“I’m not a political person and I’m not much of a social media person, but that was my threshold,” he said. “It’s just heartbreaking. Given my past history and my current position working in a field where we are doing all we can at times to save one or two lives, to think that people are capable of bringing down such massive death and destruction is horrifying.”
Meanwhile, the Political Science Department had organized an ad hoc teach-in, “an intimate conversation between students and faculty,” as Professor Janet Elise Johnson described it, in which scholars shared their thoughts and expertise, students shared their fears and questions, and the campus’ concern and passion over the issue was at once palpable.
“It was a terrible reason to have an amazingly rich conversation,” said Johnson, who has many contacts in the region and ended up reaching out after the session to a graduate student, a Ukrainian immigrant who mentioned that her parents and grandmother were stuck in the Donetsk region of the country.
Across the Brooklyn College community and its diaspora—which last semester included nearly 300 students who were born in Russia or Ukraine; umpteen more students, alums, staff, and faculty members from other countries in the region; untold numbers with personal connections there; and dozens of professors with deep scholarly ties—the impact of a conflict nearly 6,000 miles and a vast ocean away has been appreciable.
Staff and faculty members have reached out to Ukrainian students to try to connect them with people and organizations that can help, along with counseling students from Russia, some of whom have seen their financial resources disappear overnight due to sanctions. And professors have used their scholarly perch to contribute to the thought collective around the war, from penning opinion pieces and making media appearances to switching up lesson plans in hopes of lending a factual framework to a conflict that has been rife with misinformation.
“For CUNY—an institution that has historically welcomed and educated members of immigrant groups from every corner of the world—there is no conflict anywhere in the world that fails to touch some in our community,” said Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez in a statement in late February, pointing out that New York City is home to the largest number of Ukrainian immigrants in the country.
For many students, including those who have no personal connection to the war, there was a need to do something. Tanger Hillel at Brooklyn College mobilized students across CUNY to support Ukraine, organizing 30 volunteers to package 3,750 pounds of medical supplies to send to Ukraine and Poland, where many refugees were arriving.
For some professors, it has been a surreal time where scholarship and current events have met head on. Professor Brigid O’Keeffe, of the History Department—which also organized a Zoom session similar to the one the Political Science Department conducted—was at the point in her class, “The Soviet Union as Multiethnic Empire,” where she talked about the Bolshevik revolution. That same week, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech justifying the war.
“Putin was on television saying that [the former head of Soviet Russia, Vladimir] Lenin invented Ukraine,” said O’Keeffe, whose latest book, The Multiethnic Soviet Union and Its Demise, is forthcoming later this fall. “My students had just learned why and how he was lying. We fact checked the speech right there in class. I have been teaching the course for years and I never imagined that the front page of the news would collide with my syllabus in this way.”
She said it was an invaluable moment to talk about how history can be invoked to promote both conflict and peace. In her historical methods class, she has used the war to discuss cultural history and how culture is created.
Johnson, a Central-Eastern European specialist who speaks Russian and regularly conducts research in Russia, is teaching “Democracy, Dictatorship and Development: Politics Around the World.” “I have used every single class to talk about various parts of the story,” she said.
The two teamed up with the Office of the Associate Provost and the Office of the Assistant Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness to put together a panel, “A Conversation on Russia’s War in Ukraine,” in which they pulled in faculty members from various disciplines to discuss their perspective on everything from the history of the region to the current media coverage, so that the broader community can access the college’s expertise.
“There’s a lot of trauma around this, a lot of fear and anxiety as well,” said Johnson, who is trying to square with the possibility that due to the fallout of the war, she may never be able to visit Russia again.
“For those of us with experience in the area, it’s our responsibility to address this, to call a lie a lie, and to provide context to a complex topic,” said O’Keeffe. “It’s a conversation we simply have to have.”