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Story Publication logo September 24, 2012

Russia Unveils a $2 Billion Campus on the Edge of China


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After 20 years of fading industry, rampant corruption, and no clear ideology, Russia is now on the...

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Far Eastern Federal University has a new $2-billion campus on Russky Island, near Vladivostok, a geopolitically important region close to Manchuria and the Sea of Japan. Skeptics wonder whether students and faculty will come to the windswept outpost, where winter temperatures can drop to minus 49. Image by Yuri Kozyrev. Russia, 2012.

Russky Island, the home of Russia's newest university, is not a hospitable place. The winds from the Pacific Ocean are incessant, and temperatures can plummet to minus 49 degrees. Winters are especially bitter, lasting six or seven months.

Yet Moscow has invested billions of dollars here in hopes of attracting some of the world's brightest young people and reviving a steadily shrinking local economy in this geopolitically sensitive region on the edge of China.

The government has spent $20-billion constructing a convention center, banks, shops, and housing, among other things, along with three spectacular bridges across Vladivostok's several bays.

One of them, the world's longest cable bridge, leads to the newly built $2-billion campus of Far Eastern Federal University. The campus formally opens next year, although some students will begin to move to the island's dormitories next month. For now, they are taking classes at the university's old campus, in Vladivostok, with some classes probably starting on the island this winter.

The university, which is the result of a merger of several smaller nearby universities, has an ambitious agenda: the Kremlin expects it will join the list of both Russia's and the world's best universities within a decade.

To that end, Far Eastern Federal will specialize in areas like Asian languages, marine biology, nanotechnology, and energy-conserving technologies. It will offer courses in both Russian and English, with many of its Russian professors undergoing required language training.

It hopes to attract top international professors and at least 30,000 students, 11,000 of whom would live on the island. It aims to lure students with local amenities, such as new swimming pools, as well as the promise of financial aid and an international education.

But the university has its share of skeptics. They point out, for one, that Far Eastern Federal has managed to recruit only 2,500 students this year, most of them from Russia, studying in buildings scattered around Vladivostok.

The university also has "dramatically poor academic staff," with weak research records or low scholarly profiles, says the dean of the physics department, Alexander Molochkov.

Far Eastern Federal has began recruiting foreign faculty, reaching out to academics in the United States, Chile, Brazil, China, and South Korea, and in fields such as engineering and nuclear medicine. But, says Mr. Molochkov, the applicants so far "had terribly poor profiles. Right now not many scientists are willing to work at FEFU, mainly because we are still in the process of moving in."

Out of 80 applications, the university hired five foreign academics. And several internationally known scholars have agreed to come in as visiting professors. The university's president, Sergey Ivanets, a former deputy prime minister, also hopes to build deep ties to China and has brought in some visiting scholars from there.

Unhappy Faculty

Skeptics say that fancy amenities and glassy facades are not what makes a university great, and that the number of students willing to live on a mostly uninhabited island is small. Many professors from the smaller universities that merged to become Far Eastern Federal are upset about moving to a campus in which no labs have been built and where residents have to drink desalinated seawater. The head of the oceanology and hydrometeorology department, Boris Lamash, refuses to move to the island, commuting instead up to 90 minutes a day. Winters on the island are "unbearably freezing and windy," he says.

He also criticizes what he calls "outrageous corruption" during the five years of campus construction. "Out of 680-billion rubles they spent on building our university, they could not find 3-billion rubles for a clean water-supply system," says Mr. Lamash.

The university has also not had much luck persuading students from the merged campuses to move to the island: Only 4,000 out of 17,000 have said they would be willing to do so.

Higher-education experts say that the university's success depends on strong leadership from an academic superstar.

"Only bright and famous scientists can make a giant bureaucratic monster like Far Eastern Federal show significant results," says Yuri Krupnov, director of the independent Institute of Demography, Migration and Regional Development, in Moscow. "I do not believe in Far Eastern Federal's quick success. There is a gray unknown figure from the ministry" leading the institution, Mr. Krupnov says.

Vladimir Kuznetsov, director of the university's School of Regional and International Studies and a former governor of the region, is more optimistic.

"I see potential for Far Eastern Federal. Hopefully one day, the intellectual center on the Russian Island will open a window to Asia for Russia, and democracy will come back to the country from here."

In a year or two, administrators say, the laboratory building will be completed, and the university's schools of engineering, biomedicine, and natural sciences will be able to move in their heavy equipment.

Yet the university's future is far from certain. Higher education in Russia is notoriously corrupt, and rampant bribery has so far undermined much of what President Vladimir Putin has tried to do in shoring up the declining higher-education system through mergers and closures of institutions. Mr. Putin built Far Eastern Federal "to mark Russia's presence in Asia as not fading but rising," says Yevgeny Yasin, a former minister of the economy and research director at the National Research University Higher School of Economics. "For now, it is too early to say whether this university has a future or not."


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