Panel on Ukraine Excludes Ukrainian Expertise

On Monday evening, psychology professor Anna Fisher logged out of Zoom and broke down. The invasion of her birth country by the country that raised her was devastating enough. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was an event hosted by Carnegie Mellon’s Institute for Politics and Strategy (IPS): “On the Brink: A Panel Discussion on Russia and Ukraine.”

“The forum that included ‘Ukraine’ in its name did not include a panelist with expertise in Ukraine,” said Fisher in an interview with The Tartan. She was deeply upset by the lack of representation of a country that was ostensibly the central focus of the event.

Fisher, who is an associate professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon, was born in Ukraine and raised in Russia. Since war began between the two countries on Thursday, Feb. 24, she has been searching for spaces in which she can find solidarity.

The panel was scheduled for 5 p.m. but began eight minutes late due to unexpectedly high turn-out. At 5:48 p.m., Fisher submitted a message to Q&A, which could only be seen by hosts. In screenshots provided to The Tartan, Fisher commented: “So far the Ukrainian perspective is sorely missing from the panel.” No response. At 6:04 p.m., she tried again: “HOW can we have this forum on Ukraine and Russia with ONLY the Russian perspective represented in the panel?” No response.

At 6:07 p.m., Fisher asked: “Can the first speaker address why Crimea being gifted to Ukraine in the 1950s is relevant, but it is not relevant to mention that in 1994 Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons in exchange [for] guarantees signed by Russia, the U.S., and the U.K. to respect the integrity of its border including Crimea?” Again, no response.

“We each had a very brief time to speak, which made it impossible to answer all the excellent questions that had been placed in the chat,” explained Paul Mellon Distinguished Professor of History Wendy Goldman, who presented her expertise as a Russian historian at Monday’s panel. Goldman told The Tartan that while planning the event, she and her colleagues decided to speak about their own specialties, to provide students with “a scholarly point of view.”

Professor Andreea Ritivoi, who is the head of the English Department, moderated Monday’s event. “The panel was originally planned well in advance of the current situation in the Ukraine,” Ritivoi wrote in an email to The Tartan. “We originally considered drawing upon the expertise of the Institute for Politics and Strategy’s Military Fellows but given sensitivities surrounding active-duty members of the military commenting on an active conflict, this option did not move forward.”

This narrowed the scope of possible perspectives, given the niche nature of the war. For Global Studies Director Emanuela Grama, an expert of 20th century Central and Eastern European history, that meant speaking about an especially specific subject: Romania. In an email to the event’s organizers, Grama wrote: “I will defer to the expertise of other scholars on the panel regarding the Ukrainian-Russian relations, but I'd be glad to share my knowledge about how the current crisis has been viewed and reported on in the neighboring countries — and more specifically, Romania.”

During his portion of the panel, Assistant Teaching Professor of Russian Studies David Parker debunked Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims of denazification as a basis for invasion. In an email to The Tartan, he outlined his presentation, which provided “background on the abuse of the ‘neo-nazi’ label and Putin's leveraging of this history as [baseless] motivation for the execution of this horrible war.”

The fourth panelist, IPS Assistant Professor Daniel Silverman, could not be reached for comment.

While Fisher did not blame the panelists and values academic freedom, she wishes the university had included an expert on Ukraine. Fisher personally disagreed with many of the points made during the event. Yet, after growing up in Russia, a country with a history of strict media censorship, she appreciates the academic freedom intrinsic to American higher education.

In an email to The Tartan, Grama acknowledged a mistake she made while presenting. “When I briefly mentioned the missiles NATO moved from Turkey to Romania, I said ‘nuclear missiles.’ That is not accurate — the slide of my presentation did mention ballistic missiles on Romania's territory, but I did not say that, and that was a significant mistake,” she wrote. “There are no nuclear missiles on Romania's territory.”

Another source of disconnect from the panel stemmed from its focus on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) exacerbation of tensions between Ukraine and Russia. But Ukraine, as a sovereign state, can have aspirations to join alliances of its own choosing.

Grama expressed her hope that the informational shortcomings would be addressed if the panel’s recording was made public to the Carnegie Mellon community.

When a student mentioned to Fisher that another professor was hosting a small event on the evening of Feb. 24, Fisher was eager to join. “I wanted to be with other people who cared,” she explained.

Fisher gathered around the computer screen with her husband and two daughters that night. They watched, listened, and felt the loneliness slip away for an hour and a half as Professor Emanuela Grama led an emergency teach-in.

Immediately after learning that Russian forces had attacked Ukraine, Grama began pulling a presentation together. In an interview with The Tartan prior to the IPS panel, Grama explained that she wanted to introduce her students to the context of the conflict and provide a space for questions.

For Fisher, this was a welcome reprieve from the mayhem of the past few hours. After the session, she sent a thank-you to Grama and drafted an email to her students. Fisher hoped “to host a forum — not for teaching,” she explained, but rather as a space for “people who just want to be together and grieve.”

Fisher’s informal forum was planned for March 2, but after watching Monday’s panel, she understood that a shift in tone was necessary. In addition to creating a discussion-based space, Fisher unpacked the elements of the previous night’s panel that she found most problematic. “We have many people who left this forum with a lopsided understanding of this crisis,” she explained, necessitating a direct response by university leadership. Fisher emphasized that to support Ukraine, the Carnegie Mellon community must first recognize its legitimacy.

Ritivoi told The Tartan about plans for a “a second panel discussion to continue the conversation about … the crisis in Ukraine. This will include experts on Ukraine’s history, politics, and culture.”

“I think that the Dietrich College has the responsibility to take corrective action,” Fisher wrote in a follow-up email to The Tartan. “Whether or not another forum happens, I think every person who registered for Monday’s event should receive an email with an explanation for why the event was problematic (despite some excellent presentations) and links to resources that speak to [Ukrainian expertise].”