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Volume 11, No. 4—July/August 2001  
Table of contents for this issue  

Gender Trouble
Who's afraid of gender studies in eastern Europe?
by Laura Secor


Location: downtown Budapest, a short walk from the Danube in a city whose architecture is rivaled only by its food. Employer: Central European University (CEU), founded by the financier, visionary, and philanthropist George Soros to foster open academic inquiry in the formerly communist world. Colleagues: a distinguished interdisciplinary faculty from all over the world, supplemented by high-profile visiting lecturers—among them Joan Scott, Natalie Zemon Davis, Juliet Mitchell, Peggy Kamuf, and Betty Friedan. Mandate: to shape the future of central and eastern Europe's only graduate program in gender studies.

What scholar of European feminism wouldn't jump at the opportunity?

Susan Zimmermann, a German-born historian, did. Yet by the time she officially assumed the directorship of CEU's Program on Gender and Culture last September, she found herself firmly grasping a hot potato. And not just any hot potato. Judging from the invective pouring in from world-renowned gender scholars—comparing both Zimmermann and the rector who appointed her to Joseph Stalin, threatening action against the university in legal and academic forums, and encouraging students to protest—this was the mother of all hot potatoes on the feminist job circuit.

Why the ruckus? As it turns out, CEU's rector and president, Yehuda Elkana, had unilaterally demoted the program's previous director and fired its only other full-time professor. According to Elkana, these actions were for the long-term good of the program's scholarly profile. But his opponents saw them as a violation of academic freedom and a danger to gender studies in eastern Europe.

Protest movements, boycotts, crackdowns, and threats are common coin in politics. And administrative imbroglios bedevil academia. The combination, Elkana was to discover, can be toxic—even at CEU, which has long located itself at the intersection of politics and academe. Founded in 1991 in cooperation with Václav Havel and the then president of Hungary, Árpád Göncz, CEU normally encapsulates the best of both worlds—the electricity of an activist project, the permanence and gravitas of an institution of higher learning. Its 829 students come from forty countries to study with top scholars on CEU's immaculately restored Budapest campus; its faculty members are paid more than five times Hungary's going rate, but they don't have tenure. It's the perfect expression of Soros's philanthropic vision: generous funding, inspired content, and maximum flexibility. The Hungarian-born billionaire pumps an estimated $350 to $400 million a year into the region of his birth, and of all his projects CEU is undoubtedly the one with the greatest potential longevity. Who would choose to look that gift horse in the mouth?

Meet Joan Scott, the distinguished historian of France from Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, author of Gender and the Politics of History, and one of the most respected names in the American academy. As a visiting scholar at CEU, Scott was dismayed by her experience on the search committee that appointed Zimmermann director of gender studies. The conduct of that search, combined with the rector's treatment of the program's previous director and its full-time historian, spurred Scott to resign in protest. She also initiated an aggressive and well-organized e-mail letter-writing campaign. Yehuda Elkana, Scott insisted, did not have the right to wrest CEU's gender studies program from leading specialists in the field.

"Soros's utopian vision is entirely laudable," Scott reflects a year later. "He opened a space in CEU where exchanges of the most extraordinary kind can happen." But Elkana's "autocratic" leadership style, she protests, flies in the face of the university's professed goal of exporting the experience of a democratic, "open" society to the formerly repressive countries of central Europe. Chartered in New York but housed in Budapest and Warsaw, CEU is subject neither to American academic conventions nor to those of Hungary's state institutions. As a result, says Scott, "it's an enormously unstable place. People can be fired on a moment's notice with no recourse." Miglena Nikolchina, the Bulgarian poet and Julia Kristeva scholar whom Elkana removed as program director, puts a finer point on this complaint: "You get the same sort of instability in commissar structures. Anybody at any time can be thrown out behind the curtain."

YEHUDA ELKANA is a charismatic and idiosyncratic leader, impatient with checks and balances, firm in his convictions, and quick on his feet. "The force of his personality is huge," one former colleague remarks. "He's a double of Soros—a big guy who talks fast. Five minutes with him is a long time." A Yugoslav Jew who survived Auschwitz as a boy, Elkana spent most of his life in Israel, where he studied physics, mathematics, and the history of science. He became a public figure in Israel's intellectual world as the head of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute; he also directed the Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas at Tel Aviv University.

When he became president and rector in 1999, Elkana hit CEU like a cyclone. He presented the university's trustees with a plan for the "reorganization" of several programs and departments, and he lost no time in executing it, starting with economics and history. He then moved on to the department of environmental sciences. "I simply decided that three professors supervising seventy master's theses is charlatanry," he recalled when I met with him in November. He hired two new professors and halved the department's student population. Some students and faculty protested that Elkana acted alone, consulting experts only informally and neglecting to convene the necessary committees. But whereas the changes to the environmental sciences department outlasted the protests, tampering with gender studies would prove much thornier.

Miglena Nikolchina had been running the Program on Gender and Culture for a year when Elkana became CEU's rector. Her scholarship earned accolades within CEU and internationally. Scott describes Nikolchina's Meaning and Matricide: Reading Woolf via Kristeva (University of Sofia Press, 1997) as "dazzling...the best piece of feminist literary criticism I'd seen in years." As director, says Nikolchina, she aimed to build an international community of feminist scholars around her program and to accord theoretical concerns their "proper place." After all, she explains, "central and southeastern Europe have a strong theoretical tradition. It's a part of the world where theory was always an important thing, and from the beginning it was important in gender studies." Within a year and a half, CEU's program had earned its place along the field's cutting edge.

Implementing that vision for the program was not always easy, however. Founded in 1995, the Program on Gender and Culture could grant M.A.'s but not Ph.D.'s, and it was required to make its appointments jointly with other departments or else to hire lecturers on short-term contracts. Nikolchina opted for the latter. Her short-term faculty consisted of a mix of social scientists and theorists, including the Serbian philosopher Branka Arsic, whom Judith Butler has hailed as "arguably the most important Eastern European feminist philosopher to emerge since Julia Kristeva." Butler herself, along with Scott, was among the high-profile Western feminist scholars Nikolchina scheduled for brief visits. The program's students wrote theses on such topics as the self-immolation of Tajik women, domestic violence in Slovakia, and the rhetoric of the Ukrainian women's movement, as well as on literary works by D.H. Lawrence, Fay Weldon, and A.S. Byatt, among others. The number of student applicants to the program increased by about a hundred each year during Nikolchina's directorship. And Nikolchina did make one long-term appointment to her faculty: Andrea Petö had taught in CEU's history department for seven years before Nikolchina offered her an indefinite contract in gender studies in 1999.

Nikolchina had loyal supporters among her faculty. But not everyone was happy. One professor complains that she "rejected the social sciences, ignored them, because she didn't feel competent in social science." (Nikolchina objects that the program actually offered most of its courses in social sciences and history and included only one literary scholar besides herself.) Says another, "She was really influenced by some people and ignored some others. She could not separate her personal relationships from the professional."

Elkana, too, had reservations. It did not escape his attention that Nikolchina had run afoul of the previous rector. (According to Nikolchina, the dispute stemmed from that administration's bid to dissolve the program.) Nor was Elkana pleased with Nikolchina's offer to Petö. But Nikolchina recalls that she did not take the rector's disapproval terribly seriously. When Elkana told her that he did not like Petö's scholarship, she says, "I'd think, it's impossible that everybody likes everybody, but it's not his business to fire people."

Elkana says he planned from the outset to turn Gender and Culture into a full department with a research emphasis. But he could not for the life of him understand exactly what the existing program proposed to research. When he asked Nikolchina, he claims, "I couldn't get an answer out of her. Every time I asked, she told me how awfully difficult it is for women in the world. I said, Look, I don't have to be convinced. I used to be considered a feminist all my life. But this is not a research program, I said. Grievances I know. What is the research program?"

In early March 2000, at Elkana's behest, Nikolchina agreed to hold a workshop at which gender studies would be defined and "researchable problems" delineated. As Joan Scott later wrote, "The group listened respectfully to [Elkana's] repeated demands for 'researchable problems' and then proceeded to demonstrate what he refused to see: that Gender Studies as practiced by these women was always already serious, rigorous scholarship however diverse its methods and theories and however informed it was by feminist concerns with equality and fairness." The scholars at the workshop resolved to re-theorize the public/private distinction, the relationship of liberalism to feminism, and the concept of gender. They also called on the program to engage in comparative research on gender-related subjects in different localities.

Still, Elkana was not satisfied. "A research program is, for example, to study scientifically, in economic terms, and to counteract scientifically the arguments many employers make about why they should pay women a lower salary [than men] for the same job," he tells me. "Which is an international scandal of the worst kind. This can be researched, this can be argued, there's lots of work to be done. Just to see them complain about how awful it is is what I call complaints and not a research agenda."

To the assembled gender studies scholars, Elkana's demands seemed insulting and anachronistic. Why didn't he trust experts in gender studies to define their own discipline—and would he treat a male-dominated field with similar high-handedness? Scoffs Andrea Petö, who was perhaps the program's most empirically minded scholar, "And what is objective research at the beginning of the twenty-first century? This is very dubious." Scott concludes: "Miglena and her colleagues are in the process of challenging older forms of knowledge, not producing outcomes that will change policy directly. Elkana perceived that as weak."

AS FAR AS Elkana was concerned, the workshop had confirmed his suspicion that Nikolchina could not or would not build the program that he envisioned. His next step was clear. Within a week, he called Nikolchina to his office and informed her that she would be replaced as director of the program. Later he explained his position in a report to the board of trustees as follows:

[Nikolchina] had a letter of warning from the [former] Rector.... [S]he did not make any appointments to the Program, could not formulate in a coherent fashion the research orientation of the Program, and was not interested in (or capable of) developing the Program in a direction of concentration on gender issues in the Social Sciences and Humanities as a whole.

At first, Elkana recalls, Nikolchina did not protest her demotion; rather, she gave her consent and agreed to participate in the search for her replacement. According to Péter Krasztev, an anthropologist in the program, Nikolchina was relieved: "She said, Oh, okay, so now I don't have my administrative position, I was not for this anyway, I'll get my same contract with the same money, I will teach, that's great. But in two or three weeks, she changed her mind."

Nikolchina explains that her initial nonchalance merely reflected her belief that it would take a full year for Elkana to carry out all the required procedural steps to demote and replace her. "East European universities succeeded in preserving whatever autonomy they had during communism through observing meticulous democratic procedure," Nikolchina would later write. It was unthinkable to her that the letter of these procedures would not be followed.

It was thus with some surprise, says Nikolchina, that she reported to Elkana's office for a meeting in early May 2000, only to find that he had assembled two potential candidates for her position. One of them was Susan Zimmermann, then a professor in CEU's history department. To Nikolchina, the meeting seemed premature: There had been no formal review of her work and no search announced for a new program director. An opening had been advertised, but it was for a senior professor, and the procedure for appointing senior professors differed from that for program directors.

For the senior professorship, Elkana named a search committee that included two external members, Joan Scott and the Slovene anthropologist Svetlana Slapsak. Both Scott and Slapsak recall that the committee proceeded without their input—meetings, they allege, were scheduled for times when Elkana knew they could not attend. But Elkana insists that when the committee's external members missed a meeting, he followed up with e-mails soliciting their opinions. Even so, replies Slapsak, "My opinion was not respected as a whole or in any of the details."

From early on, Scott, Nikolchina, and Slapsak regarded the search with suspicion. They were especially struck by the fact that Zimmermann had submitted the only application that was clearly intended not just for the advertised senior professorship but also for the position of director. Zimmermann was in fact selected as program director on June 6.

Nikolchina was still in charge on June 30, however, when Elkana went ahead and fired Andrea Petö from above. Petö's nine years at CEU ended in an afternoon; she was even disconnected from her e-mail and the university's computer network, where she'd stored much of her work in progress. There had been no formal peer review and no warning, according to Petö. Because Petö has filed suit, university officials will not comment on any aspect of her case. But one colleague speculates that her troubles originated in the history department, where some particularly traditional scholars may have objected to her oral-history-based research. When Petö's last contract with the history department had expired, the department had declined to hire her for an appropriate opening in her field. Elkana may have concluded that Petö was a weak scholar to whom Nikolchina shouldn't have offered a full-time position.

Petö was stunned by Elkana's seemingly unilateral decision. When we meet at a trendy, American-style café on the Pest side of the Danube, she punctuates her conversation with a mirthless, sardonic laughter that eventually turns to tears. "I wrote—because of these unfortunate events, I counted—I wrote more than thirty-seven articles in eight different languages," Petö tells me. "But you know, that was not the point. I was not given the opportunity to have a fair review. Neither was Miglena."

THE QUESTION of peer review and democratic procedure was to become a leitmotif in CEU's gender studies conflict. Elkana's reports to the board of trustees emphasized informal consultations with trusted colleagues; Nikolchina and Petö called for investigations, evaluations, committees, and reviews. At an assembly convened to address the situation, Elkana bluntly told the program's students that a university was not a democracy—a statement that upset many observers, given how they understood CEU's mandate as an arm of Soros's Open Society Institute.

"I believe fundamentally that universities are meritocracies and you should advance people according to their quality," Elkana explains in an interview. "And the university has to have somebody who decides.... I'm ready, in politics, to accept the price for being in a democracy. Not in universities. Yes, you have to get in other people's judgment, you have to listen to many people, you have to weigh the other side. But somebody has to make judgments."

To Scott, the upshot was clear. As she would write in a letter to the program's students, "The sad thing is that a university that was supposed to bring democracy and an 'open society' to the region of East/Central Europe is being run by an autocrat who has only contempt for the principles his university is supposed to teach and represent."

In Scott's view, the situation at CEU crossed a line in early July, when Elkana appointed himself acting director of the program until Zimmermann was to take over in September. Scott resigned from the university and, with Slapsak, from the search committee. In her resignation letter to Elkana, which she also sent to CEU's board of trustees, Scott pulled no punches. "Unfortunately, your administration of this university has been a disaster from the start," she wrote. "[I]t is terrible to me that someone with your own history resorts to measures that are typical of the behavior of self-justifying autocrats."

Given Elkana's wartime experience, the possible implications must have infuriated him. To the trustees he wrote that Scott's letter was "bordering on the unacceptable." Another of Scott's letters he described as "written in a style of almost being obscene." In person, Elkana seems bewildered, even hurt, by Scott's stance. Why, he wants to know, did she and her allies never invite him to explain his actions? "Even pro forma," he says, "they could have phoned and said, Well, how did it look from your side, and let's compare it."

Scott laughs when I tell her this. "Personal phone calls are not how I operate," she says. "The fact that he wanted me to do that suggests the extent to which personalized exchanges substitute for procedural regularities at CEU. Once he violated all the procedures, I didn't think he needed to explain why he did that."

In July, Elkana apologized to the university's grievance committee for disconnecting Petö from the computer system. And he convened the interdisciplinary committee that was supposed to have conducted the internal search for the program director. This committee withdrew Zimmermann's appointment due to procedural irregularities but appointed her acting director, in place of Elkana, until the search could be completed. Nikolchina walked out of that meeting and refused to participate in the continuation of the search—a process that would swiftly conclude with the appointment, once again, of Zimmermann, who was the only applicant.

As September approached, Nikolchina and Scott began circulating letters not only to the university administration and trustees but also to students, urging them to protest. During the department's introductory course presentation at the start of the fall semester, Nikolchina indicated that she might not stay to teach her class. It was news to Zimmermann. When the students asked why, Nikolchina detailed her dispute with the rector. It was a move Zimmermann found galling. "What she did to students was more than unfair," she fumed when I met with her a month later. Elkana wrote in his report, "When Professor Nikolchina abused the course presentation session by involving the students in the stories of her grievances, I wrote her a polite letter asking her to stop this, to which she replied in a letter distributed by her to all the students with the usual inaccuracies and false accusations." Perhaps that was the letter one of her colleagues passed on to me, wincing at Nikolchina's inclusion of the following paragraph:

But there is also the unforgettable story, the comedy of a small parochial, very limited...satrapy implanted by a dilettante, self-designated philosopher-king, an anachronistic encyclopedia survivor who wants to implement amidst the dramas of transitional Central and Eastern Europe his eighteenth-century vision of Grand Knowledge.

No love was lost between Nikolchina and Elkana when she announced her resignation on September 29. She compressed her course into a month's time and returned to the University of Sofia, where she is today. "I got an Andrew Mellon Fellowship at the Vienna Institute for Human Sciences and a ten-month fellowship at Princeton," she tells me via e-mail half a year later. "Personally I gained more than I lost through this conflict." But what still bothers her, she says, is "the injustice of what happened."

ELKANA HAD NOT heard the last of the matter when Nikolchina left. Not only was Petö's lawsuit still pending, but a flood of protest letters from an international network of feminist scholars soon deluged the rectorate and the board of trustees. What's more, these letters circulated by e-mail to a vast number of gender scholars.

The heads of women's studies centers in Zagreb, Belgrade, and elsewhere in the region voiced their disappointment and concern. Other letter writers threatened the program with censure, whether at the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), or CEU's sister institution, the Open University in London. Judith Butler questioned the replacement of Nikolchina with Zimmermann, writing, "It does strike me as incongruous that the very person whose scholarly work and institutional accomplishments has earned her an international reputation has been replaced by someone who has no such name recognition as far as I can tell." Elizabeth Minnich of the Union Institute wondered why Elkana had taken "the kind of actions one takes only when there are drastic problems." And Oklahoma State University's Arthur Redding concluded his letter with the following words: "It would still be a shame to see the immense promise of CEU scuttled by a conspiracy of fence sitters, power-mongers, mediocrities, and intellectual cowards. Demand better of yourselves."

Nikolchina and Petö filed grievances with the AAUP, a move that could affect CEU's bid for accreditation from the Middle States Association of Colleges and Universities. But given what some faculty describe as CEU's confusing welter of contradictory regulations, the alleged violations may be hard to prove. According to Petö, the letter terminating her contract explained that her courses had been canceled. "The rector had no right, no authorization, to omit the accredited and already advertised courses from the program," she contends. "That is the basis of my law case." Petö has also filed a complaint within the university, where the issue is whether the terms of her contract supersede the faculty compendium in which the university's operating procedures are detailed.

CEU's short-term contracts appear to accord the rector a fairly sweeping prerogative, and Elkana knows it. "It's bad manners not to renew a contract without doing a proper survey," he says simply. When I ask if the international outcry concerns him, he responds in a similar way: "Ah, it would be impolite to say no." Nonetheless, says Elkana, one aspect of the campaign is bothersome: "That many women whom I respect highly as scholars—like Joan Scott herself, despite what she said of me—are now not ready to teach here or come here. Alas, too bad."

The result, for a time, was isolation. Numerous visiting scholars pledged not to return to Budapest. Butler helped bring prize theorist Branka Arsic to SUNY Albany. The faculty that remained found themselves scorned by some former colleagues. "They were not the best that stayed," says Nikolchina flatly. "I don't really have anything to do with them," says Petö. For Péter Krasztev, the destruction of collegial relationships has been a high price to pay for staying at CEU. "I still love Miglena and I love Andrea and I love all those people," he says ruefully. "But of course I do not agree with some of their professional decisions."

The scholars who took part in the boycott felt that Elkana had brought a state of crisis on the program—but to Elkana and Zimmermann, the crisis was the boycott. "For the students," says Zimmermann, "it has had the effect of making them insecure, as it was announced all the time that the program is dying." Her voice rises slightly when she talks about Scott's lobby. "The campaign interprets itself as including everybody who is in favor of human justice in gender studies. That's not true," she insists. "It's a distorted view where the camp involved with the campaign becomes so huge and the world of gender studies becomes so small."

IT COULD NOT have been easy to assume control of a gender studies program that had so polarized its constituency. Zimmermann, proud and uncompromising, did not exactly have a healing touch. What's more, she agreed with the rector about the need for reorganization. "Independent from having some good scholarship and some very good scholars here, the program was lacking purpose," says Zimmermann.

The author of three monographs, including The Better Half? Women's Movements and Women's Endeavors in Hungary Under the Habsburg Monarchy, 1848-1918, and countless journal articles on poverty and social policy, Zimmermann had proposed to refocus the program's research. She felt that the field needed to develop a more truly global framework in order better to integrate gender studies scholarship from "peripheral" and "semi-peripheral" countries. It sounded reasonable—though not strikingly more "researchable" than the proposals offered at the March workshop.

Despite the protests, Zimmermann managed to host a lecture series that included speakers from Croatia, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia, as well as Germany, India, England, and Norway. A surprising number of scholars wrote to her, she told me, expressing their support for the program and pledging to come teach as soon as the events of 2000 were forgotten. But the students I spoke with were glum; they had come to Budapest to study with Arsic and Nikolchina, who were now gone. With those departures, many of the program's courses in theory had evaporated.

Some faculty I spoke with distrusted Zimmermann and found her management style abrasive. They complained that she was rigid and remote, communicating little with them or with the students. An ugly anti-German sentiment sometimes accompanied these remarks: One professor described Zimmermann as "authoritarian" and "colonial, very colonial, German." Ironically, some of the same scholars rejected Zimmermann on account of her leftist politics, saying that her emphasis on class was off-putting to scholars from the former communist bloc. Explains Nikolchina: "She's leftist in a way which gives us the creeps here."

Zimmermann did not attempt to extend an olive branch. Rather, she returned tit for tat in a notorious correspondence with Joan Scott. In an August 1, 2000, letter, she wrote: "The current campaign is a textbook example of power play, which is global only in its self-proposed name, but in reality dominated by influential tenured female professors mainly in the US and a few more 'Western' countries.... This results in a boycott of the unfolding of a Program in Gender Studies in Central Eastern Europe...." Quoting from a letter in which SUNY Buffalo's Elizabeth Grosz called on Zimmermann to resign and informed her that she would find herself unable to hire visiting scholars to the program, Zimmermann retorted, "So soll es sein—to blackmail and harassment I won't give in. If there is something like 'feminist mainstream postmodern essentialism' disregarding the minimum standards of professional and political ethics, the current campaign represents such worldview and action at its best/worst."

CEU, noted Zimmermann, is still a work in progress: It's a "young, heavily under-institutionalized university," she wrote, and the ambiguities in its regulations allow the campaigners to pursue their own interests by alleging procedural violations. But were they really protesting the procedure, or the outcome? "The campaigners do no good for any of the involved women," she concluded, "and they are engaged not in argumentation and democracy but in demagogy. They do not know what they are doing to gender studies."

Scott's reply was brief and pointed. Zimmerman's letter, she remarked, could as easily have been written by Elkana himself. But Scott was especially taken aback by one implication: "Why do you assume that a Western feminist conspiracy is at work here for bad ends?" she demanded. "What interest would we have in harming a 'fledgling program'? Has it not occurred to you that there might be massive injustice at work...? And that I am protesting injustice? Why, I wonder, are you unable to perceive the issues in those terms?"

Scott's extended response to Zimmermann's letter was to come in another forum. At a feminist research conference in Bologna, Italy, at the end of September, Scott gave a complex and thickly argued paper on the happenings at CEU—specifically, she addressed the letter she'd received from Susan Zimmermann. "That [Zimmermann] is a westerner, that the protagonists in the struggle—the two fired women and the rector—are 'easterners,' that complaints have come from West and East, are irrelevant to her," wrote Scott. "In reaching for political terms that will be recognizable to those she wants to rally to her side... Zimmermann chooses clichés associated with political/regional nationalism (and also, unfortunately, with Stalinist polemics)."

That Zimmermann accused her of "feminist mainstream postmodern essentialism" proved especially rich fodder for Scott's analysis. Scott interprets the accusation as "Zimmermann's attempt to protect 'eastern' Gender Studies from a structuralism and post-structuralism that she designates as 'western.'" In Scott's view, this effort puts Zimmermann "on the side of 'feminist mainstream essentialism'—a dominant current in the West that has declared 'postmodernism' to be antithetical to feminism—and it pits her against at least one very powerful 'eastern' philosophical tradition—the linguistic/structuralist tradition associated with the defeat of many communist regimes in the region."

"I am not primitive," Zimmermann replies when I ask her if she believes post-structuralism to be a Western imposition on eastern Europe. To Scott her response was short, acid—and in Hungarian. "Tisztelt Prof. Scott," she wrote. "Tulajdonképpen értjük-mi egymást?"

"Well," it translates, with heavy sarcasm implied. "Do we understand each other?"

THE EXCHANGE between Scott and Zimmermann was, no doubt, the best theater to emerge from what Elkana dubbed "l'affaire gender." But the real conflict plays out on a larger stage. Scott and her allies have, after all, bitten the hand that feeds gender studies all across the formerly communist world. Was their campaign an act of courageous independence—or of misguided intimidation? It depends whom you ask.

George Soros is the foremost benefactor of eastern Europe's libraries, literary journals, humanitarian projects, Internet development programs, Roma rights campaigns, health-care projects, arts programs, scholarships, research grants, and scholarly exchanges, among other things. His Open Society Institute (OSI) also funds gender studies programs or centers in numerous countries. After a mere ten years, it is hard to imagine eastern Europe without OSI. Kim Lane Scheppele, a former director of CEU's gender studies program, has speculated that "the influence of the Soros Network exceeds the influence of all bilateral efforts of states outside working with states inside the former Soviet region."

Nikolchina worries that Western foundations, including OSI, have come to loom too large over the region's public life. Eastern European intellectuals and civil society leaders, she points out, risk brokering away the freedom to set their own priorities. It's an important point. But Nikolchina strikes it with considerable hyperbole: In an e-mail to me, she compares George Soros to Stalin—unfavorably. "Stalin," she wrote, "hypothetically could be replaced, while Soros's power (his money) is protected by the larger structure of Western democracy."

Scheppele's critique of OSI is a bit more measured. The institute's projects, including CEU, were designed to absorb the shocks of rapid political transitions. Accordingly, as Scheppele describes them, they are adaptable, expandable, and collapsible. This very plasticity allowed the university to accommodate an influx of professors fired from the University of Belgrade in 1998. "They left Belgrade for political reasons. And at that point, CEU was the only institution in that part of Europe that wanted to take care of them," recalls Branka Arsic, who came to CEU around that time. "I was hired without a committee," she reflects. Who disputed the procedural informality then?

And yet, as in the corporate and nonprofit worlds, the downside of flexibility can be instability. Argues Scheppele, "There is no security of expectation in anything within the [OSI] network. Things change suddenly, without warning, and everyone simply has to adjust." For a university, it's a fairly novel way of operating. As Arsic notes, at CEU "they don't give tenure, so people cannot feel safe and free. They are thinking of an academic institution as a place for eternal competition and uncertainty. It's not a very academic logic." Academia, after all, is supposed to furnish a haven for free inquiry. And institutions of any kind offer safety and comfort precisely because they are impersonal, inflexible, and predictable. CEU, says Arsic, "is an institution that escapes the logic of institution."

CEU is not a predictable place—and at least for now, the boycott of its gender studies program doesn't seem to have had the predicted effect. This March, Elkana approved a budget increase that will allow the program to make several new hires. Zimmermann has filled one senior position, and she is in the process of hiring one or two junior faculty. The history department now offers a joint Ph.D. with gender studies. Nonetheless, as Zimmermann acknowledged by phone in May 2001, "There are always tensions and conflicts in the scholarly community." As she noted in a recent report to her higher-ups, the OSI Women's Network Program, which includes a number of women's studies programs across the region, "seems to have withdrawn silently from any form of cooperation" with the program. So have some of its former contacts in the West. As long as Elkana is rector, Scott says, she cannot in good conscience urge anyone to cooperate with CEU.

For Elkana, meanwhile, the battle has entered a new phase. To promote gender studies to full departmental status, he observes, "I have to fight inside to convince people to accept it. Because as we very well know, gender studies is not the most popular university department."

Laura Secor is a senior editor of LF. Her article "Sofia's Choice" appeared in the March 2001 issue.

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