Conflict between EHU Senate and Administration: How to Find a Peaceful Solution

Belarusian lecturers from the European Humanities University are getting ready to strike soon.

This was the message coming out of the University's labour union shortly after the EHU administration dismissed professor Pavel Tereshkovich, the head of the EHU Senate, who was elected last November. 

Prior to these elections a group of lecturers launched an electoral platform criticising the conditions of their employment contracts and the upcoming hiring campaign.

They proposed to include Belarusian academics into the governance of the University and to strengthen the role of the EHU Senate, a self-governing body that ensures the quality of education and research. 

Despite resistance from the Senate the University administration thinks that it is important to proceed with a competition for a set of soon-to-be-established permanent faculty positions. 

Both EHU academics and its administration recognise the need to reform.  As the conflict inside the university escalates, both sides need to sit together at the negotiating table sooner rather than later, perhaps with a respected mediator who could guide the reconciliatory talks. 

History of Disagreements

In November 2013, the Belarusian media widely covered the vibrant electoral campaign of Belarusian acedemics entering into the EHU Senate. The Senate itself is a self-governing body, which consists of 21 members, representing both academics and students.

Back in those days, a group of Belarusian academics, including Pavel Tereshkovich and Volha Shparaha, launched an electoral platform under the slogan "For a New EHU".

They criticised the university's administration for its authoritarian and non-transparent decision-making practises and the absence of any meaningful involvement of EHU academics in decision-making. Lecturers proposed a stronger role for the Senate and a rotation in the EHU management, including the post of rector.

They also advocated making Belarus-related research and teaching a priority for the University. As a result of their campaign candidates from "For a New EHU" won a majority of the seats in the Senate. Pavel Tereshkovich became chairman of this democratically elected body.  

Tereshkovich Dismissal

When EHU dismissed Tereshkovich a few months later, it provoked outrage from both the Senate and the EHU trade union, which announced its plan to strike in protest. 

Colleagues of Tereshkovich launched a campaign in support of him. Some of the EHU Senate members, including Ala Sokolova, Volha Shparaha and Maksim Zhbankou, initiated a petition on the web site change.org. The petition has already collected over 1,000 signatures.

Maksim Zhbankou, another EHU lecturer, told Radio Svaboda that the administration would also dismiss other Belarusian academics. In his opinion, the University presented those who remained critical of the administration as a small group of people, but in reality the majority of the teaching staff disagreed with the current policies of the administration.

Tereshkovich thinks that his dismissal was unlawful and an affront to the EHU Senate which elected him

Tereshkovich thinks that his dismissal was unlawful and an affront to the EHU Senate which elected him. According to Tereshkovich he did not receive any official explanation for his dismissal.  He tells Belarus Digest that the EHU trade union is planning to sue the EHU administration on his behalf. 

He argues that his recent criticism of the changes in the system of governance, the newly created position of provost and other new governing structures cannot to be found anywhere in the Statute of EHU. He also believes that the university wants to put pressure on those who question the transparency and fairness of the recently announced international competition for EHU positions. 

EHU's Response: We Are Ready to Talk

Darius Udrys, a vice-rector for Development and Communications, refrained from discussing the reasons behind Tereshkovich dismissal. However, in response to Belarus Digest's questions he did state that, "examples of faculty who are critical of the administration and continue to work at EHU are plentiful." 

According to him, the administration is ready to meet and discuss any concerns of the teaching staff. He also commented that to resolve the conflict, the administration has made an effort to "restore dialogue with those who are critical to our plans."   

Udrys is confident of the donors and stakeholders, "continued commitment to the university as well as support for our efforts to introduce standard academic practises like open competitions for full-time faculty positions." 

All Agree - EHU Needs to Reform

In January an independent evaluation service of the European University Association, published a report which indicated areas for improvement of the strategic management of the University. With regards to the provost and executive council, the report recommended to define these positions in the EHU's Statute, which should be amended accordingly.

The report suggests that the management should ensure that all internal constituencies will be able to participate in the decision-making process: "The distribution of competencies in the decision-making processes is unclear and uncertain."

As concerns the mission of EHU, the European University Association report states that "given the composition of the staff and student bodies, the team found broad agreement amongst them that the Belarusian mission should not be abandoned."  The report's authors recommend "to reaffirm the institutional mission and develop an appropriate strategy." 

the university administration and its academics agree that the University needs to undergo serious structural changes

Both the University administration and its academics agree that the institution needs to undergo serious structural changes, while remaining faithful to its original mission as a Belarusian university in exile. 

For its part, the EHU wants to be competitive with other universities. Today when education institutions are becoming increasingly internationalised, the EHU is afraid of falling behind. 

The introduction of open competitions for full-time positions, widely practised elsewhere, represents an effort to bring one of the basic international standards in higher education to the EHU. The administration also understands the need for increasing the quality of the university's teaching and research. 

Still, the EHU has a complex identity issue. For one, it has an explicitly Belarus-related mission. EHU is supposed to be a safe haven for embattled Belarusian intellectuals - not a business arrangement. Yet it is based in Lithuania and wants to be internationally competitive and financially sustainable. Combining both of these issues into a cohesive plan has proven to be a difficult task. 

Need for a Peaceful Solution

The EHU badly needs good press coverage to maintain its positive reputation both abroad and in Belarus. In Belarus, it is important to attract prospective students and academics. Abroad it needs to main its image for donors who support the institution. For this reason, these disputes should be resolved peacefully without resorting to extreme measures. 

Most observers agree that EHU is no longer just a private university run by a single person but has an important mission to serve Belarusian society. EHU existence depends upon the financial support from the international donor community. But shifting the burden of conflict-resolution and micro-management to EHU alone is hardly realistic. 

It may be advisable to engage a mediator come in who could facilitate a resolution to the dispute

However, as tensions at the University are rising and both sides are unable to work out a solution, it may be advisable to engage a mediator to facilitate a resolution to the dispute.

Ideally, such a person could be respected internationally, but at the same time, intimately familiar with Belarusian society and situation inside the country. The mediator would be able to speak the same language both with the university administration and Belarusian academics.

Such an effort might help restore trust between both sides of this conflict and help strengthen EHU by finding a long-term workable solution. Someone like Stefan Eriksson​, a former Swedish ambassador to Belarus, who speaks perfect Belarusian and lived in Belarus for years might be a good candidate. 

Paula Borowska is an analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre. Originally from Bialystok, she studied at the University of Gdansk and the University of Bologna.

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