Instead of fulfilling academic mission, we need to defend national dignity

Maria Zubrytska on the 350th anniversary of Ivan Franko Lviv National University, autonomy of higher education, and the concept of “education”

Celebrations on the occasion of the university’s anniversary will last for two days. Scholars from Kyiv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Chernivtsi, Drohobych, Donetsk, Ternopil, Mykolaiv, Sevastopol, Odesa, Kharkiv, and Rivne will congratulate their colleagues from Lviv, as it is traditionally done, with conference reports. Foreign colleagues also paid their respectful attention to the event. Scholars from Austria, Poland, Norway, Slovakia, Germany, Russia, the US, India, and Canada came to Lviv. It should be noted that the celebrations are not limited to only October 10 and 11: the ceremonial events began in early 2011 on January 20. The Day spoke with Maria Zurbytska, vice rector of the university, about this date, the university traditions and its graduates, “power-society-university” relations, and modern students.

“On January 20, 1661 King John II Casimir signed a privilege, which gave the school of the Lviv Jesuit college ‘honor of the Academy and the title of the University’ with a right for teaching all contemporary disciplines, granting the degrees of Bachelor, Licentiate, Master, and Doctor,” Zubrytska said. “The University was assigned the responsibilities and tasks common to all higher schools of contemporary Europe. Lviv University together with Ostroh Academy (1576) and the Kyiv Mohyla College (1632) became the oldest centers of higher education in Ukraine, which have made an ultimately important and socially significant contribution to the development of education, science, cultural and spiritual life of our people.”

Could you give names of a few significant figures in Ukraine, who graduated from your university?

“Many former ministers are the graduates of our university. There are as well many MPs who once were our students. However, I would have preferred not to talk about the state and political elites. (In this situation, it was probably important to speak about to what extend a man is aware of serving people, because, as I recall, the word ‘minister’ in Latin means a servant.) Thus, if to put the politics aside, I should name Ukraine’s Heroes writer Roman Ivanychuk and poet Dmytro Pavlychko, historian Yaroslav Dashkevych and physician Ihor Yukhnovsky, archeologist Larysa Krushelnytska and translator of works by ancient authors Andrii Sodomora, literary critic Mykola Ilnytsky, political prisoners Ivan Hel, Iryna and Ihor Kalynets, who symbolize the tragic events in the history of our people, after all, tragic history of our university, when the people who are famous now went through concentration camps and exile. This is one generation of our graduates. Another generation is adequately represented by Petro Stetsiuk, Yaroslav Hrytsak – member of the Constitutional Court, historian and the author of the first English history of Ukraine, professor Taras Kytsmei, head of one of the best IT companies in western Ukraine, or maybe even in Western Europe – SoftServe. There are many names, in fact: it is the critical mass of people, who form the intellectual landscape of Ukraine – writers, inventors, scientists, and artists. Among our graduates there are dozens of State Prize in Science and Technology winners. Unfortunately, nowadays because of the obvious devaluation of values in our society science is not adequately appreciated and these names are not widely known, unlike the stars of show business. After all, we have no scientific and informational television programs, which could adequately present science. We don’t have a channel that would inform about the achievements of Ukrainian education and science. Therefore, the most recent graduates of our university are often known only in the academic community or educational environment.

“However, this is not an issue of just our university – it is an issue of general level of education. Can we talk about education as a virtue, as a choice of a person, community, society, while nearly every day we hear scandalous news about purchased diplomas? Thus, I’d say it again, this is not a question to us – it is a deep, core corrosion, which destroys society, and the university becomes the hostage of the situation. Unfortunately, we have no symmetry in the triangle relations ‘power-society-university.’ Special social responsibility is required from university education, while nothing is invested in it. How could university be able to carry out its mission and the functions assigned to it, when there is no clear and transparent state policy and the mechanisms of its implementation? Even if university is one of the oldest, has rich academic traditions, and 350 years of intellectual experience? How should university react adequately to the challenges and demands of Ukraine and world today, when it doesn’t appear on television, due to the lack of educational programs, or in newspapers? There are only two newspapers in Ukraine The Day and Dzerkalo Tyzhnia which cover the issues in the sphere of education professionally, consistently, analytically, and systematically. It shows that the higher education in Ukraine, universities in particular, would play the role of a servant in the eyes of today’s state elite. That is why, the question of autonomy is set so sharply now. After all, the whole world is going in this direction when universities have financial and academic autonomy and, at the same time, conduct civilized partnership dialogue with the state authorities. Can you imagine that the Chancellor of Cambridge University is called for a meeting up at the Ministry of Education or the Minister of Education reprimands him? When the delegation of representatives of eight Ukrainian rectors was in Cambridge, the vice chancellor told us: ‘I can go to the Minister and discuss with him the issues that require common solutions. But the case of audit, control, distrust, humiliation of institutional dignity of the university that is 800 years old – is something totally unheard of!’ Now it is clear why Great Britain is the leader at least on the European educational market, and British universities are recognized leaders in the world rankings. It all is possible thanks to university autonomy and the proper understanding of the role and place in the society.”

How would you characterize you current students?

“When you enter our university you can see the Latin inscription on the pediment that reads ‘patriae decori civibus educandis,’ which means ‘educated people are adornments of their motherland.’ This is as if a prelude: if you are entering here, you have to seek the ultimate goal that has a name ‘education.’ The concept of ‘education’ doesn’t mean a diploma or any piece of paper. This is what probably constitutes the concept of life long education. It would be wrong to say that our students are different from students in Barcelona, Paris, Kyiv, Warsaw, or Krakow. There is no doubt that their outlook and way of thinking have been influenced by the spirit of time – this is audio-visual and communicative culture. There is no doubt that they have good computer skills, and they are very pragmatic, which is also good. The complete disorientation of values in our society makes them quite pragmatic. They don’t have authoritative figures, who they can imitate from the TV screens. This applies, in particular, to the broadcasts of parliamentary debates and fights. All of this further reinforces their particularized pragmatic attitude. But one thing is certain – these young people really seek knowledge. I can not say that the critical mass of students at the Ivan Franko Lviv National University are the best of the best. However, we sure want to make it possible and create all the favorable conditions for learning. At least, there is cultural, historical, educational and scientific aura, democratic climate, which should facilitate their formation. Another thing is with what they come to us. There is a consecutive chain of stages: family, school, society, and university. They then go back to society, to school. This makes the chain closed. If one of the links breaks it can not be substituted with anything. We, probably, have the better resource base than other universities have – unique library, access to Internet resources, computer classes. About 900 students and teachers go on various programs of international exchange each year. Nearly 800 foreigners are always in our universities. All of these factors affect the international mobility and the new profile of the university. The mission of university administration and its staff is to provide favorable conditions for learning, but the students themselves have to have motivation for receiving knowledge. Thus, in situation, when there is corruption and it is the main topic for discussion at all levels, the students see that Ukraine does not solve this problem and remains on the same position in all rankings – it, probably, takes strong will to be different. Our university is trying to be different. That is right, we cannot forcefully urge knowledge assimilation in a centralized manner. We can only create all necessary conditions. It is the requirement of university freedom, academic values as the basis of democratic governance. We tried to give students the opportunity to choose free trajectory of their studies, so that they could choose disciplines to study. Our rector Ivan Vakarchuk, while working as a minister of education, tried to make it the standard of academic life. We realized that it was a very important part of university autonomy. Again, due to the lack of university autonomy we could not fully implement it. Another case of our work in this direction was the creation of the IIHS program (Interdisciplinary Individual Humanistic Studies), which would ruin the boarders between departments and universities. The program was initiated by Lviv National University, Warsaw University, Kyiv Mohyla Academy, and Ukrainian Catholic University. This meant respect for individual trajectory for learning of every student. This was done at the time when interdisciplinarity is not legally reflected. The world is changing, knowledge can be acquired very quickly, and a young person should constantly adapt to this. Therefore, there is a great anxiety – why nearly one-third of the university graduates get a second degree? This is a sign that something is wrong with education policy and the quality of educational service. It is important that school would inculcate into students’ worldview the sense of responsibility and motivation for receiving knowledge and faith in that the knowledge will truly change the world, faith in that a well-educated society is democratic by definition. But when children see their teachers, who don’t receive their salaries; when teachers’ appearance is in disharmony with looks of their students; or when teachers cannot afford what their students already have, what motivation will they have for receiving knowledge? The question is very complicated and I want to stress in this context that our university creates the favorable conditions for those, who seek knowledge. We have the glorious academic traditions because for over 350 years Lviv University has been fulfilling its mission with academic dignity and responsibility.”