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Viktor Vakhshtayn, Shaninka’s social sciences dean and sociology department head

‘This whole farce would make a decent hands-on course of its own’ Shaninka’s social sciences dean discusses the school’s loss of Russian accreditation

Source: Meduza
Viktor Vakhshtayn, Shaninka’s social sciences dean and sociology department head
Viktor Vakhshtayn, Shaninka’s social sciences dean and sociology department head
Alexander Utkin for Meduza

On June 21, Russia’s Federal Education and Science Supervision Agency (Rosobrnadzor) announced that it has revoked the state accreditation of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, better known as “Shaninka,” after a planned inspection uncovered “multiple violations of education standards.” The school itself says the regulator’s decision has nothing to do with the quality of its instruction. Meduza special correspondent Taisiya Bekbulatova spoke to Viktor Vakhshtayn, Shaninka’s social sciences dean and sociology department head, about the reasons for Rosobrnadzor’s decision and what it means for the school’s future.

How is it even possible that inspectors could have found so many violations at a college leading in so many educational rankings?

Well let’s look at some of the “violations.” For example, one of the offenses listed is that I take my students outside the confines of Moscow for field work. These students are empirical sociologists.

The inspectors also said the school lacks laboratory workshops for instruction in political history and legal studies. I think this whole farce with the school’s accreditation would make a decent hands-on course of its own — a lesson in the contemporary history of political thought.

I’ll keep quiet about the rest of the remarks in the report. Not one of them has anything to do with [Shaninka’s] quality of education.

How would you describe the inspectors’ report generally?

It’s a bureaucratic attempt to imitate an impartial assessment of [our] quality of education.

Did anything change radically at Shaninka before this inspection? After all, the school passed its previous reviews just fine.

There haven’t been any major changes since the last inspections. The Moscow School of Science and Economic Sciences underwent a periodic and institutional review conducted by the University of Manchester in May 2017.

Rosobrnadzor says the head of Shaninka’s sociology department fails to meet professional qualifications. Is that about you?

Yes, it seems. Apparently it’s irrelevant that I’ve been one of the top-100 quoted sociologists in recent years, according to the Russian Science Citation Index’s Hirsch numbers, or that I’ve served as dean for 10 years.

So your qualifications were never an issue in past inspections?

That’s about the size of it. The same goes for other observations in the report. But I’m more offended on behalf of my colleagues. [Law school dean] Dmitry Dozhdev, a leading expert in civil law who’s won a ton of cases in English courts and is basically a living legend in the field, can no longer serve as director, it turns out, because his formal education was in history.

Did they tell you what their problems are with you as dean?

Of course not. Nobody stuck around to explain anything. [In a post on social media, Vakhshtayn said Rosobrnadzor’s staff hurried their inspection and left early on Day Three, “guiltily averting their eyes,” even though standard inspections are supposed to take between three and five days. The inspectors reportedly told Shaninka faculty, “Now nothing depends on us.”]

What was the actual inspection like?

It was like any inspection. They went through our records, and talked to teachers and students. The faculty filled out forms, and the students described their studies. And, separately, they administered a written exam. There were different tests in the various courses we offer. The students took the exam questions and filled out their blue books. That’s how it was in my department.

Apparently, the inspectors didn’t believe that our students could have written the responses they did, and they asked us to hold another exam in controlled laboratory conditions. But, as you can see, none of that appears in the inspection report.

This was to test students’ knowledge of their fields?

Yes. Rosobrnadzor’s experts have the right to ask this, and we’re always happy to grant these requests, as our students write some very strong papers. We operate according to the British model, which means students produce a research paper for each course. Nobody could get to the bottom of the students’ test results, but they got to the bottom of empirical sociologists leaving the city limits for research seminars and field work.

How many experts were on the inspection commission?

One for each department, if I’m not mistaken. These people are teachers from regional colleges, recruited by Rosobrnadzor as experts.

Were you present during the inspection?

For part of it. I spoke to one of the experts. I filled out a questionnaire (yes, the faculty also had to fill out the inspectors’ forms). While that was happening, I was talking to students and some of my colleagues. But on days when I’m at my office, there are still times when I step away to give lectures or attend meetings that have nothing to do with these inspections.

At what moment did it become clear that there would be problems?

The whole thing was suspicious almost from the very start. The inspectors were really going at it. They sat there, digging through an enormous pile of papers. The documents from my department didn’t fit in my office, and they had to lay everything out in piles in the school president’s office. And then they suddenly walked out and left. And of course there were some behind-the-scenes conversations, including some with the experts themselves.

And they were only on campus for two days?

Yes, only two full days. This was in late May. On the third day, they were called upstairs right away, and then they left. Technically, they could have continued their work at Rosobrnadzor, without being physically present at the school, but it’s pretty weird that they left.

An obvious question in all this: Why did this happen?

Nobody knows. The only certain thing is that our quality of education wasn’t the reason for revoking our accreditation.

If this wasn’t Rosobrnadzor’s decision, then who's behind it?

I have no idea.

How much could this be tied to Russia’s strained relations with Great Britain, which already led the British Council to end its work in Russia?

Right now, we’re all just groping in the dark. And that’s just one possible explanation. Personally, I suspect it could be one of the factors, but it’s hardly the main reason.

Do you believe the rumors that this could be tied to alleged concerns from the Federal Security Service?

Right now, I don’t have any reason to believe that, but I’ll follow the developments closely.

You wrote that you think the situation will unfold like it did for the European University in St. Petersburg, which lost its education license. Why?

I’m not sure. I’m just speculating. The whole story is just too similar — and not just between the European University and Shaninka, but between both the scenarios we’re witnessing. We’re the last two European universities left in Russia.

In terms of real consequences, how does this decision affect Shaninka? Separately, how will it affect the students?

It will be tough on applications this year, but it won’t be that bad. The students who come to Shaninka don’t come for state-recognized diplomas. In terms of recruitment, the departments that will be hit hardest will be those without joint Master’s degree programs with the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration [RANKhiGS]. But again — Shaninka didn’t have Russian state accreditation for a big chunk of its history, and we managed just fine without it.

Is it clear yet what the school will do in this new situation?

The school will do what a school should do: teach students, train them to write good dissertations, and help them with subsequent academic and professional careers.

What partner institutions are willing to help you issue Russian diplomas?

This question is better put to our rector, but in a week and not right now. That said, we have joint programs with RANKhiGS. In my department, a lot of the students receive three diplomas simultaneously: one from Shaninka, one from the University of Manchester, and one from the Presidential Academy. All our students will get diplomas.

What’s the mood on campus right now?

Yesterday, my assistant, who handles the department’s academic schedule, came into the library, where the sociologists usually occupy one corner, and she said: “I’ll warn everyone immediately that the Russian federal government’s idiocy is not an acceptable excuse for moving the term paper deadline for the course on Action Theory.” As usual, the students expressed the same attitude, albeit more bluntly, on Facebook.

Honestly, whatever the motives of the people who decided to send us the message that we “don’t belong here,” they achieved exactly the opposite. I’ve spent almost half my life affiliated with Shaninka, but I’ve never seen such incredible solidarity among students, professors, and alumni as in the past day.

How seriously are you considering emigration, which you mentioned in your Vkontakte post?

We saw yesterday — in the reactions from students, colleagues, alumni, and even new applicants — that we belong here. And as long as we can walk into a classroom and teach, read, and write together with our students, our place will remain here.

Personally, I'd planned to go on sabbatical this year, for my health and to finish writing a book on urban studies. But now … no. We’re staying.

Interview by Taisiya Bekbulatova, translation by Kevin Rothrock

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