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Boris Gudziak: University Rectors should stop being afraid

The Ministry of Education headed by Dmytro Tabachnyk has in a year undertaken an assault on the autonomy of universities and stopped movement towards the Bologna system. This was the view expressed in an interview given to Radio Svoboda by Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University, Father Boris Gudziak.  He stresses that university rectors, like everybody, need to overcome their fear and trust one another more, upholding their stand.

How do you assess the changes being brought in by the Ministry of Education under the leadership of Dmytro Tabachnyk? To what extent will they affect the Catholic University?

A year of the new leadership has demonstrated a tendency which from the point of view of the needs and interests of higher education is absolutely incomprehensible. Our university, together in fact with seven others – the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, the Kharkiv, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Chernivtsi, and Lviv State Universities, as well as the “Krok” University of Economics and Law, have been fighting for autonomy since 2005.  However “fighting” is not the word, it’s more that we worked autonomously and that autonomy is based on the calm conviction that university lecturers and administrators, and, of course, the students, are representatives of the elite of society, endowed with critical thinking. After all man is created in God’s image and therefore has free will. This human freedom, this potential and talents need university autonomy. Our group, a kind of consortium of autonomies prepared various directions, from administration to what went in the curriculum. After all each university must have its own features, its own “character”.  Yet now it’s all returning to the principle of “Macdonald in education” where, so to speak, all the fast-food outlets produce the same hamburgers and universities the same students. In a system like that human uniqueness and potential are simply negated.

Over 20 years of independence Ukraine has done very little for establishing autonomy for higher educational institutions. The necessary decisions have not been taken, but discussion has been animated. And the main thing is that general consensus was reached that it was only in giving universities autonomy that a more profound reform in higher education could take place with this, at the end of the day, being a prerequisite for reform in society. Education is not only a system of certain norms for receiving knowledge, and is a certain consciousness, spirit, conviction that thinking cannot be freedom under the pressure of a huge number of restrictions and obstructions. And in fact Ukraine has committed itself to move towards the Bologna system, that is, the European system of higher education which is based on university autonomy.

What in your opinion does the Ministry of Education want?

Control and submissive higher education which will not raise too critical issues, those that “go beyond the test tube”.

What can you say if they have pushed out even Volodymyr Shevchenko, member of the Academy of Sciences and Rector of the Donetsk University for 20 years?  He’s no revolutionary, simply a reputable figure who has great support and respect from his staff and merely defended the property and interests of his university. Maybe he paid for the fact that he was one of the first who brought Lviv and Donetsk closer? It was at his university that the World Congress of Specialists in Ukrainian Studies took place in 2005. That was a landmark event. And such a person with such regalia was pushed out!  And I won’t mention what happened later.

If this is an assault on the autonomy of universities, why do members of your group – rectors of higher educational institutions not counter such actions by the government?

Our consortium has died. I wouldn’t say that it’s time to bury it, but people have got tired of fighting since, I reiterate, the previous government also failed to take clear steps towards establishing university autonomy. Most rectors are in an unenviable position. As has become clear, rectors are dependent, they are psychological dependent and thus are not independent. Each of us has many factors determining our behaviour however the main question is what we are prepared to sacrifice to retain our integrity.

At the present time the Ministry is directly threatening individual universities and rectors, saying it has to be like this, not that, or we will reduce your budget. That has already happened with the Lviv University. Here you could say that this is the crisis, but then you need to reduce all budgets, where it happens selectively like with prosecution of those accused of corruption. There is presently fear with people afraid, the rectors afraid. It would be good to encourage one another but for the moment there is no success with this. Our university has also had a difficult year however the Lord is good, and we see how certain daring steps or steps of sacrifice are nonetheless rewarded.

A fair number of your colleagues say that Boris Gudziak is already – he had a visit from the SBU, they asked for what they had no right to, and he complained to the international community and the Catholic world supported him.

The Catholic world reacted least of all. Europe, Canada and the academic community reacted. And to tell the truth, at that moment I was not expected any great response, but I simply didn’t feel in myself any such fear. I’m without doubt in a different position, I don’t have a family, I don’t have children and grandchildren whom I have to look after, and our university does not receive any State funding. For us in the university our model on which we build our educational programme are the martyrs of the twentieth century – faithful Christians who were not prepared to betray their convictions, their faith, even when this cost them their lives.

However not everyone can be a hero, nor do I consider myself one. I have various weaknesses and feel that I was unprepared for that interference in the university’s matters. That was God’s assistance and blessing, and not only in refusing to cooperate with the SBU officer, but in writing the letter. We had an international delegation and there was no time to edit it. However the text (a very important matter) came out balanced, factual and calm.

There were also people who said: listen, if you have any problems you can count on me. I’m very grateful for such an approach!  I believe it is vital that we all support each other like that. And not only rectors of universities whose autonomy is under attack. We are all dispersed entities.

The Soviet system worked so as to corrode people’s trust in one another. We find it hard to look one another in the eye. We follow every word or gesture, trying to work out what it may mean. When there’s no trust, then there’s no business, no education, not to mention politics – they can’t develop normally.

I therefore think that in situations where a lot of people feel helpless, saying “what can I do to change parliament, the law, the behaviour of the traffic people?!”, the main question is: can I take a step towards trust?

Everything has to begin with small things. If I make some kind of input into our block, maybe my neighbour will come forth too?  After all dirt and neglect are rife in those buildings where each person thinks that even if I do something – tidy, paint, put some flowers, nobody will join in and support the initiative. If we change our thinking, if we try to trust others, people will definitely come forward to support us in a good cause. Definitely.

We undoubtedly have a problem with responsibility. However it turns out that over these years the systems of control which should have controlled these processes have not worked. The more controlling systems amass, the more corrupt mechanisms are found to bypass them. If you constantly besiege a person with various preventive measures, they become irresponsible since their freedom and dignity are denigrated and they say “So what? I’m dirt and will look, behave and smell like dirt!”

We need to raise one another up and that is not a simple process. There is no magic wand which you can wave and everything changes.

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