"We want to give them the opportunity to be modern and remain where their forefathers have lived," said S. Frederick Starr, the chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and a member of the team devising the new institution, the University of Central Asia.
The university will offer degree programs based on a liberal arts and sciences curriculum, unlike the specialist programs of the Soviet era. The programs are being created to serve a new elite in the hope that they will provide leadership in the region. Fees will be charged. But each of the three campuses will also offer continuing and vocational education for ordinary civil servants, farmers and merchants.
Mr. Starr, who speaks several regional languages, is acting as rector of the university-in-the-making until a local administration is in place.
The university was established by a treaty that has been ratified, so far, by the Parliaments of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The main campus at Khorog, in the Badakhshan region of the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan, is already beginning to function as a continuing and vocational education center.
Within the next four years, it is expected to become a fully equipped undergraduate and graduate university -- "coeducational, private, nonsectarian and with a local faculty," Mr. Starr said in an interview.
Two other campuses will be built, at Tekeli, Kazakhstan, and Naryn, Kyrgyzstan. The first phase of operations in Kazakhstan -- also continuing education -- is being directed by a woman, Dr. Raikhan Sissekenova, a public health specialist.
The poverty in those regions has deepened in the past 20 years, he said, and people there have enough communication with the outside world to know that they are losing out. "Everywhere, that creates tremendous volatility and calls forth the deepest frustrations," he said.
The university is expected to cost about $200 million to build. The Aga Khan Foundation pledged $15 million and has helped with start-up services through its development network. Governments in several countries -- including Canada, Germany, Japan and Switzerland -- as well as corporations and other foundations are expected to contribute.
Students will study English and computers before beginning course work, and undergraduate degree courses will be taught in English, the language that people in the region believe will best connect them to the outside world. "We want enlightened and principled generalists who can provide a moderate kind of leadership for the entire region," Mr. Starr said. Adult education programs are intended to retrain civil service employees and assist would-be entrepreneurs.
Payam Foroughi, an international consultant who worked in development projects for three years in rural Tajikistan, questioned whether an emphasis on English was wise. Mr. Foroughi said that Russian was already a common language in the region and that local languages, including the form of Tajik spoken in the mountains around the main campus, needed to be preserved.
But Mr. Foroughi, who wrote the chapter on Tajikistan for a recent Freedom House report on the uncertain state of democracy in Central Asia and other post-Communist societies, agreed that an early emphasis on practical skills was important.
Mr. Starr said that continuing education programs would always be taught in regional dialects and that languages and courses would respond to local needs.
When a researcher recently toured the Badakhshan region, on the border with Afghanistan, to ask what people wanted to learn, women were among the first to answer, Mr. Starr said. They wanted courses in women's legal rights.