Bridging the East-West Gap

By Ann Brocklehurst

Originally published in the International Herald Tribune, February 16, 1994

When the East German state of Brandenburg announced its intention to found a so-called “European University” in Franfurt-an-der-Oder, on the Polish border, the decision raised more than a few eyebrows.
.
Germany’s established universities are all crying out for cash. The relatively small Land of Brandenburg already had two universities and there are three large universities in nearby Berlin. And although Frankfurt-an-der-Oder was until 1811 the site of a university of some repute, it has had no academic tradition since then. The city also lacks the physical charm and cultural amenities of other historical college towns such as Heidelberg, Göttingen and Freiburg.
.
Despite the initial skepticism, however, planners forged ahead. And in its second academic year, the Viadrina European University has enrolled some 1,000 students – 300 in their second year of studies and 700 in first year. One- third of the student body comes from Poland and the university has dormitories in both Frankfurt and across the river in neighboring Slubice.
.
Viadrina’s symbol is a bridge, representing literally Frankfurt’s bridge over the Oder to Poland and figuratively the bridging function between Eastern and Western Europe that it aims to carry out. The dean of the law faculty, Roland Wittman, is a Polish speaker who previously worked at the University of Munich. “There, I also had contacts in Poland, but they were a sideline,” he said. “Here those contacts are one of the basic principles behind the university.”
.
While there are several universities in Europe that bill themselves as “European,” there is no consensus on what exactly the label means. In some cases, universities adopt the name because they offer a broad range of courses on European law, history and public administration. In other cases, they call themselves European due to their locations in border towns such as Passau and Constanz.
.
Although Viadrina’s senate decided at one of its founding meetings that “its nucleus should be bilateral German-Polish cooperation,” it also has a special interest in striking agreements with the Baltic and Scandinavian states. To try and create a cosmopolitan atmosphere, the university aims to have 30 to 50 percent of its staff made up of visiting foreign academics. And in an effort to raise its international profile further, it chose Hans Weiler, a German- born professor of political science and education at Stanford University in California, as its rector.
.
Mr. Wittman said it is the university’s goal to provide both an international and interdisciplinary education where “law students also go to culture lectures.”
.
Viadrina currently has three faculties: law, economics and humanities. The economics department will devote itself primarily to problem areas connected with the change of system in Eastern Germany and Europe. All students have to study at least one foreign language.
.
For the near future, the senate’s goals are simply to establish the current faculties as firmly as possible and to cement the working relationships with Polish universities in Krakow, Poznan and Wroclaw. The tie with Wroclaw (formerly Breslau) is of historical note since the original Viadrina University, founded in Frankfurt-an- der-Oder in 1506, moved to Breslau with its staff and students in 1811. Its existence as a German university ceased after World War II, however, when Poland was awarded land that had previously belonged to Germany.
.
With its main building still covered in scaffolding, dust from renovation work floating through the unfinished hallways and too little space to shelve all the library’s newly acquired books, Viadrina is clearly still in an early and experimental phase. Its newness and lack of reputation, however, do give the students one big advantage. While Western Germany’s universities are so crowded that students regularly sit on the floor during lectures, at Viadrina, professors and teachers still have personal contact.
.
Among the German students, the vast majority are East Germans, while the academic staff is almost completely West German, a situation Mr. Wittman attributes to a lack of qualified eastern candidates in the university’s specialty areas. While students at other eastern universities have rebelled against such “colonialistic” policies, a law student, Henryk Mieth, says the “imported professors are an academic advantage.”
.
Viadrina’s Polish students, who must pass a German-language proficiency test, come from throughout Poland and almost all have scholarships from private German foundations. Most live in university housing in Slubice and commute across the bridge to classes.
.
Marta Jedlinska, a second-year law student from Warsaw, came to Viadrina specifically for the law program, which will allow her to qualify for both German and Polish state legal exams. “I hope that people like me will be needed,” she said. “Poland wants to join the European Community and law will be crucial to that.” Starting this year, she will also begin attending lectures given by visiting Polish professors in Slubice.
.
Often students from Eastern Europe who study abroad try to stay on, seduced by the higher living standards and better earning prospects. While East Germans may be the poor cousins of West Germans, in a border town like Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, it is still clear to see that they are a lot better off than the Poles from across the river. Ms. Jedlinska misses Warsaw, however, and plans to return.
.
“I don’t see it as a financial question. You can earn well in Poland with a good job,” she said. “Naturally, the living conditions of Germans and Poles are different, but I’m not envious. When I go home to Warsaw, I see each time how much better the city looks.”