A university president in Ukraine turns to social media

The Times Higher Education logo, with a red T, a purple H and a blue E.

When the president of the Kyiv School of Economics began to post photos of his daily life to social media in November, it was a gut reaction. A day earlier, Russian air strikes had hit Ukraine’s power grid, plunging the capital city into darkness.

The Times Higher Education logo, with a red T, a purple H and a blue E.“I didn’t have a plan. I realized we had no heating and no water for a while, and somehow I felt it would be interesting for the world to know how people are trying to get through the war,” said Tymofiy Mylovanov.

His tweets have resonated with readers around the world. Mylovanov has accumulated more than 39,000 followers and become an in-demand commentator for Western news outlets, explaining the war’s toll in hard numbers and, even more importantly, he believes, providing a firsthand account of everyday life on the ground.

When Times Higher Education spoke with Mylovanov, he had just finished an interview with Al Jazeera and had an upcoming on-air appointment with CNN.

Previously Ukraine’s minister of economic development under the Honcharuk government and an adviser to its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, Mylovanov knows well the value of good press. But he insisted that his decision to share his experiences was not an orchestrated PR mission.

“I’m fighting my own battle, for the world to stay connected to Ukraine,” he said. “I wanted people to feel that we’re human. It’s easier for people to connect with us when they see us in our daily lives.”

Made up of observations on everyday minutiae and life at a university, his tweets are both simple and profound.

On the second day of the Kyiv blackout, he posted a video of students doing their work from a shelter and queueing at the university cafe.

“But students are here, and classes are at full speed (8.30am). Therefore we must have our fancy coffee at our cafe, which indeed is working,” he wrote.

In another tweet, he poked fun at Russia’s foreign affairs minister, Sergei Lavrov, simultaneously exposing the Kremlin’s barbarity.

“Lavrov is shocked by unisex bathrooms and calls them inhumane. I am proud to report that all bathrooms at the Kyiv School of Economics are unisex … What’s that blue water tank in our bathroom? That’s water to flush toilets [when] Lavrov’s ‘humane’ country bombs us and our water pump system stops working.”

An economist, Mylovanov is keenly aware of the link between people connecting emotionally with the conflict and supporting Ukraine financially. His posts often come with an appeal for donations. Already, they’ve had a sizable impact.

Recently, his followers donated 37,000 pounds ($44,600) to buy gifts for orphaned and refugee children in Ukraine after he posted videos of a student-led KSE fundraiser, noting that the only thing standing in the way of scaling it up was a lack of funding.

Crucially for KSE, Mylovanov’s efforts have secured the university a mobile generator, a massive yellow box that will power the whole building when electricity goes out, something that’s increasingly important as Russia targets Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Next on the plan, the university will drill a well so it can have running water even when main lines are down.

While undeniably, circumstances in Ukraine now are “much more difficult” than before the war, Mylovanov said the atmosphere, at the university and beyond, is better than it’s ever been.

“Yesterday there was a snowstorm and traffic jams three hours long in the morning, but by evening they actually cleaned it up. I think things work better than before the war … like everyone is a Navy SEAL,” he said.

Meanwhile, at KSE, the faculty devotion to the curriculum is “amazing,” and among students, motivation is “through the charts,” with roughly 70 percent of students attending classes in person, a rare feat in the country, where the majority of education continues in online form.

Still, he admitted that there are certain less savory things he leaves out of his media appearances. “Do we have fights? Yes. Is my roof leaking in two places? Yes.”

Not all KSE’s attempts to help the local community have panned out. When he offered a generator to a school in another city, an official there asked for a bribe to install it, an unfortunate reminder that Ukraine, however virtuous its wartime efforts may be, is not free of its prewar corruption problem.

Still, Mylovanov said such hang-ups are minor in the scheme of things.

“There are these bad apples, and if the war doesn’t fix them, I don’t know what can,” he joked.

These days, he has more serious concerns, chiefly how Ukrainians will make it through a bitter winter. With Russian bombings leaving millions without heat or running water, daily life has become unpredictable and at times exhausting. Because of the war, KSE colleagues have had to put in many more hours, and Mylovanov worries about staff retention amid burnout.

“It takes a toll on them,” he said.

Still, his deep pride in the institution comes through, especially faith in his students, who are “very different” from previous cohorts.

“The people who go through school right now are going to be great generations of leaders,” he said. “They get things done.”

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