The art of written correspondence lives on. Last February, USD President Mary E. Lyons, PhD, received a missive that epitomized the spirit of a true Changemaker:
I received the USD Magazine today and thought I’d drop you a line.
The theme here is about circles within circles. My family is originally from Minsk in Belarus. Though I had never been there, I promised myself I’d visit one day to get sense of my own history. Since leaving my last presidency of Birmingham-Southern College, I have been content to do other work, but a number of months ago, I received a call from the CEO of the American Council for International Education. Life hasn’t been quite the same since.
The European Humanities University (EHU) was founded in Minsk 21 years ago in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the need to educate the best young Belarusian minds to assume leadership roles in this emerging, hopefully democratic, state. Lakashenko assumed power in 1994 and continues to align himself and his country with Putin in Russia. The university — being dedicated to democratic principles and the development of civil societies — became a target.
At Lakashenko’s behest, his secret police (Belarus’ version of the KGB) began doing their work and efforts were made to suppress the university and redirect its curriculum in line with the state’s old “Soviet” political position. The founding rector, Anatoli Mikhailov, refused and was increasingly threatened, as were many of the faculty. About 11 years ago, they fled Belarus before it was too late and reestablished themselves in Lithuania’s capitol, Vilnius.
Vilnius is a beautiful world heritage city that suffered severely under the Nazis and the Soviets. The Nazis, essentially decimating the Jewish population of the nation, murdered 70,000 Jews. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, after extraordinary displays of courage, Lithuania has come out as the strongest former Soviet country in the EU. With the assistance of multiple state governments, Lithuania provided facilities for the only university in the world that is currently in political exile.
Its very survival, quite naturally, faces great challenges. EHU has approximately 1,700 hundred students, 70 percent of which are Belarusian. Many must seek their education via distance learning from Belarus, while 700 are in residence in Vilnius.
The rector is a wonderful man of extraordinary courage, but by his own admission, he is not an administrator. It is one thing to intellectually wish to be democratic and free, but an altogether different thing to realize this when some of your faculty and students have grown up as citizens of the Soviet Union. This was the reason I was contacted, initially to consult with them.
Following several trips, the rector and board from the participating nations approached me and asked if I would be willing to assume the role of chief operations officer and provost of the university. This, of course, meant a willingness to locate to Vilnius for as long as I occupied the position.
I permanently relocated in early March, and there is a sense in which I feel as though I am finally going home.
I have always been proud of my education at USD and remember fondly the honor of being the first Arts and Sciences Author Hughes Career Achievement Award recipient. In gratitude, if there is any way in which this story can serve USD in its good work, I would be glad.
I wish the university continued prosperity.
— G. David Pollick ‘71