On 26 July 2016, the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine requested an explanation from four Ukrainian Universities – the National Pedagogical Dragomanov University, Zaporizhzhya State Medical University, Oles Honchar Dnipropetrovsk National University – as to why several of their academics had participated in an academic conference held in Crimea, where a resolution was adopted expressing gratitude to the local and Russian government for organizing the event. Based on publicly available information, the academics are Vladimir Heylik, Iryna Zaytseva and Lyudmila Strebul. The conference at issue – ‘Russian Language in a Multicultural World’ – was held in Crimea, Yalta on June 8-11, 2016, as part of an international festival titled ‘Great Russian Word’. The festival has been held annually since 2007, reportedly with the joint support of Ukrainian and Russian officials and representatives of the academic community. The 2016 festival brought together academics and researchers from ten countries, including Ukraine.
The presidents of the universities in question submitted explanatory notes to in response to the Ministry’s request for information. The principal of the National Pedagogical Dragomanov University stated that its University Council had already established a working committee in order to assess the legality of academic Iryna Zaytseva’s participation in the conference. The principal of Oles Honchar Dnipropetrovsk National University promised that academic Lyudmila Strebul would face the consequences for her actions, in line with national legislation, and that the dean of the faculty and the head of the relevant department would also bear the responsibility for their failure to exercise the necessary control over their employee. Representing two Zaporizhzhya universities, the director of the department of education and science of the Zaporizhzhya Region State Administration stated that Vladimir Heylik of Zaporizhzhya State Medical University had claimed to be on vacation from June 8-10, and that he had not received his University’s permission for participation in the conference, nor to publish any scientific articles afterwards. The Zaporizhzhya representative further indicated that two other scholars from Zaporizhzhya universities had not participated in the conference.
On July 28, the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine issued an official statement, recalling the moral responsibility of the academic community and expressing its expectation that the relevant university councils would assess the actions of their employees. The statement noted that academics, by participating in the conference, “de facto took the side of the aggressor country” [that is, the Russian Federation], and supported an anti-Ukrainian resolution during the scientific event; and had therefore had “lost the moral right to educate the younger generation of Ukrainian specialists”.
In its official statement, the Ministry moreover requested that the Security Service of Ukraine and the Prosecutor General of Ukraine legally assess the academics’ actions. The Ministry further reminded the international and Ukrainian scientific community that any contact with universities and institutes in the territory of the occupied Crimea, including participation in scientific events held there, “will be interpreted by the Russian government as recognition of the Russian occupation of the peninsula, which is unacceptable for Ukraine”.
Two Ukrainian academics who participated in the conference – Vladimir Heylik and Lyudmila Strebul – were reportedly dismissed by the presidents of their universities, the Zaporizhzhya State Medical University and Oles Honchar Dnipropetrovsk National University, respectively. The position of the third academic, Iryna Zaytseva, was reportedly terminated by mutual agreement with the National Pedagogical Dragomanov University.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the investigation and dismissal of academics in apparent retaliation for the content of their academic work and peaceful exercise of the rights to academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. While State and university authorities have wide latitude to respond to pressing foreign policy challenges, such responses must be consistent with established human rights standards. State and university authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with academic freedom, freedom of expression or freedom of association, so long as that activity is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Retaliatory discharge aimed at limiting such activity harms academic freedom and related higher education values including university autonomy.