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Spanier Visits Bhutan as Prime Minister's Guest; New Collaboration Possible

on July 09, 2011 6:00 AM

Tucked between India and China in the Himalaya Mountains, the Kingdom of Bhutan isn't the easiest place to find. The mostly agricultural nation -- once rated the eighth-happiest country in the world -- has one airport and few roads.

Only one of them leads out of the country.

But back in May, Penn State President Graham Spanier made his way to Bhutan for four days, having been invited there by Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley -- a Penn State alumnus.

"They're now thinking that they need to provide more education opportunities, more mandatory education for children," Spanier said of the kingdom's leaders. " ... They were very interested in hearing my thoughts about it. They would be interested in some collaboration with Penn State.

"We think that might be possible, but it would be very modest to begin with -- given the point they're starting from," Spanier added.

Bhutan counts about 708,000 people on its 38,394 square kilometers, according to data provided publicly by the CIA. Its life expectancy is about 67 years. Literacy rates are about 47 percent.

It's also one of the world's newest democracies, having transitioned to a democratic system about three years ago. Thinley, a Penn State Distinguished Alumnus who graduated with a master's in public administration in 1976, was chosen as the kingdom's first elected prime minister.

At University Park in the 1970s, he was a president of the PSU Graduate Student Association. That role, by his own account, gave "him the background in politics and leadership that led to him eventually becoming the foreign minister and prime minister" in Bhutan, Spanier said.

He said Thinley, who runs the Bhutan government, still feels strongly connected to Penn State. Spanier stayed in Bhutan as Thinley's guest -- in the prime minister's guest quarters -- at the kingdom's expense, he said.

Spanier also had a chance to visit universities in the country and spoke with other ranking members of the Bhutan government.

"It was a fascinating experience," Spanier said of the trip. " ... They've operated as a fairly isolated nation in many respects. Not a lot of tourism. That's always been carefully controlled. They're starting now to think about opening up a little further."

Talk about possible collaboration between Penn State and Bhutan is still in very formative stages, Spanier said. But he sounded upbeat about the prospects, suggesting that the university may first establish some type of student exchange program with Bhutan.

That would be pretty typical of how Penn State begins to build any new international relationship, Spanier said.

"I think at first, realistically, we would hope that they might send a few more students to Penn State," and vice-versa, he said.

Spanier talked about the Bhutan trip in a interview that spanned several subjects. More of his comments from that interview are included in the posts linked below.

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