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Thailand's economic crisis felt back in Tar Heel state

Among the more unlikely victims of Thailand's economic crisis _ a crisis literally felt around the world _ is none other than my alma mater, Duke University.

Victim may be too strong a word, for Duke still has a fine reputation, an enviable endowment and perhaps most important of all, a terrific basketball team.

For the indefinite future, though, Duke will be denied a chance to export its innovative approach to problem-solving to a part of the world that sorely needs it. Specifically, the chance to launch a new "Asian International University," located in Thailand but dedicated to developing leaders for all of east Asia.

As a Blue Devil myself, I don't feel like a snob in saying that Duke wouldn't be the first place that came to mind if I were looking for a partner to build an Asian university that eventually would have 5,000 undergraduate and 1,500 graduate students. Duke is, after all, in Durham, N.C., and even if North Carolina is more sophisticated than it was when I went to school there (you can at least get liquor by the drink now), most Tar Heels know a lot more about tobacco than they ever will about the baht, Thailand's unit of currency.

However, back in the early '70s Duke launched its pioneering Institute of Public Policy, which exposes students to a wider range of subjects and outside experts than they would get in a traditional liberal arts curriculum. The idea is that somebody planning a career in, say, environmental protection needs to know something about economics, the law and other fields as well.

It was this interdisciplinary approach that appealed to a group of business and government leaders in Thailand, one of Asia's more advanced developing nations. About a year ago, they asked for Duke's help in starting a private, English-language, research-oriented university that could play a key role in guiding Thailand into the new millennium.

The place wouldn't be full of just ivory tower eggheads but also people able to put their expertise into action. "For example, on problems of infrastructure, you'd have engineers, biologists, economists _ all sorts of folks like that," says William Ascher, a Duke professor and former director of the public policy institute.

Duke would benefit too. Always eager to show up Harvard and other Ivy League schools, Duke would be in a prime position to expand its programs in international law and business and stake its own claim in the booming Asian market.

Moreover, "from an intellectual perspective, it's really quite fascinating to plan higher education for the 21st century, with the opportunities to look at issues from scratch," Ascher notes.

He agreed to resign his Duke directorship and become president-designate of Asian International U. A site was selected and plans made to recruit a Western-trained faculty and a diverse student body _ 60 percent Thais, 30 percent other Asians, the rest from around the world. The first undergraduate class was to enter in mid-1999.

Then came Thailand's economic crisis.

Stripped to its essence, the crisis was caused by an overvalued currency, an overbuilt real estate market and many overextended banks and businesses. Something had to give, and it did, spectacularly, this summer. The Thai government was forced to devalue the baht and raise taxes and interest rates _ steps that have put the skids on the economy.

Fears that Thailand's problems were not unique prompted the global turmoil blamed in large part for Monday's 554-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Under such circumstances, the idea of raising more than $100-million for a new university suddenly seemed like a pipe dream. The AIU project was put on indefinite hold.

Ascher, who is back at Duke, remains guardedly optimistic about Thailand's future. Politically, it is among the safest places for Westerners to do business. It has many natural resources. There is a shortage of managers and technicians, but the labor force is bright and hard-working. While many Thai companies and investors have been hard hit in recent months, others stand to make a fortune buying real estate at fire-sale prices.

Even apart from the economy, though, Thailand faces daunting problems. The infrastructure is primitive _ Bangkok, a city of 5.6-million, is only now getting a sewer system. Thailand's thriving tourism industry has been hurt by the giant Asian smog cloud that has blocked the sun over its Phuket beach resorts.

The cloud started from land-clearing fires in Indonesia but has spread over much of Southeast Asia, creating serious health problems, crippling businesses, literally causing birds to drop out of the sky. There are fears it could linger for years.

Had things worked out differently, what to do about the smog could have been the first international project for Asian International University. As it is Thailand _ and the Blue Devils _ will just have to wait.