Dr. Roger Whitaker: Looking Back, Planning Ahead

September 28, 2016 by American College of Sofia

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Dr. Roger Whitaker

As many of you know, Dr. Roger Whitaker (Professor at George Washington University in Washington DC) was the first President (1992-1994) of the reopened American College of Sofia. He kept his close connection to the school over the years as a member of the Board of Trustees and he currently serves as the Chair of the Board. Our interview with Dr. Whitaker and his wife Susan conducted in 2010 for the printed alumni magazine was recently shared electronically and is one of the posts with the most views on the ACS blog and among the most popular on the school’s official Facebook page. Now, six years after our previous conversation, we are turning to Dr. Whitaker again to talk about some of the most noteworthy new developments at the College.

We have a number of questions for you about the current challenges and opportunities at the College and your perspective on the work of the Board of Trustees. But, before that, and on behalf of our readers, can you share with us a few new stories about the unusual things you encountered as the school reopened? We know how serious many of your challenges were but perhaps you could recall some funny experiences that you have not shared before?

During the first years at ACS there was a story a day – some funny or uplifting, some frustrating or perplexing, some encouraging, some dismaying. In this respect, I think our experiences, during those fluid times, paralleled closely those of every person in Bulgaria during the early days after the changes. But, since you asked, here are a few strange episodes (funny on reflection) that quickly come to mind. While they stand alone as simple personal experiences, I believe they do reflect the social, political, and economic context of the time.

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The first enthusiasts, the ACS faculty in 1992

Early Threats to Close ACS

There were a number of attempts to make it nearly impossible for ACS to open or stay open – some serious, some less so. Within the first month of opening the school, we had a government fire safety inspector tell us that to meet code, we would need to install water sprinklers in every classroom. Without the installation, he warned, we would need to close the school. I told the inspector we would gladly comply with regulations to have sprinklers and we would do so just as soon as he provided me with a good example of another school (just one would do) anywhere in Bulgaria that met the requirement. He left in a huff; I was told later that his brother-in-law ran an installation company. We did, of course, make sure we had fire drills and available equipment.

There were plenty of others who would have liked to shut us down. My view was that while many might not have approved of the College reopening, no one – at that point – would have wanted to be accused of being responsible for shutting us down. I used this presumption (Balkan Hardball, as it were) as a foundation for some of my hassles with government offices. More than once, I stated to an official: “If we close, it will be because of a decision you made and we will make sure your decision is known!”

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The yard leading to the president’s house, 1992

Empty Classroom Rooms: Bansko to the Rescue

Obviously, we needed furniture to open the College and welcome our first class of students. We needed desks and chairs for the classrooms and all kinds of household furnishing for the faculty houses at the campus that were empty when we arrived. Here is how we tried to solve this problem.

One day Vladimir Palankov (graduate of the College in 1942 who headed up the campus rehab work in the first few years) took me to Bansko to a factory that made wood furniture. I told the firm’s director that we needed 300 desks and chairs and we needed them soon. He was dumbfounded by the request but when he realized I was serious he turned to the question I hadn’t really thought about until that moment: what kind of desks and especially, how tall and wide? So, Mr. Palankov, the factory boss, and a number of his workers (some tall, some short) and I took turns sitting in an office chair estimating how high to make each desk, none of us having much of an idea. The eventual delivery – just in time to start the school year – was a glorious occasion for those of us worried that the students would have to start at ACS sitting on the floor.

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The new desks, September 1992

By the way, the students respected the new desks in the first years — no graffiti – until one carved LARS into his softwood desk. Stanimir and I found an agreeable solution: he said he was sorry, sanded the desk, and we moved on without further fanfare. To tell the truth, the chairs were pretty lousy and didn’t hold up well for long. But, it was a start. And oh yeah, we ordered huge quantities of parquet since the Police Academy had taken out all the flooring as they vacated the buildings and we knew that inflation would grossly increase the cost of the flooring if we delayed.

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The desks in use in Mr. Dunn’s class with Prep 5

Furnishing the Faculty Houses – I’ll Bid on That!

The U.S. embassy was auctioning off excess furniture in the fall of 1992. This was not an unusual practice for furnishings left by departing personnel. We needed those furnishings for the College and I would have bought all of them on the spot but we were told there needed to be a proper public auction for anyone who wanted to participate. We thought it would be awkward for an American (me) to bid on all of the excess embassy furnishings and so, with 25 or 30 people standing outside on a Saturday morning to bid on each item, I worked a scheme with Nikola Palankov (driver and general handyman at ACS). He stood to one side of the crowd with me on the other. Each time a piece of furniture came up that I thought we needed, I would touch my face and Nikola would bid. If someone upped the bid, Nikola would look to me for guidance. No one knew we were in cahoots and they seemed perplexed as to how it was that this one young unassuming working class Bulgarian was buying everything.

Sorry, I Cannot Sell That to You. Really?

I scoured the city in the summer of 1992 to buy any furniture or appliance that I thought we could use. I found stores with strange combinations, such as one appearing to sell only two things: satellite dishes and pantyhose. No comment.

One day I hit what I thought to be gold: I saw a store on Blvd. Vitosha that had a nice-looking refrigerator on display. I was so excited I told the sales person (perhaps the owner of the restituted storefront) that I wanted to buy three refrigerators. She said they had come from Greece and were no longer available so she couldn’t accept the order. Dejected, I said, ok, at least I will take the one you have here. She said she couldn’t do that either, explaining, “What would I put in the window?” I guess owning a shop was about preserving inventory, not turning profits.

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Taking down communist leaders’ faces with a jackhammer, 1992

Trivia Taken Seriously!

In the fall of the first year, we arranged for a “trivia contest” to include the First English Language School of Sofia. We all knew this school was distinguished as among the very best in Bulgaria and was a favorite of families of high position or influence.

Teams from each school were pitted against one another as a moderator read questions. The first team to hit a button to turn on a light (prepared by good ol’ Bai Marko – our ACS electrician) had the chance to answer – a point for a correct answer, a lost point if wrong. Andrew Robarts organized the whole event. There were a number of question categories: geography, history, science, and English. The rules specified that participants had to be enrolled in the prep year. Well, to be honest, on the English portion of the questioning, we had a secret weapon. One of our prep year students had attended an English-speaking school in Zimbabwe before coming to ACS and he was fluent in English. Daniel Ivandjiiski won every question in the category and we won the contest.

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Peter, Jordan, and Georgi at Science Fair 1996 with the improvised “trivia answering device”

The Admissions Examination

I was involved in the admissions exam process for the first three years of the College. Each year I was struck by two thoughts: 1) how paradoxical it was that I was head of a school I could not have been admitted to myself; and 2) how sorry I was for the hundreds of deserving students who we would not have the room or resources to admit. I was, of course, in awe of the two with the top results of the nearly 3000 kids who sat for the exam the first year (Maria Мircheva and Georgi Benev) and I was astonished at how brilliant the kids were who finished in the top 50 boys and 50 girls and who were awaiting admission for the new year. However, I thought also about those who we disappointed and I knew it would continue to happen every year. I am quite sure that there were actually hundreds of test-takers at the time I was there who would have been just fine at ACS. They had a bad day or had talents not reflected on the kind of exam we constructed. I am sure there were talented musicians and promising actresses, accomplished artists and potential athletes, budding poets, those with prodigious abilities in math and science who struggled with the essay (and the other way around).

I am not sure if there are ways to improve the admissions process. Should we organize a free test-prep program at the College? Should we publish hundreds of past questions and answers (with explanation) to help students know better what to anticipate? Should we give the test twice and take the student’s highest of the two scores? Should we add some supplemental criteria for admission without compromising the core criteria of academic merit that have served us well? There are no plans to change our time-honored admissions policy, but I do think we will want to continue to reflect on these complicated but important issues.

Well, enough story telling for now. Let’s save a few stories for 20 years from now when we do our next interview and I can share some more complicated and serious episodes that will be better told with even more distance.

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Class of 1997 busy learning how to play softball as preps in 1992

The Campus Center is by far the biggest new project, which when complete would present ACS students with a brand new library and cafeteria, both of those overlooking the campus park and the fountain. What do you think will be this project’s implications for student experiences?

We have a 50-year use and occupancy agreement (signed in 1994) to operate the College on our campus. Since we don’t own the property, there has always been a question about how much money to spend on capital projects – improving campus facilities. However, the Board of Trustees concluded three years ago that the campus buildings, grand as they are, have become “tired” and are in need of serious upgrading. With the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation (ABF), we completed a comprehensive campus plan. The Board decided that the first phase of campus renewal should feature the construction of a new building, replacing the one stuck on the back of the auditorium that was built by the Police Academy in the 1950s or 1960s and which is wholly inconsistent with the iconic Georgian architectural style of the other campus buildings. This new building is conceived as a Campus Center with many new features, but highlighted by a new library and resource center and new dining facilities to replace the very worn out cafeteria that served the College since its opening. The new building will reflect what we know about “next generation high schools” with respect to student-centered design, flexible learning places, appropriate technology, and learning opportunities anywhere, any time.

It has not been easy to undertake the Campus Center project. We have had many challenges with such a major project, not the least of which has been raising the money to fund the construction. We estimate the cost will approach ten million dollars. Our trustees (especially the executive and budget committees) have spent a great deal of time working on budget issues as we assemble the resources to undertake such a big project. The funding will come primarily from a major grant from ABF, plus grants from American Schools and Hospitals Abroad (ASHA, a part of U.S. AID), significant personal donations from trustees, gifts and pledges from friends of the College, and alumni contributions that are substantial, growing, and very much needed, as well as the prudent use of some reserves held by the College.

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The Campus Center

When we had our last interview in 2010, the Board of Trustees had just one alumni representative, Nick Mazing ’97. Currently there are four graduates: Lisa Kostova ’97, Theodora Konetsovska ’97, Nedko Kychukov ’03, and Evgenia Peeva ’04. Is this part of a general plan to include more alumni?

The short answer is yes. Nick was a tremendous addition to the Board as our first alumni trustee and we expanded participation after he rotated off the Board. While we don’t have a formula or quotas for representation on the Board, we are committed to diversifying perspectives among our trustees. We have 22 trustees, all unpaid volunteers who even cover their own expenses to travel and attend meetings of trustees. Our newest trustee is Marcie Ries – recent U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria who has kindly agreed to join us. We have four College graduates, as you listed, but also we have four parents of students who graduated from ACS. Collectively, we are made up of business leaders, finance experts, diplomats, lawyers, technology gurus, entrepreneurs, and educators. There is no question that the former-student trustees are a tremendous help to the Board. They are each accomplished professionals who know the College in unique ways and draw on their perspectives as Bulgarian nationals. They each now sit on an important committee of the Board. The impact of their service on the Board is evident, but they also helped establish the Alumni Fund and they have hosted meetings of alumni in New York and London. I anticipate we will add more alumni trustees as vacancies occur or if we expand the size of the Board.

You mention the need for diverse perspectives. Does this mean there are occasionally differences of opinion among trustees?

I am amazed and gratified by how well we work together. Our meetings are friendly and fun, even as we take on very serious responsibilities. For example, we hire and evaluate the ACS president, develop and approve annual budgets for the College to operate, define policies and procedures to govern the College, fix tuition rates and set enrollment targets for each incoming class of students, ensure legal and regulatory compliance, and establish strategic goals for the continuous improvement of the school.

Our trustees share a common commitment to make ACS the best school possible and whatever differences we may have, they don’t seem to me to be fundamental. I cannot think of any issue that wasn’t resolved by means of the free and respectful exchange of opinion. Naturally, over the years we have had some differences. We have had varied opinions on matters such as the IB (International Baccalaureate) vs. AP (Advanced Placement) and whether the IB should be an option for Bulgarian or only international students. We have had some differences with respect to the appropriate use of instructional technology, especially distance education/on-line courses to complement the curriculum. We have had some variation of opinion about the value of the admissions test to predict academic success at the College. We have had complicated discussions about how to respond to the test prep tutoring industry that gives an advantage to already advantaged kids, and so on.

My view, as Chair of this Board, is that it is important to invite differences without hard feelings; that is what drives strategy. Hard feelings can compromise the effectiveness of the Board but false harmony is every bit as dysfunctional. Frankly, our Board rarely experiences either. We work wonderfully well as a team and I have great respect for the expertise, tireless commitment, and mutual respect shared among our trustees.

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Dr. Whitaker giving a keynote speech at a graduation ceremony at the George Washington University

Finally, please share with us from the perspective of the Board of Trustees your sense as to the biggest challenges now facing the College.

ACS is a complex organization working in a complex environment. As such, the College faces a set of enduring and emerging issues. Some of these are inevitable and ongoing, due to our limited resources and various regulatory and compliance requirements. Others deserve our full attention.

Let me mention several complex issues that our Board of Trustees considers of great importance at this time.

Enhancing Civility

Next year we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the reopening of the American College. The year leading up to this milestone will be a time for reflection on the kind of school we have and the kind of school we want. We delight every day in the success of the College as it graduates amazing students who we know will make a difference in their chosen futures. Most ACS graduates will continue their education at universities in the US, Bulgaria or other parts of Europe. Many will continue to pursue graduate degrees and establish themselves as first-rate professionals in whatever field they choose. The academic rigor of the College ensures our graduates are prepared to continue their education. This is our obligation. But we hope for more than professional distinction from our graduates. We also hope that over their years at ACS, students will have developed the sensibilities and sensitivities to fight against increased racism, ultra-nationalism, and intolerance that are, arguably, resurfacing in Europe and the U.S. We need educated citizens for a stable democracy, a vibrant economy, and a civil society. Beyond its academic rigor and extracurricular enrichments, we need to continue to reflect on how the ACS experience can successfully prepare responsible citizens for our vulnerable but increasingly interdependent world.

Increasing Student Diversity

We need to reflect on the diversity of our student population. I’m not talking here about diversity of gender, race, ethnicity, religious preference, sexual orientation or identity, though each is important.

Our trustees are thinking about two other kinds of diversity:

Regional Accessibility

We need to think hard about how to enhance the opportunities for students from outside the Sofia region to consider attending the College if they are interested and admissible. In the first years of the College, I knew parents who moved to Sofia to make it possible for their child to attend the College (Nadia Direkova’s mom moved from Pleven and both of Velina Petrova’s parents moved from Ruse, if I recall). Things have changed – many parents have changed their attitudes about education and the challenges of living in Sofia have surely intensified. There may be a limit to how well we can address our regional focus and ACS will always have a special attraction for those in the commuting region. However, we need to think if there are reasonable ways to promote wider geographical participation. Does this mean establishing a sister campus in another part of Bulgaria or partnering with other schools to develop shared programs? Does it mean special scholarships for those outside the region to better support their living expenses away from home? Should we develop more housing on the campus? There are no obvious answers, but the general topic will continue to be discussed by the Board of Trustees.

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Class of 1997 playing softball as preps and enjoying it, 1992

Economic Diversity

We have done our best to provide financial assistance to families who have demonstrated need. However, we need to do even more to increase financial aid and to make assistance more broadly known to the public. The evidence is pretty clear that the best predictor of academic success in U.S. universities is the wealth of the parents. It is likely true elsewhere in the world and at all levels of education. This should not come as a surprise. Wealthy families provide opportunities that enhance academic preparedness (including tutors, as mentioned). Given the budgetary limitations at the College, we will always be a tuition-driven institution with restraints on our ability to provide unlimited scholarships. It can hardly be otherwise. However, to the extent possible, we need to explore ways to expand scholarship assistance and make the College even more accessible, to engage the notion that education, at its best, is a vehicle for social mobility, redirecting what some have called the “probable destiny” of those without the opportunities afforded to others. This is a big challenge, a global one actually, that will require our best thinking, careful planning, and increased support from alumni, parents, and friends of the College as we celebrate ACS as a treasured opportunity for the broadest possible array of students.

Thank you, Dr. Whitaker and the best of luck to you and your fellow trustees!

Summer 2016

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