Friday, February 29, 2008

Video ethnography in difficult times

EUSPb students, faculty, and supporters have proclaimed the 'week of the European University'. They inaugurated it today with a public performance in which they laid down a fire hose in front of a monument to Mikhail Lomonosov, known as the father of Russian scholarship. Other events scheduled include a theatrical performance, a photo exhibition, and an academic conference.
Ilia Utekhin, a professor of ethnography at EUSPb, is documenting events surrounding the shutdown in his video blog, which also features interviews with faculty and staff on their academic work and their assessment of the current situation. You can also watch the most recent videos directly from my blog by scrolling to the bottom of the page.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Flash mob

Tomorrow afternoon the students are organizing a flash mob to draw attention to the closure.

Russia Profile article

A detailed article on the European University has just been published on the Russia Profile website. It is especially interesting because it is up to date and includes quotes from a wide range of people who have been associated with the EUSPb. It also links the shutdown to the earlier case of the European Humanities University in Minsk (see my list of academic freedom links in the bottom right-hand corner). Thanks to Alexander Etkind for the link.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

New petition

Anika Walke at UC Santa Cruz has launched a new petition specifically for academics with no direct links to the European University. Read it here and don't forget to mention your academic affiliation if you want your name added to the list of signatories. The letter will be sent to the Russian authorities by regular mail and is thus likely to be an effective supplement to online petitions. There is also a pdf version (without the list of signatures) which you can download and forward to friends and colleagues.

More bad news

The private institute that had offered temporary shelter to the European University has rescinded the lease. Thus the university remains homeless, and will continue to look for new premises. Meanwhile, the SPb Committee for Science and Higher Education has _promised_ to issue a license to the EUSPb to continue its activities in a new location (if if finds one). To make things clear: if, for whatever reason (including new fire hazards...), nobody steps forward to offer the temporary use of teaching facilities, the university will remain closed - probably for good.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Fundraising campaign

The European University is asking for donations to bring its historic building in compliance with the fire safety requirements, thus enabling it to continue teaching. Donations are tax-deductible in the US. See here for details. UPDATE: You can also download the university's call for donations and an info card on money transfers as pdf files.
Latest news: It has just transpired that the university's license was suspended on Feb 21. UPDATE: Rector Vakhtin comments that if it does not receive a new one within a month, that will mean the end of the European University.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

In a nutshell

Founded in 1994, the European University at St Petersburg is Russia's best social science grad school. Most of its teaching staff hold PhDs from US or West European universities. It is the second university in Russia to have built up an endowment.

On Feb 7, 2008, the university was closed by court order for 90 days due to fire hazards in its historic 19th century building. This decision followed a visit by fire inspectors on Jan 18. The ruling was upheld on Feb 18, even though many of the hazards had been removed.

The sudden closure of this excellent university, without regard for its academic needs and despite the fact that it has occupied the same historic building since 1994, has alarmed many in the academic community in Russia and abroad. Some have suggested that economic or political motives may have influenced this decision. Explanations range from attempts to appropriate the university's building for other purposes to a politically motivated crackdown on academic freedom. In particular, there seems to be a direct link with IRENA, a political science project focused on electoral monitoring which had been publicly criticized by a member of the Duma in June 2007 and was closed by decision of the university (under pressure, as some suggest) on Jan. 28.

On Feb 22, the university signed a four-month lease allowing it to use the premises of the Economics and Finance Institute, on the outskirts of town, to proceed with teaching in the second semester. Members of St Petersburg's city legislature and government indicated that they endorse the decision. However, it later transpired that the EUSPb's license was revoked on Feb. 21, and the Institute withdrew its agreement. Thus the university now finds itself homeless. It will not be able to obtain a new license unless it finds temporary new premises to proceed with even a limited curriculum, and much indicates that eligible partner organizations are intimidated and will offer no help. Keeping up public pressure on the Russian authorities is the only way to solve this problem.

This blog documents the events and provides links to pages in English and Russian with updates and letters of support.

What you can do to help

1. Donate funds to repair the building.

2. Write to the Russian authorities to express your concerns. Here is a list of addresses. Please note that e-mailing is not very effective. It is best to fax or (ideally) send your letter by registered mail, asking for a reply. In that case the authorities are legally obliged to respond. Send your requests for information individually, not as single letters with multiple signatures. In addition, sign one of the petitions (see link list on the right).

Rector Nikolai Vakhtin has suggested that the recent decision to allow faculty to continue teaching in new premises may have been due to the many public displays of solidarity. Thus it is important to keep up polite but firm pressure on the relevant authorities.

Before writing, please make sure you are up to date on the situation: events are moving quickly.

Please also be careful to avoid excessively political formulations unless you feel you have good reason to use them. Although of course the shutdown is related to the general political situation in Russia, there is no evidence that this incident is directly linked to a _systematic_ Kremlin-engineered program to curb academic freedom or Western influence, or that it was ordered by either the incumbent or the (inevitably) future president. And if only for tactical reasons, headings such as "Putin shuts down Western-oriented university" are simply counterproductive. (Thanks to Jeff Weintraub for prompting me to mention this.)

That said, there is a range of views on this topic, both in Russia and abroad. It might be useful to have a discussion on how the current situation ties in with Russia's particular type and dynamic of authoritarianism, and I would welcome contributions on that topic in this blog.

Legal Q&A

Two points on the legal situation:

1. Why make such a fuss about the EUSPB's closure, given that the fire hazards involved are real?

Indeed, following a recent spate of much-publicized fires across Russia, the Ministry for Emergency Situations published a list of endangered institutions in Moscow, including some educational institutions, that were fined or closed by court orders for brief periods of time. A new law that came into effect on Jan 1, 2008, stipulates that fire inspector may no longer order a building's shutdown without a court order.

But many of the fire hazards pointed out by the inspectors have been known for a long time, and indeed ever since the university's creation. (Incidentally, the very same fire inspector examined the building last year, and had no complaints.) Some of them cannot be removed without illegally altering the structure of this listed historic building. The vast majority of organizations in historic buildings such as this one are allowed to go about their business. If this was a bone fide concern with fire safety, some solution could have been suggested that would have allowed the university to continue its work while dealing with the problems.

Moreover, the fire inspector's visit coincided with controls by the Federal Registration Service and the Federal Agency for the Supervision of Education. While it is important to note that, as usual in such cases, there is no positive proof of a concerted attack, this coincidence does raise serious doubts about the motives behind these actions. All of this does very much look like an instance of selective application of the law. Nevertheless, it is crucial not to oversimplify the situation: it is counterproductive, for example, to blame everything directly on a supposedly omnipotent Vladimir Putin, as the New York Times did in a recent editorial.

2. Now that the university has been offered to move to new premises, is the situation resolved?

Far from it. In addition to the logistical issues pointed out in my opening post, it is far from clear that the EUSPB is even allowed to move. Its license explicitly mentions the building on Ulitsa Gagarinskaya #3. A new license can only be issued by the city government's Committee on Science and Higher Education. While this committee has sent the university a letter of endorsement for its partial move to new premises, that letter has no legal force since it is not an official license. So far it remains unclear whether the university will actually be able to proceed with even a limited curriculum.
I thank Vladimir Gelman and mesopotam for pointing this out.

UPDATE: Rector Nikolai Vakhtin just mentioned in a Radio Liberty interview that the university has received a _license_ to carry out its activities in other buildings. (Sat 5:35 ET)

FEB 26 UPDATE: That seems to have been a misunderstanding. The license was revoked on Feb 21, and no new license has been issued (yet?). See my new post.