Georgia Turns to the West for Ideas: Amid political tensions, the former Soviet state says Russia no longer influences its universities

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jun 26 13:58:36 UTC 2008

Georgia Turns to the West for Ideas
Amid political tensions, the former Soviet state says Russia no longer
influences its universities


T'bilisi, Georgia

Charles H. Fairbanks Jr. sits among a tight circle of a dozen
students, each bent over a thick volume of Plato's Republic. They are
discussing, in English, the concept of the city-state guided by
philosophers as part of a "great books" course. Here at Ilia
Chavchavadze State University, where Mr. Fairbanks teaches six months
a year, a radical change is taking place. No longer do professors
stand stiffly on podiums, lecturing in Russian. No longer do students
study only highly specialized and technical subjects.

Georgia, along with a number of other former Soviet countries, is
rapidly reforming its higher-education system. Russian is being
replaced by English in classrooms and textbooks. Western-trained
professors are flooding campuses with new methods of teaching. And
liberal-arts courses are replacing vocational training. This change is
part of broader pro-Western political movements that have taken place
across ex-Soviet countries east of Russia, such as Ukraine's Orange
Revolution and the accession of Baltic countries into the European

A new government in Georgia, elected in 2004, has introduced sweeping
reforms designed to increase openness and reduce corruption in a
number of sectors, including higher education. Georgia's political
leaders also see the reforms as a way to shake free the last vestiges
of dependence on Russia and achieve Georgia's long-term goals of
membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty

"Our priority is to catch up with leading European and American
universities," said Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, in an
interview with The Chronicle last month.

Among other things, his government is sending thousands of graduate
students abroad and spending $200-million to build a new research and
education center outside T'bilisi.

"We provide universities with as much help as we can establishing
exchange programs and literature purchases for joint scientific
programs," he says.

A Reformist Government

The tiny country on Russia's southern border has undergone some major
changes in the last few years. The so-called Rose Revolution of 2003
ended the 11-year rule of Eduard Shevardnadze, a Soviet-era Communist
Party boss. He was replaced by Mr. Saakashvili, a 36-year-old Columbia
University-trained lawyer.

Although Mr. Saakashvili's tenure has been turbulent at times, his
government has made strides in reforming a heavily corrupt
higher-education system. In the past, diplomas could be purchased in
basement stores, and most Georgians believed it was impossible to be
admitted to a university without greasing hands or tapping family

Two years ago, the government introduced tougher accreditation and
closed some low-quality universities. Through closures or mergers, the
number of accredited institutions dropped from 200 to 52.

A new national university-entrance exam, for which a computer network
in Britain sets questions and reviews answers, was introduced in July
2005 to insulate the admissions process from political meddling.

A survey conducted by the Soros Foundation last year showed that
higher education is now seen as the least corrupt system in Georgia.

"We have won the war against corruption," says Ghia Nodia, Georgia's
education minister. "This is the biggest news in the Georgian
higher-education system."

Such reforms are critical, says Mr. Nodia, because Georgia's 18 state
and 34 private universities are eager to collaborate with Western

A University Revolution

The idea to switch to a liberal-arts model in higher education, rather
than the narrowly focused specialty schools and institutes of the
Soviet system, in which a student might learn only about mining, say,
first appeared in Georgia in 2000.

A group of professors of philosophy at Chavchavadze championed the
idea, but it took several more years to take root.

"We started our experiment from four students at the little faculty of
political science," says Gigi Tevzadze, president of Chavchavadze
State and one of the reform's authors. "Then it emerged to the size of
the university, and then developed into a system adopted for all
higher education in the country."

All of Georgia's universities have instituted general-education
requirements. Many highly specialized, outmoded courses have been
trimmed from course catalogs. Courses on the history of the Soviet
Union have been replaced by the history of the Caucuses. New
social-science courses, such as one on the relation between family and
society, have been introduced.

At Chavchavadze, students who once took as many as 14 predetermined
courses each week now study only five subjects at a time. And they are
able to take courses outside their majors. Ten hours of English
classes are also required of all first- and second-year students.

Introduction to Contemporary Thinking, a two-volume reader containing
excerpts of writings by philosophers, was put together by Chavchavadze
professors for first-year students. Such broad introductory courses
are increasingly common across Georgia's universities.

"After decades of learning from old-fashioned Soviet or post-Soviet
books, our students have become modern thinkers, able to read
Machiavelli, Stephen Hawking, or Max Weber," says Mr. Fairbanks, a
former Yale University professor.

Students and professors at the Chavchavadze campus seem excited by the
changes. While holes in the parquet floors and peeling paint on the
walls are constant reminders of the deep economic crisis Georgia has
suffered, people on the campus would rather talk about the new
bookstore, the first in T'bilisi to sell European and American
classical and scientific literature.

"I feel more access and more help coming from Europe, America, and
even Turkey," says Helen Mebageshvili, the store's manager and a
fourth-year student, as she unpacks boxes of English literature
classics and philosophy texts that she received from Cambridge,
Oxford, and other European universities where she and her friends have
established contacts. "We do not have Russian-language books, partly
because Russia gives us no support and partly because to integrate in
European Community and attend top Western postgraduate schools we need
to read more English."

Translating Textbooks

In Moscow, Georgian academe's shift from Russian to Georgian and
English has not been well received.

Tatyana Petrova, at the ministry of higher education and science,
works in a department responsible for promoting Russian language
abroad. She is skeptical that Georgia will be able to wean itself from
Russian as an academic language.

"Georgian and Ukrainian languages do not have enough scientific terms
to cover fields like medical science or nanotechnologies," she said.

Georgian academics, though, say the transition toward English- and
Georgian-language textbooks has been relatively smooth.

David Tarkhnishvili, dean of Chavchavadze's school of life sciences,
says a third of his biology students are already capable of studying
original scientific literature in English. For the rest, faculty
members are translating some textbooks into Georgian.

"The language problem will be overcome," he says. "Georgian scientific
terminology is rapidly developing. The main thing is that our students
are free thinking and extremely determined."

Hermann J. Schnorbach, a noted German professor who specializes in jaw
and facial microsurgery and who visits Georgia regularly, says he has
seen marked changes in Georgia's universities.

"When I first arrived five years ago, I was struck to see how dirty
and poor students and campus looked," he said after a recent lecture.
"First I saw a few new chairs, then the floor looked cleaner, and now
6,000 medical students can listen to our lectures in English. The
system gradually improves and cleans itself."

Swept Out

Not all professors are pleased to see the Westernization. The reforms
have exacted a heavy toll on an older generation of Georgian
educators, unable or unwilling to keep pace.

In 2005 the government required all university professors to
essentially reapply for their jobs by submitting their résumés and
publications to the education ministry.

Many were not rehired.

Only 25 out of 200 professors kept their jobs at Chavchavadze
University, for example. At least 2,000 older professors across
Georgia were forced to take early retirement.

By next year, all professors here will be required to hold doctorates,
speak English, and have published at least 10 papers in prominent
journals. In the meantime, state money is paying students to study
abroad. That has made Mr. Saakashvili political enemies.

In May about 5,000 protesters showed up during a celebration of
Georgia's independence from Russia in 1991. Among them were Merab
Bachnadze, a 59-year-old former university administrator, and Parmen
Margvelashvili, a 55-year-old former vice president of Tbilisi State

"We do not appreciate the reform," said Mr. Bachnadze, who once led
the Russian-history department at Tbilisi Javakhishvili State
University. "The government gave too much independence to
universities. Revolutionary reforms should never happen to higher
education." He says he was "fired without much explanation" and that
his department was eliminated.

"The new generation of academics destroyed Russian language and
Russian faculties all across the countries," added Mr. Margvelashvili,
"stealing the knowledge we shared with our students for decades."

"It is hard to find a Russian-language program at our universities
these days," Mr. Nodia, the education minister, said with a sense of
approval. "We have joint academic programs with American, European,
and even Iranian universities, everybody but Russia. Russia is
disappearing from the academic thinking in Georgia."

President Saakashvili says that shift is due to a failure of Russian
foreign policy. In October 2006, Russia imposed a trade embargo on
Georgia after four Russian military officers were accused of spying
and deported, although many analysts believe that the real impetus was
to punish Georgia for its efforts to join NATO, which Russia views as
an American organization.

"In fact, Russia has lost the soft-power war here in Georgia," Mr.
Saakashvili said. "By losing the Russian market, our people lost the
motivation for learning the Russian language. The love we have for
Russian literature, music, and movies turned out not to be enough, as
business to a big extent defines language priorities for students."

Russia's influence is waning in other former Soviet higher-education
systems as well, although Georgia's institutions are considered the
most progressive.

"Georgians simply fired thousands of old professors," says Christian
Giordano, who develops Western-style education programs in the
Balkans, Russia, and Baltic countries. "Bulgaria and Romania are still
very conservative. But the transition in higher education is

Anatoly Bourban, vice president for academic affairs at Kyiv-Mohyla
Academy, in Ukraine, says his university teaches in Ukrainian and

"Our students are much more motivated to speak English, and to read
English texts in sociology and political science," he says. "They want
to integrate into the European Community rather than keep up with
their Russian. We have European and American professors teaching at
our academy. When Russian lecturers, who very rarely visit us now,
cannot communicate in English at all, we let them teach in Russian."

To see how fast Russian cultural influence has waned in the region,
consider the fate of Roszarubezhtsentr, a nongovernmental institute
promoting Russian language abroad.

The organization was founded 83 years ago and used to operate 200
well-financed centers around the world that promoted Russian and
Russian cultural programs. Now there are only 40 centers left, with
almost no financial help from Russia.

"We are being pushed out for political reasons," says Lidia Nikitina,
the center's spokeswoman. "It is hard to stop the process of
neighboring states switching for anti-Russian agendas."

Meanwhile, Western influence in Georgia continues to grow.

Mr. Saakashvili said that the government now sends 1,000 Georgian
students abroad each year to earn graduate degrees at Western
universities, most of whom come back. And about 300 American and
European professor have been invited to teach social science,
architecture, agriculture, and other subjects next semester at
Georgian universities.

About a dozen Georgian educators trained at Harvard and Columbia
Universities have come back to work for the Georgian ministry of

Foreign agencies and governments are also supporting more academic
programs here. Mr. Nodia puts the figures in the "hundreds of
thousands of dollars." The U.S. Agency for International Development
was one of the key supporters of the new accreditation standards for
higher education. The European Union is contributing nearly $500,000
annually for curriculum development and faculty and student training

Students say they are eager to learn more from the West. "When Georgia
has political and military tensions with Russia, when we see
tendencies of some of the neighboring states going back to
authoritarian regime," says Luka Nakhutsrishvili, a third-year student
of philosophy and social science at Chavchavadze. "It is important for
us, Georgian future politicians and scientists, to hurry up and learn
how to apply American and European knowledge in Georgian reality."

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Section: International Volume 54, Issue 42, Page A22
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