TETOVO, Macedonia — Fadil Sulejmani runs the University of Tetovo these days from the basement of its only building. His second-floor office is a death trap, he claims, because it's in the sights of Macedonian police snipers across the street.
Many here dismiss the rector's behavior as paranoid, but no one doubts that his school is fighting for its life. A second Albanian-language university is being built a mile away, and this city isn't big enough for both.
In this cross-town rivalry, the stakes go beyond the likes of soccer supremacy and academic ranking. Scrambling to recruit from a limited pool of professors and students, the two institutions have become caught up in a conflict that two months ago erupted in shooting between Macedonia's armed forces and guerrillas from the country's ethnic Albanian minority.
Since Macedonia won a peaceful struggle for independence from the former Yugoslav federation in 1992, Albanians have been agitating for equality with Macedonians, a Slavic people who are the majority ethnic group. A key demand echoed by the guerrillas is state support for an Albanian-language university.
Both Sulejmani's university, which lacks official accreditation, and the nascent South East Europe University at Tetovo, which expects to get it, are run by Albanians for Albanians. Each claims to be just what Albanians need to overcome discrimination and end the fighting.
The contest has sharply divided this city of 200,000 people, unofficial capital of the country's Albanian community.
Sulejmani's autocratic style and militant nationalism have dominated the University of Tetovo since its founding in 1994. Frustrated by its pariah status and lured by $18 million in patronage from the West, younger, more moderate academic colleagues have abandoned Sulejmani to help conceive the new school.
If war doesn't interfere, the earth-moving equipment in a sunflower field on the southern edge of Tetovo is expected to pave the way this summer for a 50-acre campus of prefabricated dorms and lecture halls that will open Oct. 1 as South East Europe University.
"They want to destroy our school," Sulejmani complains. "We're not against opening this new college, but it's not honorable, democratic or human to open one school in order to shut another."
Alajdin Abazi, the rival rector, doesn't deny that this is exactly what he is trying to do--with the aim of helping more Albanians earn degrees that the state will recognize.
Sulejmani, a courtly, white-haired professor of German who favors dark suits and fiery rhetoric, is not about to give up.
Speaking with optimism about the rebels of the National Liberation Army, some of whom are his graduates, he said he is counting on "the youngsters in the hills" and their "legitimate representatives" in politics to press for government accreditation and funding that would legitimize his school and stop his rival.
That is unlikely to happen. Macedonian authorities speak derisively of the "so-called University of Tetovo" as an incubator of Albanian extremism.
Sulejmani founded the school to fill a void for Albanians, who represent at least one-fourth of Macedonia's 2 million people. Most graduates of Macedonia's Albanian-language high schools had studied at the University of Pristina in Kosovo, a province of the neighboring Yugoslav republic of Serbia, until the government there shut down Albanian-language education in 1991.
Even today, despite an affirmative action program, only about 9% of the students at Macedonia's two state universities, which teach in the Macedonian language, are Albanian. Albanian students there complain of Macedonian professors who test them unfairly or elicit bribes for passing grades.
After one civilian died and scores were hurt in a clumsy police effort to shut down Sulejmani's school in 1995, the government has left it alone. It subsists on donations from Albanians and modest tuition payments of about $150 per year.
Using mosques and private homes as clandestine classrooms, the institution claims to have produced 400 graduates. Last fall it opened its own four-story building and listed 2,480 students and 394 instructors in 14 faculties.
The problem is that its degrees, unrecognized by the state, are worthless in Macedonia's public service, in much of the private economy and outside the country.
The rector has shunned suggestions that he try to remedy the situation by dropping his demand for public funding and instead seeking legal status as a private university.
"Sulejmani is a radical who is basically hostile to Macedonia," said Max van der Stoel, a former Dutch foreign minister who tried in the mid-1990s to arrange such a deal. "I became convinced there was no possibility for any compromise, because it was a dialogue of the deaf."
Instead, Van der Stoel launched the idea for the second school and lobbied for it. A breakthrough came last summer when parliament, after years of debate, passed a law permitting private universities, including those teaching in Albanian.