After the Curtain Fell

By Ladika, Susan | International Educator, January/February 2013 | Go to article overview

After the Curtain Fell


Ladika, Susan, International Educator


In the more than 20 years since the fall of Europe's communist regimes, much has changed in higher education in Eastern and Central Europe.

WHEN LIVIU MATEI ENROLLED IN UNIVERSITY in his native Romania in 1985, he wanted to study psychology. But the subject was considered dangerous and had been banned by the communist government. Just four years later, communism collapsed throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and Matei, who had resorted to studying philosophy, was among a group of young academics who created a new psychology department at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca.

Fast forward 23 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and subjects like psychology are freely taught, and Matei has gone on to serve as chief operating officer and professor of public policy at Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary. It's a U.S.-style university established in 1991 expressly "to promote open society and democracy!'

Along with this openness has come internationalization. A number of Western-style universities have sprung up in the region, whiie public institutions strive to draw international students from throughout the world.

That push to internationalization is designed in part to create a "more aware and open people, and hopefully will lead to a peaceful place," says Nina Lemmens, director of internationalization and communication at the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which works to attract foreign students and faculty to universities throughout Germany, including the portion that once stood in then-East Germany.

It's a far different era from when ideology separated East from West.

Before the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, the international students at universities in Central and Eastern Europe primarily came from traditional Communist allies in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. And the system and teaching style were quite different from that found at U.S. colleges and universities.

Ivan Manev, a Bulgarian native who now is dean and professor of management at the University of Maine in Orono and a member of the board of trustees at the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG), started his undergraduate studies in 1982, He studied international economics at what was then known as the Institute of Economics at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in Sofia.

Students were on a set path. Once they selected their major there was no deviation, and no elective classes. Manev, who was good at math and statistics, would have only been able to study those subjects, which were outside his immediate discipline, on his own time and he was already going to class 43 hours a week.

The first couple of years were "esoterical and theoreticair and Manev expected courses would become more practical. However, with time, "I pretty much realized, this was it."

He taught himself about what was happening in the world by reading publications such as The Financial Times, The Economist, and The Wall Street Journal at the university Ebrary. "Fortunately I had access to what was happening in real time," he recalls.

"Through that reading, he saw he had major shortcomings in his education on topics such as finance and management. "They were pretty wide gaps. I could figure out 1 didn't know much."

When it came time to graduate, Manev didn't pick up his diploma. "That was a statement, a way to protest."

After graduating in 1987 he worked in Bulgaria, but was trying to get to the United States to study further. Once the Iron Curtain fell, U.S. universities were interested in bringing in students from Central and Eastern Europe, and he wound up at University of Minnesota-Duluth for his MBA, before getting his PhD at Boston College.

His introduction to U.S.-style higher education was something of a shock. Within a few days of his arrival at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, he'd had lengthy talks with the dean and associate dean. It was a sharp contrast to his time in Bulgaria, where he recalls trying to get approval from the dean to bring a group of students to an international trade fair, and she scolded him for bothering her. …

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