The European Humanities University Responds

The European Humanities University (EHU) certainly welcomes the attention of the Belarus Digest team (including the Centre for Transition Studies) and any and all constructive discussions about EHU's ongoing mission.

Regrettably, the recent Belarus Digest article EHU: How Belarusian is the Belarusian University in Exile? rehashes a number of myths and stereotypes that persist despite clear evidence to the contrary. It's also unfortunate that the author declined our invitation to visit EHU campus while in Vilnius. We think it would have helped her to better assess how Belarusian EHU really is.

Even more disappointing “EHU: Optimising Impact on Belarus”—a paper by Belarus Digest Editor-in-Chief Yaraslau Krivoi and Alastair Rabagliati that promises to “look at the impact of the European Humanities University (EHU)...on Belarus-related studies, teaching and public discourse”. Instead, the authors deliver a superficial analysis that disregards information provided to them upon request on a range of issues (e.g., research, recruitment, labour contracts, communications, and others). This results in recommendations many of which are either already in progress or miss the mark in terms of the university’s character and mission. Even worse, the paper creates the erroneous impression that EHU does not consider educating Belarusian students its top priority (it does), that the university somehow lacks proper oversight (it has an international Governing Board and an independent Trust Fund administered by the Nordic Council of Ministers), and that Belarus-focused research and teaching is not the rule but the exception (more on this below).

Perhaps it’s best to begin with the general claim by the author of the first article that EHU “is struggling to find its identity” and is “torn apart between being the Belarusian university in exile and a ‘normal’ European university based in Lithuania”. There is absolutely no question at EHU that our university exists for the sake of Belarus and Belarusians. It is by no means a “normal” Lithuanian university and it never will be. It is Belarusian, belongs in Belarus, and only operates in exile because it refused to put up with violations of its academic freedom. These included the Belarusian government’s demand to allow it to determine who may or may not lead EHU.

EHU is always striving to improve its offerings to students. Naturally, this entails regular reviews and evaluation of faculty and department performance as well as the changes necessary for improvement. Change is never easy, and not everyone is happy about every change. But the changes at EHU have nothing to do with any intent to “shift focus from Belarus towards becoming an ordinary Lithuanian university” (to quote the article). The notion that EHU is “torn apart” by a “struggle to find its identity” is hyperbole.

The claim that EHU has “started to replace dismissed Belarusians with Lithuanian academics” is unsubstantiated. There are, in fact, no such cases. Some fact-checking of a claim like this by the author (or the editors) would have been appropriate. In reality, over 90% of EHU’s full-time faculty is Belarusian, as is the majority of non-academic staff. Of the more than 200 faculty, only 12 are Lithuanians. There is only one department that is led by a non-Belarusian: the newly-created department of social and political science. All others are led by Belarusians. That said, it has never been the policy of EHU to employ only Belarusian nationals. Faculty and staff are chosen for the contributions each of them makes to an enriching experience for students.

As for EHU’s recruitment priorities, currently 95% of EHU students are Belarusian. Belarus is and will remain the focus of EHU’s recruitment efforts. At the same time, EHU’s leadership has decided that students and the university would benefit from a somewhat more diverse student body. So a decision has been made to increase recruitment of non-Belarusian students, with an upper limit set at 20%. Since non-Belarusian students would not be eligible for the financial support provided by most current donors, they would be full-fee-paying students who would help the university sustain itself financially, particularly when the number of high school graduates is falling dramatically throughout the region (due to the drop in birth rates following the fall of the Soviet Union). Non-Belarusian EHU students are subject to the same academic requirements as Belarusians. Attending EHU is an opportunity for all of our students to learn about Belarus and meet Belarusians while receiving a European education.

Being an international and a European university while maintaining a focus on Belarus are not mutually exclusive goals, and EHU has always done both. When it was in Minsk, EHU cultivated copious international connections and provided an education to Belarusians that was truly international in scope. This, in fact, was one of the reasons the university fell into the regime’s disfavor. At the same time, a Belarusian spirit permeates EHU. Programs are taught in a way that closely relates theory and general knowledge to the Belarusian experience. So it should be no surprise that:

  • More than half of all student theses are Belarus-focused
  • More than one-third of EHU’s scholarly events either focus on Belarus or take place in Belarus
  • More than one-third of EHU courses focus on Belarus
  • 44% of EHU publications are published in Belarus (16% in the Belarusian language), and academic journals like EHU’s Belarusian Historical Review focus primarily on Belarus
  • EHU regularly hosts and participates in Belarus-related cultural events, including Belarus Freedom Day celebrations, concerts, workshops, excursions, and the like
  • Students, alumni, and faculty participate in Belarus-focused events, including photo exhibitions, guest lectures in Belarus, competitions, and others
  • EHU’s student newspaper, the EHU Times, is published entirely in Belarusian
  • EHU’s new core curriculum includes a course called the History of Belarus in the Context of European Civilization that is required for all students entering undergraduate programs (starting this year)

Thus, the observation that ”it appears that [students] cannot learn much about Belarus at EHU” because “only one specialisation appears to have the word ‘Belarus’ in its title” is superficial, to say the least. And the idea that students at universities in Belarus can study such subjects as international law in the same way they learn it at EHU (with our strong focus on human rights and their ongoing abuse in Belarus) simply beggars belief.

As for the observations about EHU's Founding Rector Anatoli Mikhailov, he is currently serving his second and final five-year term. It will end in 2016, in accordance with the university’s statute. EHU was registered in Lithuania in 2006, following its forced closure in Minsk in 2004, and Professor Mikhailov was asked to continue to lead it in exile. He was elected by the university’s Governing Board, as required by the statute, and governs in accordance with its regulations.

We are, of course, pleased that the authors of both pieces agree on the importance of supporting EHU. We agree that EHU is unique in what it offers to students and scholars from Belarus and is a vital alternative that is worthy of the support it has been fortunate enough to receive from an international community of donors. We take very seriously their trust and expectations and are continually striving towards excellence.

European Humanities University

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