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Christian College Grows Roots Abroad

March 16, 2007

The fall of the Soviet Union hasn't changed everything in Moscow. It took the Russian-American Christian University five years to get a building permit. When its new, 46,000-square-foot facility opens in December, seven years will have passed since the process started. On the other hand, the fact that a permanent facility for a university with backing from American Christian colleges is opening in Moscow at all suggests that some things have changed, albeit sometimes slowly.

One reason it's taken so long is that the tiny Christian liberal arts college was determined to get the permits without violating its ethical values -- and that meant no bribes. Then, once that struggle ended, the court battles began. “It’s a painful story, it’s been a painful story,” says RACU President John A. Bernbaum.

Over the course of a year and a half, the university faced five, count them five, lawsuits from far left and far right political groups seeking to prohibit construction and accusing the transdenominational institution’s leaders of undermining Russian society, Bernbaum says. (An Associated Press account of a 2005 protest attracting about 100 people quotes a spokesman for the Orthodox Christian Union as saying, "This Baptist educational institution is completely out of place in an area where the majority of the population is Orthodox”).

After winning legal battles five times, the construction of RACU's campus of its own – and the institution’s planned expansion – could at last progress.

“You’ve got to be patient when you work in Russia,” says Bernbaum, sounding positive. Perhaps he'd have to be.

RACU’s patient approach to pacing forward since 1996 -- when undergraduates first walked through the doors of the Center for Christian Ministry, the first of the university’s four (soon to be five) homes -- serves as a unique but intriguing case study given the broadening interest in campuses abroad generally, and more specifically, the collective thirst shared by many Christian college leaders to connect with faith-based colleges and communities worldwide. The bilingual 160-student Christian liberal arts university, the first of its kind, serves Russian students of all faiths majoring in English, social work or business. But RACU exists because of American money, and because of its connections with American Christian colleges that have lent their faculty members, their library books and their credibility.

Christian Colleges Abroad

The number of international affiliates of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities has grown from 10 institutions in 1997 (including Canadian affiliates), to 44 today, representing Kenya, South Korea, Uganda, Lithuania, and Australia, among other countries (including Canada again, home to 9 of the 44 affiliates).

The council recently formed an eight-person Commission on International Education, which will hold its first formal meeting at Oxford in June to begin addressing a quite intentionally broad charge to promote international connections. “It’s just so clear that the interest in and need for our kind of values-oriented education is really taking off in a lot of countries around the world,” says Paul R. Corts, president of the association, which has seen a tremendous growth in its member institutions domestically as well.

“We are getting just more and more inquires from people around the world wanting to know how they can connect or be affiliated with like-minded educators and so forth. We’ve formed this new commission to sort out what it is we can do to help them,” Corts continues. But, he adds the reason for the group’s broad and nebulous charge: “We want to be very careful that we don’t approach this from the American perspective that we know all the answers because we certainly don’t think we’ve got them by any stretch of the imagination.”

Meanwhile in Moscow, bi-cultural and bilingual RACU – in many ways a direct outgrowth of the council and its members – enjoys full accreditation, awarded by the Russian Minister of Education, to grant undergraduate and graduate degrees as an “institute. It's the lowest tier in Russia’s higher education system, below the more prestigious “academy” and “university” classifications, but it's a rung on the ladder nonetheless. "It was such a remarkable thing," Bernbaum says of the day, the exact day, the university received accreditation: November 12, 2003. Given the risk -- and the faith -- involved in establishing RACU, the first faith-based liberal arts college in a country's history, Bernbaum says that he wasn't sure if the university (or, institute, a rose by any other name) would ever be accredited.

RACU is still inefficiently small at 160 students, its expansion limited by law due to space constraints in its rented home, a former cultural center. But with the completion of the new campus, the program will at least double or triple in size, says Bernbaum, and can move on, at last with a formal and formidable physical presence, to face the next challenges ahead.

And there are many. The small scholarship endowment, valued at less than $100,000, could certainly use some supplementation. Bernbaum hopes that one day soon the university could raise the funds to build a dormitory for students, half of whom are commuting Muscovites, but the other half of whom come to the costly capital for college from poorer towns across Russia, from Smolensk on the Polish border to Vladivostok on the Pacific. "Almost all of our students work part-time," Bernbaum says. Tuition is $1,200, and while students are heavily subsidized, with the real cost of education hovering around $6,000 apiece, $1,200 is still an awful lot of money for students coming from rural families with incomes of $120 a month.

But, more promisingly, after years of relying almost solely on American generosity, Russian donors for the very first time last year contributed to RACU on a substantial scale. About 10 percent of RACU’s 2006 income came from Russian charitable giving – seemingly a small proportion, but a "big deal" for the university and a vote of confidence in the role it might yet play in Russia’s rapidly changing higher education landscape.

RACU: A Case Study

The genesis of Russian-American Christian University can be traced to an October 26, 1990 conversation between Bernbaum, then vice president for the association of Christian colleges, and Russia’s minister of higher education, charged with opening the system. Changes were afoot, Communism poised to collapse. “Under the Soviet system, Russian higher education was isolated and insulated from the rest of the world. I was sitting here taking notes, thinking ‘Wow, we’re here for a revolution.' And then he asked me if I would start a Christian college in Russia," Bernbaum says.

“It changed my life. I had to do that.”

It was, in many ways, a surprisingly shocking proposition, facing the stiff odds of any untried and untested proposal. “The whole tradition in Russia is state education. Private education is a whole new animal,” explains Perry L. Glanzer, an associate professor of education at Baylor University who has done research on Russian higher education and taught at RACU for a year.

Even in the pre-Communist era, Eastern Orthodox leaders historically had little to do with the business of founding colleges, aside from seminaries, Glanzer and Konstantin Petrenko wrote in a June 2006 paper entitled, “Resurrecting the Russian University’s Soul: The Emergence of Eastern Orthodox Universities and Their Distinctive Approaches to Keeping Faith with Tradition," forthcoming in The Christian Scholars Review. The authors cite a number of reasons why that's the case (many "subject to some debate," they write): These include the church’s subordinate position within a dominant political structure, the threatened or actual occupation of many Orthodox lands during medieval times (when European universities were being developed), and a relative dearth of attention to Christian education among Orthodox thinkers.

Orthodoxy however did influence, even pervade, state education in Russia, Glanzer and Petrenko write, though in such a way that Communist leaders found it easy to secularize, simply mandating that “the centralized educational authority remove Orthodox courses, rituals and practices and replace them with courses, rituals and practices aimed at propagating the materialist perspective on human life and history and Marxist-Leninist ideology.”

In 1992, Glanzer says, one year after the collapse of Communism, the government approved a law allowing for private higher education, and now there are at least nine faith-based universities in Russia, representing Judaism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism and Islam. At the time, however, private education in itself, and certainly faith-based private higher education, represented a radical notion, one that was tradition-less and history-less.

In this uncertain climate, RACU's President Bernbaum knew he not only needed money, but also credibility. He developed partnerships with 11 different Christian colleges in the United States, seven of which – Calvin, Dordt, Geneva, Gordon, Malone and Wheaton colleges, along with Taylor University – recently renewed their partnerships with RACU. “We made an early financial commitment; I can’t remember how much, for several years,” says R. Judson Carlberg, Gordon’s president. “It was a base upon which to move.” Today, the partner colleges are not expected to contribute financially, but to provide faculty input, participate in faculty and library exchanges, and provide administrative support.

The goal of the bi-cultural and bilingual university, Bernbaum says, was (and is) to offer equal instruction in English and Russian (all students must be competent in English before beginning classes, and can take up to a year of intensive English coursework at RACU before starting as freshmen), hire equal proportions of American and Russian faculty and feature equal representation from the two countries on RACU’s board. That last proposition has proven to be a particular challenge, with only 3 Russians among the 14 current trustees. It’s been difficult, says Bernbaum, to find Russian trustees with the appropriate skill sets who are also willing to make the financial commitment required.

The selection of RACU's three majors – social work, business and English -- was also pragmatic and deliberate, reflecting workforce needs in a changing, newly capitalistic society. Social work, for one, “was perceived as a Western, capitalistic profession that responds to the social needs of capitalistic states,” says Beryl Hugen, a professor of social work at Michigan’s Calvin College who has taught at RACU multiple times and now develops cooperative agreements between RACU and North American faith-based nonprofits with child welfare agencies operating in Russia. Social work graduates still face a tight job market there, Hugen says, as the nonprofit sector, another (at least recent) history-less endeavor in Russia, grows slowly, with some resistance.

As has RACU. “Everything I read when we started said, ‘Build slowly, keep your head down, grow incrementally.' We kept a very low profile in the early years,” turning down newspaper and radio interviews, Bernbaum says.

“We felt it was best to build a quality program and let the program speak for itself -- not make any kinds of bold statements about what we were doing, but to be very humble.”

 

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