June 12, 2020

The Ukrainian Free University Foundation: 45 years of preserving Ukrainian identity


The corporate documents forming the Ukrainian Free University Foundation were filed in the State of New Jersey on October 20, 1975. The UFUF’s purposes as spelled out therein were to preserve Ukrainian consciousness and identity, cultural heritage and tradition among Ukrainian youth especially among students of higher educational institutions in the United States and abroad, to provide financial aid and moral assistance to students of Ukrainian language, history, culture, geography and other subjects on Ukraine, its past and present, and to the institutions which provide such education.

The UFUF’s initial trustees were John Marchenko, John Burtyk and Eugene Fedorenko. Its initial board of directors consisted of Alexander Nychka, Halyna Bobylak, Peter Goy, Jaroslaw Padoch and Imre Kardashinets.

The corporate filing was the culmination of a two-year effort mounted by representatives from the Ukrainian Free University itself and the UFU’s alumni residing in the states of New York and New Jersey and somewhat structured under the name Alumni and Friends of the UFU. The effort to form a fund or foundation was precipitated by an imminent need for the UFU to purchase its own facility in Munich, Germany.

The de facto organizational meeting of the UFUF, at that time an unincorporated association, took place more than two years earlier on May 19, 1973. Mr. Burtyk from New Jersey was elected the first president of the UFUF. The press release about this meeting read in part: “At this meeting which took place with the consent of the rector of the Ukrainian Free University, a Committee of the UFU Foundation was formed, with the purpose of ensuring the financial viability of the UFU, a higher education facility beyond the borders of Ukraine.”

That was the raison d’etre in a nutshell. On May 6, 1974, the UFUF issued an appeal to the Ukrainian American community: “At this time we turn to you in the matter of raising funds for the needs of the Ukrainian Free University in Munich, Germany, which at this time finds itself in a precarious financial situation in view of a special mandate of the West German government regarding such institutions of higher learning. As you probably already know from press reports, the Senate of the UFU has been compelled to purchase its own facility as a condition precedent to governmental accreditation. A portion of the acquisition costs was covered by Archbishop Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, but the balance must come from Ukrainian communities in all countries where we have settled.”

The UFU was disparaged by Soviet propaganda many times. In 1974, however, perhaps dismayed more so because the UFU was acquiring its own facility stressing its independence and because its accreditation was at issue, the Soviets exerted a more determined effort to discredit the UFU. A publication titled “The true face of Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism” was released in Kyiv by an alleged educational publishing house named Scholarly Thought.

An entire chapter was devoted to the UFU. Coincidentally, the objects of the propaganda piece were the Poles [Josef Pilsudsky] for their initial support of Symon Petliura (after all, it was the Petliurites who founded the UFU) in his war against the Soviets (Pilsudsky later betrayed the Ukrainian side, remaining true to Polish historical tradition), the Czechoslovak government of President Tomasz Masaryk (when the UFU moved to Prague in the fall of 1921) and the Ukrainian “bourgeois nationalist” displaced persons in German relocation camps (the UFU moved to Munich after World War II), who had afforded the UFU financial support at some point in the history of the UFU. The Soviet diatribe also lashed out against Cardinal Slipyj, blatantly for all of his past anti-Soviet activity and obscurely, due to its timing, for his recent financial support of the UFU.

The direct criticism leveled against the UFU was for its work with Ukrainian youth: “Advertising summer courses , the nationalists are relying upon youth which is studying still at various middle school levels and lacks life’s experiences. Continuing its subversive activity, the leaders of the UFU lately have decided to focus their efforts on indoctrinating this youth as nationalists from a school age. With this in mind, they have introduced courses for teachers.”

Over the years, the UFUF was led by the aforesaid Mr. Burtyk, Prof. Goy, Theodore Wolanyk, Wolodymyr Stojko and this writer.

In 2005, on the 30th anniversary of the UFUF, its then president, Prof. Stojko wrote: “The Ukrainian diaspora on different continents has been able to form institutions and organizations which serve its viability and, at the same time, that of the entire Ukrainian nation. It maintains and develops its migrant legacy, stands stalwart in defense of the rights and interests of Ukraine, rebuts defamation and disinformation as to the Ukrainian cause, disseminates truthful information about the internal situation within Ukraine, about its struggle and the aspirations of the Ukrainian people. In particular, it is important to stress that this activity was and is possible thanks to the active support of the Ukrainian community. That community, despite its own difficult circumstances which are the norm in a new country, understands that only one’s own financial basis can ensure the independent activity of our Ukrainian institutions.”

Independent educational activity, free of prejudices and liberated from persecution and disinformation were not only the hallmark of the UFU and its UFUF in the 1970s but the very essence of the UFU founded in Vienna in January 1921 and intentionally named the Ukrainian Free University. Free meant independent and liberated.

In addition to support for the UFU and financial aid through scholarships to its students, the UFUF over the years initiated numerous projects, all involving Ukrainian students and education in Ukrainian studies. One such project in the 1980s called “Over the paths of our fathers” enabled Ukrainian American and Ukrainian Canadian students, in particular, to travel to Europe in order to traverse the routes taken by their parents and visit their migrant venues. This journey concluded with summer studies at the UFU in Munich.

In Munich, the group also visited the Dachau concentration camp and noted that the Memorial Museum there failed to mention Ukrainian political prisoners. Through the efforts of this group, the Ukrainian flag was included in the museum and a memorial was established listing 174 Ukrainian prisoners.

Besides support for the UFU, the Ukrainian Free University Foundation established a special relationship with Ivan Franko University of Lviv.

Mykhaylo Prysiazny of Lviv writes of this relationship in Volume 20 of the UFU Scholarly Collection from 2015: “A relationship was established at the break of history. One month to the proclamation of Ukraine’s independence the UFU accepted for study a group of young scholars [from Lviv University] … In Munich in 1991, the first terms of a working relationship were discussed. Within a few months, the UFU transferred its first tranche from its own library and archives, which served as the fulcrum of a Ukrainian diaspora library at our university. The foundation commenced an unprecedented effort of collecting literature, archival material in the United States, Canada, Austria for the Lviv University… In the first years of independence, the foundation provided, for our library and archive, a fax, a photocopier and donated $60,000 for the technical computer enhancement of our scholarly and educational efforts.”

A similar relationship is being developed between the UFUF and Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv.

A longstanding project that continues to date is the annual Literary and Scholarly Fund competition initiated some 20 years ago through the farsightedness and largess of UFUF benefactors, the Wolanyk and Shwabinsky families from Ohio, and then enhanced through the generosity of the UFUF itself, which awards monetary prizes for publications of the previous year. This project has become very popular, particularly in Ukraine, and it not only rewards creativity and research, but serves to encourage young writers and scholars.

The UFUF organized conferences dealing with such historical topics as the Ukrainian Genocide of 1932-1333 – the Holodomor, another attempted genocide of the Ukrainian Lemko people known as Akcja Wisla and other events throughout Ukrainian history. It offers assistance in navigating and choosing higher education options for Ukrainian students and their parents. It supports other Ukrainian educational and youth projects. For a long time, the UFUF has supported the Saturday Ukrainian school program in the United States as well as English courses for students in Ukraine.

The need for outside educational funding is a pervasive issue. No educational institution, in particular an institution of higher learning, survives on its own, even when tuition seems excessive and onerous to the students and their parents. Tuition at the UFU is 600 euros per semester. Government subsidies during the Prague period of the UFU enable functionality. During the Munich period until almost to the turn of the millennium, Bavarian state support afforded viability. All of that is in the past. Today, the UFU subsists on a capital fund procured from the difference between the sale in the first decade of 2000 of its facilities, which had been purchased in the 1970s, and the purchase of new but smaller facilities. Tuition provides some relief. Roughly one-third of the UFU’s revenue comes from the UFUF.

However, circumstances have changed, and the acquisition of additional facilities is now required. Some 250 students are matriculating currently in master’s and Ph.D. curricula at the UFU. Because of the low tuition and scholarship opportunities, almost all come from various regions of Ukraine, including Crimea. Enrollment is increasing. The UFU is the only Ukrainian-language – in fact bilingual Ukrainian and English – institution of higher learning outside Ukraine. It is a Ukrainian educational window to the West. Ukrainian language and philosophy studies on the post-graduate level are available in many instances in Ukraine itself. However, economics, law and business in the Western sense are at an entirely different level in the UFU than they are in Ukraine. One student of marketing at the UFU recently opined that she had learned more about marketing in one semester at the UFU than she had learned in four years of college in Ukraine.

Job opportunities in economics, law and business are available both in Ukraine and beyond, in Europe and further abroad.

The upcoming 100th anniversary of the UFU in January 2021 is more than symbolic or historical. True, it merits remembering and honoring the past and its actors. But, it raises also new challenges for the Ukrainian Free University Foundation. A teeming student life at UFU in Munich requires better and larger facilities. Whether the UFUF is up to that challenge depends on Ukrainian diaspora communities worldwide.

The development and enhancement of the Ukrainian Free University is not only an educational goal. It’s a major component of Ukraine’s Euro-integration, its entry as a full member of the European Union and even its acquisition of membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. I hesitate to stress this because of possible accusations that I may be politicizing education and scholarship. Nevertheless, just as education has a significant financial component, politics has an educational one.

On November 3, 1973, in Toronto, a meeting was held of Ukrainian educational and scholarly institutions in the diaspora, including the Ukrainian Free University, the Shevchenko Scientific Society, the Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences in the U.S., the Ukrainian Historical Society and the Ukrainian American Association of University Professors. In the course of their deliberations, they formed a Ukrainian Scholarly Council of Free Ukrainians.

Its first resolutions stated clearly: “Ukrainian scholarship, as an integral component of its national culture, is an existential factor in the struggle of a nation to achieve its highest goals. This tight connection manifests itself, in particular in [Ukraine] where precisely our intellectuals stand in the vanguard of an unceasing struggle for our spiritual identity and political sovereignty. We join the struggle to achieve those goals, as we bow our head before the heroic behavior of our colleagues – aware that the duty of Ukrainian scholarship outside Ukraine is to continue the processes in Ukraine and to disseminate information about them throughout the globe.”

The original concept of free as in Ukrainian Free University, was designed by the founding fathers of the UFU. Free meant independent or liberated from prejudice, undue influence, indoctrination or even more severe oppression. Academic freedom in education, learning, research and scholarship is an enviable goal. Those who strive towards that end achieve respect and recognition. The sooner we realize this, the better we will navigate in today’s global environment. The Ukrainian Free University achieving its full potential is such a worthwhile goal.

Askold S. Lozynskyj is president of the Ukrainian Free University Foundation.