Remarks by Jonathan Fanton at the Grand Opening Ceremony of European Humanities University International
June 9, 2005 | Speech | Higher Education in Russia & Africa

Good afternoon.  It is a great privilege and honor to be here with President Adamkus, Rector Mikhailov, and other honored guests.

My name is Jonathan Fanton.  I am president of the MacArthur Foundation, a private philanthropy located in Chicago. We make grants for work in 65 countries across the globe, but we have a particular interest in building scholarly institutions in Russia and its neighbors.  I am also a member and former chair of the board of Human Rights Watch.

The MacArthur Foundation is proud have supported the European Humanities University since 1997, and remains firmly committed to EHU International. It is a symbol of our collective aspiration to protect academic freedom and provide quality education to a new generation of leadership in Belarus.

The last time I was in Vilnius was in late January 1991.  I do not need to remind anyone in this audience of that month's significance in your history.  I saw then the courage and determination of the Lithuanian people.

I will never forget coming through the sandbags and volunteer gaurds that ringed the Parliament to meet with President Landsbergis.  The spirit of freedom was alive in the entrance gallery full of young people singing songs of tradition and liberation.  The President told me, If we are not crushed completely in a short time, this process of independence will succeed.  How right he was.  

Today, Lithuania has taken its place in the family of democratic nations. In its patient diplomacy with all in the region, the Republic of Lithuania serves as a model for a new United Europe, where human rights and the rule of law are taking their proper place among civilization's highest values.

I have also visited Belarus several times, most recently in July 1999.  I know that country's pivotal position in European history, its legacy of close ties with its neighbors, and its great potential.  The MacArthur Foundation supported the European Humanities University because we saw it as a small yet powerful force for the regeneration of intellectual life and critical culture in Belarus. 

Since its founding in 1992, thousands of young Belarusians have come to depend on EHUs intellectual leadership. In a closed society, EHU has opened its students to the freedom to explore and debate diverse ideas, connect to scholars around the world, see their countrys history with a clear eye and in the context of the democratic tide sweeping away authoritarian regimes.

Forcing EHU to close its doors is part of a broader campaign to stifle intellectual and academic freedom in Belarus a campaign undertaken in the mistaken belief that national greatness can come about by shutting out the world. But great nations do not fear knowledge, they embrace it. Strong societies do not stifle criticism, they encourage it. Good leaders do not smother intellectual inquiry, they promote it.

Over the years and across the continents, the spirit of academic freedom has proved resilient in the face of authoritarian regimes. And so it shows itself once again with todays dedication of the European Humanities University International. Several private individuals, philanthropic institutions, and governments have come together to give EHU International the capacity to continue its teaching and research here, and to reach back to Belarus through distance learning.

Vilnius is an especially appropriate place of refuge for EHU. In the late 19th century, when publishing in the Lithuanian language was banned by the tsarist authorities, distance learning meant secretly bringing in thousands of books across borders.  Today, we can move megabytes around the world in minutes, but that same spirit of freedom animates EHU International in its temporary home.

We have all worked hard to create this new institution. However, its survival depends most of all on the courage and dedication of EHUs teachers, students, and staff; on the hard work of Vice Rector Vladimir Dunaev; and on the exceptional courage and leadership of Rector Anatoly Mikhailov.  From this outpost, EHU will continue to promote the life of the mind in Belarus, speaking truth to power in its pursuit of objective knowledge and open inquiry.

I feel a profound personal connection to this institution.  I first visited EHU in Minsk eight years ago when I was President of the New School for Social Research. I was impressed with the quality of the faculty and students, and quickly forged a partnership between our two universities.

At todays occasion, I cannot help but recall that the Graduate Faculty of the New School was founded 72 years ago this month as the University in Exile.  The New School rescued scholars from Germany and elsewhere in Europe, giving them safe haven from Nazi terror.  The faculty adopted as their guiding principle, To the Living Spirit, words etched on the main building of the University of Heidelberg and defaced by the Nazis.

In the 1980s, when dissident academics in East and Central Europe were subject to persecution, the New School supported their underground seminars, brought forbidden books and journals in, and censored manuscripts out for publication in the West.

So through the New School tradition I feel a special kinship to scholars in peril.

Let us today dedicate EHU International, this new university in exile, To the Living Spirit and may it stand as a symbol of hope that freedom, opportunity, and democratic prosperity will flourish in Belarus when this university returns to its rightful home in Minsk.

Let us bear witness today, that while the light of learning may burn in exile from Belarus, its spirit lives. It moves among us here, and it motivates the students and faculty in Minsk taking great personal risks to continue their studies. We salute their courage.

We must not we will not fail them. They can count on our determined effort to attract others to provide material and spiritual support so that scholars in peril the world over will take heart that academic freedom eventually will triumph over authoritarian regimes. The Living Spirit cannot be silenced. We will not let you down.

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