury: For a while, it appeared as if no more people would be sent to Ethiopia. I have recently been told that some individuals have been selected from a pool of more than two hundred applicants and will be going this October. I have serious concerns about the program, and I wrote a lengthy document listing the things I wish someone had told me before I went to Ethiopia last year. That document is going to be distributed to the next group of instructors before they leave. I hope it will help them and will prevent more problems. A major problem for Americans is the unavailability of practical up-to-date information about Ethiopia. I tried to find information before I left, but it just wasn’t there. I don’t want to discourage others from going to Ethiopia, though, because it was an amazing experience that changed my outlook considerably.
Abraha Belai: Would you have written the piece in JURIST if you knew what you know about the consequences?
Abigail Salisbury: That’s a really difficult question. When I wrote the piece, I knew I was taking something of a risk, but I didn’t think anyone in Ethiopia would notice it. I had written for JURIST before, but my work didn’t attract huge interest. I wrote the article on Ethiopia thinking that it would provide some interesting information and nothing more. I’ve been shocked and a little embarrassed at the attention paid to the piece. I am glad that I wrote what I did, though.
Abraha Belai: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us. On behalf of Ethiomedia, I would like to express my appreciation for sharing your thoughts and insights.
Abigail Salisbury: You are welcome.
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