By William Yoder, A Personal Opinion
The educational flagship of North American mainstream evangelicalism in Russia had landed on a sandbar and may be stranding. The heady dream of a Christian liberal-arts university initially proposed by Soviet-Russian educators visiting the US in 1990 is taking a serious beating.
After a meeting of the Board of Trustees in Chicago, Moscow’s “Russian-American Institute” (RAI) announced on November 19, 2010, that it will be dropping its undergraduate (there is no graduate) studies program. RAI is describing the change as a “refocusing” and “restructuring”, yet only an English-language program as well as several courses in counseling, social work and ethics will initially remain. Stress will now be placed on non-degree, short-term evening courses.
In a public statement on December 15, 2010, RAI-Vice President Vladimir Obrovets asked the school’s local friends to propose courses that would be of particular interest and help to believers – RAI remains committed to serving Russia’s Christian community. Peter Smirnov, the institute’s Director of Student Development, pointed out that courses will now need to be funded almost strictly by their participants: “Students will value that which they will be required to pay.”
The school year had begun with 80 students in September – down from 160 two years previously. Only the dozen or so graduating before Summer 2011 will be able to continue now and complete their studies at RAI. The institute is helping interested students transfer to a successful sister school: the English-language, 650-student “LCC International University” located on the other side of the political and cultural divide in Klaipeda/Lithuania. Full-time, local staff has been reduced to 10; Dr. David Broersma, the school’s dedicated, long-time Provost, resigned as of December 16, 2010. Most of RAI’s magnificent new building will be rented out to outside firms. A fitness center has already moved into its expansive, brand-new gymnasium.
RAI-leadership fears government accreditation, which ran out in December 2008, may never be renewed. This makes the institution dramatically less attractive to prospective students. In its statement of November 19, 2010, RAI implied that the demographic downturn has led to private schools competing with public ones for Russia’s few available students – and the government clearly desires preferential treatment for its own. Protestant seminaries are also hit hard by the lack of students.
RAI’s President, Dr. John Bernbaum, stated in a letter: “The key issue are the decisions of the Putin-Medvedev government to protect public universities at the expense of small private schools. They are eliminating tax benefits and making an already uneven playing field even more lopsided. The changing of requirements by the Russian Ministry of Education makes a legal re-accreditation of small institutes impossible.”
Yet Russia’s three other Protestant institutions aspiring to be liberal arts universities soldier on. None of them enjoy government accreditation; 20-year-old “St. Petersburg Christian University “is accredited internationally by the “University of Wales”. Krasnodar’s “Kuban Evangelical Christian University”, which was founded in 1992, claims 550 students – the majority of them in extension programs. “Zaoksky Adventist University” in Tula region south of Moscow is known for its expansive campus and well-structured program.
Unnamed sources report that RAI is also burdened with heavy North American debt. At its dedication on 27 May 2010, RAI’s imposing glass-and-brick center at 40 Menzhinskogo Street in north-central Moscow was called the most beautiful and representative structure in all of Russian Protestantism.
RAI-leadership refuses to disclose actual costs, but one source cites a cost overrun of 460% accrued during the nine-year-long construction period. The cost explosion was due perhaps most of all to location: Moscow is one of the world’s most expensive cities. RAI weathered at least 15 street demonstrations at its construction site, a barrage of negative reports in the media and bureaucratic hurdles during the years of construction.
Will it also weather North American debt? Fundraiser par excellence John Bernbaum states unequivocally: “Construction debt was not a major factor in the decision to suspend the undergraduate program.”
In view of RAI’s long-term struggles, critical voices remain. Though often lambasted by Russian media as a “Baptist” institution, a number of its leading spokespersons, like President Bernbaum, are in fact Reformed. Indeed, RAI might be in better shape if it actually were Baptist. Though approving of the actual goal, one long-time observer calls it a mistake for RAI to attempt to relate equally to all of Russia’s Christian denominations. These include dissident Orthodox and the very-official Moscow Patriarchate. “In a sadly-divided and highly-stratified religious setting, one is forced to choose sides. One cannot be allied with both Charismatics and the Orthodox.”
“RAI is a victim of improper strategies,” a Baptist leader claims. “They should have identified themselves clearly as Protestant. If they would be unabashedly Protestant, then local Protestant support would be stronger. It was also a big mistake to drop ‘Christian’ from its name.”
Until 2009, the institution had been known as “Russian-American Christian University” – or “Institute” in Russian. An unrepentant John Bernbaum assures: “We will continue to work with all Christians who are followers of Jesus Christ.”
RAI does not have a close working relationship with other Russian Christian universities and is presently somewhat alone in its struggle. Indeed, the institute is accused of being much more American than Russian. Its President admits that the demise of the undergraduate program was also caused by “a lack of support for quality Christian higher education by Russians themselves. Russia-based support is and has been minimal and, in a global recession, American support cannot sustain itself without a corresponding match by Russians.”
A Russian Baptist journalist explained: “We have no tradition of liberal arts Christian education. It is not clear to students why they should study business in a Christian setting if they can get higher-quality instruction in a government institution.” He added: “Partnership with RAI (founded in 1995) has not yet happened. Their dream is so grand, far bigger than our own resources and capabilities.” The matter can be brought into perspective by citing the fact that continental Western Europe also has virtually no liberal-arts based Protestant universities.
RAI is one of 70 foreign learning institutions in 24 countries affiliated with the Washington D.C.-based “Council for Christian Colleges and Universities” (CCCU). The same connection is true for a semester-long Russian studies program for North American students which has been operating at “Nizhny Novgorod State University” 440 kilometers (273 miles) east of Moscow.
The sadness of the hour is compounded by the total shut-down of this second CCCU project in December 2010. Though the dearth of student applications is given as the reason, 600 North Americans have participated in this program since 1994. Countless positive relationships between Russians and young North American believers resulted – even marriages. Program founder, Slavic Studies specialist and Kansas native Harley Wagler will continue on in Nizhny Novgorod for an interim period as part-time lecturer at the host university.
Dr. William Yoder is a US-born American from Germany who lives in Belarus and works in Moscow, Russia. He grew up in the Mennonite church in Sarasota, Florida, but has spent most of his time since 1971 in Germany, largely in Berlin. He graduated from Eastern Mennonite College in 1973 and received a Ph.D. in political science from the Free University of Berlin (West) in 1991. His dissertation was on the role of the Evangelical Church in East Germany between 1945 and 1961. After a stint with the Lutherans in Russia’s Kaliningrad/Königsberg enclave, Yoder has been active since late 2006 as media spokesperson for the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists and the Russian Evangelical Alliance in Moscow. One of his primary activities involves the composition of press releases in English and German. He is married to Galina, who hails from Barnaul in Siberia. He can be contacted by e-mail at: kant50@web.