What Should Academics Focus on in Times of War? A look at Ukraine

By Anatoly Oleksiyenko

Following the 2014 Revolution of Dignity and the subsequent Russian occupation of Crimea and armed intervention in Donbas, the Ukrainian NGO Poruch (“Alongside”) (est. 2011) has championed an extraordinary volunteer movement that engages local professors and students in relief work in the war-affected communities. Galvanized by the ideas and spirit of Dr. Maria Tyshchenko and her colleagues at the Kyiv National University of Economics, the NGO attracted young scholars who eagerly sought opportunities for grassroots activism, active citizenship and civic engagement.

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Summer Municipal School at Mariupol by Poruch experts. Photo credits: Poruch website

Over the past two years, the work of the NGO has grown in complexity to encompass activities such as delivering workshops for community leaders launching transparency and anti-corruption campaigns; meeting the basic needs of migrants forced out by the Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine; as well as raising funds and donating blood to the Ukrainian defence units.

The academics that joined Poruch have developed a system of proactive outreach to communities at home and abroad, spanning the boundaries of applied research, community-based teaching and innovative social service. In addition to initiating academe-community collaborations across large and small cities inside the country, the Ukrainian scholars also used study visits and international conferences abroad as opportunities to distribute literature, present posters and raise awareness about the Ukrainian crisis.

The NGO’s initiatives have been supported by Norwegian and Swedish donors, as well as by the European Commission. Nonetheless, the bulk of its sponsorship has come from crowdfunding in the local communities.

Challenges to Academic Activism

Implementation of the NGO’s programs does not come easily. The time demands associated with constant fundraising efforts and the labor-intensive nature of organizing workshops across far-flung and often devastated communities infringes significantly on the professional and personal lives of the participating scholars.

To make ends meet in a difficult economic environment, these scholars often take on several university jobs on top of their already heavy teaching workloads (900 hours per an academic year). Getting home after midnight is a regular workday occurrence for many. Often, vacation time has to be sacrificed in the name of activism.

Not surprisingly, it has been difficult to increase the number of volunteers. Very few scholars can dedicate themselves fully to the broad range of Poruch activities. In addition to the strained time commitment, for many the conflict-driven applied research and training falls far outside their prime interests in inquiry and teaching.

Moreover, applying themselves to important causes outside their campuses made some academics realize that they were missing opportunities to push for the radical institutional reforms needed at their home departments. Indeed, their preoccupation with volunteerism was making regressive measures possible. As one observer noted:

If the most active and reform-conscious academics are not constantly challenging the Soviet-style administration of their faculties, they should not be surprised to one day find out that the old-timers have used the absence of criticism to push through quasi-innovations that annihilate any progressive efforts made by the activists off campus.

For instance, the bureaucrats at one university recently introduced a departmental registry, requiring all professors to “punch in” when entering and leaving their workplaces. As in Soviet times, the professors’ performance is now evaluated in accordance to factory-like practices of head-counting and bell-to-bell teaching.

To the dismay of the local activists and to the embarrassment of their international supporters, the self-styled “performance-minded” and “equity-concerned” institutionalists rooted their decision in good intentions: citing the need to regulate labour for the sake of efficiency and accountability. Their opponents argued, however, that workplace control was tightened mainly to discourage community-oriented activism.

They also sensed the driving force of jealousy, that old foe of “academic collegiality.” The old guard’s resentment seemed to be directed at the young scholars’ innovative approaches, the public recognition they were receiving, their international networks and foreign travels, as well as the admiration they were getting from socially-engaged students, many of whom successfully graduated and went on to influential positions in local and central governments.

Whatever the motivations behind such institutional “innovations,” they ultimately resembled a hybrid battle waged by place-bound and “tradition-respecting” academics against their proactive peers, who were mitigating the damage caused by Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine.

Soviet Legacy and Russia

Meanwhile, across the border in the aggressor-state, the government had introduced a number of legislative acts to keep any foreign-funded NGOs, such as Poruch, under tight surveillance by the national security forces. Academic activism in Russia is tightly controlled and allowed only if it supports and promotes centrally-approved and regulated policies, or is conducted by retired professors outside the campuses.

Furthermore, the Russian government has, for some time now, emphasized and actively encouraged professors at leading national universities to become involved in a global university rankings project, which emulates the Chinese model. Although its success has been limited in terms of boosting the global standing of Russian universities, the national rankings project has achieved another aim: it keeps local academics pre-occupied with international prestige and global power, drawing attention away from community-based inquiries about the state of democracy, transparency and accountability in local governments.

Given the availability of significant state funds for the promotion of the Russian brand in global academic hierarchies, most Russian scholars seem to be unwilling to become distracted by local activism.

Many Ukrainian academics are highly conflicted when it comes to assessing the higher education system in Ukraine in relation to the situation in Russia. On the one hand, they claim to have shed their traditional role of subservient “copycats,” and no longer simply emulate Russian education practices. Indeed, many count their lucky stars when observing the forced renewal of Soviet regulatory practices across the border, notwithstanding the post-Soviet legacy issues that keep Ukraine in Russia’s orbit. Post-revolutionary Ukrainians clearly enjoy more freedom of expression than their Russian colleagues.

At the same time, Ukrainian academics are undecided on how to catch up in global competitiveness and boost the comparatively weak standing of Ukrainian science. To achieve better performance, there needs to be a powerful push for institutional reforms that would upend the Soviet academic structure, governance and performance standards at universities. Yet, it would take years to build up critical capacities in areas such as English fluency and competitive academic writing.

The Role of Academics in Ukraine’s Hybrid War

Many university reformers understand that the desired institutional changes would require talented activists and community leaders to abandon their grassroots engagement in favor of focusing on publishing in prestigious journals and developing their competitive professional skills and scholarly networks.

Nonetheless, with frozen conflict and active war continuing to exert untold damage on Ukrainian society, it seems to be a bad time to retreat to the ivory tower. Such a withdrawal would undoubtedly be harmful to communities that are seeking immediate help, and appreciate the dynamic support, which enhances local capacities for self-organization, innovative community care, enhanced transparency and corruption-free governance.

Some local observers argue that modern hybrid wars call for sophisticated hybrid solutions and a shift in prioritization of academic commitments. A situation in which internal battles with corruption, systemic ossification and public mistrust, are combined with efforts to counter external military provocations, territorial encroachments and public disinformation campaigns highlights the need for intellectuals who can do more than traditional academic analysis and outreach.

The extraordinary circumstances that Ukraine is experiencing demand new approaches to academic communication and performance that transcend such norms as blind peer-review and editorial compliance. One of the features of hybrid warfare is the weaponization of information to confuse, demoralize and breed divided allegiances. Academic activism can thus potentially play a critical defensive role through applied research and dialogue within communities and among key stakeholders, as well as through networking and collaboration with trustworthy sources of support and intelligence.

Likewise, the new breed of academics feel an imperative to thoroughly investigate and expose the legacy-innovation tensions inside Ukraine’s reforming universities and within academic communities. It will be interesting to observe how the notion of academic activism taking shape in Ukraine may challenge the global hierarchy agenda adopted by the post-Soviet authoritarians.

Acknowledgment: The author would like to thank the Poruch activists for sharing their thoughts. Any shortcomings of this article are this author’s sole responsibility.


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