The June 2020 printed edition of “Forbes Ukraine” featured an article on the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU). Excerpts from the article, translated from the Ukrainian-language original, follow.
December 2019, Grand Ballroom, Hilton Kyiv Hotel. Family names and company names are scrolled on the screen together with the amounts of the donations they made. A man dressed in priestly clothes leaves the stage. With a microphone in his hand, he is walking around round tables, where he is carefully listened to by several hundred businessmen, politicians, and opinion leaders with their spouses and children.
The speaker switches between Ukrainian and English. The question he asks is: “What are your reasons for supporting this university?”
The 12th annual meeting of the Friends of the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) is well underway. Some people on the list of the richest Ukrainians scheduled a “slot” for this night in advance to hear the man with the microphone.
“We want to make an impact in this country,” continues UCU President Borys Gudziak, 59. He flew to Ukraine from the U.S., where he leads the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia as Metropolitan.
“You aren’t going to regret giving money to this university, ever,” says the man who created UCU, in different phrases at every Kyiv meeting. “Reach deep into your pocket – both left and right. Give so much that it hurts!” is another key point he makes. And people do reach into their pockets.
UCU is one of the country’s top universities, and this is supported with some measurable evidence.
Despite the complete lack of funding from the government, UCU has the best per student spending level in the country – UAH 88,000 in the 2019/2020 academic year…
Launched in 2015, the UCU Faculty of Applied Sciences enrolled 77 top Ukrainian high school graduates in its computer program. In 2019, the standardized external testing cutting score for this major was 198.5, while half of the students in general had a score of over 200, says UCU Vice-Rector Natalia Klymovska. Since the program opened, a mere 60 students have graduated from the faculty, says its dean, Yaroslav Prytula. Not so many. However, he holds that it is quality that matters. Mr. Prytula takes special pride in the fact that graduates of his faculty fill positions in almost all newly established R&D departments in Lviv software development companies.
UCU has developed a university infrastructure that no traditional university in Ukraine has. “Our collegium is no different from what we’ve seen in the residence halls of Stanford or other American universities,” says Kateryna Zagoriy, who regularly donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to UCU with her husband, Glib Zagoriy, owner of Darnytsia Pharmaceutical Company. Adrian Slywotzky, 68, a UCU Senator and renowned business consultant, recalls the typical impression UCU makes on his American acquaintances who are first-timers to the university: “What is this place? It looks more like a Silicon Valley start-up than a university?”
The Sheptytsky Center, accommodating the university library, is a model, modern educational facility of European level. Even in the UCU community, few believed in the attainability of this plan, reflects Mrs. Zagoriy. However, the instruction of Patriarch Joseph Slipyj – “Dream Big” – worked out. James C. Temerty, 78, a major philanthropist of Ukrainian background, donated US $ 5 million for the project. “What could possibly be greater than knowing that my name and the name of my wife, my family will forever be associated with the Ukrainian saint and hero, Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky?” Mr. Temerty is quoted as saying in the annual UCU Rector’s Report. Another million dollars was provided by the German government… The building, which cost US $ 7 million, designed by the German architectural firm Behnisch Architekten, was inaugurated in September 2017.
This is not your typical university. It complies with Vatican regulations, but is trying to be on the cutting edge. Senior Vice-Rector Taras Dobko begins his op-ed on the future of higher education with an encyclical of Pope Francis and ends with a quote on personal growth by “New York Times” columnist David Brooks.
It is hardly easy to combine relevance with a 2000-year-old tradition. UCU has to accommodate the interests and sentiments of different communities of believers, says Mr. Dobko, 49. In America, conservative or liberal Catholics may choose from dozens of Catholic institutions that best suit their worldview. Being the only Catholic university in Ukraine, however, means to balance the interests of several veto groups…
Lyubomyr Tarnovskyi, the university’s Vice-Rector for Finance, joined UCU after he left Galnaftogaz in the early 2010s. This is how he remembers that experience now: “My friends were surprised and kept asking ‘Did you really retire to the monastery or what?’” “Back then, I realized what courage it took Bishop Borys,” says Mr. Slywotzky of his first visit to UCU in the late 2000s. “There was almost nothing there: just a building, few classes, and even fewer people.”
Until the end of the 2000s, UCU lived primarily in the mind of the person the university community knows under the name of Bishop Borys. There was no campus yet, and Bishop Borys steadfastly built a network of relationships, supporters, partners, the power of which became clear only after two decades of work.
Borys Gudziak was born in Syracuse, New York, to a family that fled Galicia from the Soviets and took an active part in the life of the Ukrainian community in exile. Gudziak was seven when he met Metropolitan Josyf Slipyj, who had spent 18 years in Soviet concentration camps. He was released in early 1963, when Nikita Khrushchev was seeking rapprochement with the Holy See. The Patriarch is believed to be one of the people that the character of Morris West’s novel The Shoes of the Fisherman (American number one bestseller in its category in 1963) was based on. West’s character is a Ukrainian who, after being elected Pope, saves the world from the deadly clash of global superpowers.
Exiled to the West, Josyf Slipyj founded the Ukrainian Catholic University in Rome. When asked where he would get the funds, which were lacking even for a Ukrainian gymnasium, the Patriarch replied: “You don’t worry about the money. We’ll somehow find the money after all.”
“He was the leader in the biggest survival effort of the 20th century, so he can teach us something about survival in the 21st century,” reflects Archbishop Gudziak on the Patriarch, with whom he spent three years in seminary. “I would like to follow his example in life.”
Gudziak graduated from Syracuse University and defended his thesis in Slavic Studies at Harvard. In 1988, he completed a six-month internship in Kyiv. His official purpose was to learn the Ukrainian language, but his real goal was to get in touch with the leaders of the underground church, which would soon come out of the underground.
In 1992, Gudziak, then 31, returned to Ukraine with the intention to stay for good. Cardinal Myroslav Ivan Lubachivsky, head of the restored UGCC, invited him to work on a university project intended as a continuation of the Lviv Theological Academy, which was founded by Metropolitan Sheptytsky and the first rector of which was Patriarch Slipyj.
Natalia Klymovska, then a Lviv Polytechnic student, who came to an interview with the young American in 1992, recalls that Gudziak seemed to be kind of “an alien from a different galaxy”: “Then he stared into the distance and said: ‘We have very big plans…,’ and talked history for the next 10 minutes. I looked at him and thought: ‘That American guy, he won’t succeed.’”
“They stick to Bezos’ philosophy: ‘Every day is the first day’”
In fact, “that American guy’s” persuasion skills turned out to be stronger than her skepticism. Ms. Klymovska became the first employee of UCU, which would be revived 10 years later.
“We wanted to challenge the legacy of totalitarianism, its lingering fear, interpersonal mistrust,” says Bishop Borys about his idea of the university. “The main question was how to help young people be free to communicate, how to teach them to steer their professional career without corruption, without plagiarism.”
“Non-Ukrainians showed a far greater trust in our university than the Ukrainian establishment,” says Bishop Borys. “Over time, I realized it was part of God’s plan, because as long as they don’t heed you, at least they don’t put obstacles in your way.” His opinion proved true under Yanukovych’s regime, when the establishment turned its attention to the university. Initially, the Security Service (SBU) asked him to declare political loyalty by signing a paper. The Rector of UCU, who repeatedly reminded students of the maxim “you can only sell out once,” instantly publicized this attempt, in keeping with the tradition of Soviet-time dissidents. UCU supporters, including the U.S. State Department, responded immediately, after which the SBU called it a misunderstanding. The stone-walling campaign of the Ministry of Education led by Minister Tabachnyk continued until December 27, 2012, as officials tried to revoke the university’s accreditation, to strip it of the right to issue state-recognized diplomas.
At the end of 2013, UCU students and administration took to the Maidan.
UCU President puts one of his core principles this way: “If it’s money you seek, you won’t find any. You have to nurture interpersonal relationships.”
How does this translate into real life? Mr. Slywotzky has known Bishop Borys since the late 1970s. In the second half of the 2000s, he invited an old acquaintance to Lviv to see how the university was being built. “Then he invited me again and again,” Mr. Slywotzky recalls. During one of his visits, Sophia Opatska, the founder of the Lviv Business School (part of UCU), invited a world-renowned consultant to teach a brief course for students…
Mr. Slywotzky is an unusually generous donor, but the way he joined the university community is quite usual. Bishop Borys urges potential donors to come to UCU at every meeting. Then he suggests they give a lecture, then – to teach a short course, support a talented student or a new study program. Over time, people who share the institution’s values become more and more involved in its support.
When I tell the UCU President that the technique he uses is called in marketing “sales funnel,” he doesn’t look amazed.
However, it’s not just about technique. UCU is a start-up, Mr. Slywotzky insists. But is it possible to keep a start-up’s drive after the founder has stepped down? In 2012, Fr. Bohdan Prach became UCU Rector, replacing Archbishop Gudziak, whom his Church sent to serve outside Ukraine.
Mr. Slywotzky’s answer is that the founder created a phenomenal team. “They stick to Bezos’ philosophy: ‘Every day is the first day,’” he says. “Always in a fight, scratched, yet fun, focused and very fast. None of this is an attribute of a traditional corporation – and I believe I saw a few hundred of those up close.”
Constant experimentation is an indispensable attribute of a start-up. UCU is testing the idea of expanding the network of its donors from tens of thousands – as of May 2018, UCU had 20,000 patrons who have supported it over two decades – to hundreds of thousands. The program enables donors to offer ongoing support to the university through small contributions of UAH 250 or even as little as UAH 50. You’ll say this doesn’t exist elsewhere? Imagine when this becomes a reality, says Mr. Slywotzky. Moreover: if this project succeeds, Ukraine will make a contribution to the history of global entrepreneurship.
“We wanted to challenge the legacy of totalitarianism, its lingering fear, interpersonal mistrust”
As a private institution, UCU has to watch its money carefully. For the last six years, the university has successfully increased the share of non-donor income, i.e. tuition and other service fees, from 21% in 2014 to 36% in 2019/2020. However, the prospects for achieving the 50% target have become questionable, admits Vice-Rector Lyubomyr Tarnovskyi. If the crisis drags on, teachers’ salaries will have to be cut, just like in any private business that can only rely on its own resources.
The crisis spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic challenges not only specific projects but the sustainability of operating finance. The UCU President is following the debate over the future of universities closely. On his Facebook page, he reposted a number of McKinsey’s reports, one of which examines three scenarios of the crisis’s impact on American higher education. All three involve economic losses that most Americans have not dealt with in their lifetime. The most optimistic scenario is that universities and colleges will return to business as usual in the summer of 2020, while the most pessimistic scenario says it won’t happen before the fall of 2021.
“There is a climate, and there is the weather,” Ms. Klymovska quotes Mr. Slywotzky’s words. No matter how terrible the weather is, the climate is predictable. Slywotzky, who has been dubbed a “business futurist” on the LvBS website, tells me that the COVID-19 crisis has only highlighted the existing problems of the higher education system that have been well known for decades. According to him, universities now have to face three challenges. First, they will have to turn the student from a passive recipient of knowledge into an active manager of their studies. Second, they will have to rethink how to make good use of students’ time and professors’ precious time so that students can change the world. Third, the barriers between education and real life have to be eliminated as much as possible. “Any program that combines university studies and work in the outside environment can be dramatically more effective compared to the outdated model, where professors read lectures to a room of 200 students,” says Mr. Slywotzky.
In his December 2014 address, Bishop Borys outlined UCU’s mission: “We have to aspire to change both the East and the West, and our mission will not stop until everyone in Moscow and Kamchatka experiences this dignity, until European values are honored again in Amsterdam, Paris, and on the entire continent, which needs Ukraine so desperately.”
This is an ambitious vision, but is it backed by action? With less than 2,000 students, UCU remains a drop in the ocean of Ukrainian higher education. My question to Bishop Borys was “Shouldn’t you accelerate the expansion?” After a short reflection, he told me: “It is extremely hard to balance high quality and large quantities. This can be done if you produce metal or iPhones. In recent years, I have been worried that UCU is developing too rapidly, because the educational process requires that educators maintain a certain standard.”
UCU doesn’t seek a massive presence in the educational landscape. “However, we can point to a certain quality of life and invite others to look for it in their own way,” says the UCU President. “This quality is love, and love may not be imposed on anyone.”
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