Interview with Oleg Alekseev Part I: University as a Value-Oriented Corporation
27.04.2018

Oleg Alekseev is a recognized expert in place development and corporate, human resource, and innovation management. He has been one of the TSU’s external experts for several years. He visits the University to participate in official events, regular meetings, and training sessions, and provides consulting service. He has had numerous meetings with the top management of our University and with faculty members. Heads of departments, researchers, professors, and even students and graduates know him by sight. They ask questions, including those that require him being informed on the Rector’s position, regarding current issues and the situation around TSU. As a result, Oleg Alekseev has a number of things to say about the most important and urgent topics that he proposed to discuss at one of our recent meetings. As these topics concern all members of our university community, I would like to post our conversation in this blog. 

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- Professor Galazhinskiy, I believe you can agree that when we mention a university, certain images come into our mind, such as PROFESSORS, DEPARTMENTS, ACADEMIC COUNCILS, THEATRE STUDY HALLS, ACADEMIC TRADITIONS… All these things have been part of university life since the times of Humboldt. These are universal values of every university. Or, at least, they used to be up until higher education became a mass-oriented product, which made those values seem outdated. Tomsk State University celebrates its 140th anniversary this year and it has entered the age of mass higher education as well. How different is it from Imperial Tomsk University that was founded in the 1880s? Are those two completely different institutions or do they have anything in common? 

– No doubt, they have. But at the times of global challenges and constant changes it is getting more and more difficult to maintain those common values. For better or for worse, there is no choice for us. A forward-thinking university must change. But there are always some things that should remain unchangeable. The latter are the values, including, among the others, respectful attitude toward PROFESSORS, DEPARTMENTS, and ACADEMIC TRADITIONS. Otherwise, a university stops being one. Perhaps, the lack of those values will not kill it, but certainly turn into something else. 3.jpg

- As we all know, all traditional university values appeared along with the disciplinary approach to organizing education and research. Teachers, professors, and departments initially were the bearers of disciplinary knowledge. However, despite the prevalence of the disciplinary approach at schools and universities, the goals and problems those two types of institutions set are essentially different. Schools provide individuals with general education, universities form the ontology of their lifeworld. 

The sad thing is that universities have to function under the logic of neoliberalism and pragmatism, limiting its goals mostly by developing professional competencies that are demanded by employers. But to do that one does not need professors or departments. In this case, business schools and business coaches are required. Tomsk State University is growing and getting stronger, overcoming these contradictions between the initial mission of a university and its current pragmatic goals and activity. Despite what you called a “mass-orientation”, TSU puts all its efforts into making its graduates independent thinkers, capable of self-learning, researching, exploring, and changing themselves and their lives. But critical thinking and independent attitude are not something that develops fast. One may need from 4 to 6 years, starting with the age of 17-18 as the most perceptive to learning. At this particular point one needs professors and departments as bearers of academic values and liberties. 4.jpg   

Socrates and Plato proved that human thinking develops better in dialogues. And even if a professor as a lecturer or a scientific advisor transfers what students may perceive as “dated knowledge”, he or she will never be replaced even by the most state-of-the-art Siri-like software, because a professor transfers particular lifestyle and values, therefore, part of a university gene and something that can be taken only at a university. For TSU those values are openness, fundamentality, and classicality.

– Taking the animal world as an example, it is hard to imagine that a mouse can acheive the size of an elephant as the result of its evolution. However, in management such goals are set rather frequently. Universities used to be small exclusive institutions that have become huge production lines of certified specialists. Meanwhile, 120 years ago, Edmund Gusserl, the founder of phenomenology, said that size is an ontological characteristic of an object. From his point of view, Imperial Tomsk University and Tomsk State University are two different universities. You are talking about the legacy and I fully understand WHAT you mean. But you cannot but accept that the transition from exclusive higher education to mass-oriented education has caused some loss. Could you, please, give us some examples of what we have lost due to the fact that the current size of TSU is much bigger than the size of Imperial Tomsk University? 

– We all realize that the process of turning higher education into a mass-oriented product is irreversible. Only 15% of school graduates used to enter universities. This number has increased up to 70% in some countries. Particularly in Japan, where they have a “temple” of education, almost 100% of school graduates enter universities. In other words, higher education is almost universal nowadays. Therefore, we must start thinking about making it diverse. Actually, one of the current challenges for us is to provide opportunities for truly exclusive education at times of mass-oriented higher education. There are some successful cases of that. One of them is described in the book Designing the New American University by Michael Crow, the President of Arizona State University (ASU), and William Dabars, Senior Research Fellow for University Design and Director of Research for the New American University in the Office of the President at Arizona State University. 5.jpg

In the beginning of the 2000s, Michael Crow proposed the Concept of State Research University. It resulted in ASU becoming a world’s research and educational centre with 70 thousand students that combines outstanding academic quality with accessible education for everybody who wants to study. Crow emphasizes that as the result of institutional changes, mass universities can solve ambitious problems as well, therefor, do something that only exclusive institutions could do in the past. By the way, we call the model of TSU “classical university at post-classical time”, which actualizes complexity and teaches how to live with it.

– Do you think it is possible to combine exclusiveness and mass-orientation at Russian universities and at TSU in particular? I can imagine that it is difficult to answer this question even from the position of the Rector.

– However, I will try. To solve this problem we need general excessiveness. Universities are expected to be complex and excessive. But it is very expensive. You asked what we have lost over the time. We have lost excessiveness. But we are not the only ones. All system of Russian higher education has lost it. The reality forces us to take into consideration certain economic factors that make universities focus only on most essential things and refuse to deal with anything of excessive nature. A real university is always excessive and that provides the opportunity to offer individual educational paths. This is what “exclusiveness” means: the freedom of choice between disciplines that are interesting and useful for concrete -students.

When I was a student, we always could attend lectures for our fellow students from other faculties. Nobody would ever ask – why we were there. It was a part of the university culture: if a person wanted to learn, nobody would ask why he or she thought that it was possible to get sort of a special attention from professors. Professors and students were moved by their interest in science and research.

When the effectiveness of higher education becomes a matter of quantitative estimation, just like the effectiveness of the economy, it destroys such academic values as selfless service to science and individual educational paths. This is very concerning. In your opinion, what is it that universities are losing?

- In my opinion, first of all, universities are losing the rules of conduct among those who used to be called “crème de la crème”. It is impossible to imagine an Imperial University professor who says “thou” to a student (in Russian there are forms “thou” and “you”).

-          You know, when I was a student, we used to visit our professors in their homes and we did not find any inconvenience in that. We were like their family members. And we were very grateful for that. 

– You are talking about the Soviet times. I mean the times before the Revolution, when a conversation between a professor and a student was a conversation between two gentlemen equal in status. Such relationships were typical for any university as a place of producing and translating culture. 

– I will dare to disagree. Of course, these values are typical for all universities. For example, the idea of equality. But patterns of communication between professors and students may vary in different academic communicates. At our University, students have always had the right to stop a professor in the corridor to ask a question. And professors have always been ready to answer and discuss any issue right on the spot or later, at a more convenient time. This is our tradition we have had since before the Revolution, if you will. 6.jpg

In the medical community it has never been an acceptable pattern of behavior. I remember once I stopped Professor Valentin Semke and wanted to ask him something. He looked at me as if I did something outrageous. Turned out later, that was exactly what I did from the point of the medical school system. I was a regular post-graduate who dared to address to a professor outside study rooms. For our community it would be normal. For theirs – it was disobeying to very strict rules. Nothing is good or bad in this example. These are just two different corporate types of culture, passed from generation to generation.

To be continued