September 27, 2023 - January 31, 2023 Symposium
Universität Wien

Workshop (Re)Thinking the University from, in, and beyond (Post-)Socialist Europe

During the workshop, we plan to critically assess the concept and practice of “the university” in the (post-)socialist scientific systems of Central, Eastern, and Southeast Europe (CESEE). We believe that this focus connects two research areas: on the one hand, it broadens feminist and decolonial perspectives on academic knowledge production, thus helping to expand the historical epistemology of the university in 20th and 21st-century Europe, on the other.

Historically, universities are complex conglomerates of (built) structures, social interaction, and distinction, places of specific material, bodily, and intellectual practices. They have become key places of truth, expertise, and authority in all aspects of learning, both in research and education. As pillars of epistemic order but also epistemological laboratories and sites of revolution, universities (and their members) have they navigated between strengthening and opposing state and imperial powers. In the context of recent discussions about the role of science in democratic societies as well as neoliberal approaches to and populist interventions in higher education, it seems that the ambivalences of the university persist.

The workshop focuses on the history of universities in (post-)socialist Europe. Following the October Revolution of 1917, the academic system was restructured in the newly established Soviet Union. After 1945, universities in the new socialist states had to comply with the principles of Soviet hegemony. Applied research was perceived as the pinnacle of academic knowledge production in the socialist societies of Europe. Universities were conceived of as efficient and highly exclusive places. They were supposed to serve the progress of socialism, especially since science was declared a “productive force” during the 1960s. At the same time, there was the ambition to design egalitarian and hence more diverse knowledge spaces — at least at the intersection of gender and class. In practice, however, universities often continued to perpetuate social inequalities — not only inside the institutions themselves, but also within the asymmetrical power relations of imperial structures.

Apart from reproducing political order, universities were also platforms for counter thought. They were home to reform movements (such as the Praxis School in Zagreb/Belgrade) and hubs for emerging transnational (academic) feminist networks, in and beyond former Yugoslavia, for example. Such semi-secret parallel academic structures developed especially where university politics were particularly restrictive and reactionary. These initiatives were of great significance during the revolutionary upheavals of the 1980s (e.g. the Flying Universities in Poland), and became a decisive oppositional force in many parts of socialist Europe. At the same time, these parallel structures paved the way for the post-1989 academic awakening — away from a limited corpus of politically driven science toward a new freedom of research, at least temporarily.

However, the post-socialist transformation of academia was influenced by the wide-ranging sociopolitical and economic challenges of the 1990s. While strong traditionalist groups prevailed, preserving socialist thought and controlling academic practice, reform movements were forced to adapt their position to new economic and discursive conditions. University employees were confronted with inflation and privatization, many were forced to flee from war and nationalist regimes, some regrouped abroad. At the same time, neo-liberal models were adopted, which fundamentally influenced academic labor markets. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) was a special case in many ways. Here, some academic institutions completely ceased to exist and others were transformed according to West German models, which also resulted in large-scale replacement of former academic staff.

To this day, the relationship between “Eastern and Western European” universities is characterized by structural inequality. This applies as much to financial resources as to a perceived epistemological inferiority of academic institutions in CESEE. Yet, so far, post-socialist Europe has been a blind spot in postcolonial critiques of university knowledge production. Drawing on the recent debate on decolonizing universities and decolonizing ‘Eastern Europe,’ our workshop tackles the utopia and practice of the university from, in, and beyond (post-)socialist Europe.