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28 years and done The head of Russia’s top-ranked university is stepping down after more than a quarter of a century on the job

Source: Meduza
Sergey Savostyanov / TASS

Yaroslav Kuzminov, the longtime head of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics (HSE), has resigned, the news outlet RBC reported on Thursday. Sources told the news agency TASS that Kuzminov planned for some time to step down and recently informed the school’s academic council about his decision, saying that he wants to focus on his own research. After nearly three decades on the job, Kuzminov leaves behind a legacy tainted by political controversy in recent years. Meduza breaks down how one of Russia’s most prominent scholars ended his role at the nation’s top-ranked university.

HSE has officially confirmed Kuzminov’s exit as rector, though he will remain a part of the faculty as the school’s academic director, replacing 87-year-old Evgeny Yasin, a former economic minister who is leaving for health reasons. The federal government’s cabinet will soon select a new HSE rector. 

An unnamed acquaintance told the independent television network Dozhd that exhaustion with the government drove Kuzminov to resign. According to the source, Kuzminov “fought hard for his students and professors over the years but decided that continuing the trend would cost him his reputation.”

In a letter to his colleagues, Kuzminov later explained that he “doesn’t wish to grow old as rector.” “I’ve never experienced satisfaction, let alone pleasure, from administrative work. I’ve done it because it was my duty and my responsibility to the university,” he said.

Yaroslav Kuzminov helped found the Higher School of Economics, which he led for 28 years. In the early 1990s, when he was still a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Economics Institute, Kuzminov and Evgeny Yasin started lobbying the federal government to create a new type of university to offer master’s degrees in economics. HSE later expanded beyond this field, adding several more departments and becoming one of Russia’s biggest institutions of higher learning. In this year’s Forbes Russia ratings, HSE is the country’s top-ranked university.

When Kuzminov became HSE’s rector in November 1992, he was then the youngest person in Russian history to oversee a federal university. In 2014, the federal government’s cabinet (led by the prime minister) became directly responsible for appointing HSE’s rector. In 2019, then Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev reappointed Kuzminov to a new five-year term. By then, he was one of Russia’s longest-serving university administrators, junior only to Moscow State University Rector Viktor Sadovnichy (in office since March 1992) and MGIMO Rector Anatoly Torkunov (since October 1992).

In December 2019, HSE controversially stripped the school journal Doxa of its status as a student organization, arguing that its reporting and activism related to Moscow’s summer protests damaged the university’s reputation.

When police opened a felony case against four Doxa employees in 2021, HSE administrators said they would do everything necessary to ensure that Alla Gutnikova, one of the arrested suspects and a current fourth-year student at the university, could complete her undergraduate studies. “We proceed from the presumption of innocence and await the court’s decision,” said the school’s spokespeople. After more than 250 scholars from around the world, including several HSE faculty members, signed petitions demanding the Doxa journalists’ release, the school’s administration expressed “understanding that some of our colleagues wish to support our students and alumni.”

In recent years, the Higher School of Economics has battled oppositionist sentiment among students and faculty. In January 2020, HSE banned students and teachers from mentioning their affiliation with the university when discussing political issues publicly and whenever participating in “socially divisive” activities. That same year, mere hours after admitting him to a graduate program in art and design, HSE expelled Egor Zhukov, a popular blogger sentenced to three years’ probation for his support of Moscow’s 2019 summer protests. Zhukov says a member of the university’s admissions board confessed to him that his expulsion was “ordered from above.”

In the summer of 2020, citing a “reorganization” of the university, HSE declined to extend several faculty members’ contracts. Before he lost his position in this shakeup, Viktor Gorbatov told Doxa that school administrators had a list of “unreliable” staff whom they planned to fire. (Spokespeople for the Higher School of Economics denied the existence of any “blacklists.”) After HSE’s faculty changes, former employees founded Free University, an independent institution that offers online classes.

In February 2021, HSE terminated its contract with Anna Vellikok, whom the computer science department had invited to serve as a visiting lecturer. The decision followed a court order to jail Vellikok for retweeting a message about protests in support of imprisoned opposition politician Alexey Navalny. Spokespeople for the university said Vellikok’s arrest prevented her from delivering four lectures in the short course she was hired to teach. One hundred university employees subsequently signed an open letter addressed to Rector Kuzminov, urging him to renew Vellikok’s contract and accusing the school of political discrimination. Kuzminov did not budge, however, and denied all allegations of political persecution and labor rights violations.

Story by Alexander Baklanov

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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