Volume 42, No.2 - Summer 1996
Editor of this issue: Robert A. Vitas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1996 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


University of Washington

In 1983, Professor Rimvydas Ðilbajoris wrote that "the time ir right, the need is great" to endow a permanent program in Lithuanian Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Lituanus 29:3(1983) 10. Today a decade after that highly successful project, we at the University of Washington believe that the time has again come to substantially expand the field of Baltic Studies in the United States. The Chicago program, an enthusiastic partner and supporter of our program, here in Seattle, presents us with an inspiring model.

The Baltic Studies initiative at the University of Washington began almost as soon as the Baltic nations reemerged as independent states. A small coalition of faculty from both the University's Department of Scandinavian Studies and the University's National Resource Center in Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies met in 1992 to discuss ways of including Baltic languages and topics (defined geographically to include Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian) in the University's regular curriculum. Two interrelated projects emerged from these meetings: a national Baltic Studies Summer Institute (BALSSI), funded by a consortium of American research universities (Indiana University, University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, and University of Washington) and an academic year Baltic Studies program housed and integrated into the curriculum of the Department of Scandinavian Studies. The first two years of the BALSSI program were hosted at the University of Washington and featured intensive Lithuanian, as well as courses in Baltic culture, folklore, history, and political science. The third and fourth years of the BALSSI program will be hosted at the University of Illinois at Chicago, ensuring the continued health and development of the jointly funded institute. As for the UW academic year program, we are proud to have the national distinction of offering all three Baltic state languages at multiple levels for each of the academic years 1994-95 and 1995-96. No other institution of higher education in the United States offers all three Baltic languages. No other institution in the United States seeks to guarantee the continued instruction in these languages and study of these countries within a broader North European social, economic and political context. This is the work which we hope to continue.

What are the benefits of the UW Baltic Studies program to the Lithuanian community of the United States? We believe the benefits are many. Below I list just a few.

1. The UW Baltic Studies program offers a further "return to normalcy" for Lithuania and Lithuanian topics in American education and society.

In a rousing speech at the opening of the 1995 Baltic Studies Summer Institute at the University of Washington, Estonian Ambassador to the United States Toomas lives pointed to the UW Baltic program as a further step in the return to normalcy for the Baltic nations. With the Soviet absorption of the Baltics at the outset of World War II, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania became official nonentities. Decades of postwar Soviet ideology and representation sought to erase Lithuania and its neighbor nations from American maps and the American consciousness. University programs devoted to Baltic Studies will help undo fifty years of propaganda and help Americans know and appreciate Lithuania as an independent and distinctive nation.

2. The UW Baltic Studies program provides a basis for training and research which can aid in stabilizing relations between the US and Lithuania.

Finnish Deputy Ambassador to the United States Aapo Pölhö made this observation during his visit and address at the 1995 Baltic Studies Summer Institute. According to Pölhö, a noted policy analyst in his own country, foreign investment — particularly American investment — is one of the best indicators of political security for any North European nation. The reasons for this correlation are twofold: first, American firms do not invest in countries which they are ignorant of or do not trust and, second, American investment itself produces a stabilizing effect on the country's domestic and international situations. Quality education concerning the Baltic nations — education independent of the information emanating from countries negatively disposed to the Baltics — is an essential component of building foreign investment and therefore security in Lithuania. The UW Baltic Studies program offers a truly forward-looking approach to Lithuania, viewing it in its immediate, Baltic cultural context and within a broader, North European international context. We aim at presenting Lithuania in a framework unimpeded by the representations of the Soviet era and predictive of its future status in the world community. In doing so, we offer Americans a new way of understanding the country and a new basis for building trust, prosperity and security.

3. The UW Baltic Studies program ensures that the teaching of Lithuanian will be included in the educational offerings of the "information age."

Paradoxically, two opposing processes are at work in American higher education today. On the one hand, advances in computer technology and telecommunications are reshaping the ways in which universities can provide information to their clientele. We in higher education are only beginning to sense the profound ways in which Internet, video and other technology will expand our teaching and outreach. At the same time, however, the downsizing trend of American business has begun to affect our universities, leading to the "culling" of whole subject areas deemed unproductive or unnecessary. We want to make sure that Baltic studies makes it onto the survivor list, despite the fact that nationwide, retirement, death, and downsizing have led to a marked decline in Baltic related positions and programs. Even with excellent programs in place, such as the endowed chair in Lithuanian Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Baltic Studies faces the risk of becoming viewed as an expendable extra. Only with the establishment of permanent, preferably endowed, positions at a variety of different institutions across the country can we be assured of survival of the field. Our educational niche — viewing Lithuanian within its north European context — can contribute substantively to the survival of the field nationwide and to the innovations forthcoming in the fast-approaching era of satellite telecourses, internet resource sites, etc.

4. The UW Baltic Studies program offers a means of education and galvanizing the rising generation of Lithuanian Americans.

As a folklorist and student of American ethnic groups, I know that Lithuanian cultural identity must compete today with a vast array of other possible identities or interests. The Lithuanian-American of today can choose to accentuate Lithuanian heritage, language, and ties, or abandon them altogether in favor of other activities or identities. How can the Lithuanian-American community ensure that young Lithuanian-Americans will embrace the thousands of years of heritage embodied in Lithuanian language, culture, and history? Higher education can play a pivotal role. The existence of programs at prestigious American research universities raises the prestige of the ethnic language and culture in the eyes of young adults. Finding Lithuanian listed in a course catalogue or college handbook can be, for a Lithuanian-American, like finding oneself. And once that interest is piqued, the university program can help in exploring and developing real proficiency in the language and culture. Our program, though barely two years old, has already provided elementary and/or advanced instruction in the three Baltic languages to over forty students and has led to long term Lithuanian sojourns for a number of students. Roots discovered in young adulthood can develop in marvelous ways, influencing career decisions, choices about lifestyle, decisions about long-term cultural maintenance. When university programs do not exist, the ethnic community loses this potential. It sacrifices its young members to an educational system which offers them no recognition, no representation, and no assistance. We want to work to make Lithuanian a subject of interest to Lithuanian-American students.

5. The UW Baltic Studies program ensures the educational means for maintaining Lithuanian-American culture for generations to come.

The Baltic Studies initiative at the University of Washington aims at establishing an endowment. This means that we intend to guarantee the teaching of the Baltic languages at the University in perpetuity. What will Lithuanian-American cultural identity look like a generation or two from now? Will the language and culture of Lithuania still be accessible to Americans of Lithuanian descent? We believe that programs in higher education are essential for the maintenance of Lithuanian identity in this country. Without them, Lithuania may become an ever more distant memory for Lithuanian-Americans, a country difficult to approach because of its distinctive language, customs, and society. American higher education must act as a bridge for the Lithuanian-American and Lithuanian communities of tomorrow. By providing the basis for mutual understanding and respect, programs such as UW Baltic Studies will help ensure the long-term links between Lithuania and its descendants abroad.

Given all these good reasons for creating and maintaining a Baltic Studies program, the question still remains, why locate it at the University of Washington? The reasons are many. I would like to mention just two: curriculum and location. First, in terms of curriculum, we offer a longstanding and highly respected Department of Scandinavian Studies as the logical home for the program. No other department of Scandinavian Studies in the nation offers so many of the Nordic languages and with such consistency. We are also fortunate to possess an excellent faculty in international studies as well, housed primarily in the Jackson School of International Studies. In fact, few other universities in North America have as many faculty in as many different disciplines directly interested in the Baltics. Our overall institutional quality and diversity is reflected by the fact that the US Department of Education has designated the University a National Resource Center for both East and West European Studies. Second, in terms of location, we represent a logical West Coast site for Baltic Studies. Our tuition is one of the most reasonable of any state university, the city of Seattle is one of the most livable urban areas in the nation, and our residence regulations make it very easy for out-of-state students to establish state residency and pay in-state tuition. We are convinced for these and many more reasons that the University of Washington is ideally suited for a program of this nature.

The generosity of Lithuanian organizations has already helped found and foster this effort. The $9,500 received from the Lithuanian World Community Foundation helped make our summer program possible. The $1,200 gift of the Vydûnas Youth Fund enhanced our teaching and materials. The recent $500 donation from the Lithuanian-American Community USA will help establish our permanent endowment. In addition to these organizational donations, over seventy Lithuanian-Americans have made individual donations and given moral and practical support. Their names are reported in Baltic Fund Newsletter. We look forward to working with Baltic-American citizens and scholars toward the goal of a permanent and productive educational program in Baltic Studies at the University of Washington. With your help and good will we can look forward to a bright future.