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12 February 2024

ADA University, Azerbaijan’s “Island of Excellence”

Founded in 2006, ADA University has made waves in Azerbaijan, impacting the quality of higher education and foreign and domestic policy for the better.

ADA University, Azerbaijan’s “Island of Excellence”

Image: ADA University/FB

ADA University’s main campus sits on Baku’s Ahmed Bey Ağaoğlu Street, and the institution’s grand aspirations unquestionably align with the street’s namesake, Ahmet Ağaoğlu (1869-1939), an educator, journalist, diplomat, and politician who helped found both the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and present-day Türkiye.

The university was originally founded in 2006 as the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy (ADA) to support the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The academy’s original purpose was to train the country’s diplomats to staff the growing number of Azerbaijani missions opening up abroad. 

President Ilham Aliyev appointed Hafiz Pashayev—Baku’s first ambassador to the United States after independence from the Soviet Union—as the academy’s rector; he is still in post and, until a few years ago, concurrently served as Deputy Foreign Minister. ADA has certainly had an impact, as the number of Azerbaijan’s foreign embassies has tripled since the academy first opened, from 25 in the early days to a total of some 75 today, with new ones set up last year, for example, in Albania and Kenya.

However, the academy’s remit has since expanded, and it became a full-fledged university in 2014 by presidential decree after incorporating Information Technologies University. The merger took place as part of a new pedagogical vision, namely, to work as a single institution under the name ADA University and cultivate future generations of leading policymakers, executives, and entrepreneurs to advance Azerbaijan’s national development goals. 

Interestingly, the university is often referred to as “Ada” because of its acronym. The word means “island” in Turkic languages such as Azerbaijani and Turkish and is often used to describe ADA University as an “island of talent and excellence.” The institution offers students a variety of opportunities to improve their language skills, study abroad, and specialize in a range of fields. 

“I’ve been working here for 17 years, and I’m very proud of this institution because it really is a game changer in Azerbaijan,” explains the university’s Vice-Rector and Director of its affiliated think tank, the Institute for Development and Diplomacy (IDD), Dr. Fariz Ismailzade.

“ADA University is the only university in Azerbaijan that uses English as its primary language of instruction,” he tells the Caspian Post, “we have dual degree programmes with five foreign universities, including George Washington University in the United States and several Italian universities, alongside more than 120 exchange programmes with top universities in both Europe and Asia.”

Dr. Ismailzade also explains that ADA University is committed to raising educational standards nationwide and has opened branches in different regions of Azerbaijan, including Gazakh, Sheki, and Ganja.

In addition to expanding its School of Public and International Affairs, the university has opened faculties of law, economics, business, finance, computer science, and engineering. Expansion into other fields of study, such as agriculture, architecture, and design, is also on the horizon.

Students can enjoy the added benefit of participating in research projects, summer programmes, and teaching from both foreign and domestic faculty with the university’s faculty mobility offer.

One of its foreign faculty members is Damjan Krnjević Mišković, who took up a position as a Professor of Practice back in 2020. Having worked in senior positions at the United Nations (UN) and in the Serbian Government, he brings a wealth of experience.

Professor Krnjević explains that one of his reasons for relocating was to spend more time working on policy matters relating to Eurasia. “I think that the Silk Road region is one of the most important geostrategic and geoeconomic regions in the world,” he says, “and as far as I am concerned, Azerbaijan is one of the region’s three keystone states, alongside Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.”

“To me, this is clear. The European Union (EU), for example, is very focused on building ties with Central Asia. But you can’t get to Central Asia without going through Azerbaijan. Both Russia to the north and Iran to the south are sanctioned, so if the West wants to connect the East and West, it needs Azerbaijan; it’s the indispensable country for advancing the EU’s strategic connectivity ambitions in the Silk Road region.”

“However, this means that Brussels has to engage with Baku in a different way, a way in which it is not used to doing. The EU primarily views the South Caucasus as part of its neighbourhood and, therefore, presents itself as predominant—as being inherently attractive. But this doesn’t correspond to the geopolitical reality. Azerbaijan is a genuinely independent country that isn’t interested in joining a regional club like the EU, so that same level of leverage that exists in the case of, say, Moldova or Albania or even Georgia is simply not there”.

ADA University is also using the IDD’s work to change the way international partners and policymakers understand Azerbaijan’s strategic posture. For example, while affiliated think tanks are common at British, American, and Chinese universities, this is far rarer in Eurasia, affording the institute something of a “special status” in Azerbaijan and its neighbourhood.

The IDD publishes Baku Dialogues, a quarterly English-language policy journal, and weekly papers written by locally based authors. “Our aim in many cases is to get our readers to understand Azerbaijan as it understands itself, which is a necessary step to any serious analytical thinking about this part of the world,” says Professor Krnjević, who also works as the IDD’s Director for Policy Research, Analysis, and Publications. The institute also produces publicly available short online policy expert interviews called #IDDTalks

These come in addition to policy conferences, public lectures, and roundtable discussions. “We are undoubtedly Azerbaijan’s most serious convening institution. We have access to the various institutions, and we’re also in touch with the embassies, and they know IDD is the place for visiting leaders and ministers to give a public lecture.” Professor Krnjević says. Guest speakers have included everyone from presidents to global trailblazers, such as astronaut Dr. Peggy Whitson, who was the first female commander of the International Space Station—she is, remarkably, not the first astronaut to have spoken at ADA University. However, the think tank’s flagship event is the annual presidential forum, where President Aliyev actively participates. “We invite about 60 foreign guests and experts to engage directly with the President and other speakers for hours at a time. So, this is a very active dynamic platform for policy discussions,” Dr. Ismailzade explains.

“Overall,” he adds, “I would say that ADA University has really made a big impact on the quality of education and research in the country. It is changing the culture of higher education in Azerbaijan”.