In times of crisis, solidarity and collaborative action play a vital role in supporting people, institutions, and practices in the academic space as well as in any other. With the war in Ukraine entering its 10th month, we are finishing the second semester of the Invisible University for Ukraine (IUFU). The IUFU program is supported mainly by the Open Society University Network and is organized by Central European University with the cooperation of the Imre Kertész Kolleg in Jena and a number of Ukrainian universities. It engages Ukrainian students of all levels of study, professors from Ukraine, and Ukrainian academic institutions by offering an intensive learning experience that focuses on the pressing issues of our time. We talked with Balázs Trencsényi (Program Organizer, Professor in the History Department at Central European University) and Ostap Sereda (Program Director, Associate Professor in History at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv and Visiting Professor at the Central European University) about the IUFU program’s emergence, its development, main insights from the first semester and the plans for fall.
The IUFU program offers an intensive learning experience, placing questions relevant to Ukrainian students into a transnational comparative perspective. The goal is to prepare students for deeper integration into international academia and broad, ongoing discussion on the role of Ukraine in changing European and global contexts. For further details, see this and this.
Thinking about the prehistory of the project, it is vital to stress that the crisis which triggered it is more prolonged. The project is not only related to CEU’s recent history, which is about being expelled by an authoritarian regime; it is also about the growing tension between three elements that made up modern academic life — research, teaching, and public engagement. The autonomy of the university, let alone research, was never perfect, even in the “West.” But there was a kind of osmotic relationship between academics and society characterizing the post-WWII American and Western European situation.
Although this model was obviously less strong in state-socialist Eastern Europe during the 1970s and 1980s, there were still certain elements of it present in the gradually emerging “second public spheres” of these countries. 1989 seemed to open up the possibility of creating an even more resilient model connecting education, research, and civic engagement. Even though in the early 1990s regional institutions sought to pursue this model, they faced problems from the very beginning — for example, the marketization of education. There was a growing cleavage between these three elements, and their connection became increasingly problematic, especially in the context of old and new authoritarian regime-building projects (from Serbia to Hungary, Poland, and Russia).
Facing these challenges and experiencing this authoritarian backlash “on our own skin,” so to say, at CEU in the last decade, we were thinking a lot about how it would be possible to recreate this connectivity between academics and society through non-conventional means. We felt that one of the means would be launching engaged scholarly activities which could bring together research, teaching, and popularization through hybrid means. We always called it amongst ourselves hybrid education for hybrid regimes. We discussed how to involve scholars at risk who are pushed out from the state system but not necessarily from their countries and how to prevent speeding up the brain drain and creating a kind of global precariat.
Frankly, we weren’t considering Ukraine for this project before February — it had its problems, but it wasn’t an authoritarian state in any way. But when the full-scale war started, the first issue that arose was how we could support Ukrainian scholars and students at risk. While trying to offer individual support to some of the scholars whom we personally knew, we quickly realized that this had a limited impact on the students. The individual support to refugee scholars was important, but it could also undermine the educational structures which were already struggling to keep and engage the students. With a group of colleagues working at CEU or affiliated with it, such as Ostap, László Kontler, Renáta Uitz, and Vladimir Petrović, we started to think about what we could do to benefit students and also to link them with Ukrainian and international scholars beyond their institutions in a multi-layered dialogue. Somehow, the ideas came together naturally.
The IUFU program resulted from the initiative of a network of scholars who are mostly, but not exclusively, affiliated with CEU. The whole project represents the academic and civic values of the university. It was an attempt to open the safe, productive, and stimulating academic space of CEU to Ukrainian students and scholars after the Russian aggression against Ukraine.
I sometimes joke that I am a product of CEU, but the university is, of course, not responsible for my deficiencies. As a graduate and now also a recurrent visiting professor of CEU, I believe that it is famous not only because of many open-minded people coming from different countries to teach and study there, but also because of its unique academic sensitivity and level of academic expertise. There are specialists in various areas of East European and Central European studies, making CEU an ideal place for somebody who wants to do a comparative or transnational study of the region. And what is also important is that it cultivates an intellectual tradition that excludes ‘westsplaining’ and rigid academic hierarchies. In my understanding, the whole idea of CEU is about intertwining regional, national and global intellectual discourses.
From the very beginning, we understood that the project could be successful only with the active participation of Ukrainian scholars and experts. It is not only about teaching Ukrainian students, but also about creating a platform on which Ukrainian, German, Hungarian, American, and other scholars can reexamine what is relevant and what is not anymore after the beginning of this unprecedented war.
Seeing all these horrible attacks on the university buildings and the displacement of Ukrainian scholars and students, CEU quite quickly tried to react with this initiative of academic solidarity, offering its online resources for meaningful academic dialogue — this is how IUFU came to be.
The IUFU courses were planned to be something other than regular courses where professors teach the basics of a specific discipline. Instead, the courses were designed for students of different academic levels, Ph.D., MA, and BA, and also for those who already have in-depth academic knowledge in particular fields. The idea was to engage in a dialogue and invite co-teachers to share and confront opinions, mostly in the panel discussion format. It was perhaps unusual for some students who expected more regular instruction. Still, we sensed that it was necessary to offer a space for Ukrainian colleagues and students to voice important issues. Yet, the IUFU is not about duplicating existing Ukrainian institutions. It is not about promoting CEU. It is about building new networks of solidarity and academic cooperation.
It was amazing how many people shared our approach. We tried to do whatever was possible in March-April. If you look at the project website, you can see how many people immediately supported the project and contributed their insights and energy.
We accumulated experience from the Covid years that helped us create a virtual space for international communication. Another important lesson was to learn how to use virtual communication’s ambiguity in our favor – to apprehend its limits but still create alternative modalities of interaction. We were also aware that we could not rely only on Zoom sessions.
In addition to the online courses, it was crucial to create small group meetings mentored mostly by CEU Ph.D. students, who also got emotionally involved. This whole venture also became meaningful for us, organizers, as a way of reacting to the surreal situation of Russian aggression against Ukraine and gaining inspiration from Ukrainian students. If you ask us why we’re continuing this fall, the answer is banal but very sincere — we were greatly inspired by students’ reactions. By how they addressed the invited professors and us with meaningful, critical, and inspiring questions, how they were willing to sacrifice their time and talk day and night, discussing the ongoing events, trying to find solutions for the future while also looking for the answers to the present war challenges.
The Main Insights
I want to reinforce a thought about the July summer school which we organized in Budapest. For all of us who were there from the teachers’ side, it was not only a pedagogical but also an important existential experience. We discovered an unlimited interest and a special psychological situation when people who cannot fight in a war situation are doing something in which they are helping their country and creating, for themselves, a meaningful intellectual and moral framework. We discovered endless commitment, interest, and energy. It was a unique situation because when we launched the program, we were preparing to deal with traumatized students. The advice we were always getting is that traumatized students have huge attention deficits, it’s hard to teach them, and they struggle with concentration. Yet, what we got was exactly the opposite. Most of the professors with whom we talked said that they had never had in their life such vivid and intensive discussions.
We felt that the questions you were debating were indeed central. These were questions that concerned Ukrainian society’s past, present, and future, and these issues came back again and again in different ways. That’s how academic and existential aspects started to merge in a fascinating way. For us, it is also important that if we invest our energy into something beyond our official commitments, there has to be strong feedback. And the feedback was indeed very strong. We truly hope that some of the new students we joined in September carry on this, along with some of the “old guard.” It’s not a project in the traditional sense. It is working because there is constant dialogue. Our vision was a form of a radically democratic educational process that reflects CEU’s best traditions. But even beyond that, we are experimenting with a variety of innovative formats — for instance, involving more advanced students also into the educational process of their junior peers. This is not like there are the people who are organizing and the others are just “receiving” — everybody, including the professors, is a transmitter and receiver at the same time. I think that’s probably the most important message of our experiment.
The lack of implicit hierarchy in the whole interaction was striking for me. Instead of BA students being silent and doctoral students being more visible, it was clear from the very beginning that people took the initiative, be they first-year or even not first-year students. They were asking questions important to them, not being afraid to critically engage even professors from Yale, New York, or Berlin. I felt that these debates often generated exciting reactions among the students because they sometimes had preexisting answers to some questions, but in this dialogical situation, it became evident to them that these things are much more complicated than the predictable answers might tell them. For us as teachers, it was a fascinating experience because we saw something new emerging right in the classroom.
The other important thing for me was that there were highly different Ukrainian spatial and cultural perspectives. The Ukrainian community might seem homogeneous from the outside, but from the inside, it is very complex and multilayered. And these classes offered the possibility for different Ukrainian voices, on the one hand, to represent different positions and forms of “local knowledge,” but at the same time, strive to create a common framework and get to know each other better.
We think a lot about the reconstruction of Ukraine and Ukrainian academic space. The project is an attempt to react to what is going on right now, but we are willing to engage in intellectual debates and think about resources that might be important for us in the future. Obviously, we are limited by a hundred minutes of the duration of a class and not all positions can be fully articulated. But we gather resources, ideas, and inspirations for future projects. Hopefully, we will keep the network for the future as well.
When we developed courses for the fall semester, we relied on what students told us during Summer School. For the core course, Vlado Petrović and Nazar Stetsyk brought together multiple perspectives — an outside and an inside one, and also that of a historian and a legal scholar. We built a “menu” that tried to offer something for students from very different disciplines. Both creating an interdisciplinary course where key topics concerning Ukrainian society could be discussed from very different perspectives and offering thematic courses, which in turn encompassed different disciplinary perspectives was crucial.
The project is mainly based at the CEU, and its primary support comes from the Open Society University Network, and we are very grateful to OSUN coordinator Oleksandr Shtokvych for his constant support and advice. In the Fall semester, the project is also partly based at the Imre Kertész Kolleg in Jena and supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). It allows us to provide stipends to students working on their individual research projects. For the Fall semester, we tried to involve new institutions and establish meaningful partnerships with several universities in Ukraine and the European Union, including Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, Ukrainian Catholic University, and the University of Agder. In general, the Fall semester is an experiment in developing new modalities and building dialogue across regional and national boundaries.
We have seen many applicants coming from institutions that are damaged or under occupation, but there was a strong demand to continue their educational trajectory in a meaningful way. It’s important to reiterate that we are trying to make an agreement with the Ukrainian institutions “on the ground” to accredit these courses, providing ECTS credits for the students.
We don’t aim to replace the Ukrainian educational system but to help it to function and eventually to regenerate. Creating a student “pressure group” to have its say in reforming the educational system is also essential — when the war is over, there will be a lot of discussion about how the university system and the particular programs should look like and the postwar reconstruction, hopefully bringing international help and know-how, will also provide an opportunity to create an even more functional higher education sector.
Hopefully, there will be hundreds of students who have gone through our program and will have their voices heard on what kind of universities, courses, and structures they would like to have after the victorious peace we all hope for. They will have the opportunity to contribute to rebuilding what has been destroyed.