A Russian University Struggles to Survive

Nizhni Novgorod is a very liveable university city. Located 380 kilometers (230 miles) east of Moscow on the junction of the Volga and Oka Rivers, this city of two million people hosts 13 post-secondary educational institutions. Formerly named Gorky, the city was declared “closed” in 1932 and foreigners were denied access to the area, which houses a large defense-related industrial complex which produces MiG aircraft, nuclear submarines and other defense systems. The city also has a large automotive factory that was built in the 1930s with the help of Henry Ford and his advisors. In the fall of 1991, the city was “opened” to the West.

Nizhni Novgorod State University (NNSU), the fourth best university by Russian standards, is situated in the upper city, located on high embankments overlooking the Oka River. The main campus is on Gagarin Street, a principal thoroughfare named after the Soviet cosmonaut; a number of the university’s 11 research institutes are scattered throughout the city. The university is comprised of 13,000 faculty, students and staff and, like most Russian universities, it is difficult to get into. Competition for available openings in different departments is rigorous.

Although NNSU is one of Russia’s leading educational institutions, it is essentially a technological institute, as opposed to a university with a full range of departments in the social sciences, arts and the humanities. In the Fall of 1992, departments in political science, sociology and social work will be opened for the first time. A law program was recently initiated and the Department of Scientific Atheism is in the process of being converted to the Department of the History of Religion. Similar changes are occurring in the Economics and Business departments where courses in political economy from a Marxist-Leninist perspective are now being replaced with courses on the free market system.

In the natural sciences, NNSU is a national leader, especially in radio physics. The Russian State Committee on Science and Higher Education has designated NNSU as the lead institution in the natural sciences in educational reform. Maintaining this reputation of reform means revising curriculum along the lines of Western educational systems.

In order to strengthen the university in the social sciences and the humanities, especially since the collapse of the Marxist-Leninist ideology and the evident need for “new thinking,” NNSU is reaching out to Western scholars and building relationships with universities and colleges in America and Europe. As a part of this outreach, my wife Marge and I were invited to spend the Spring semester of 1992 as visiting Professors at NNSU, the first American faculty members to serve in such a capacity. I taught a seminar in “Democracy and Moral Values” and Marge taught two courses concerning Christianity in the West. Our courses were taught in English without an interpreter and the classrooms were filled to capacity with interested students and faculty.

Managing a Russian university in the midst of radical economic, political and social changes is an incredibly difficult task. Despite Boris Yeltsin’s first decree in June of 1991, which declared education to be a “super-priority,” the follow-up has never arrived. Education remains a low priority in the Russian Republic and, in times of economic hardship, there appears to be little prospect of improvement.

The Rector (President) of the university told me that NNSU receives its monthly budgetary allotment from the State Committee in Moscow at the end of the month for salaries and expenditures for that month. He never knows for sure how much he will receive and the amounts do vary from month to month. Needless to say, planning ahead is impossible when there is no reliability in terms of what revenue the institution will receive.

Faculty salaries for full professors have risen from 500 rubles per month in May of 1990 to 2000 rubles per month in mid-1992. Although apartment rents and utilities are minimal (30-80 rubles per month), 80 to 100% of a faculty member’s paychecks is spent on food. There is little left for clothes, shoes or books; in fact, a pair of gym shoes in Nizhni costs an entire month’s salary. All family savings have been wiped out by inflation, so each payday becomes a very important event for university employees.

Skyrocketing prices and hyper-inflation turn university financial management into an exercise in chaos. The cost of NNSU’s new library, which was under construction when we arrived, was originally estimated at 400,000 rubles. When we left, the estimated cost for the foundation alone had jumped to 3 million rubles. The university accountant reported at an Academic Council meeting in February 1992 that faculty salaries were strictly controlled by the State committee in 1991, and that the salary fund for 1990 of 6.5 million rubles had been raised to 10.4 million rubles in 1991. This increase totals more than 60% — yet it is still far behind the ever escalating prices for food and clothes.

The watchword for the university community is “survival,” and the watchphrase, “Hold tight to what you have.” Forget buying new equipment, let go of any plans for foreign travel. Maybe things will get better, but it surely will not be soon. To be a university administrator in this context takes incredible fortitude!

-Reprinted from the ISSE Newsletter,
(Institute for Soviet Successor-State Education, Indiana University),
Winter 1992