Prof. A. Avižienis: It Is Heartwarming That VMU Is Exactly as We Envisioned It upon Its Re-Establishment

  • 2024-04-30

“When I look at what Vytautas Magnus University has become, it’s truly heartwarming to see that our vision for its re-establishment has been realised. While there is a significant need for specialists, it’s even more crucial that these individuals can adapt to rapid changes and understand the vital role universities play in the life of the state and the nation. So upon my return to Lithuania, I believed it paramount to have a university that stood apart – one that hadn’t been conditioned to conform to the Soviet system for 50 years,” recounts Professor Algirdas Avižienis, the first elected Rector of Vytautas Magnus University (VMU), re-established in 1989. Through his efforts, VMU became the first university in Lithuania to incorporate the principles of the liberal arts (artes liberales) in its studies, offering an opportunity for a comprehensive education.

In the United States, Prof. Avižienis worked for thirty years at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), one of the top twenty universities in the US, which receives as many as 100,000 applications each year. During his tenure at UCLA, he developed a fault-tolerant computer architecture that is now widely used around the world. 

Drawing on the study system of another prestigious US higher education institution, Harvard University, the internationally acclaimed scientist Prof. Avižienis decided to implement it at VMU, giving students the freedom to choose their study subjects, arrange their own timetables, not be confined to their speciality alone, learn foreign languages, and opt to study a wide range of subjects, ranging from philosophy and biology to psychology and media arts. 

Specialities will change – educating thinking individuals is more important

“Let’s try to establish a university in Lithuania whose primary mission is to educate thinking, independent individuals who understand the world, with specific specialities being less important. After all, these specialities will change, especially as people now live longer. That’s why I decided to introduce such a programme. Another decision was to seek out young, talented scientists in Lithuania who had not yet been indoctrinated into the Soviet system,” Prof. Algirdas Avižienis recalls his efforts in re-establishing VMU.

The UCLA and VMU Professor Emeritus notes that over two millennia, the understanding of the liberal arts has evolved, yet its essence remains unchanged: such an education enables individuals to grasp what is most crucial for humanity at any given time, irrespective of their speciality, preparing them for future challenges and professions that may not yet exist.

According to the VMU Honorary Professor, serving as Rector has afforded him the most gratifying memories – not only due to working with highly enthusiastic colleagues but also because of the students’ fervent desire to learn and their curiosity about everything.

“It’s heartening to recall the enthusiasm with which we worked. Together with the Vice-Rector for Research, Prof. Vytautas Kaminskas, we occasionally stayed up until midnight planning the further development of the programmes, pondering what to do next. We started the university with 177 first-year students, selected from 805 applicants. I came to know nearly all of them personally. The students’ keen interest in everything truly uplifted me. Artes liberales made their studies more interesting,” Prof. Avižienis recounts, explaining that the variety offered by liberal arts studies maintains young people’s interest, aiding in their discovery of what they find most interesting, rather than limiting them to the narrow confines of their speciality subjects.

VMU serves as an example for other Lithuanian universities

The professor asserts that the study model employed at VMU today serves as an excellent example for other Lithuanian higher education institutions. “Universities can observe how the VMU model functions – I believe they will recognise the necessity of such a foundation for students. Technology and health sciences are very specific fields; however, providing students with the opportunity to study subjects like philosophy or music will undoubtedly make them even better doctors and researchers,” notes Prof. Avižienis.

“I hope that VMU will serve as an example for other universities, encouraging them to adopt what suits them. It is paramount that all Lithuanian universities aim to cultivate as many talented, intelligent individuals as possible who are called to and unafraid of entering politics – considering, as is the case worldwide, that higher education significantly depends on the government in power,” he points out, while also citing the University of California, Los Angeles, as an example of an autonomous university – UCLA is overseen not by a ministry but by a Board of Regents, composed of 26 dedicated Californians from various spheres, including the Governor of California and the Secretary of Education. Conversely, in certain areas, VMU even outperforms UCLA – for example, offering the chance to study up to 30 foreign languages.

He lavishes praise not only on VMU but also on Lithuania and its scientists, whom he frequently encounters at various conferences worldwide – he even maintains a special list with their names. Among these promising scientists is Avižienis’ own son, Audrius, a Doctor of Physical Chemistry from UCLA, who also keeps in touch with Lithuanian specialists in their fields residing in Germany, Canada, and Japan.

“I am astonished by how impressively young Lithuanians fare globally, as it speaks volumes about the country’s progress. Our students are truly mature and do well in the scientific community. I just wish they would return to Lithuania sooner. We ought to encourage them to visit more often or to lead groups of young people, especially doctoral students,” the computer scientist hopes.

Universities need to be more open

Giving advice to young people still deciding where to study, Prof. Avižienis emphasises the importance of choosing a field that interests them, rather than what their parents might suggest. He appreciates that VMU offers prospective students the chance to familiarise themselves with the university in advance, allowing them to visit and see firsthand how studies are conducted and what conditions are offered. For university staff, the professor encourages taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the EU to collaborate with educators and staff from universities abroad. Yet, it is equally important to maintain connections within Lithuania and to be more open.

“In the US, we practised sending our best doctoral students to other universities, and in return, they sent us theirs. If we could exchange our top doctoral students with Vilnius University, it would benefit both institutions. However, this requires adjustment. I was particularly displeased with the issue of state-funded places, when universities were nearly forced to be as insular as possible, concealing their secrets. We should seek to enhance each other by sharing our most accomplished researchers,” asserts the first elected Rector of the re-established VMU.

Lithuania – akin to paradise

The UCLA Professor Emeritus reveals that he now spends more time in Lithuania than before, as he enjoys being here. “I thought, ‘America is too big,’ so I decided to return to Lithuania. Previously, I spent half of my time here; now, I plan to spend two-thirds. Tell me, how can I not want to be here? Whenever I return to my hometown of Kaunas or to Anykščiai, I feel as though I’ve come back to a kind of paradise,” shares Prof. Avižienis, who resides near the VMU Botanical Garden, enjoying the beauty of Lithuanian nature. 

While in Lithuania, the professor frequently meets with old friends and acquaintances, including his university friend, former President Valdas Adamkus, with whom Prof. Avižienis studied in the US. “The most amusing part is what we discussed – our student years and how much fun we had back then: we felt stronger than the American students. Having endured the war and survived displacement camps, we believed we had a deeper understanding of the world than our fellow American colleagues,” recalls the professor.

Sharing his thoughts on the qualities necessary for a university rector, Prof. Avižienis emphasises that a successful rector must enhance both the scientific and economic aspects of the university. Therefore, it is highly desirable for him or her to have worked in a successful rector’s team and to apply this experience in a new role.

What does Lithuanian higher education need to improve?

When asked what the most important task for Lithuanian higher education institutions is today, the professor did not hesitate to answer – it is necessary to restore academic autonomy, legislated by the first Law on Higher Education and Research adopted by the Supreme Council on 12 February 1991. Instead of a Soviet ministry, the Research Council of Lithuania, elected by scientists and subordinated to the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania, was established to govern higher education. 

“Unfortunately, within a few years, this Council became subordinate to the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport, which has seen 15 ministers in 33 years. This represented a regression to the Soviet model of higher education governance, only that instead of a single Communist Party minister, the party affiliation of the ministers changed 11 times. None of these ministers possessed a doctorate from a Western European or North American university, so their limited experience constrained what they and their teams could contribute to Lithuanian higher education,” Prof. Avižienis explains.

He contends that the autonomy of higher education institutions will allow them to invite distinguished scientists from foreign universities to the Council. “It would include both Lithuanians and citizens of other countries friendly to Lithuania. Only such a Research Council could elevate the education level in Lithuanian universities to match that of the best European higher education institutions. I sincerely hope this will be accomplished over the next decade,” VMU Honorary Professor hopes.