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.