‘Retaining scholars in Ukraine is key’: Zelenskyy advisor

In addition to helping Ukrainian scholars who have been displaced elsewhere in Europe or to North America, it is important to find ways to retain as many academics as possible in those institutions still functioning in Ukraine, the 2022 conference of NAFSA: Association of International Educators was told by a leading Ukrainian academic.

In a virtual session of the conference held on 4 May, Dr Tymofiy Mylovanov, president of the Kyiv School of Economics and advisor to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenksyy, said Russian forces have damaged 650 educational institutions, and destroyed 14 universities.

In the first weeks after the war began on 24 February, higher education institutions and rescue organisations like Scholars at Risk moved to help Ukrainian professors and graduate students to relocate to Western Europe or North America, where universities helped them find housing and offered teaching and study fellowships.

Now, in the 12th week of the war, Mylovanov said via video link from Kyiv that, in addition to helping scholars who have been displaced elsewhere in Europe or to North America, it is important to find ways to support academics to continue their research and teaching in those institutions still functioning in Ukraine.

Yet, even as the fighting in Mariupol goes on and Russian missiles strike deep into Ukraine, both Mylovanov and Dr Tymofii Brik, head of sociological research and acting vice president of international affairs at the Kyiv School of Economics, were looking beyond the war.

“There are some things that cannot be restored or even comprehended without strong educational and research facilities. We cannot survive as a democracy without specific intellectual backgrounds, without producing specific social norms and culture to support a democracy. So we need to build this strong intellectual foundation in Ukraine,” says Brik.

According to Mylovanov – who is also a former minister for economic development, trade and agriculture – central to preserving Ukrainian intellectual life, to preventing a brain drain, is the Ukrainian Global University (UGU), a consortium of Ukrainian universities led by the Kyiv School of Economics, which was launched on 29 March 2020 and also involves a number of universities in Britain, the United States and Canada.

According to Mylovanov, the purpose of UGU is “to preserve and even increase the human capital in Ukraine” by providing those whose universities were destroyed the opportunity to keep studying and proceeding with their research.

Even as fierce fighting continued in the steelworks of Mariupol and 24 cruise missiles struck targets across Ukraine, including electrical stations in the western city of Lviv, the two Ukrainian higher education leaders told NAFSA about their hopes for the UGU. Retaining Ukraine’s scholars is vital to the maintenance of the state.

Universities outside Ukraine can help support students and scholars in Ukraine by establishing online non-residential fellowships or by involving Ukrainian scholars in joint research projects.

For those students who are enrolled in colleges and universities in Western Europe or North America, UGU will allow Ukrainian students in Western universities to maintain their connection with Ukraine.

“Some of them [students] will receive full degrees. We want to make it a bit more structured and a bit more coherent. We want the students to follow online courses we will design specifically for them: for instance, Ukrainian Studies or War Economy, Social Psychology and Trauma, and how to cope with this problem.

“We will be able to grant them a standardised degree which will also help us establish a special mechanism so they can return to Ukraine and be immediately accepted in terms of bureaucracy and paperwork,” says Brik.

The West’s ‘intellectual arrogance’

In the second part of the session, Brik turned his attention to explaining the importance of Ukrainian intellectual sovereignty. After pointing out that few in the West were even curious about Ukraine or, for that matter, Estonia or Georgia, he asked the rhetorical questions, “What are the roots of this war?” “How can it happen that we have such a terrible war in the 21st century and why is Ukraine so resilient?”

The West’s inability to fathom these questions, he said, was partly due to intellectual arrogance, not so much by Western scholars per se, but, rather, by the fact that even those who studied Ukraine did so through a lens ground in Moscow, either by “some intellectuals in the Soviet Union or by some intellectuals from the Russian Empire”, ruled by the Tsars.

“There are so many smart books,” he said. “Some of these books are very old, and that gives them credibility. But we’re talking about narrative, and this narrative [that Ukraine is not a real state and Ukrainians are really Russians gone astray] from somewhere in the Russian Empire is completely outdated.

“Neither the Ukraine imagined by the Tsarists or the Communists,” he continued, “took into account Ukrainian agency.”

Given the debates presently roiling American university campuses about the worth of the humanities and, especially, Critical Race Theory and other critical theoretical lenses, it was stunning to hear, in the midst of an existential struggle, a leading Ukrainian scholar, speaking to a foreign audience, take the time to discuss what is needed to weave a counternarrative to the one coming from Moscow.

“We need to show the world the truth [of Ukraine and Ukrainians]. We need to establish life research, collect the life data, interpret these data knowing at the same time the contemporary state of art of theories and methods [understanding] of social time.”

The session ended with Brik telling us that after the session he was going to a ceremony marking the reopening of the building of the Kyiv School of Economics, which was closed in the first days of the war.