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Leading a University in Exile

December 7, 2010

The European Humanities University may be unique in the world in that it operates today completely as a university in exile.

EHU was founded in Minsk, Belarus, in 1992, during the initial post-Soviet period. The university was led by educators convinced that existing universities couldn't be reformed and that the humanities and social sciences needed to embrace a Western commitment to critical thinking and to full academic freedom. The university taught a full range of humanities subjects, including some, such as theology and American studies, that were new to Belarus. Various governments, as well as the Soros Foundation, provided key financial support.

Anatoli Mikhailov, a scholar of German philosophy, is the rector and over time, the authorities in Belarus clashed with him and his board, resisting the idea of a college independent of the government. The university was forced to close in 2004, but was able to open again in 2006 in Vilnius, Lithuania, where the government granted the university the rights of a private institution.

Mikhailov visited Inside Higher Ed last week while in Washington for a board meeting and discussed the current state of his institution. He said that the experience of EHU suggests that the "rosy illusions" of many about creating civil society in the former Soviet Union need adjusting. He believes more than ever that many of the institutions that existed in the Soviet era are "ideologically corrupt" and incapable of teaching the humanities.

While the university has found stability outside of Belarus, it remains committed to its country of origin. Many faculty live in Belarus and travel to Vilnius to teach. Most of the students at the university (about 600 bachelor's students and 200 master's students) are from Belarus, even though they are uncertain what to expect if they return home. The university has created "an education bubble" in which the education is consistent with the rest of Europe, Mikhailov said. And for the foreseeable future, he said, the university plans to continue doing so from Vilnius.

The podcast interview may be found here.

 

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