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Bert Caldwell: UI prof has great hopes for Macedonia

Macedonia, finally on its own, has some catching up to do.

The former Yugoslav republic emerged from 50 years of Communist rule, followed by several more years on the periphery of a civil war, with a 40 percent unemployment rate and a gross domestic product about half that of Spokane County.

A sad state of affairs for a country from which Alexander the Great set out to conquer the world two millennia ago.

University of Idaho associate professor Michele O’Neill sets out Sunday to help Alexander’s homeland mount a comeback.

O’Neill, thanks to a Fulbright scholarship, will spend the next four months teaching first- and second-year college students the fundamentals of Western-style business. She will be the first UI faculty member to undertake a semester-long teaching assignment in an Eastern bloc nation once chained to the former Soviet Union, now Russia.

“There’s a huge hangover from the Communist days,” says O’Neill, who in 2004 visited the Macedonia capital, Skopje, with Joe Geiger, retired chairman of the Department of Business, and Harley Johansen, chairman of UI’s Department of Geography. Johansen had contacts with professors forming what has become the Integrated Business Facility, a college of fewer than 100 students looking for an alternative to Macedonia’s public universities.

O’Neill says the Skopje professors saw the turmoil in newly independent Macedonia as an opportunity to teach in non-traditional ways. She and Johansen helped them organize and draft a new curriculum based on UI’s integrated business program.

Back in Moscow, O’Neill became director of the university’s Vandal Innovation and Enterprise Works, a new entrepreneurship program. That, too, dovetailed with the vision of the Skopje faculty, which saw entrepreneurs as catalysts for Macedonia’s economic recovery. They approached the U.S. embassy about their needs, and the embassy tailored a Fulbright application that could not have fit O’Neill’s skills and experience better.

Her Skopje students have already shown an entrepreneurial bent by paying tuition at an untested private college instead of attending a free public university. A few freshmen were bold enough to participate in a World Bank-sponsored discussion of corruption, an issue all-too-pertinent to the conduct of Macedonian business and government affairs.

“They set themselves apart,” O’Neill says.

But part of her mission is to bring the Skopje students together with their peers in Moscow using the Internet. Both groups, living in landlocked states, can gain from sharing experiences, O’Neill says. She’s packed four boxes of textbooks to help start a library.

“I think there’s going to be a great exchange of ideas,” says O’Neill, who includes herself among the beneficiaries.

Although her coursework will start from accounting, and how to use financial statements to understand what is going on inside a company, she plans to integrate management, marketing, human resources and other aspects of running a business into the mix. Customer service, for example, is almost an unknown after decades of take-it-or-leave-it salesmanship.

“I hope to bring a more modern and innovative approach to teaching,” O’Neill says.

Macedonia, which wants badly to join the European Union, needs graduates comfortable with the modern and innovative.

O’Neill says infrastructure is not well-developed, bank financing is scarce, and government and business leaders are distrusted. Starting even a small business requires more than 200 permits.

She expects to meet some government leaders, possibly the minister of education, but that part of her schedule remains open. She will be living in a private home with three generations of Macedonians. The U.S. embassy will be next door.

Conditions may be harsh by Western standards, but O’Neill says that will magnify the effect she hopes to have on faculty, students and, eventually, maybe Macedonia itself.

“You can do something there,” she says.