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Leadership and resilience of Ukrainian universities during the war

Volodymyr Turchynovskyy

Dean of the Social Sciences Faculty in UCU, Director of the International Institute for Ethics and Contemporary Issues

UCU Leadership Lessons by Volodymyr Turchynovskyy, Dean Faculty of Social Sciences

I vividly recall the last week of February 2022. Our annual Integral Human Development conference was scheduled for February 23-25 that year. As with today’s event, we started the conference late afternoon on the 23rd, finished up that evening, and went home anticipating resuming the next morning. But the morning exploded with air raid sirens, missile strikes, and a full-scale invasion.

Preparing for Death 

Fast forward two years to February 10, 2024, again on the UCU campus. This time for our winter commencement ceremony. We hold two commencements annually: a smaller winter one for around 100 graduates of certain graduate programs, and a larger open-air summer celebration with hundreds participating.

Students of UCU.

The winter commencement ceremony concludes with remarks from the valedictorian, a graduate who expresses gratitude and hope on behalf of the graduating class. This year, that honor went to Lubov Kurtiak, a graduate of UCU’s School of Journalism and Communication. Lubov is a married woman in her early thirties, a mother of three children, who works in UCU’s information and marketing office while pursuing her graduate degree in media communications. 

Lubov Kurtiak’s brilliant, witty, and inspiring speech culminated in a profound and thought-provoking observation. In her own words:

«As a communication officer working with the UCU cameraman, I used to ‘hunt’ for feedback from alumni. When asked ‘What makes UCU so special?’ they often said the university prepared them to face death. (…) UCU does teach you to confront death but in the context of living life honorably  and in a dignified way so that when your time comes to meet God, you stand before Him without regret over squandering His gift».

Lubov Kurtiak, a graduate of UCU’s School of Journalism and Communication and Taras Dobko, rector of UCU.

To speak of preparing for death while celebrating life and accomplishments, as a young person full of hope, vitality, and gratitude, is truly striking and remarkable. Wouldn’t you agree?

In my memories, I switch back again to the first few months of Russian raging escalation of brutality and genocide. In April of 2022, I was asked by one of the foreign journalists whether and how Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) as a university was preparing itself for the war. It never occurred to me to think of our university life as a preparation for the war. After February 24 full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine it was an emotionally difficult question to cope with. These were times when daily air raid alarms became a new normal for us. What possibly can it mean to be prepared for a war like this? Everything we were doing at the university was aimed at cultivating and promoting the culture of life and life itself. Well, maybe this was our preparation for the war indeed – I thought then. Perhaps the culture of life was indeed the source of our resilience amidst the raging war.

Lubov and her fellow 2024 graduates, who began their studies in the summer of 2022, helped connect the dots for me: education for life is about contextualizing and «framing» death through the nobility, meaningfulness, and sometimes the ultimacy of self-sacrifice.

A gift of time

Time cannot be taken for granted anymore by the Ukrainian people. In no time it can be abruptly over for someone or many. Time isn’t anymore for consumption, it fulfills itself through sacrifice. Eventually, it is a gift we are given to win the just peace. It is a gift from the fearless defenders of Ukraine who fight at the frontlines of the largest war in Europe since the Second World War. It is a gift born by the solidarity of the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians leveraged and multiplied by the international supporters of Ukraine, people like you who firmly stand for the just, the true, and the good.

Dmytro Slyvka, was a graduate of the UCU. Has lost his life in the war against Russian occupiers.

It was last Wednesday evening, February 21 about 10 pm, I was browsing through the news when my smartphone notified me about new new email. It was a UCU mailing. Didn’t look good to me. We do not practice late-night corporate mailing. Here’s what it reads: 

«On behalf of the community, with sorrow, we announce that Dmytro Slyvka has lost his life in the war against Russian occupiers on the Avdiivka front. Dmytro was a graduate of the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU), from the first cohort of the master’s program in Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy. He worked as an occupational therapist at the Rehabilitation and Social Services Center ‚Dzherelo.’ 

Dmytro volunteered for the war in April 2022 and served in the 47th Separate Mechanized Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

The funeral service for the Hero will take place on February 22 at 11:00 in the Garrison Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Lviv».

Dmytro became the 28th member of our UCU community who was killed at the frontlines. It’s their ultimate sacrifice which is carried further on by 108 UCU community military servicemen who volunteered or were drafted to the army which gives us a gift of time and hope for the future.

Ukrainian Formula


I can’t think of a better way to describe Ukraine’s fight for freedom other than George Weigel’s (a renowned Catholic intellectual in the USA) revised version of the famous Pericles’ funeral oration (according to Thucydides) in which he says that «the secret of happiness is liberty and the secret of liberty is courage».

George Weigel argues that the people of Ukraine have not only «given twenty-first-century expression to Pericles’s formula for happiness» but they have added some fundamentally important component to it. Here’s Weigel’s upgraded reading of Pericles’ formula: «For if the secret of happiness is liberty and the secret of liberty is courage, the secret of courage is faith». 

One can have the courage to counter one’s death as a free person in standing for the liberty of others only if one’s courage is nourished by one’s faith. I believe this is a core message we heard from Lubov in her valedictorian talk two weeks ago.

UCU 2030

If this is indeed so, then how is this message relevant or applicable to UCU? Could it be that faith we discover and live through in the most adverse circumstances of the bloodiest war is also a source of hope, resilience, and vision for the future we desire for ourselves and the next generations?

The ability of an institution to adhere to its institutional mission in times of adverse circumstances is a sign of resilience. UCU as well as other Ukrainian universities managed to stay faithful to its academic mission. We managed to preserve our community life, we kept our teaching and research activities running and, most importantly we were fulfilling ourselves in serving others. 

We invested a year of 2023 in designing UCU Strategy 2030. In times clouded with uncertainties, overwhelmed with air raid alarms, amidst devastation, destruction, and deaths inflicted by the war we embarked on designing the future UCU for the future Ukraine.

We believe that our student should play a role in developing their university strategy. These days it cannot be done without tackling a much broader issue of the future of Ukraine in the global context. This is why we designed a new course «Road to Recovery» in which three of our UCU faculty members along with seven international experts from world-class universities offered their expertise, experience, networks, and inspiration to a cohort of UCU students. 45 students worked in seven groups aiming at producing research analytics, interviews, policy documents, and startup initiatives under the supervision of international experts and with the Ukrainian stakeholders. The results were presented by the groups in December during the final sessions of the course. Next week these projects will be presented and discussed at a special public event during our annual Integral Human Development Forum at UCU. This is our 2030 UCU Strategy in making.

I’d like to conclude by mentioning hope and by sharing our hope with you. 

«Optimism in Ukraine has waned, but hope still abounds», my American colleague, a professor, recently told me after returning from a trip to Kyiv and Lviv in December. It had been six months since his last visit, so he could make a real comparison. Back in early summer 2023, Ukraine was filled with counteroffensive optimism and the prospect of returning to its borders. That optimism has faded significantly, giving way again to the steadfastness of hope. 

Hope isn’t about strategies, roadmaps, and deadlines. It’s about the understanding that we’re all cared for, remembered, and loved in the shared quest for the greater common good. Hope rests in the belief that no one will be left behind, abandoned, or betrayed.

This is what we are learning in these times of immense trial. This is where we stand. This is how our serving leadership is sustained by faith and hope. This is how we find resilience in our battle for the freedom and wholeness of Europe to win a just peace and the future we hope for.


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