The European Humanities University (EHU) was founded in 1992 as the first private undergraduate and post-graduate university in Belarus. The university marks its 20th anniversary, Dr. Aliaksandr Kalbaska, vice rector for academic affairs at EHU said recently, as “the only university in exile in the world.”
“At least I don’t know of any other examples,” Kalbaska recently told an audience at William & Mary’s School of Education.
The EHU is celebrating two decades of existence in Vilnius, Lithuania, rather than the city in which it was founded – Minsk, Belarus. Although it was founded to transform higher education and promote Belarus’ democraticization and integration into Europe, it came under pressure for its commitment to critical thinking and free inquiry.
“As it is proclaimed in the EHU mission, the university exists to facilitate and deepen the contribution that its students, graduates and faculty can make to the quality and potential of their own lives and to their respective civil societies,” said Kalbaska. “By so doing, they contribute to Belarus and its integration into the European and global community.”
Often referred to as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” the government of Belarus has been under the control of President Alexander Lukashenko for most of its independent history. The country gained independence in 1991, having previously been a constituent republic of the USSR for seven decades.
After taking office in 1994, Lukashenko steadily consolidated his power, curtailing civil liberties and pressuring universities to restrict academic freedom and introduce state ideology to academic programs. When EHU resisted this pressure, it was forcibly closed in 2004.
“At the time, the university leadership and general community discussed the possibility of continuing educational activites in three neighboring countries: Poland, Russia or Lithuania,” Kalbaska said. “We received the strongest and most detailed proposal from the Lithuanian side.
“Moving to Vilnius gave the European Humanities University the opportunity to reestablish its activities in a free country. In exile, the university mission focused on the preparation of creative, critically thinking, civically engaged Belarusian citizens who understand, value and seek an open, democratic society.”
Today, EHU provides more than 1,800 Belarusian students a university education in a democratic environment. “Low residence” (online) students often continue to reside in Belarus while they access an education free from Belarusian government influence, while “high residence” students obtain residency permits and attend courses on the Vilnius campus.
Over 60 percent of the faculty and 90 percent of the students are Belarusian, and around 20 percent of the classes are taught in Belarusian.
“EHU intends to return to Belarus, when it is convinced that academic freedom and the independence of the university can be assured,” said Kalbaska.
“The university pursues its development in its current location to strengthen it as a model liberal arts institution so that it will be in the best possible position to support the creation of a free, open and democratic Belarus. This underscores the European nature of the university and its duty to facilitate the potential for Belarus to enrich -- and be enriched by -- the traditions of and new developments in European education.”
In addition to educating Belarusian students, EHU also accepts international students and has experienced a boom in students seeking study abroad and exchange opportunities. To better prepare a roadmap for his university, Kalbaska has been studying how William & Mary organizes internationalization as a visiting International and Research Exchanges Board (IREX) Fellow at the Reves Center for International Studies.
“International education is extremely important for EHU, because it brings more perspectives to the university community,” explained Kalbaska. “It ‘liberates’ from provincianalism and isolation.”
Kalbaska acknowledged the complexities of internationalization at EHU.
“From one side, being reestablished in exile, we have been an international university from the very beginning. Almost all of our students and more that half of the faculty are foriegners in Lithuania. They need to have a visa to enter and reside in a European Union country. But we intend to create a so-called ‘second level of exchange.’ We are planning to encourage student and teaching exchanges with European universities through Erasmus and Campus Europae frames, and with U.S. colleges too.”
During his time in the United States, Kalbaska will also visit Oberlin College in Ohio and Earlharm College in Indiana to compare the different liberal arts institutions. He will present his experiences at a closing IREX workshop in Washington, D.C., in November, and hopes to expand the International Relations office and international programs upon his return to EHU.