The Little Catholic University that Could: How Ukrainians are Reshaping the Face of Higher Learning

Interview by Ashton Osmak

Fr. Borys Gudziak, Rector of Lviv’s Ukrainian Catholic University, has more than just hope for the future of higher education in Ukraine. He has a mission: “It may sound bold, but we are trying to rethink what it means to be a university in the 21st century.”

The claim is bold, given that UCU presently has just over 500 full-time students. However, with an ever-increasing international profile and a groundbreaking new campus half built, UCU is growing fast.

On a recent fundraising tour in Toronto, Gudziak shared his vision for the direction of this growth.

Ashton Osmak: It has been suggested that UCU is setting the standard for elite education within Ukraine. How so?

Fr. Borys Gudziak: Well, it stems fundamentally from a conviction that every person is created in the image and likeness of God and has a dignity and that dignity has to be recognized and fostered. Ukrainian history has beaten down the person, the human being. We want to help young people really hold their heads high and to be free and responsible.

UCU has 550 full-time students but 170 faculty members, 70 full-time and 100 part-time. The faculty-student ratio is very high – one of the highest, probably, in the world. That personal attention hopefully fosters this sense of human dignity but it also propels a young person to reach their potential, in academic and personal terms.

Learning how to relate in a new way without fear and cynicism helps young people break out of the post-Soviet mold. Ukraine doesn’t have to just overcome its history. People in Ukraine can achieve things in a creative way because of this history. We have thought a lot about the methodology to help people relate better in Ukrainian society or in 21st century post-modern society and that’s why 15 years ago we invited mentally disabled citizens into the heart of the community.

Residential College - L'Arche Wing

Residential College - L'Arche Wing

They are not a “project” of the university, recipients of a social handout — they are members of our community. Since one of the gifts of people with special needs is that they don’t have masks and facades, they ask one basic question in every relationship and every encounter: can you relate to me, can you love me? That’s the most important question a student can be asked. Do you know how to relate to another person? Do you know how to love another person?

We are now building a dormitory which will be the first in the world to include a community of the mentally disabled, who will be invited as professors of Human Relations. This new residence will house 200 students and eight faculty families. There will be a small community of very young nuns – beautiful, bold, brilliant [nuns]. In Ukrainian there’s a saying that you can steal horses with them: “Можна з ними конi красти”. There is going to be an institute for personal development which will host outstanding personalities from the world at large who want to spend some time with our students.

Within this living/learning centre we want to revolutionize the dormitory experience for students in Ukraine. These are the ideas coming up in Ukraine. Maybe other universities in Toronto, Calgary, Chicago and in Caracas will follow suit?

What about the non-elites? Is there any risk that UCU might become an institution accessible only to a certain stratum of society?

We want to project that risk. We want a particular stratum to be dominant in UCU: adventurous people who are willing to sacrifice in life to serve others and to witness to values. So we’re definitely trying to stratify. Most of our students are from very modest backgrounds. Ninety percent of the students are on financial aid. Almost half of the full-time students don’t pay any tuition. We’re proud of that.

To what extent is UCU shaping or being shaped by the current trend of research on higher education in Ukraine?

Perhaps even more than democracy, what differentiates North America from much of the world is the quality of its higher education institutions. That quality is predicated on great autonomy in universities. That freedom is still lacking in Ukraine.

In some ways we were the most autonomous university in Ukraine because for the first 12 years of our existence our main program was not recognized by the state even though we had international accreditation, which meant that we were free from state control…there’s a Ukrainian saying, “as you make your bed so you will sleep – як постeлиш так будеш спати.” So we had that freedom and we had to have that responsibility.

Ukrainian universities are a bit like McDonald’s outlets. They’re supposed to reproduce the same hamburgers and the Ministry of Education gives the recipe. We are trying to have an integrated, holistic approach where the human being isn’t seen just as a walking brain, but where the social, spiritual, emotional and family aspects are recognized, even catered to.

We also promote a radically different administrative approach. In some universities, which might have 40,000 students and 6,000 employees, literally two or three people have access to information on everything in the university budget. At UCU we have about 300 employees and about 50 people are involved in formulating the budget. There is a principle of subsidiarity at work, which means making decisions at the lowest possible level — not taking everything up to the tsar at the top of the pyramid. That approach is really a spiritual philosophy based on the conviction of the dignity of every person.

Future UCU Campus

Future UCU Campus

We began with nothing, which is a unique opportunity; when you begin with nothing you have nothing to lose. If you dare, you can be very bold. That’s why between ‘92 and ‘94 we spent two years thinking about how to go forward. Instead of running away from Ukraine’s history we dove into it.

Ukrainians met the greatest human challenge of the 20th century – the challenge of furious totalitarianism. The various martyrs and dissidents who did not conform were able to maintain principle in a heroic way and prevailed. The Soviet Union and Soviet leaders are being lost in the oblivion of a dark past while the spiritual principles carried by the lonely heroes are now again attracting many young people.

So we look at these outstanding witnesses to truth and share with students the hypothesis that if they met the greatest challenge of the 20th century and if they were the students of this institution (the Lviv Theological Academy–today UCU) why can’t they meet the greatest challenges of the 21st century, right here in Ukraine?

The bulk of the research institutes at UCU do have a religious focus. How do you envision the relationship between secular and non-secular academic pursuits at UCU?

Much of modernity is predicated on an antagonistic relationship between the sacred and the secular. We are proposing that we can move beyond that hostility. We are in a post-secular age now where people are yearning for a sense of meaning. It’s a pilgrimage, with few set answers.

As we look at families and the difficulty many computer-conditioned young people have in communicating at a dinner table, we see that returning to the heart of human mystery and the heart of the mystery of human life is very important. I am proposing now to the community that we be open to that mystery.

Some of the most formative events for the staff are the manner in which our community comes together [like] when our staff members say farewell to their parents. We had a funeral yesterday for the families of three of our staff. The importance of community solidarity at a time of great need cannot be overemphasized.

We also celebrate new life. Our graduates have real confidence in life. They’re having many children even though they are not particularly well off. I am very inspired by this faith in life in a context where many people are very skeptical about future prospects. So it’s at a very fundamental level that we remain particularly open to the sacred and we are looking for new models, categories, words and symbols to share this pilgrimage.

Where is UCU headed?

Right now we’re in the process of developing our strategy until 2020. We’re opening many new programs: in the social sciences — psychology, sociology…we are considering opening up a school of IT.

Residential UCU College - View from North-West

Residential UCU College - View from North-West

I hope to work myself out of a job. I’m finishing a term now and probably will have one more five-year term but we are looking to pass the baton on to the next generation of university leaders.

We hope to triple or quadruple student enrollment by 2020. But we abide by a belief that small is beautiful. We have no pretentions at dominating a big Ukrainian context of higher education. There are 150,000 students just in Lviv. We are 1% of the student body and we want to become, let’s say, 2% or 3%, but it’s still going to be a grain of salt; hopefully salt in the leaven.

UCU generates about 30% of the university discourse in Lviv. We hope to continue that. In a good way, we hope to make others jealous so that they will be inspired to do better than we, so that they build better dorms, so that they are more attentive, so that they love each other in their university more than we do.

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