Q and A from a media conference with newly appointed EHU Rector]

Q and A from a media conference with newly appointed EHU Rector

Questions and answers from a media conference with newly appointed Rector of European Humanities University Prof. G. David Pollick and EHU President and Founding Rector Prof. Anatoli Mikhailov, which took place on April 15th, 2015. Journalists submitted questions online and the conference was webcast. A recording is available here.

President and Founding Rector of the European Humanities University Prof. Anatoli Mikhailov

Good afternoon. Let me introduce to you the new Rector of the European Humanities University, Professor David Pollick. Now we have finished the process which started last year and finished with the election of David Pollick as the Rector. This process has drawn great attention due to the importance of this project in Belarus. This project was created in order to help Belarus integrate into European space. We are still present beyond the frontiers of our country, but we are fulfilling our mission. The rector selection process started on the 15th of October, 2014 with an announcement of a position description. You can read the whole EHU Rector Search Report. The document details the selection process. Discussions around the rector selection was often related to lack of information. Now we have a chance to ask all kind of questions and find out about our project. David Pollick has great experience in the educational sector. I will not go into details. Mainly he has the experience of heading universities in the United States, which is famous for its universities. I think that our Governing Board made a decision based on his experience. The EHU project which was started in our country and continues here in Lithuania, is now in a new stage, which requires this kind of experience to handle it. I believe that Professor David Pollick will cope with these challenges and I wish him success.

Rector of the European Humanities University Prof. David Pollick

Dobry dzien. Dziakuj za vstrecu. (Good afternoon. Thank you for this meeting – said in Belarusian.) It’s good to be with you today. This has been a very long process and I know you have many questions. But before we begin, I think it is appropriate that we recognize that there has been a loss in the passing of Father Alexander Nadson who was Director of the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum in London. He received an EHU Honorary Doctorate in 2008. He’s remembered for his extraordinary contributions to history, particularly Belarusian history. He will be well honored in the hearts and minds of those in Belarus and those at EHU.

It is good to be with you. As I said, it is a road that has been complicated and anything but a straight line. And there were so many questions that have arisen during this entire process and hopefully we can answer many of those today to put them to rest today. Karen [Bentley Pollick] and I came to EHU a little over a year ago. I came as a higher education consultant to assist the community as they were going through a number of really significant transitional moments. It wasn’t until much later, I think in the summer, that the question came up about whether or not there would be a structural change in the institution and that there be a possibility to serve in a different capacity. By that point I had served merely as a consultant and adviser. Since that time it has been rather dramatic, obviously. Many things have occurred that need to occur. So at this point I would like to be able to give you a chance to ask any questions that you might have, whether they be professional or personal.

Questions from Journalists (In Bold)

There are some sources saying that you refused to be the Rector. Could you please comment on these rumors?

David Pollick: No, I haven’t refused to be the Rector. I think I heard a couple of things out there. People say “sources”. I have no idea what a “source” means in this case. I wouldn’t rely too much on gossip. I think the question was whether or not I was willing to accept it or not because of salary. That is actually rather absurd. No, that never occurred, nothing like that occurred. In fact when we first came to EHU it was a very interesting phone call that I received and at that time they were very concerned about the issue of compensation. I had no idea what compensation was within this area, in this region. They told me what they wanted to offer and I said “that’s fine”. There was no discussion about it. I didn’t have any concern about it at all. Of course in different parts of the world there are great differences in the salaries.

Was the selection process difficult for you?

David Pollick: I think every search process that I’ve been involved in throughout my carrier—and there have been many of them because of the many positions that I’ve held—all had their own peculiar quality and character to them. This particular process took place in the midst of turmoil which really had nothing to do with me personally, but it had to do with the issues that EHU and its community had been wrestling with for several years. So anyone who went into this process has to be conscious that they will be disliked for so many reasons and that certainly was the case. Was it difficult for me? It made it less pleasant. I think that’s clearly one way to put it. It wasn’t difficult in that I didn’t take it personally, because, frankly, it had nothing to do with me.

In a document “Three major challenges to the New Rector of EHU” there are two important tasks mentioned: "the eventual widening of recruitment to students from Russian-speaking areas outside Belarus and the eventual opening of a second campus in Belarus". Will any particular number or share of non-Belarusian students be planned for next academic year?

David Pollick: Our cycle for next year is pretty well established. And so it’s not likely there’s going to be any changes in targets as such. But I think it’s quite clear that we have been 96 percent Belarusian for a number of years in terms of our student body. And that’s likely to continue. Though I think we are clearly looking at expansion into other areas. We are talking to people in Kiev now about an expanded program, particularly at the Masters level. So, yes, I see ourselves expanding in some areas without any backing off of our Belarusian commitment.

How real is the possibility to open a campus in Belarus? When could it happen?

David Pollick: This is of course an enormously speculative question at this point because it involves being in the minds of many people beyond those who are at the EHU Governing Board level. The possibility of returning to Minsk is something that this institution has dreamt of since the day it left Minsk in 2004. I hope that one day we’ll be able to do that. To have a campus there again would be a wonderful thing. But there are conditions for that occur. Those conditions are very much tied to why EHU left and was forced out of Belarus. Those conditions have to be altered. It would be wonderful if there could be some agreements, some understandings in that regard. We know that right now Belarus is examining closer cooperation with the West and participation in the Bologna Process. If that is done authentically, it starts to create an atmosphere where partnerships are possible with other institutions. It creates an atmosphere where we could possibly be welcomed back to Belarus. But there are many “ifs” in that. I don’t think EHU is going ever to be in a position to compromise its commitment to free, open thought and education. So that will remain very much at the top of the list in terms of conditions for return.

Is it true that EHU has a budget deficit of 1 million under your management in the last year? How would you comment on the information about financial crisis? And why this fact had no influence for you to be appointed a Rector?

David Pollick: No. It is not true. In fact, the 1 million euro deficit existed prior to my coming to EHU. And that was the reason that the Board invited me to come as a consultant. So it was not created during the time that I was here. It does exist, however. That is true. The reason it exists is that the transition in 2004 to Lithuania was exceedingly complicated. It had enormous difficulties associated with it. We were very fortunate that Lithuania embraced the University so warmly and with such great support. But they do expect us to honor the laws of the country. So over a period of time it was clear that we were going to move from the type of contractual relationships we had with our staff—many, of course, on service contracts where Lithuanian taxation was not being addressed. So the Board made a commitment to make this transition to comply with all the Lithuanian laws beginning in 2012 at a meeting in Stockholm. In that meeting, where the Governing Board of the University and the Administrator of the EHU Trust Fund were present, there was a consensus on an understanding and agreement between the Board and the Trust Fund that this needed to be addressed, fully aware that this would increase the expenses for the university significantly and would put the institution in a deficit position. I didn’t arrive here until 2014. So at that point I think the Board began to make the right decisions, but it was a very complicated thing to do, with the use of a Hiring Commission process. When I arrived I was asked if I would chair the Hiring Commission, which I did and which I would say, as did everyone on the Commission, functioned very effectively. So the question whether or not finances came into consideration in the selection of the Rector of EHU, first you have to talk to the Search Committee or to the Board. I think it’s very obvious from the charge that has been released that finances were a major concern for them. This is the reason the Board made a decision to run an international search. Because they were primarily concerned with how to find persons who had both international experience and experience leading institutions, handling budgets in excess of 50-100 million euros a year. I think finances were in the uppermost part of the Board’s mind during this process.

Do you think that the mechanism of EHU Rector selection was transparent enough?

Anatoli Mikhailov: I can only refer to the document, the EHU Rector Search Report. The document was written in accordance with international standards, which might be quite unfamiliar to Belarus. When the search for the rector was started, the key criteria were listed and it did not include questions of nationality, color of skin or gender. The criteria were in accordance with commonly accepted norms. The document is publicly available online. When I hear accusations that the rector selection process was not transparent I ask—why do we question the competence of the Search Committee? It has members representing educational institutions from the Europe and US, and has university management experience, etc. I’d say that the experience that they have is the experience that is needed for Belarus. Does Belarus need help or do we do everything by ourselves, stay at our provincial level and not need any assistance? This is a lesson for us, since our own Belarusian ability has not been proven and has caused social damage. Secondly, Belarus is hardly famous for its well-known institutions of higher education. It could not boast success in organization of educational institutions. When we express our dissatisfaction with the rector’s search, it is necessary to understand that the people involved in this process are international professionals who give their help for free for a long time, though they also have other duties for other institutions in order to help the University to survive in very harsh conditions. We shouldn’t take their help for granted. We shouldn’t a priori suspect those people and should appreciate the international support we receive.

Why do you think there was mistrust among students, alumni, and Belarusian civil society?

Anatoli Mikhailov: First of all, it should be clear that if there is a specific concern, we can specifically consider it. But we should acknowledge that during any elections there is always one who wins and ones who lose. And if you participate in elections, you should always take into consideration the risk that you might not be elected. It is questionable how someone can request or attempt to change the rules and conditions during the process of selection. Those rules and conditions were adopted and applied from the very beginning and then suddenly in the middle of the process there are suggestions to change rules while the process is going on. I’ll give you an example, e.g. in Budapest, in Hungary, at Central European University, I didn’t see any protests when the new Rector from the United States was elected. Before him there was a rector from the Czech Republic. In Kyrgyzstan, in Bishkek, the Rector is from the United States and there were no protests in this respect. And then we go back to Belarus and do we really believe that the Belarusian reality provides specific experience or proficiency and we should use only this Belarusian know-how, not an international dimension?

Vilma Venckutonytė (Moderator, EHU Communications Manager): We have a comment from the Vice-Chair of EHU’s Governing Board Dan Davidson: “According to EHU’s Statutes, the Rector is appointed, not elected”.

David Pollick: The challenge of communicating effectively during a search process is always great.  This is the reason we predominately use professional search firms in the United States.  It iis because these are very complicated processes. When you add to that so many different opinions about the nature of the University and so many aggressive political positions, then the process becomes inordinately difficult. From the outside, based on my past professional experience, I would say that the students were given access, faculty were given access, the public was given an opportunity to provide input, but it was done in a way that it was staggered a little bit too much and so people at times weren’t quite sure where things were at. I think this was a result of the fact that EHU never had a search process for Rector before. So, finally, again, as a candidate, I can only say that this process was very similar—except for the tense politics—very similar to any other process that I’ve seen in my career in America.

In your recent interview with The EHU Times, you answered a question regarding the financial state of the University and mentioned that tuition fees will be revised. The majority of students are concerned about the prospect of rising fees, especially considering the inflation in Belarus.

David Pollick: Students are always concerned about increasing tuition fees. That is a given and none of us are surprised by that. But the situation that we are in right now is extraordinary, given the condition that the ruble is in and its affects on Eastern European geopolitics and monetary practice,  it’s clear that there are a lot of things to be thought about. But let’s also recognize that Belarusian institutions are announcing their own tuition fee increases of 15-20 percent and so all we can do is to try and find that middle ground that will allow us to support our students and be sustainable financially.

What do you mean by revision of tuition fees?

It was the wrong interpretation of my answer I gave during the interview. The answer to the question of The EHU Times was not just focused on tuition fees. The question was how would we deal with the financial deficit overall and our financial difficulties. And I indicated that tuition is one of the areas that must be examined. Not the only area. There are also questions about priorities—where we are currently spending our money. The question was not about the tuition fees, but about the priorities and how we are spending our money. For example, the Board has already recognized that they want us to make our administrative structures leaner than they already are. That’s going from the top all the way through the institution. There are efficiencies that must be identified, programs that are successful, programs that are unsuccessful—they need to be examined. So it wasn’t just a case of talking about tuition to start off with and so what I mean about tuition is that people who can afford to pay should pay, those who can’t afford to pay shouldn’t pay as much. It’s very simple. Right now everybody gets pretty much the same without any demonstration of financial need. That needs to be examined.

Do you think that changes in tuition costs would lead to loss of students and prospective students?

Anatoli Mikhailov: I believe that we should approach this question in a wider manner. In our region there are so many so-called universities. I believe now the time has come to a process of natural selection and not all institutions will survive. We should understand that a university’s first priority is quality of education. On the other hand, a university should have funds to exist. EHU is not getting any budget from our home country. Belarus is not supporting us, in Lithuania we are only guests, though we are outstandingly grateful for the support that Lithuania provides to us. It is clear for everybody that proper education costs money and should be somehow compensated.

David Pollick: Whenever you are raising tuition, you are inevitably going to touch people who may not have the resources. That’s obvious. The way that gets addressed is the way that provides as much support as you can for the students you have in your programs and to increase the quality of your programs so that you expand your markets with other students. It’s really very simple. It’s not something that people wouldn’t imagine to be the case. You have to expand your markets and recognize that you can’t function if at the end of the month you don’t have enough money.

Is it true that EHU wasn’t accredited for 6 years because it had no strategic development plan? If so, why wasn’t it possible to avoid this situation and prepare this document? If it’s not true, what is the real situation regarding the EHU accreditation results?

David Pollick: No, it is not true. That’s a misunderstanding. The University has a strategic plan. The question is whether or not this strategic plan is reflecting the needs that we have at this time. The accreditation body is saying to us: “You are in transition right now and your report does not reflect that transition completely”. The accreditation report that was sent in was written, for the most part, before I arrived here and reflected the state of the affairs of EHU at that time. Shortly after I arrived, I was participating in the Hiring Commission, as I mentioned, which was a transformative action, the development and the rewriting of the Statutes, the development of a new governance system for the faculty, review of the financial relationship with the faculty regarding the way our budgets are developed. Those things had not yet been realized. So the accrediting body is saying: “We really need to come back and see how these work out. We support them very strongly.” They were very supportive of the changes, but they wanted to see their effects. They were really very good to us, recognizing that our accreditation report did not reflect reality.

What is the present financial situation of the University? Was the problem of the budget deficit solved? If so, what measures have been taken?

David Pollick:The financial situation is as I described earlier. There is a 1 million euro deficit. The institution is going into a strategic planning process at the beginning of the summer, but the Board, prior to this being completed, is requiring, as you see in the “Charge” document, an attempt to balance the budget. This could not be done during the past 5-6 months, because we were in this search that was so politically hostile from every direction. It would not have been possible at that time to review programs, revise budgets, make cuts in areas that are going to be very sensitive. And we have to add that the understandings that existed in 2012 with the Governing Board and the Trust Fund no longer stand. The Trust Fund is freezing funds during this financial year that are needed just for us to be meeting payroll [paying salaries]. This is the decision that they are making. While we thought we had a three year period to work with, that was what I was told when I first came, this is no longer being given to us right now. Under these circumstances there is no question that the institution exists in a moment of economic exigency. Therefore, dramatic decisions need to be made and that’s what the Board is saying. In addition to this,  we have a frozen two million dollar decision coming from the Nordic Council contingent upon the development of a balanced budget. And the date when that has to occur has to be resolved. Because to reduce 20-25 percent of your entire budget in this year by a June donors meeting will not allow this institution to behave responsibly and collaboratively using our new governance processes the way you should when you are developing a strategic plan. So I am very hopeful a reasonable agreement can be reached that says: “Look, let’s do what we can right now and use the time that we thought that we initially had with the Trust Fund to be able to regain a balanced budget by the end of the year 2015-2016.”

What place does EHU hold within the ranking among Lithuanian universities? Students of which nationalities are studying apart from Belarusian students? Where do EHU graduates get employed?

David Pollick: Let me take the last question first. We know that 2/3 of our graduates are back in Belarus. 96 percent of our students are Belarusians, 2-3% Ukrainians and Russians, the rest are from Lithuania. Regarding the rankings, I don’t do rankings. In the US there is a great controversy over this mercantile marketing mentality—let’s see who is better than the other based on people voting. I find it absurd and I took every university I was in out of participation in US News and World Report. So if somebody asks me about the rankings in Lithuania, I’d say these tools in Lithuania are even less effective.

How will EHU’s orientation toward Belarusian society, Belarusian students, and enrollees be maintained and developed? What will be the status of the Belarusian language in the learning process?

Anatoli Mikhailov: When EHU was opened in 1992, it was opened not only in Belarus but also for Belarus. At that time not everybody shared the vision that this university was necessary. Now we are outside of Belarus, but, as the Rector said, the representation of our student body clearly shows that it is Belarusian. Polemics around EHU show that this is an important project. For which market do we exist? Do we exist for Armenia, for Uzbekistan? These questions are strange. What society are we working for? Even our title presupposes to reach what was not enough in the sphere of humanities. Our university is open to all languages. If we approach the texts which are articulated in English, German, and French, it would be naïve to think that all of that is transferred through translations into Russian, Belarusian. Should we rely all the time on translations? In our university there is access to all the languages. It’s not important in which language we talk. It is important what we say. I dream about the time when our university might exist like the University of Luxembourg, where classes are conducted in English, French, and German. By learning foreign languages, we become more proficient in our own. When we talk about humanities and social sciences, those are specifically important for the transformation processes of societies. In the past, the professionalism in these areas was so distorted, almost destroyed by the impact of ideology that existed previously and still continues. So I want to stress that the University was created in the name of Belarus and continues to exist in the name of Belarus.

Are you planning to close some programs or open new programs?

David Pollick: The strategic planning process that we’ll be going through will certainly help us to identify priorities of EHU in light of its mission. So can that result in new programs or can it result in programs going away? The current financial situation is going to require that we look at our programs. It’s going to require that we look at everything in the institution. 

What are you going to do in the future for the atmosphere of transparency?

David Pollick: The governance process that I was very much involved in introducing into the rewriting of the Statutes was intended to create a truly democratic academic environment. Prior to that, you had a representation of the faculty in a very small community, which made no sense. Fundamental to such a governance process—an “Oxbridge” [Oxford-Cambridge University] style governance process—is that there is open and shared information with your faculty and your staff. That’s what I would mean by transparent.

What will be the salary of the new Rector?

David Pollick: As I mentioned earlier, they offered me a compensation which I didn’t ask for. They knew what the situation is in the United States. Financially, in United States as president we make about 8-10 times more than the Rector does here. They knew this. But I came strictly as a consultant. As we go into this period as a Rector, the Board has created a new contractual situation that is much more reflective of the standards within the region. And I am very comfortable with that. I was very comfortable in the beginning. As I said, it wasn’t an issue for me. I am a retired president and, frankly, that’s just not an issue for me, how much I am making. The Board can share this information. They will, I am sure. The head of the Search Committee will share it also.  It’s not my place to be talking about my salary. But it’s not at all classified information. I think it is important that we all recognize that people do not teach in institutions like EHU to get rich. You come because you believe in the mission of this institution. That was the reason I came here in the first place. There are no more important reasons for me to come.

Why was your program better than other candidates’?

David Pollick: I believe it is a matter of professional opinion. I am sure that other candidates believed in what they were saying and I would respect that. My opinion about how governance has to work, how we have to be operating, comes from my 45 years in administration of higher education: four presidencies, the deanship, provostship, and so forth. So it’s based on higher education experience. I presented myself to the Search Committee and the Board. They made the judgment that I was better suited for EHU at this time.

Do you know that students did not support you in alternative elections? What is your opinion on this matter? Why were students not allowed to participate in the election process?

David Pollick: They were allowed to participate. The question is whether or not somebody was sitting on the Search Committee. But I cannot speak to that. I did not create the search process or the selection process. The difference of opinions of students or the difference of opinions among faculty, the difference of opinions of administrative or Board people or press—isn’t that a part of being human and isn’t that a part of having an organization? Everybody has their own opinions for whatever reasons. I have no difficulty with that. I respect that. The importance for me is that those opinions are being formed with accurate information and I know it’s been difficult for people to get that. The difference of opinions that people have is legitimate. What concerns me is when they are not informed, and people are intentionally spending a great deal of their energy misinforming people within the student body and outside the institution.

What is your vision on EHU’s international development?

David Pollick: Clearly we are paying attention to partners around the world, trying to find ways in which they can assist our students. And we are interested in assisting those communities as well. The international programming like Erasmus, cooperation with Bard College, Campus Europae—these are all good programs for us and for our students. Students who come to EHU say more than anything else that there are two reasons why people choose our institution. First, they want to be in an environment where they can think freely, openly, not to be told what to think. The second, they want opportunity. And that opportunity could be anywhere in the world. It could be back home in Belarus, it could be in other parts of Europe, it could be in Africa, in Asia. It’s up to us to find ways to support that. It seems to me that when the day comes that EHU can rise above provincialism and recognize that they are citizens of the world, we’ll have a great deal to contribute. The Belarusian experience is a powerful one. Let us not keep it under a basket. 

Why did you decide to continue your career at EHU?

David Pollick: When Karen and I retired from the presidencies in the US, I was spending my time working in architecture: redesigning university campuses and helping them revitalize their campuses. It’s a passion I have. I love it very much. I’ve been involved in architecture pretty much all of my adult life. And, of course, Karen’s work in music as a concert violinist around the world keeps her very active. So we were very content. But when I was phoned and asked to look at EHU, it was the mission of the institution and the fact that my family came from Belarus, from Minsk, and that I didn’t know enough about that, which made the difference. I’ve worked throughout the world, but I’ve never had the opportunity to work in Eastern Europe. This struck me as an opportunity in one’s life I should take. One should try to close the circles of your life and Belarus is part of the circle of my life. 

You said in the beginning that also personal questions may be asked. You mentioned few times your spouse Karen—can you tell us more about her?

David Pollick: She’s watching. Her music means a great deal to me and brings me great joy. She is a very successful and talented musician. She has a certain joy for life that is truly extraordinary. She embraced this move to Lithuania in a way that is quite remarkable. Lithuanian composers know her and they’ve been writing for her for the past twelve years, so this was not difficult for her at all. She is a great partner and a dear friend and truly a gifted artist.

One interesting page from your biography on one English-language websites says that you performed military service in Vietnam. In what year was it? Do you have any military rank, do you have awards, were you wounded?

David Pollick: Yes, I was in the military. I am no longer in the military. I have no military rank. I enlisted in 1965 and was in the United States Navy until 1971. I served on active duty from 1966 to 1968. I was assigned to Submarine Flotilla One in the Pacific and my work was in the area of information, working with nuclear weapons that were assigned to our submarines. The only wound I have is one you wouldn’t see - and it comes from the broken heart of a young man in love those days.

Press conference of newly appointed EHU Rector
Duration: 1:39:55
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