Head of the Class?

From Harvard to Pacific Western, a look at the sometimes surprising U.S. universities that have educated today’s new crop of world leaders.

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What do Libyan Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib, Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti have in common? A lot, it turns out. All three leaders are currently being hailed as sober, apolitical technocrats who can leverage their expertise and international experience to shepherd transitional governments through crises. And where, prey tell, did they learn these skills?

What do Libyan Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib, Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti have in common? A lot, it turns out. All three leaders are currently being hailed as sober, apolitical technocrats who can leverage their expertise and international experience to shepherd transitional governments through crises. And where, prey tell, did they learn these skills?

At U.S. universities. El-Keib, shown above, earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California (USC) in 1976 and a doctorate in electrical engineering from North Carolina State University in 1984, penning a thesis on the “capacitive compensation planning and operation for primary distribution feeders.” El-Keib went on to teach engineering off and on at the University of Alabama for 20 years, and will now replace the University of Pittsburgh-educated Mahmoud Jibril as Libya’s interim prime minister.

Papademos, meanwhile, earned an undergraduate degree in physics, a master’s in electrical engineering, and a doctorate in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1970s. The former Bank of Greece and European Central Bank official, who also taught at Columbia and Harvard, succeeds the Amherst-educated George Papandreou. Monti, for his part, studied economics at Yale.

Needless to say, these alma maters are welling up with pride. The Yale Alumni Magazine named Monti, a former European Commissioner, the “Yalie of the week,” an honor that admittedly may have been eclipsed by his ascension to Italy’s premiership. As for El-Keib, Yannis Yortsos, dean of USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, told the student newspaper, the Daily Trojan, “We are hopeful that the Trojan spirit and values will guide him in the difficult but exciting path of national rebuilding.” Ben Redmond, a senior in electrical engineering at North Carolina State, told the school paper, the Technician, that El-Keib’s appointment “just goes to show you that N.C. State is continuing to produce world class citizens and major players in global affairs.”

That some world leaders attended U.S. colleges and now govern as technocrats may not be all that surprising. After all, the U.S. boasts many of the most prestigious universities in the world, and technocrats, as Kyoto University’s Takashi Shiraishi puts it, typically belong to a transnational network “nestled in universities (especially economics departments), international multilateral lending agencies, and government ministries and agencies.” 

Still, what is surprising is just how many world leaders have attended U.S. universities, how far-flung those colleges are, and how this education has affected their views of the United States. Let’s take a look at ten of the most interesting examples — from Purdue to Penn State and Panama to Palau.

Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images

JIGME THINLEY

Position: Prime Minister, Bhutan

School: Penn State

Degree: Master’s of Public Administration (’76)

College life: In 1974, then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuck sent Thinley and a few others to U.S. schools so that they could help modernize Bhutan, according to the Centre Daily Times. Thinley was the first student from the tiny Himalayan kingdom to do degree work at Penn State and got his first taste of politics by winning election to the school’s graduate student council. During a visit to Penn State in 2010, he recalled studying hard at the library during the week, frequenting bars on Friday nights, golfing on Saturdays, and playing pranks on classmates in McKee Hall, where he lived. “If I were to look back at my academic growth and development and preparation for life, the most worthwhile experience has been the period that I spent here at Penn State,” he declared.

Alumni accolades: Penn State has honored Thinley — its only graduate to become the head of a nation’s government — with the Alumni Fellow award in 2001 and the Distinguished Alumni award in 2009 (the prime minister highlights both distinctions on the Bhutanese government’s website). This year, former Penn State President Graham Spanier traveled to Bhutan at Thinley’s invitation and floated the idea of a student exchange program with the country.

What he’s doing now: Thinley became Bhutan’s first elected prime minister in 2008 as the country, which is nestled between India and China, transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one. Thinley is a zealous promoter of the previous king’s notion of “Gross National Happiness” (GNH), but that development policy coincides with high levels of poverty, restrictive government policies like a mandatory national dress code, and conflict between the ruling Buddhist monarchy and a minority Nepali community in the south.

Relations with America: The United States doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Bhutan, which long pursued a foreign policy of isolation to safeguard its culture and security. In April, Thinley told the Indo-Asian News Service that he doesn’t see the need to establish formal relations with the United States. “There was a time when diplomatic relations signified one’s position vis-à-vis conflicting powers, choosing sides,” Thinley explained. “It’s no longer the case.” Bhutan, IANS added, “has diplomatic relations with only those countries in the West that are seen as non-partisan as well as non-intruding.”

Above, Bhutan’s new king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, left, and Thinley, right, attend the ruler’s wedding in Punakha in October. King Jigme himself completed high school and part of college in Massachusetts, starting at Phillips Academy in Andover in the late 1990s before graduating from Cushing Academy in Ashburnham and heading off to Wheaton College in Norton. Wheaton currently boasts the only U.S. study abroad program in Bhutan, and Peter Dudensing, a former Cushing teacher who lived below King Jigme in a residence hall, traveled to Bhutan in 2009 for the ruler’s coronation. In an article for the Duxbury Clipper, Dudensing recalled that when he arrived in Bhutan, “His Majesty, the boy who lived upstairs, had his picture on every street corner and nearly every shop window.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

RAFAEL CORREA

Position: President, Ecuador

School: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Degrees: Master’s degree in economics (’99); Ph.D. in economics (’01)

College life: Werner Baer, an Illinois economics professor who served on Correa’s thesis committee, says the university recruited Correa as part of a larger effort to target international students who could become future economic policy leaders. When Correa returned to campus in 2010, he praised the “magnificent university” and declared that the American educational system was the best in the world. In his thesis, Correa built mathematical models to analyze the impact that market-based “Washington Consensus” reforms had on economic growth and inequality in Latin America. “He was a model student, disciplined and determined,” Baer recalls.

Alumni accolades: In 2009, Illinois bestowed the International Alumni Award for Exceptional Achievement on Correa. The alumni association noted that he was part of a “new generation of transformational leaders in Latin America who is working toward sustainable, equitable and democratic governance.” Baer, for his part, is proud of how many economics department graduates have recently risen to top government finance posts (and, in Correa’s case, the presidency) in countries ranging from Senegal to South Korea. “How many schools, in the Midwest especially, can boast so many highly placed graduates?” he asks. In the clip below from the alumni award ceremony, Correa defends Ecuador’s sovereign right to sell “bananas to Iran.”

What he’s doing now: Correa, who assumed the presidency in 2007 and was reelected in 2009, is Ecuador’s strongest leader in decades. Before the global recession in 2008, he ramped up social spending and efforts to alleviate poverty in one of Latin America’s poorest countries. But he’s been accused of flaunting the law, stifling the press, and supporting leftist guerrillas in Colombia — charges one Illinois alum referenced in a Chicago Tribune column condemning the school for honoring Correa.

Relations with America: For a U.S.-trained economist who praises the American educational system, Correa has a rather testy relationship with the United States. He opposes America’s free-market policies and has forged alliances or trade relationships with American opponents like Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela. He’s also scrapped plans for a trade deal with the United States (Ecuador’s main trading partner), refused to allow the U.S. military to use an air base on Ecuador’s Pacific coast for drug surveillance flights, and expelled two U.S. diplomats in a dispute over an aid program.  In 2009, President Obama phoned Correa to congratulate him on his reelection and mend the relationship.

Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF

Position: President, Liberia

Schools: Madison Business College; Economics Institute; Harvard University

Degrees: Undergraduate degree in accounting (Wisconsin ’64); certificate in economics (Economics Institute, ’70); Master’s of Public Administration (Harvard, ’71)

College life: Sirleaf moved to the United States from Monrovia at age 17 when her husband decided to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She attended the now-defunct Madison Business College and earned money on the side by busing tables at a drugstore lunch counter and working as a clerk at a Midas muffler shop. While Wisconsin was horribly cold, as Sirleaf recalls in This Child Will Be Great, she enjoyed the city of Madison and spent some of her “rare nonstudy time”  with friends “cheering the Green Bay Packers on to victory.” She returned to Liberia after earning her degree but met a Harvard economics professor there who encouraged her to pursue a fellowship at Harvard Kennedy School. She took his advice, first studying at the University of Colorado-affiliated Economics Institute and then enrolling in Harvard’s Edward S. Mason Program, whose graduates include Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Mexican President Felipe Calderón, Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Sirleaf says she was an A student who had trouble with econometrics and spent a lot of time in the stacks.

Alumni accolades: Harvard asked Sirleaf to deliver a graduation address at the Kennedy School in 2008 and the university’s commencement address in 2011. In her speech this year, she said the confidence she gained at Harvard motivated her to criticize the Liberian government’s failure to address inequalities in society during a commencement address at her high school when she returned home. “This forced me into exile and a staff position at the World Bank,” she explained. The full speech is below:

What she’s doing now: In 2005, Sirleaf was elected president — the first woman to lead a country in modern African history. This year, she secured a second term in a contentious runoff election and shared the Nobel Peace Prize with two other women. The “iron lady” has tackled the daunting challenges of rebuilding and uniting a nation ravaged by civil war, but she’s been criticized for not doing enough to reduce poverty and corruption.

Relations with America: While bilateral relations suffered during Liberia’s civil war and Charles Taylor’s reign, the State Department says “Liberia now counts the United States as its strongest supporter in its democratization and reconstruction efforts.”

Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images

RICARDO MARTINELLI

Position: President, Panama

School: University of Arkansas

Degree: Undergraduate degree in business administration (’73)

College life: The University of Arkansas says Ricardo decided to become a Razorback in part because of the university’s close relationship with Panama, which began in 1951 when the school established an agricultural program in the Central American country. But Martinelli tells the story differently. After finishing high school at Staunton Military Academy in Virginia, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported in 2010, Martinelli applied to three universities with strong agricultural departments: Arkansas, Louisiana State University (LSU), and Purdue. He chose LSU, only for his father to put his foot down because Martinelli’s cousins had flunked out of the school due to excessive partying. He says he was an “average student” and still remembers how upset he was when Arkansas lost to Texas in 1969’s “Game of the Century” after he had camped out overnight for tickets. He told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that he enjoyed living in “a good, old- fashioned, Southern town where values are respected.”

Alumni accolades: Arkansas honored Martinelli with a Citation of Distinguished Alumnus in 2002  and established a scholarship in his name in 2010. While on campus to announce the scholarship, which will give preference to students from Panama, Martinelli received the “keys to the city” from Fayetteville’s mayor and got to throw out the first pitch and do the “Hog Call” at a Razorback baseball game. The awarding goes both ways. In 2009, the university’s chancellor led a delegation of alumni, administrators, and state business leaders on an “academic trade mission” to Panama, and Paul Noland, the professor who established the school’s agricultural mission in Panama in the 1950s, received the “Vasco Nunez de Balboa” award from Martinelli. Here’s a video with highlights from Martinelli’s 2010 visit to Fayetteville:

What he’s doing now: Martinelli, a conservative supermarket magnate, won a landslide victory in Panama’s 2009 presidential election. He aims to attract more foreign investment, distribute the wealth created by Panama’s economic boom more evenly, and carry out a $5 billion expansion plan for the Panama Canal. But Panama, according to the BBC, has a reputation as a transit hub for U.S.-bound drugs and illegal immigrants. And Martinelli, according to leaked diplomatic cables, has a reputation for being vindictive and authoritarian.

Relations with America: Martinelli has long promoted a free trade agreement with the United States, and in October he finally got his wish. He’s also worked to strengthen trade relations with Arkansas in particular through organizations like the Arkansas World Trade Center and the Arkansas Farm Bureau.

Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

BINGU WA MUTHARIKA

Position: President, Malawi

School: Pacific Western University

Degree: Ph.D. in development economics (no date specified)

College life: This is the oddest story we’ve come across. Mutharika isn’t shy about earning a doctorate, with bios on sites such as the Malawi embassy to Japan and the World Economic Forum calling him “Dr.” and referring to the degree. But he’s less forthcoming about when he actually received the Ph.D. An official bio on the Malawi State House’s site gives dates for his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from the University of Delhi but stays silent on the timing of his doctorate (it also says he took a film industry course at Georgetown University). What’s more, California-based Pacific Western, which changed its name to California Miramar in 2007, was identified in 2004 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) as an unaccredited “diploma mill” that awarded “academic credits based on life experience” and required “no classroom instruction.” The GAO found that doctorate degrees for domestic students at Pacific Western cost $2,595, though an archived version of the school’s site shortly before the name change suggests the Ph.D. program was discontinued at some point between 2004 and 2007. A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable noted that stories questioning the authenticity of Mutharika’s doctoral degree surfaced in the Malawian press while Mutharika was campaigning for president in 2004.

Academic accolades: The old Pacific Western website and California Miramar’s current website make no mention of Mutharika.

What he’s doing now: Mutharika was elected president in 2004 and resoundingly reelected in 2009. Diana Cammack writes in the Guardian that Mutharika’s agriculture-focused policies and anti-corruption efforts had analysts thinking he would be “good for development” in Malawi. But she says the government’s economic mismanagement and crackdown on anti-government protesters — coupled with Mutharika’s reportedly autocratic tendencies — have cast serious doubt on that view.

Relations with America: The State Department describes the relationship between the U.S. and Malawi as “cordial,” but that’s not always the case. In October, for example, Malawi didn’t arrest Sudanese president and genocide suspect Omar al-Bashir when he visited the country for a summit. Republican congressman Frank Wolf urged the United States to cut off foreign aid to Malawi in response.

Amos Gumulira/AFP/Getty Images

YINGLUCK SHINAWATRA

Position: Prime Minister, Thailand

School: Kentucky State University

Degree: Master’s of Public Administration with specialization in management information systems (’91)

College life: Not much has been written about Shinawatra’s time in Frankfort, but the New York Times notes her older brother, Thaksin, received a master’s degree in criminal justice at Eastern Kentucky University in the 1970s. “A decade and a half later,” the Times writes, “Yingluck got a master’s degree in public administration an hour’s drive away, at Kentucky State University, a historically black institution set amid horse farms and rolling hills.” The Straits Times says Thaksin sent her to Kentucky State.

Alumni accolades: Kentucky State has wished Shinawatra congratulations for her recent electoral victory on its website. “It’s a big deal here,” Kentucky State spokeswoman Felicia Lewis tells the New York Times.

What she’s doing now: Shinawatra, a businesswoman and political novice, was elected in August 2011 as head of the party founded by Thaksin, the former prime minister ousted in a military coup in 2006. He now lives in Dubai. Like her brother, though, Thailand’s first female prime minister proved to be an expert campaigner, promising to unify the fractured country and revamp Thailand’s health care system. But she’s both buoyed and plagued by her surname, and she’s also facing scrutiny for her management of Thailand’s devastating recent floods.  

Relations with America: Shinawatra has only just begun her premiership, but relations with the United States appear to be getting off to a good start. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in a recent meeting with Shinawatra that the U.S. would give Thailand $10 million in aid for flood relief.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

ESSAM SHARAF

Position: Prime Minister, Egypt

School: Purdue University

Degrees: Master’s in civil engineering (’80); Ph.D. in civil engineering (’84)

College life: An engineering professor at Cairo University helped Sharaf secure a spot at Purdue. In Indiana, he delved into the new field of highway maintenance management, writing technical reports with titles such as “Energy Conservation and Cost Savings Related to Highway Routine Maintenance: Pavement Maintenance Cost Analysis: Interim Report.”

Alumni accolades: Purdue recognized Sharaf with the Distinguished Engineering Alumni Award — “for his outstanding contributions to the transportation infrastructure of Egypt and the education of civil engineers” — in 2006, when he was a professor, not a prime minister. Sharaf  brought his family to campus for the ceremony and reportedly told his three sons, “It all started at Purdue.” He said he still sends an email to Kumares Sinha, one of his professors, every time he receives an award.

What he’s doing now: Sharaf was appointed by the military as an interim prime minister when protesters demanded the resignation of the Mubarak-appointed Ahmed Shafiq in February. Sharaf was a popular figure among Egypt’s young revolutionaries because he led a small protest of Cairo University faculty members during the uprising, and he’s tried to meet their demands by appointing a new cabinet. But some are growing disillusioned with the pace of reform and questioning whether Sharaf wields any real influence over the country’s military leadership.

Relations with America: Sharaf has responded warmly to U.S. overtures since the fall of the Mubarak regime, meeting with Obama and Clinton and welcoming the U.S. pledge to forgive over $1 billion in Egyptian debt and provide $1 billion in aid.

Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

SALAM FAYYAD

Position: Prime Minister, Palestinian Authority

Schools: St. Edward’s University; University of Texas at Austin

Degrees: Master of Business Administration (St. Edward’s, ’80); Ph.D. in economics (Texas, ’86)

College life: According to the University of Texas Alumni Association, Fayyad, who grew up in the West Bank, first became interested in economics when he took an elective course at the American University of Beirut, and pursued that passion by continuing his studies in the United States. “It’s hard to imagine a more welcoming destination for young Palestinians than Austin and the University of Texas,” he said during a visit to the university’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs in 2008. He added that he’d instructed his son, who was then a freshman at Texas, that he had to be both a “serious student” and an “avid Longhorn fan just like his dad.” The full talk is below:

Alumni accolades: St. Edward’s recognized Fayyad in 2010 with the MBA Outstanding Alumnus Award, while Texas honored Fayyad with the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2008 and asked him to deliver a commencement address to the school’s economics department in 2011. In his speech, Fayyad referenced the late Texas economics professor Wendell Gordon’s quote “you can’t make potato chips without potatoes” to explain the rationale behind the drive for Palestinian statehood.  He called the statehood bid “an embodiment of economics, fully immersed in the broader context for political and social development.” 

What he’s doing now: Fayyad was appointed prime minister in 2007 by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The former International Monetary Fund official, who isn’t affiliated with either Hamas or Fatah, resigned in 2009 to make way for a Palestinian unity government but was soon reappointed when talks collapsed. This week, Fayyad renewed his offer to step down if the rival Palestinian factions reconcile. Fayyad is “credited with revitalizing the economy and building institutions needed to set the Palestinian Authority on the path to full statehood,” Reuters explains. “But Hamas, which accuses him of helping Israel to blockade the Gaza Strip, has never recognized him.”  

Relations with America: The Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations this fall has hurt relations with the United States, but Fayyad, who enjoys a good deal of Western support, isn’t a fan of the Abbas’s strategy. “If I thought for a moment that it would be possible to become a full-fledged member of the UN that way, I would definitely go for it,” he told Der Spiegel in September. “Let us pursue a path that … ensures that we act hand in hand with our friends in the international community.”

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

NAHAS ANGULA

Position: Prime Minister, Namibia

School: Columbia University

Degrees: Two master’s degrees in education (’78 and ’79)

College life: Angula decided to enroll in Teachers College (TC) when he came to New York City in the mid-1970s to represent Namibia at the United Nations. At the time, Angula was living in exile in Zambia and had founded a school there for other Namibian exiles. “When I enrolled at TC in 1976, I was thinking of two key education questions,” he explained during a visit to campus in 2010. “How can knowledge be better arranged to meet the needs of all learners? And can teaching be better arranged for the same purpose?” In 1979, Angula left Columbia midway through a doctoral degree in education to help Namibia win independence from South Africa.

Alumni accolades: Teachers College invited Angula to speak on campus in 2010, praising the prime minister for educating a “generation of [his] countrymen and women” and helping Namibia emerge as “one of Africa’s most stable and democratically-oriented nations.”

What he’s doing now: Angula was appointed education minister in 1990 when Namibia gained independence and appointed prime minister in 2005. Columbia notes that he’s outlawed racial and ethnic segregation in Namibia’s schools, set national goals of equal access to education, and instituted compulsory education for all children up to age 16. But some policies have proved controversial. This month, for example, teachers across the country expressed anger about recruitment and retention incentives for instructors.

Relations with America: Angula has said he wants to deepen Namibia’s trade and investment relationship with the United States. In 2008, he defended Namibia’s decision to sign a multibillion dollar Millennium Challenge Account development agreement with America.  “You can read certain motives in the Americans giving us grants but people should not forget the many things that America is doing for Namibia and other countries,” he said at the time.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

JOHNSON TORIBIONG

Position: President, Palau

School: University of Washington

Degrees: Two law degrees — Juris Doctor (’72) and Master of Laws (’73)

College life: According to the Los Angeles Times, Toribiong’s connections with America began early. He was born shortly after the U.S. freed Palau, a country of 20,000, from Japanese rule in World War II and received a typical American first name (apparently there are many Roosevelts, Trumans, and Eisenhowers in the Pacific island nation). He pursued his interest in America by becoming a Washington Husky.

Alumni accolades: The University of Washington’s School of Law honored Toribiong with a Distinguished Alumni Award in 2010. When he came to campus to receive the award, Toribiong met with members of the school’s Pacific Islander community in a ceremony that involved the university’s one Palauan student performing a traditional chant and, as far as we can tell from the pictures, some serious dancing.

What he’s doing now: Toribiong, a defense lawyer, was elected president in 2008 on a pledge to diversify the country’s economy. Corruption remains an issue in the country.

Relations with America: Palau gained its independence in 1994, after being part of a U.N. trust territory administered by the United States for nearly five decades. That history has produced close relations between the two countries. In 2009, for example, Toribiong invited China’s wrath by accepting hard-to-place Chinese Uighurs who had been detained at Guantanamo Bay. “You have to understand how important we in Palau consider our relationship with the U.S.,” Toribiong told Der Spiegel in 2009. “Our emancipation from the colonial rule of Japan was paid for by the blood of young, brave Americans.” But the relationship isn’t entirely rosy. Toribiong, like his predecessor, promises to end the country’s dependence on U.S. aid, though the country did just ink a new, $250 million deal with the United States. 

Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF

Kedar Pavgi is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.

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