“I Could No Longer Justify Working for a Russian University” – An Interview with Dr. Daniel Kontowski, the New Head of Social Sciences

Interview by Zofia Majchrzak

Collage by Amal

Dr. Daniel Kontowski, a researcher of liberal arts education and previously Associate Director for Education in the School of Advanced Studies, University of Tyumen in Siberia is the new Head of Social Sciences at AUC. In the beginning of April 2022, he replaced Julia Hoffmann, who had left AUC to take on a managerial position at the UvA Institute for Advanced Study. 

We meet on a Monday morning in the AB to discuss Kontowski’s plans for post-covid teaching, his decision to quit work in Russia, and impressions of the first month at AUC.

Despite the early hour, Kontowski is full of energy and talks enthusiastically about the challenges ahead. From his office we move to the cafeteria downstairs. Surely his commitment to dialogue with students should not be doubted. It would end up being an almost two hour talk. 

We are just coming out of the pandemic. What is it like to take on the role of Head of Social Sciences at such a unique moment?

When my predecessor (Dr. Julia Hoffmann, ed.) started early on in the pandemic, it was surely much more difficult than it is now. Coming from outside the bubble, I felt immediately welcomed and seen by the community. Of course, it’s not clear whether the pandemic is now over for good. But there surely is a sense of optimism among the faculty and students. I think people are ready to close that chapter and move onto a new one.

What do you think this new chapter should look like?

It is an open question whether it should be a carbon copy of what AUC was doing before the pandemic. We have to ask ourselves once again what it means to offer higher education now and what it means to offer an effective Liberal Arts and Sciences Program. We have to question our attitude towards learning in general and digital learning in particular. It is an interesting moment because the pandemic has forced everyone to adapt and innovate. Going back to what it used to be will not be so easy and I suppose there will definitely be some adaptations.

Yet, we are seeing steps being taken to return to the way AUC functioned before Covid-19. One example is the reintroduction of the attendance policy that was just announced.

I’m in favor of the attendance policy. I believe it is necessary for establishing a community. That community goes out the window if you cannot count on others to show up. 

It seems that at AUC everyone has ideas, but we rarely share them. I’m going to hang a whiteboard above my desk where I will start drawing these ideas, invite everyone to draw on it and bring things to my attention. 

In an article from June 2020, you wrote “Not all universities will survive the COVID-19 crisis. Now, universities have come to the point when they cannot but innovate. To succeed without betraying their values, they need new solutions”. What innovations did you have in mind? 

In that article me and my co-author argued that the pandemic is changing the rules of the game. The levels of overall student and faculty satisfaction are decreasing. Many factors need to be taken into account, not just the general rise in student numbers. When was the last time we did something that everyone thought was cool? Our response has been a call to experiment: to test bold ideas, check the results, implement them or move on.

Before coming to AUC, you were working in the School of Advanced Studies at University of Tyumen, Russia. Can you talk about your decision to quit?

A few days before the Russian invasion on Ukraine, I was watching an address delivered by the president of Russia. At that time, I understood Russian enough to realise that we were in serious trouble. When war broke out, it became clear to me that I could no longer justify working for a Russian university. It was the only right choice for me. I realise that some people may see it differently. That is also why I posted a statement on LinkedIn explaining my reasons in detail.

There is also a broader question about the attitude of Western academia towards its Russian counterpart. But my own decision was fairly simple. I didn’t feel I could provide a liberal arts education in a meaningful sense of the word if I couldn’t talk to students about this war. 

That must’ve been a difficult end to your work in Russia, but why did you choose it in the first place? The city of Tyumen is located in Siberia. It doesn’t seem like an obvious place for someone interested in Liberal Arts and sciences education. 

It wasn’t what I expected, that’s for sure. I first heard about the programme in the summer of 2019, which I spent in Moscow. I visited Tyumen and met with the founding director of SAS. I was excited and had lots of questions. In August of the same year, I defended my PhD. The very next week I started working as head of the education department. Was that brave or foolish? Probably both.  

What was it like to work there?

Honestly, it felt like a start-up. The more difficult my work was, the more rewarding it felt. The decisions I made had a direct impact on the students and lecturers. You get a lot of feedback in that kind of environment. So far this is what I miss most at AUC. I don’t talk to students as often as I would like to, whereas at SAS this has become an important part of my work in latter years. 

How would you like to build this relationship with students at AUC?

Firstly, there must be a mutual desire for closer contact. Because of the pandemic, we have all withdrawn a little and become unaccustomed to such interaction. If communication is based on filling in forms, not much will change. I think informal channels have an important role to play in this. Last week I met with students and I’m very keen to continue doing this. Very quickly the conversation turned to specific issues and questions. Of course, this is just the beginning.

If so, what’s next?

I heard that there used to be a tradition of student focus groups run by the Student Council. It might be worth reviving. There definitely is space for research projects done by students about the AUC community as well. It seems that at AUC everyone has ideas, but we rarely share them. I’m going to hang a whiteboard above my desk where I will start drawing these ideas, invite everyone to draw on it and bring things to my attention. 

Your own research has explored the manifestations of liberal arts and science education in today’s Europe. How might your academic experience translate into your work as a Head of Social Sciences at AUC?

I like to think of the liberal arts as an invitation to a conversation about what we believe in and how we can reflect those values in our educational programmes. There’s space for thinking about this, even in a predominantly administrative position. What drives you is the most important question. Are you just concerned with keeping Excel tables, or do you have some larger vision?  I think the Social Sciences at AUC can benefit from discussing our values, but also from taking a look around us. I look forward to having these conversations with the team and our partner faculty.

How have you experienced your first month working at AUC? Could you say a few words about what your workday is like at the moment?

Meetings! I’m here at the building pretty much every day and I try to talk to basically anyone who is willing to sit down with me. The second thing that comes to mind are documents; after all, I am 13 years behind. And yes, that includes all The Herring articles ever published [laughs]. 

This is a good opportunity to remind everyone of the responsibilities of the head of Social Sciences. Can you outline what your role at AUC will be?

I like to think about it in terms of three different dimensions. First one is operations. That means making sure that there are classes offered in the Social Sciences, that there are people registered for those classes, and faculty members teaching them. I check whether students are receiving grades on time and if the faculty is reflecting on their courses. Many students will discover my existence when they submit a request for study abroad or a prerequisite exception. Position wise, I’m somewhere in between the management team and the core faculty members, and to some extent the students. That is my way of saying there are many people who can potentially be upset with me [laughs]. 

What is the second dimension?

It is the relationships part. Both inside and outside of the bubble. Many people have been working here for more than a decade. So, there are many hidden patterns and ways of getting things done with the help of others. It’s also about building multiyear partnerships with the departments at the VU and UvA. This is something that the social science department is working on and can certainly improve. However, it should not be a one-sided initiative.

And the third?

For lack of a better term, I’ve been calling this part “development”. With my team, other heads of studies, the management team and the students I’ll be thinking about what we want to become in the future. 

Do we think this curriculum is still up to date, is it attractive for students? How do we want to get our message across to the prospective students and beyond? What does the ‘science focus’ mean for students who major in social sciences?

During a meeting with students last week, someone asked you about the changes you intend to make in the Social Sciences. You laughed and asked if the question is motivated by our need for a change or fear of some kind of revolution. If your priority is to firstly get to know the needs of students and lecturers, then what have you learned so far?

It’s never as clear-cut as that, I am afraid, but I think asking good questions already gets us somewhere. For example, in the past AUC recruited 50 percent social sciences majors but next year they are expected to make up 30 percent of all new admissions. If so, should we continue to offer the same number of courses or find a way to make more of them attractive to students from other majors? Not just as a way to fulfil a requirement but simply because it’s cool. 

Another example is the professional identity of an AUC lecturer. Does it mean you no longer do research and you just have to accept that? Or do we think that by reducing incentives for doing research, we will eventually arrive at a fossilised curriculum that eventually will not serve the students well.

Why would that be the case?

We would be disconnecting students from people who are thinking as researchers. And then we might run the risk of becoming a glamor version of high school. Or maybe the opposite will happen, AUC will become the most attractive place for people who truly think innovative pedagogy is their calling.

It looks like there is still a lot of work ahead of us…

These are just some of the many questions that we must somehow resolve. I do not yet know how best to tackle them. In my defense, I will say that I only started last month.

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