BEEGS 20th anniversary

BEEGS celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2020, an important milestone in the history of the graduate school and of Södertörn University. This page features two of the speeches given during the celebrations, as well as the BEEGS 20th Anniversary Publication.

Despite 2020 being a very different kind of year, one where we faced significant challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was also a very special year for all of us at the Baltic and East European Graduate School.

2020 was the year that we celebrated two decades of bringing together doctoral students in a range of research fields and from around the world. More than one hundred doctoral theses have been presented over the years, a number that will certainly increase as we look towards the future. We highlighted this in a variety of ways, but primarily through a digital celebration that included past and present doctoral students, representatives from Södertörn University and previous directors of studies.

We want to share two of the speeches given during the celebrations, by David Gaunt, emeritus professor, previously head of BEEGS, and Helene Carlbäck, associate professor and formerly director of studies at BEEGS. Along with the anniversary publication, they provide good insight into BEEGS’ first 20 years, not least the knowledge and the research contributed by our doctoral students.

David Gaunt - Professor Emeritus and former director of BEEGS

Baltic and East European Graduate School

How it all began

Södertörn University began to operate in 1996-97 with education in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. The vision, held by the leadership and supported by many politicians, was that it would quickly grow into a full research university by about 2005. To enable this a large endowment of research funds, The Baltic Sea Foundation, was attached to finance research on the Baltic and East European countries. This meant not only that it would be a new university, but also that it would have an international profile.

Preparations advanced in committee meetings to quickly change from only giving undergraduate education to training doctoral level scholars. The overriding dilemma was how to establish qualified East European regional studies in a basic educational institution where unfortunately most of the staff had previously no experience of that region or of research in any country outside of Sweden. Finding supervisors and teachers among Södertörn’s original staff who were willing to instruct doctoral students working on East European issues and in the English language to boot was not easy, but some courageous few were willing to “learn by doing”. Behind this was an idea that the experience of supervising doctoral students would be a spin-off spreading knowledge of the region among the teaching staff.

The step forward to full research university was controversial. A number of lecturers thought it was too soon and felt it outside their comfort zone. Realizing that the number of doctoral students would initially be small, an idea took hold to start an inter-disciplinary graduate school for doctoral students working on the area. It was deemed possible in those subjects which were qualified to teach master level courses and had docent and professor level teachers qualified to supervise doctoral students. At first only three disciplines filled these rules – ethnology, history and political science. Rather quickly, business administration, human geography and sociology also qualified.

At the start Södertörn had to cooperate with Stockholm University who would approve the Ph. D. theses. Contracts had to be signed with each involved discipline, faculty and university. All of these instances had their own rules and criteria for eligibility. This meant that our doctoral students had to balance between the rules and regulations of at least two different universities and two different departments. Misunderstandings over the various regulations were inevitable.

From the start, I argued that the graduate school needed to be coupled to a high-profile research centre with senior specialists who could create a vibrant research environment. At that time, my arguments fell on deaf ears. Finally, in 2005 CBEES came. During the interim I tried to fill the vacuum with as many conferences, seminars and guest researchers as possible.

The first intake of ten doctoral students was in autumn of 2000. Three each in ethnology, history and political science and one in history of ideas. To date six of the original ten have defended their theses and continued in research. And as of 2020 in total 105 of BEEGS students have completed their Ph. D.s exams.

When BEEGS was established no other graduate schools existed in Sweden to take as a model. National graduate schools started later and while they usually lasted only five or six years, BEEGS has lasted 20 and is still going strong. Södertörn’s leadership realized that time was running out if they were to be successful in gaining full university status, so I was designated early in 2000 to jump-start it to begin in the Autumn of 2000, Very many decisions and fixing the external contracts had to be made quickly. I took a model from the Stockholm Social Services where I had managed large research projects in conjunction with the ethnology department of Stockholm University. First of all, I knew that our doctoral students needed to have conditions that were better than in the older and more prestigious universities – that is their own on-campus work-place, their own computer, a personal budget for research travel, and solid administrative support. Some colleagues thought that our students were being spoiled and would be unprepared for the harsh outside world, leading at times to compromises that were not always well thought through.

The staff was very small only me – at part time loaned from the history department - and Lena Arvidson who was the administratively responsible person. Lena was very efficient at developing the administrative routines that Södertörn did not yet have and were custom-designed for international students. Realizing this was an insufficient research environment we tried to fill the gap with various activities – annual conferences and study trips to countries in the region. A very important step was to use the contacts that the doctoral students already had as a resource in international networking. So, it became a common practise that our doctoral students aided us in establishing relations with their undergraduate universities, thus quickly giving us access to international networks. However, at home BEEGS was constantly criticized for being a world apart from the rest of Södertörn and demands came for greater integration. There was a need to balance the mission to be the avantgarde of East European research with the need to integrate our students into the everyday life of their respective departments. This tension still persists to some extent.

Helene Carlbäck, Associate Professor and former BEEGS Director of Studies

”Voices of the past”, Helene speaking at BEEGS Twentieth Anniversary 15 December 2020

Thank you, David. I’d like to recall a few voices from the past, from about fifteen years ago, to highlight some of the everyday implications of what you’ve just told us. Then we were right in the middle of dynamic changes and sometimes turbulent conditions – Södertörn university expanded fast to put it mildly. The early cohorts of BEEGS students had to move from place to place, not always best suited for quiet thinking and reading. This predicament can be seen in a questionnaire from 2006 aimed for evaluation of BEEGS: “I had to move five times during my first four years at BEEGS”, one student complained. “Once we were thirteen seated in a room, I was often distracted by phone calls and conversations. And: The kitchen sink in Tersen is messy”.

Tersen was one of the temporary buildings at Södertörn being pulled down later, and as we know, the situation with offices for doctoral students got much better over time, probably also the look of the kitchen sinks!

BEEGS’ aim at being an international and multidisciplinary school with good material conditions, was an important motive for students to apply – according to answers to the question “Why did you choose BEEGS?” – “BEEGS promised an exciting, transboundary academic environment”, one voice echoed in the questionnaire. According to another, “it looked vital and ambitious, not defined by traditional academic structures that seem to shape research activities in places like Uppsala or Lund university.” And a third said: “I wanted to do a Ph.D. and I wanted to do so in an international environment. To be able to finance my research studies for four years sounded great! I would be an employee and a student at the same time.”

In his intervention David touched upon the challenge for the doctoral students to have to navigate through a complicated system of multiple actors and interested parties. Until Södertörn got the right to confer Ph.D. examination on its own (ten years ago) BEEGS students belonged to two universities, two academic departments, with a supervisor in each place. And it was not only Stockholm that could be the other university – for some it was Uppsala, or Linköping, or Lund, or Gothenburg.

This is how one student commented on the situation back then (perhaps you sense a deep sigh here): “All the different places I belong to – Stockholm University, Södertörn, BEEGS, my own academic department. The constant need to relate to corresponding hierarchies and to different people that see themselves as my ‘nearest boss’ – this has been confusing”.

Finally, it’s interesting to compare voices of the doctoral students from back then when they were right in the middle of the demanding and stressful work of writing a dissertation, with the voices we find in BEEGS Jubilee Booklet from former doctoral students now senior researchers looking back. I believe that most of our doctorates viewing their years at BEEGS and Södertörn in hindsight feel that, despite shifting conditions and sometimes rules that could be difficult to interpret especially in the early “settlers’ years”, they benefited from being confronted with the way other disciplines and other cultures frame research problems and theoretical matters. And that they benefited from the networks that were created both inside the doctoral school and at innumerous international and national conferences and workshops and seminars generously founded by The Foundation for Baltic and East European studies. For me, as Director of Studies from 2001 and ten years on, it was a fascinating experience, I truly enjoyed the exciting encounters with younger scholars from more than twenty different countries.

Reading their names, looking at their photos, listening to their voices in the beautiful booklet I begin my walk down memory lane.

Thank you for listening!

As part of our digital celebrations, we also launched the BEEGS 20th Anniversary Publication. Pdf, 920.9 kB. This highlights some of the people who, over the past two decades, have contributed to making BEEGS the unique research environment it now is.

The BEEGS 20th Anniversary Publication is available digitally and in print. Fill in the form to have a copy sent to you, External link. but please note that only a limited number are available.