Support to scholars as bombs rain down

New European university aims to help refugee and dissident academics

The University of New Europe. Foto: Ellen Rutten
The initiators of the University of New Europe. Ellen Rutten is the fifth one from the left. Photo: courtesy of HOP.

In the spring of 2021, Ellen Rutten, Professor of Russian Literature at the University of Amsterdam, spoke with two colleagues from Florence and Berlin about taking in refugee academics from Belarus, which was in the grip of political unrest. They literally had nowhere to go.

They came up with a creative solution: a new European university for students, academics and artists in need. They baptised it the University of New Europe and its aim is to offer practical help, jobs and moral support. Academics across Europe signed an open letter detailing the plan, written by the three founders. That's when Russian forces rolled into Ukraine, launching a large-scale invasion after years of smouldering conflict in the east of the country.

How did the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine in February change the nature of your project?
“There was a massive surge of sadness and shock among students and academics alike. Personally, I was overwhelmed by the news. It was clear that we had to do something. The first thing we did was set up a mentoring programme to give academics the chance to volunteer their time to help Ukrainians and also assist Russians and Belarussians in need.”

What does that programme entail?
“The mentors, most of them experienced academics, are paired with students, academics or artists. Our aim is to pair people who have a natural professional connection with each other. Mentors can then support applicants by helping them out with their research, guiding them through the grant application process or putting them in touch with people in their network. Recently, a mentor helped a critical Russian academic leave the country.

“We now have over three hundred mentorships on the go. These couples can make use of the job vacancies, workplaces, PhD positions, online lectures and services posted on our website.”

What kind of people do you help?
“We were able to offer a guest appointment at the University of Amsterdam to a Ukrainian researcher. In addition, when a Russian PhD student had to flee and was unable to obtain a US visa for her and her family, we could arrange that for her. We also helped a Belarussian artist who has been living in the Netherlands for some time and was not able to go back home because of her critical stance against the regime. She received career guidance and an introduction to the Dutch art world from us. Moreover, we offer support to Ukrainians who prefer to stay in their homeland or find it difficult to leave: academics writing their papers from a bunker, while bombs are raining down outside.”  

Where will the university be located?
“There is no physical location as of yet. We are only able to offer online programmes right now. At first, we had plans to move into an existing university in Riga since our target group is mainly from Eastern Europe. It seemed like a logical step but we couldn't go ahead partly due to sensitivities at the university. This is not unrelated to hatred of Russians in Latvia and the Baltic states, for reasons that are understandable.”

Do Ukrainians even want to be in the same room as Russians?
“Our aim is to bring them together but, at the same time, we want to stress that this is not a reconciliation project. For now, we have decided to help each group individually.”

“Resentment against Russians has certainly grown. Ukrainians no longer see the invasion as Putin’s personal war. This is understandable, given that Russian superiority is a mainstay of cultural education in Russia. You have to possess a very critical mindset to wriggle free of that cultural stranglehold. A while back, for example, I attended a lecture where a dissident – a vocal opponent of Putin – declared in front of Ukrainians that the annexation of Crimea was actually justifiable. That notion, that Russians rule the roost in the region, is something certain Russians carry with them unconsciously. I understand the anger this evokes in people from neighbouring countries, especially Ukraine.”

Do you also provide courses and lecture series like other universities?
“We have just started a free lecture series which is open to both refugee academics and students, who can earn credits from that. The emphasis is very much on the Ukraine war and Ukrainian speakers. The lectures are streamed from Munich and Vienna. We also run a winter school with a short programme and organise Eastsplainers, a public platform featuring refugee or migrant scientists, journalists, writers, musicians and other artists.”

How is this project funded?
“When we started out, we really had to look around. Our own universities were willing to free up some of our time but you’d be amazed how many hours go into this initiative. The eight organisers work most evenings and there’s no let-up on weekends either. We receive tens of thousands of euros from our own universities and the German Foreign Office. We are now in a position to employ some staff. Once we have a more detailed and comprehensive plan and are able to establish an actual institution, we hope to attract European funding on a structural basis.”

How do you and the other co-founders see the future of the university?
“We still have a long way to go. We can now provide much-needed assistance in relation to this war but the ultimate goal is to create more modules, encompassing refugees from other areas. We also want to attract other European students with a view to fuelling a cultural exchange.”

How does the help you offer differ from already existing initiatives?
“There are already international organisations, such as Scholars at Risk, who help academics in need. But their help tends only to be accessed in an emergency situation. Universities also provide their own programmes but these are often run by only a handful of people. Our university specifically aims to help refugee academics. And that goal will remain the same if a new crisis breaks out.”