ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2012 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 58, No.4 - Winter 2012
Editor of this issue: Viktorija Skrupskelytė

Book Review

Attempts to Restructure Baltic Higher Education Revisited

Gustav N. Kristensen. Born into a Dream: EuroFaculty and the Council of Baltic Sea States. Berlin: Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag, 2010, 516 pages. ISBN 978-3-8305-1769-6.

A lengthy, dense volume by the Danish scholar Gustav N. Kristensen, Born into a Dream, was issued in Berlin as part of the academic publication series The Baltic Sea Region: Northern Dimensions – European Perspectives. It is an interesting, well-documented, and, at times, extremely insightful personal narrative. It might also be described as a detailed summary of the history of the EuroFaculty, an innovative institution established in the three Baltic States – Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia – in the crucial years of social change shortly after the restoration of independence (as early as 1993). It ended with the countries’ entrance into the economic and mental sphere of the European Union. The author of this book was the third (and last) director of the EuroFaculty, set up as an academic network by the Council of the Baltic Sea States under a proposal by Hans-Dietrich Genscher, then Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. It functioned in several Baltic universities from 2001 until 2005. The author provides a semiautobiographic account of the multifaceted development of this institution and its gradual integration into the Baltic academic milieu, which led to an increase in academic cooperation between Baltic, Nordic, and other European countries, and thus also the internationalization of educational programs and scholarship in the postcommunist societies of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Though this volume can hardly be labeled an academic treatise, it is a timely and useful overview of the changes in educational curricula, programs, and activities during those crucial years of complicated and somewhat painful reforms in the Baltic region.

Kristensen’s account of the EuroFaculty is based on a variety of sources previously unavailable for research, not only institutional documents, but also faculty and administrators’ correspondence, notes, and pro memoria. His personal recollections of circumstances and events shed light on attempts to restructure higher education in the Baltic States at a time when European support and cooperation were of the utmost importance. In a sense, it is a story of East meets West – a mixture of excitement, initiative, joint or lonely efforts of varying degrees of success, as well as lost hopes and disappointments.

In a certain way, Kristensen’s book is a micro-history of the transitional postcommunist period, even though it is an account of only one institution and can hardly be called fully “objective.” It covers the history of the shaping of the EuroFaculty and also the very interesting context in which political, social, and cultural changes took place. Kristensen starts with an account of the tensions that accompanied efforts of reform in states that faced serious economic crises after a short, but dramatic, upswing in national feelings in 1990: the three countries lacked know-how, experience, and adequate institutional structures to deal with the problems that surfaced as soon as they started exiting from their Soviet prison. Participants and witnesses of those exciting and turbulent years might well remember how quickly public enthusiasm for a “market economy” was replaced by feelings of helplessness, even despair, when building liberal market societies proved to be a much more complicated process than anyone had imagined. Lithuania and its two neighbors badly needed economic wisdom along with true operational expertise, given the completely unfamiliar social environment. The rise of new forms of ownership triggered criminalization. A deep polarization of society (its consequences have been surfacing in new ways in recent years) went hand in hand with sincere, ambitious, but often miscalculated attempts to (re)build new infrastructures for academic and public institutions.

The book documents Nordic connections – the involvement of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and other countries in efforts to reconstruct Baltic higher education. Kristensen recalls circumstances in which cooperation and miscommunication took place at the same time: some actors were overexcited about reforms, while others reacted as if reforms constituted a personal threat. To a reader who has firsthand experience of reshaping academic institutions, many of Kristensen’s remarks might seem too polite, too cautious. The fight for survival, the will to make the Soviet mental legacy disappear, and efforts to hang on to the past were often more dramatic than described in Born into a Dream. However, readers will find in Kristensen’s narrative many insights into the often abortive attempts to reform Baltic universities. A close scrutiny of the book opens up new horizons and a perspective on why close cooperation between the three states, often exalted during the first years, was short-lived. Kristensen gives a thorough account of Baltic-Nordic cooperation and at the same time, by focusing on the specificity of each one of the Baltic contexts, he shows how different mental habits and varying experiences narrowed the possible confluence that could have been beneficial to all parties. One can easily understand how misunderstandings between the partners and EU institutions, and among the Nordic countries themselves, the lack of coordination and willingness to view mental and material differences as challenges limited, at least partially, the scope of the EuroFaculty’s activities (see chapters “The Danish Delay,” “The Swedish Controversy,” and “The Finnish Problem”). Kristensen provides numerous examples of how ambitious European policies failed because of a lack of coordination; inadequate reactions by the Balts were not the only cause.

Institutions are shaped and reshaped by politics and formal agreements as well as by personalities (especially by them). This is one of the points of Born into a Dream, especially when the author discusses the activities of professor Toivo Miljan, a dedicated Estonian-Canadian scholar, who opposed EU bureaucracy in such a way that it could only deal with this experienced, hard-working director by ousting him. His successors, however, continued to implement academic reforms, albeit with diminished enthusiasm for opposition. Kristensen also documents aspects of the specific local academic climate in each of the Baltic States during the term of his office and those of the previous directors. To students of academic reforms in higher education, Kristensen’s narrative provides many occasions for interesting, close reading.

Understandably, the greatest part of Born into a Dream focuses on reshaping curricula in law and economics. These were the areas that needed the EuroFaculty’s international assistance the most; few would dare to deny that the postcommunist academy was the least advanced in these fields, previously strongly supervised by Soviet ideology and policy making. No wonder that cooperation in both areas was resisted by some influential local academics who wished to maintain the status quo and were not interested in structural or curricular changes. A propos, my mentor, the late professor Wolfgang Iser, commissioner of humanities and social sciences at the time of the crucial restructuring of Humboldt University after German reunification, once pointed out to me how much unwillingness to face changes there had been among East German academics, some of whom, he remarked, “were so stupid that even the Stasi did not take an interest in them.” Kristensen avoids putting his thoughts so bluntly; however, his account offers wise remarks of this kind as well.

What I find missing in this interesting and carefully written account is a deeper discussion of the changes in academic programs. Kristensen provides many details about the accomplishments and personal qualities of the lecturers, but little analysis of course content. What kind of books in law and economics were studied in EuroFaculty classes? Which economic theories were introduced by visiting professors? Who compiled the reading lists and what titles were included? One can hardly find answers to these questions in Kristensen’s book, even though in other ways it is detailed and well documented. As we are well aware, there was too much fascination in Lithuania and other Eastern European countries with the ideas of economists of a neoliberal ilk, such as Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, the Chicago School or their adepts. These ideas were hastily borrowed and incorporated into local financial policies, especially during the first decade. It remains uncertain to what degree (if any) the EuroFaculty was instrumental in bringing these theories into the postcommunist realm. It would be interesting to know why alternative economics, say, the writings of E. F. Schumacher and other theorists of ecological economics, were so unpardonably slow to reach professional audiences in the Baltic States.

Of course, one cannot demand that the author provide all possible answers to all likely and unlikely questions, but at least a couple of chapters devoted to the academic syllabuses of EuroFaculty programs would have been instructive. On the other hand, the voices of even junior faculty members or teaching assistants mentioned in Born into a Dream can be currently heard in the Baltic discourse on law and economics, and this proves that programs initiated in 1993 successfully educated a large number of scholars who continue to maintain networks of European academic cooperation. Judging from this perspective, the book tells a story of success. It may be that, after all, Kristensen has provided his readers with a thoughtful, detailed, and well-balanced narrative that can be read by specialists and nonspecialists interested in the recent history of Baltic higher education and its relation to society, both in the West and in what used to be regarded as Europe’s East.

Almantas Samalavičius
Vilnius Gediminas Technical University