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New NIU exhibit shares tales of strife: 'We want pens and notebooks'

DeKALB – A new exhibit at the Blackwell History of Education Museum at Northern Illinois University chronicles the history of a university that was not allowed to exist for its first decade.

The University of Tetova in Tetova, Macedonia, was founded in 1994, and its first lecture the following year was interrupted by police with machine guns and riot gear. It would be a decade before the classes could openly meet.

“We thought their struggles to create a university for their ethnicity had parallels with ethnic groups here in the U.S.,” said Patrick Roberts, an associate professor at NIU and faculty director of the Blackwell Museum on why the history of the university was coming to NIU.

Arber Celiku, vice president of the University of Tetova, was the first student of the university. He said the university was born out of the ethnic strife that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991. Macedonia became an independent nation with a large minority of ethnic Albanians. Albanian high schools in the country were closed by the Macedonian government, and the population was allowed education only through primary school.

“If you have a noneducated population, you can manipulate them,” Celiku said.

He said the Macedonian government opened an Albanian school in the capital, Skopje, about 30 miles from Tetova, then questioned why no Albanians attended.

Other universities in Macedonia had quotas that meant only 100 Albanians could attend the university out of a population of about 500,000, Celiku said.

When classes at the University of Tetova opened, university founder Fadil Sulejmani said, “We want pens and notebooks, not violence.”

In its early years, the university lectured out of private homes and was funded by the Albanian diaspora in Germany and the U.S., university President Vullnet Ameti said. It was only after an Albanian insurgency in Macedonia in 2001 was ended by the Ohrid Framework Agreement negotiated by the U.S., which dictated Albanians have their own university, that the school was able to have its own building.

It would be recognized by the Macedonian government in 2004, and now is one of four state-sponsored Macedonian universities.

Ameti will receive an honorary doctorate degree from NIU at commencement Saturday. 

“The University of Tetova and the Struggle for Education Equity in the Republic of Macedonia” chronicles the history and the struggles of the university. It contains photos of early classes and demonstrations to separate classes, artifacts and displays documenting the history of the region leading up to the university’s founding and its recognition, and artifacts documenting the role the U.S. played in formation of the university.

The relationship between Tetova and NIU began in the College of Business and has led to conferences between the two universities in recent years, said Anthony Preston, director of global programs at NIU. NIU Acting President Lisa Freeman received an honorary degree from the university.

She said the repression in Tetova is not unheard of in the U.S.

“In our own history, we’ve seen efforts to deny education to members of our region, our state and our nation,” she said. “We see it all around the world: efforts to prevent women from getting education and accessing education, and the opportunities that come with it.”

The University of Tetova now has 13 colleges and 20,000 students, Celiku said.

“We all are here in higher education because we recognize the ability of higher ed to transform lives,” Freeman said. “We recognize that higher ed is a vehicle for social mobility.”

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