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25 years

It is 1996, a group of scientists from the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN) decides to establish a new higher education institution. The scientists share the same values, inherent in science, and a common vision of an education model. They are ignited by a shared dissatisfaction with the quality of higher education available in Poland at the time.
Professor Andrzej Eliasz, co-founder and first Rector of SWPS University, talks about the early years of the Warsaw School of Social Psychology SWPS, which later has become SWPS University. In an interview with Professor Magdalena Marszał-Wiśniewska, he talks about choices he had to make while leading this huge undertaking, and about relationships and mutual trust shared with his colleagues.

Founding a University – Courage and Determination

Professor Magdalena Marszał-Wiśniewska: In 1996, together with two professors from the Institute of Psychology of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN), Professor Janusz Reykowski and Professor Zbigniew Pietrasiński, you established a new higher education institution – the Warsaw School of Social Psychology SWPS. By that time, some non-public higher education institutions had already been established in Poland. What spurred you to open another one?

Professor Andrzej Eliasz: Mainly irritation, because at the time, many newly-established universities were universities only in name. Many PAN professors, not only in our Institute, saw an opportunity to create something better. An idea to create a PAN University was also floated, however, it quickly sank, probably due to political reasons, but in the face of this failure, Leszek Kuźnicki, then President of PAN, was very supportive of establishing higher education institutions under the auspices of PAN Institutes.

Nevertheless, I would like to correct the question – actually initially, there were four co-founders in our group – all of them professors at the Institute of Psychology PAN. The group included also Professor Ida Kurcz, who unfortunately, due to personal reasons, could not come from Canada, where she was living at the time, and she could not sign the notarial deed establishing the university. So we were faced with a problem of postponing the foundation of the university for another year. However, Professor Ida Kurcz volunteered to withdraw from the founders groups. It was a very generous decision, which spared our idea from being “shelved”. I do remember about this gesture and I am very grateful to her.

Going back to your question, I would like to emphasize that the idea of creating something new, in other words something original and much better than the majority of the higher education institutions that had been established in Poland by then, emerged not only in the Institute of Psychology, but also in some of the PAN’s institutes of sciences. If I remember correctly, Szkoła Nauk Ścisłych (School of Sciences) was established under the auspices of PAN. The School was highly acclaimed and broke all stereotypes attributed to non-public universities. Unfortunately from the very beginning, it run into financial difficulties due to an insufficient number of applicants.

The idea of establishing a higher education institution, in cooperation with other institutes of the Academy, also came up at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of PAN. Together with Professor Reykowski, we participated in meetings with some of the professors from that Institute. Because there was a possibility of establishing a school under the auspices of two PAN institutes – the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology and the Institute of Psychology. We met with Professor Jadwiga Koralewicz, Professor Edmund Wnuk-Lipiński, and Professor Andrzej Rychard. We shared the same values, but had different ideas on the organization of the university. After many months, I proposed that we went our own ways, and that is how two different higher education institutions were founded, the Warsaw School of Social Psychology SWPS, and a year later – Collegium Civitas, and I can say that those were not just initial declarations pertaining to values, because time has shown that the university created by the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology is highly acclaimed nowadays. This is how it was at the beginning. The meetings that I mentioned earlier, took many months, which impacted our timelines. It was July 1996 when we finally received an approval to establish our higher education institution, and signed the notarial deed. We opened our admissions for the very first time in August 1996.

You wanted to create a different, innovative university. How did you intend for that difference and innovation to manifest?

A.E.: Through our programs of study and in the organization of the teaching process. When I presented the idea of the university in the Scientific Council meeting at the Institute of Psychology, I said that it should be a university we could be proud of. I mentioned that, because at the time, due to financial reasons, many employees of the Institute of Psychology had to work at various non-public universities but were embarrassed to talk about it. I clearly stressed that my wish was for everyone to actually boast about working at our university. I think that we have managed to archive this.

Establishing a new university was a very ambitious, but also an extremely difficult undertaking. What difficulties did you expect? Weren’t you afraid?

A.E.: Of course, the experience of Szkoła Nauk Ścisłych (School of Sciences) dictated caution. A great study program and academic staff of that university were sufficient to attract an adequate number of students. There was a strong probability that the same may happen to us, and we had to consider that. The beginning was like a wake up call. In August, I went to a conference in Brussels. I returned few days later, and it transpired that after the first week of admissions, we only had eight candidates. All of us, founders, met and we deliberated what should we do. One of the professors said: “It is a fiasco, we must give up”. However, I was optimistic. I bet him a good bottle of champagne, and I decided to risk it. I spent a large sum of money on advertising, which would have put a strain on my personal finances had it failed. In the end the risk payed off. In the first year we admitted over 500 candidates.

Apart from admissions, were you worried about anything else?

A.E.: Let me start with the huge risk that our first permanent employees took coming to work for us. They quit steady employment in usually renowned universities to begin working at a higher education institution, which was in a stage of initial development, and they had every right to be worried about their futures. I admire their courage, it strengthened my sense of responsibility. I knew I had to do anything to ensure that the university keeps developing. The strong engagement of the Institute's employees, who kept joining us one by one, gave us a reason to be optimistic and allowed us to believe in further development of the university. The problem was the university building or rather the lack of it. Although we were able to rent space in a historic building of the Stephen Báthory Secondary School in Warsaw, we could only teach there in the afternoons. We knew that we had to plan the financing of a future university building immediately, but it was not easy.

How was the idea of establishing a new university received by your colleagues from the Institute of Psychology PAN. If I understand correctly, they constituted a significant part of SWPS’s academic staff?

A.E.: It was best expressed by voting in a Scientific Council meeting at the Institute of Psychology PAN – only three people were against, everyone else enthusiastically supported the idea. Moreover, out of those three people, two have been working at our university practically since the very beginning.

I remember great enthusiasm and sustained engagement of all colleagues. There were people that I must mention here, who worked tirelessly to establish our university: Dr. Renata Karwowska and Dr. Zuzanna Smoleńska. During our pioneering days, there were also employees from our administrative department, who proved to be highly enthusiastic and professional, such as Maria Kalinowska, Ewa Kalińska, Walentyna Majewska, and Elżbieta Staszewska. Regrettably, I must stop listing names at this early stage of development. Otherwise, my answer would resemble an old-fashioned telephone directory, which young people have probably never heard of.

You also invited other people, not related to the Institute of Psychology PAN, to work at SWPS University, such as professors and educators from other universities, and new employees of the administrative department. What criteria did you use while selecting academic and administrative staff?

A.E.: We were looking mostly for an alignment of academics with our vision of the education program. We did not want to repeat the status quo, dominant at other Polish universities. We decided to develop our programs of study differently. We also introduced syllabuses. We were precursors in describing courses in psychology in that way and some employees regarded that requirement to be excessive. Moreover, we were pioneers of flexible programs, which provided students with a choice of classes. At the time, public universities predominantly offered fixed study plans and fixed classes, which was conducive to forming friendships and group relationships, but from the point of view of individual student development it was limiting. Syllabuses and flexible programs are wonderful solutions, that have been known and practiced in the United States for years. Nowadays, they are widely used in Poland.

From the very beginning, we made sure that the expertise of newly employed academic teachers was aligned with the program, and that specialists in each discipline really brought a lot of substance to teaching. There were also various eminent scholars, whom I encouraged to work with us, because of their prestige among psychologists. There are several people who have been with us from the very beginning, for example Professors Dariusz Doliński, Maria Jarymowicz, Mirosław Kofta, Wiesław Łukaszewski, Edward Nęcka, and Bogdan Wojciszke and whose standing, which I can say with satisfaction, has also increased the status of our university. These scientist are world-renowned. Of course, Professor Jan Strelau was another important person for us. He postponed his official move, but he promised to join us on the first day of his retirement, and this is what he did.

I am sure that I have omitted many people who should be mentioned here, but they joined us a bit later. Gradually, new stars representing various disciplines, were appearing on the firmament of our university. However, I would like to emphasize that these individuals – in themselves “brands” in Polish psychology – were hired not only because of our program, but also for the fact that regardless of what they wanted to say scientifically, it would have been of a great value to our students.

As far as the administrative staff goes, I remember that you repeatedly said that you were looking for kind people, with a positive attitude towards students, with strong interpersonal competencies. Was it taken into consideration during the recruitment of administrative employees?

A.E.: Yes. From the very beginning we set out to create a community of all employees and students. We were focused on creating a student-friendly and employee-friendly university.

It is October 1996. The university launches its first study program in Social Psychology. 500 students begin their studies. The first inauguration ceremony takes place. How do you recall this event? How did you feel at the time? Were you anxious?

A.E.: At that moment, my anxiety had already subsided, because such a large group of students was a proof that we were going in the right direction. I fully trusted the employees of the Institute of Psychology PAN, who had joined us, as well as those invited from other institutions. Furthermore, it quickly transpired that administrative employees were highly engaged, competent and trustworthy.

Where did the first inauguration ceremony take place?

A.E.: The inauguration ceremony took place in a beautiful auditorium of the Stephen Báthory Secondary School. I remember the opening lecture, because it was excellent. It was delivered by Professor Janusz Reykowski, Chair of the Program Committee of our university, who had made great contributions to the profile of the study programs, the improvement of the quality of education and the selection of academic staff. His prestigious standing of a renowned scholar was of great significance in this matter. The syllabuses proposed by academic teachers, were very diligently scrutinized under his watchful eye. Furthermore, we made sure that they were actually implemented. Professor Reykowski’s contributions to our university could not be overstated.

Campus at the Praga District of Warsaw

An important milestone for the academic community was building “a home” – the seat of the university, at the Praga district of Warsaw. What kind of a home did you envisage? What kind of a home did you dream about?

A.E.: I had detailed visions related to the people we wanted to attract, what study programs we should offer, and what university climate we wanted to create, but my ideas related to the building itself were rather foggy. Undoubtedly, I wanted for the building to be situated in a good location and to be impressive. The Stephen Báthory Secondary School was a reference point for me. Those who witnessed my engagement in the selection of our Sopot campus probably know what I mean. We argued where we should buy a building suitable for adaptation as a university. I also remember discussions about the post-industrial building at Chodakowska street. I strongly hesitated, mainly due to the surroundings and the location, however the majority of the colleagues voted for that building. After all those years, I must admit that they were right.

At the time, I looked at the location in a static way – the surroundings were ugly, the houses were built later. For example, the court building opposite the university is a nice building nowadays, but it used to be a ruin. In the space between the court building and our university, there were various crumbling houses and old workshops. At the beginning, there were also social problems in the neighborhood. Due to some assaults on our students, especially in the evenings, for a while we had to employ security guards who were not only guarding the premises, but were also patrolling the path to the bus and tram stops. We also had to deal with media criticism – how dared we select a location, where we could not guarantee the safety of our students. So, the beginnings were hard, but from where we stand today, I must admit that those who opted for this location were definitely right.

siedziba warszawa 02

SWPS Unversity, Warsaw Campus

I also think that establishing our university here has influenced developers to build houses in the area, and entrepreneurs to open numerous small shops, restaurants and small business offering different services. I doubt that this growth would have happened so fast if it was not for our presence here. In any rate, today it is a safe place. I also believe that Stowarzyszenie “Wspólne Podwórko” (“Our Playground” Association), which emerged as a continuation of the Community Initiative of Employees and Students of the Warsaw School of Social Psychology SWPS, played a huge role in transforming the climate of this place.

What I like in the building itself is the clear organization of the space. Anyone who enters the building once, can find any place without difficulty. Over the past few years, the building has been modernized and enhanced visually. Subsequent renovations have improved the esthetics, there is an internal courtyard, and further improvements are in the plans.

Additionally, I think that the common areas are a great asset of the building.

A.E.: I am very happy about this aspect, especially as a psychologist of individual differences and as someone specializing in ecological psychology. A branch of psychology which researches the role of physical environment on behavior, indicates that common spaces are not useless, they provide an opportunity for community building. Such common areas like courtyards and gardens are very important for creating a human-friendly space that attracts students and employees. It entices them to spend time there, be together, and integrate outside of the classroom.

University Development - Milestones

From the very beginning, SWPS has been developing very rapidly. Now, I would like to talk about the milestones in this development. Undoubtedly, one of them was the idea of launching other study programs. What was the motivation behind it?

A.E.: From the very beginning, I was aware that a series university must create a diverse research community. This development was rather natural – if you are launching a social psychology program, then you should hire sociologists and develop a sociology study program. Not only our social psychology program, but also the political psychology studies were strong. So it was obvious that we should invite political scientists to work with us, and establish a political science program. We had cross-cultural psychology, so we liaised with cultural anthropologists and we began working on developing a cultural studies program.

Nowadays not many people remember that we also offered studies in philosophy. I thought that philosophy, as a core of humanities, should be on offer at SWPS. Incidentally, when I was convincing our community about the need to launch a program in philosophy, I was already thinking about upgrading the status of our school to a university. At the time, that goal seemed unrealistic and I was reluctant to even talk about it. Philosophy courses did not last long and the philosophy study program attracted merely a small group of students, therefore, after a few years, with much regret, we had to cancel the program.

I remember the time from the first years of SWPS, when Professor Piotr Węgleński, then Rector of the University of Warsaw, gave an interview and was very critical about all non-public higher education institutions. He said that the non-public universities did not create a research community that would include representatives of various disciplines. I debated his point because it was important to me that SWPS be viewed differently from other non-public higher education institutions. This motivated our community to work even more diligently towards intensive scientific development and towards gaining subsequent rights to grant doctoral degrees. Here, I should mention the huge role that Professor Jan Strelau played in the development of our university.

Another milestone I would add was the launch of an interdisciplinary studies program, which allowed our university to stand out on the education market from the very beginning. For example, thanks to the initiative and engagement of Professor Andrzej Nowak, we developed a program in social psychology of IT and communication. These days, combining psychology and information technology is nothing new, but at the time it was definitely a novel idea. IT specialists used to develop computer programs, and perhaps they still do, as if they were writing these programs for themselves. In such a situation, we need a liaison between the computer scientist and the user, and the liaison should be a well-educated psychologist, who knows the basics of programming and the needs of users.

Another important event was the launch of the cognitive neuroscience program. It was the first program in Poland that combined cognitive science with neuro science. Other higher education institutions offered studies in cognitive science, but thanks to our collaboration with the Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology PAN, we offered a program in cognitive neuroscience, as the first university in Poland. It is an excellent Institute. To become a partner of such a renowned institution, SWPS had to be highly regarded by then. I discussed a joined doctoral studies program and studies in neuroscience with Professor Jerzy Duszyński, who held the position of the Institute’s Director at the time, and who currently is the President of PAN. Professor Duszyński was a great proponent of collaboration with SWPS. Our discussions were very amicable and efficient, but unexpectedly Professor Duszyński was appointed to the position of Deputy Minister of Science and Higher Education. At the Institute, he was replaced by Professor Adam Szewczyk who, luckily, continued our discussions and we signed the agreement. This cooperation has been ongoing since then. It was a huge step towards the future. In my opinion, our program in psychology with the specialization in cognitive neuroscience has improved the quality of education at SWPS.

Another pivotal point was establishing faculties in other cities around the country. In 2002, the Faculty of Psychology in Sopot, and subsequently the faculties in Wrocław, Poznań, and Katowice were established. Where this idea of launching branches in other cities came from?

A.E.: When I reviewed the work of the leading psychologists working in various centers around Poland (again, we started with psychology in our new locations), it transpired that everyone of them specialized in a different sub-field. So it would be beneficial to complement our social psychology program offered in Warsaw with other specializations beyond social psychology, in other centers in the country. This is where the idea of launching branches in other cities came from. Of course there were advantages and disadvantages to that situation.

Currently, the dominant view is that our initial idea presented mostly disadvantages, and now the trend is to unify study programs in different centers, which will, for example, facilitate easy transfers of students from one center to another. We must also remember that the development of our faculties in other parts of Poland was possible thanks to large groups of scholars from other centers in the country that we invited to work with us. I took advantage of our good relationships with all those individuals. When I talked with Dariusz Doliński, I knew that if we came to an agreement with respect to establishing a faculty in Wrocław, he would come to us with many other academics, and this was what happened. The same applied to other centers, for example in Sopot, Alina Kolańczyk and Bogdan Wojciszke created the Faculty of Psychology.

You talked about a certain research and scientific profile of various academic communities beyond Warsaw, but you probably also took into consideration the increasing number of students who wanted to study at SWPS.

A.E.: Of course, we knew that students from all over Poland studied at our university. For example, many people from Poznań were coming to Warsaw to study, therefore we launched a study program there. It was helpful that President Piotr Voelkel, who took over the role of the University’s Founder, was from Poznań. Prior to that, he had opened a school there, which currently is called Collegium da Vinci. Thanks to Mr. Voelkel, our Faculty of Psychology could be launched in the beautiful building of that school. After a while, Professor Anna Zalewska, who had greatly contributed to the development of that Faculty, was appointed the Faculty Dean. On the other hand, the newly established Faculty in Katowice was led by Professor Katarzyna Popiołek, who created a unique atmosphere of collaboration there, conducive to the development of a strong community.

Common Dreams – SWPS University

In 2015, the Warsaw School of Social Psychology SWPS became a university. Under the name of SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities. This change did not happen overnight, it required many years of preparations. Why was it so important for our community?

A.E.: The idea of upgrading our school to the university status occurred to me many years earlier, but I am sure that it also occurred to many other people. After all a university status means a lot. Achieving a university status is like changing a weight category, speaking in sports terms. University status is a heavy weight category. However, when we were introducing new study programs, other than psychology, which was the initial step to achieving the distant goal, some employees protested, saying that it would be detrimental to psychology. Occasionally, these voices were very insistent. In those situations I argued that these costs that weigh on the psychologists are only temporary, but in the long run offering new study programs would grow interest in our university, increase its status and prestige, and in consequence, bring benefits to psychologists as well.

At some point, the idea of a university turned into a generally accepted goal, which motivated the whole SWPS community to work towards further development. The unity of the common dream was almost palpable. However, just before the final realization of the idea, some voices emerged that we should step away from our plan, because it was disadvantageous to us. We were told that, at the time, we were among top non-public higher education institution in Poland, and when we formally became a university, we would trail far behind other universities. I had a very strong argument against these voices. I referred to the reports of the National Science Centre, issued prior to SWPS becoming a university. At the time, our school was ranked fourth among other post-secondary schools in Warsaw, and as far as the number of grants in the humanities and social sciences categories were concerned, were ranked 15th in Poland. So even then we were not trailing behind other universities, and now our position is even stronger.

I remember the surprise on the faces of some rectors, when in CRASP meetings they became aware of our successes measured by the number and value of secured grants, and by the level of the evaluation categories granted to our university by accreditation bodies. Then-Chairman of the National Science Centre’s Council, Professor Michał Karoński, publicly expressed his appreciation of SWPS’s achievements. Hence, I had no qualms, that we would be trailing behind the fully-fletched universities. I knew we would be a credible university with a social sciences and humanities profile, because this is how the universities were categorized at the time – as fully-fletched, multi-disciplinary universities and those with narrower profiles.

How was the change of the status from a higher education institution to a university received by employees and students?

A.E.: When we were about to become a university with a social-sciences and humanities profile, I observed a growing enthusiasm among employees. So I was pretty sure of their reaction. However, I did not expect the reaction of students, who were euphoric about their alma mater achieving the status of a university. We were and so far, we have been the only non-public university in Poland. It is worth mentioning that from the very beginning we were ranked higher than other universities with a specific profile, and also higher than even some fully-fletched multi-disciplinary universities.

I remember the lively discussion in one of the Senate meetings about the name of the new University. Could you tell us more about it?

A.E.: Regulations mandated that the adjective supplementing the name of the university should reflect the main profile of the institution. To be granted the status of a university with a specific profile, a school had to have the right to grant doctoral degrees in at least six disciplines. At the time, we were entitled to grant these degrees in six categories and the seventh one was waiting for a final approval. Besides the rights to grant doctoral degrees in those six disciplines, we also had rights to grant post-doctoral degrees (habilitacja) in three disciplines, which for some reason did not make a difference. As far as the rights to grant doctoral degrees were concerned, four of them pertained to social sciences, and two to humanities. If we wanted to name our university according to the rules, we should have named it “social sciences university”, which would be ambiguous. Therefore, we excluded this possibility right away. Luckily, there was an excellent linguist amongst us. Professor Jerzy Bralczyk (who also significantly contributed to the development of our university), who immediately proposed a solution. He said that we should use a compound adjective, but without a hyphen, like in a Polish adjective perłowoszary (pearl-gray). It means a predominantly gray color with a hint of pearl sheen. In Polish, hyphenated adjectives, e.g. perłowo-szary (pearl-gray) denote equality of the compound words, in this case an equal measure of pearl and gray. Therefore, we could not use a hyphen in names such as huamnistyczno-społeczny (humanities-social sciences) or społeczno-humanistyczny (social sciences-humanities), because it would denote an equal weight of both disciplines. There was a clear domination of social sciences. Therefore, we submitted a name humanistycznospołeczny (of social sciences and humanities) to the Ministry, because this was a university with the main social sciences profile, but with a very important component of humanities. I would also like to add that the official Polish abbreviation, registered with the Ministry is Uniwersytet SWPS (SWPS University), not USWPS, as some people use.

You held the position of the Rector of our university for many years. Has this changed your life?

A.E.: Every long-lasting relationship changes a person. For example, my family had a very beneficial influence on me. When I talked with my son and daughter, they sometimes would say: “Dad, wake up, you are not in a lecture hall, you are talking to your son/daughter”, in other words, they would bring me back to earth form the orbit of an overenthusiastic lecturer. Similarly the academic community, where I spent a lot of time, was shaping me gradually. Because this community includes wonderful people, it was very beneficial to me.

The process of organizing the university required listening. I devoted quite a lot of time to long conversations with employees. However, these conversations were needed to understand what was important both for the students and for employees. I particularly remember a conversation with one of the professors, who transferred to one of our campuses in another city. When we completed all required paperwork, I asked him why he was transferring, and he said: “You know, at the beginning I could solve any problems with you at any time, even in the stairwell, if I happened to run into you, or I used to drop in for coffee to talk things through. Now, there is a barrier of the Rector’s Office. Over there, I have found a smaller and quieter place again, where relationships are less formal”. Undoubtedly, the growing scale of our university was changing our relationships, and then I realized that despite the growth and the multi-level structure of the organization, it was important to maintain personal relationships, of course where it was possible. Therefore, just as the university was developing, I was changing, the relationships between employees were evolving, but I tried to preserve elements that were crucial for interpersonal relationships.

After 20 years of holding the post of the Rector and in a year of my significant birthday, the time has come to say goodbye. I was deeply moved by the words of some employees, who at the time told me that I had changed their lives by employing them at SWPS University. This was extremely important to me. I remember a letter that one of the professors wrote to me and said something like this: “You know, we quarreled and argued about many issues, but I can say that I never had to write down anything, because everything we agreed upon was always implemented”, and he added “sometimes, after one of those conversations, I would go back home very happy, and only there I would realize that actually, I did not achieve what I intended, during our conversation”. Because organization of any project requires not only meeting expectations, but also showing some constraints. And this is one of the aspects of being a boss. So this is what I did, but I tried to do it without sparking animosity. As you can see, sometimes I was successful.

Since you have asked about my personal life, I must add that I experienced some losses. When I accepted the position of the rector, I was a very active researcher, an engaged scientist, and I was hoping for a fast track to my research career. However, due to the burdens of being a rector, for several years and with great difficulty, I had to divide my time between fulfilling the responsibilities of being a researcher and being a rector. The same year I became the Rector of SWPS, I was accepted to the Presidium of the European Association of Personality Psychology (EAPP), and a few years later, I became the Chair of the Association. Moreover, at the same time, with yourself and my other collaborators, we conducted an international research project, together with Professor Hermann Brandstätter and his team. I was leading an international research team, together with Professor Brandstätter. We wrote a book together (you also contributed) and everything pointed towards further international cooperation.... alas it was no longer possible. I felt that my research work suffered because of my duties related to being a rector, and vice versa. Therefore, I began to gradually withdraw from active research.

Looking back, I deeply regret this premature retirement as a researcher, but as I said, I was not able to combine these two roles. My sense of responsibility towards others, those whom I hired and those whom I promised a great community, has won.

This is a true sense of responsibility, one of SWPS University’s values, which, as we can see, has been practiced from the very beginning of its existence.

A.E.: The majority of employees from the Institute of Psychology PAN displayed a strong sense of responsibility, and they participated in the development of this university with great enthusiasm. The core of the academic staff represented the highest level of professionalism and this attracted new, wonderful researchers.

I meant your own sense of responsibility, which made you give something up.

A.E.: Yes, but I was spurred by the courage of those people, who left steady employment to come here and co-create SWPS. Nowadays, for many people, working at SWPS University means prestige, but at the beginning it required courage. There was always a risk of a partial failure. Furthermore, at the time a non-public university was associated with negative stereotypes, which we had to battle for many years. I can say with a dose of satisfaction that those who were very critical about non-public higher education institution, have by now begun including our university – and only a few others – as an example to which these skeptical opinions do not apply. We have been steadily catching up with the best, which makes me very happy.

Twenty years of being a rector means a lot of memories. Do you have any memories particularly near and dear to your heart?

A.E.: When I was retiring, I heard that I had changed someone’s life – this is something that I remember very well and it is a memory that is very dear to my heart. I also have other fond memories. For example, I parted ways with one of the professors, perhaps not in anger, but I made him leave, because I was critical about his behavior. He was upset and said that he was gladly leaving. Two years later he wrote to me: “Dear Andrzej, the distance allowed by to appreciate SWPS University”, and he added many good words about our university. Finally, he asked if I would consider hiring him again. I always considered this professor an excellent scientist, so I rehired him with pleasure, of course on the condition that he would not behave in a way I disapproved of. He has been our employee ever since, which has been mutually beneficial, and I am extremely glad about it.

The way this situation played out is of a great importance to me. Because it shows that people appreciate our community, even if they come to realize it after a while.

Future of Education – Role of Liberal Arts

Let’s talk, for a minute, about the future. Thinking about the future of SWPS University, what directions of development would you indicate for the institution in the face of new and rapidly changing challenges of the contemporary world.

A.E.: People who are significantly younger than me should be talking about the future, so I will not preach about this here. However, I will tell you about what I have not managed to achieve. I dreamed about giving much more importance to electives, mostly in the arts.

Not many people know that you are an art connoisseur.

A.E.: It is an over exaggeration, but certainty I do appreciate the significance of art in education and personal life. It would be beneficial to follow American universities in this regard. Student development must include art classes. This is what we lack, yet, to develop tolerance and openness, one must also foster a connection with art. Milan Kundera said that when we read a novel, we are walking in someone else’s shoes. He used this phrase when he wrote about the role of a novel in the process of spreading democracy, because democracy requires understanding of others, which helps to reach a compromise.

A literary scholar, Rector of the University of Silesia, Professor Ryszard Koziołek, noted that while reading a novel, one must create scenarios of an imagined reality. Good art is polysemic, with protagonists who have rich internal lives, who live and act in surprising and diverse situations. A contact with this type of art enriches one’s ideas about the world, and it even enriches dreams. It prepares young people for openness towards the world, and makes real life relationships, with people similar to those protagonists, easier. On the other hand poor art, such as mediocre literature, is conducive to simplification, because everything there is two-dimensional, stereotypical and simple.

bestiarium 01

“Bestiarium 2.0”, an exhibition of Mariola Wawrzusiak’s sculptures, presented at SWPS University campus in Warsaw, in January 2018.

In other words, developing openness through art?

A.E.: Developing openness also though art. As I said, I have not achieved that. Students very reluctantly accept elective classes that extend beyond their chosen discipline. They want to quickly specialize in their discipline. Once, at SWPS University, I quoted the worda of Professor Christopher Eisgruber, a former Rector of Princeton University, who at the end of his term in office, delivered a beautiful speech and said: “Students form around the world dream of studying at Princeton. Researchers from around the world dream of working at Princeton. Governments of many countries around the world dream of having a university like ours in their countries,” and then he added that journalists and politicians asked him all the time whether education with a big liberal arts component made sense. Currently these include arts, humanities, and social sciences.

It turns out that a domination of utilitarian thinking is ubiquitous. Practical advantages resulting from education, which only seemingly is useless, are not appreciated. In this context, it is worth mentioning a maxim, which resulted from Max Weber’s research: “culture determines almost everything”, including the countries’ economic development. I will also mention the meaningful title of Martha Nussbaum’s book: “Not for Profit. Why Democracy Needs the Humanities”.

I asked you about the directions of development for SWPS University in the face of contemporary challenges. What do you think about the challenge posed by the rapid technological development?

A.E.: It is a significant challenge because new technologies, among other things, change the brains of adolescents. Over fifty years ago, Marshall McLuhan noted that “the medium is the message”. It seems that at the time, that extraordinary thought was not universally understood. Nowadays, we acutely experience that it is not only the message that influences the way we think. It transpires that the internet shapes our brains. People emerged in the virtual world come across a barrage of disjointed information, which makes for a shallow reception, and their brains become “shallow”. Moreover, neuro-physiological studies have indicated that people who spend a lot of time in the digital world get used to reading short and topic-diverse messages, which additionally, rapidly follow one after another. This type of training “reformats” their brains, making them ready to comprehend short texts, and constantly jumping to new content. This hinders reading of longer texts and inhibits development of linear thinking. Hence, it is the way the brains of digital world’s inhabitants function, and not their laziness, which impedes longer concentration. Teachers at all levels of education deal with many such pupils and students nowadays.

Educators around the world are currently facing the following problem: how should they teach and what should they do to take advantage of advantages offered by new technologies, and at the same time, minimize threats resulting from using them. For the time being, young people are educated in the same way as the previous generations were, as if pupils and students were the same as their predecessors. Generals also prepare their armies for wars that have already happened...

What about the pandemic? This challenge has emerged only recently.

A.E.: The pandemic is a huge challenge for education and educators. Our university has coped with distance education very well. Many public universities began thinking about e-learning only when they were faced with the pandemic, while at SWPS University this form of teaching has been used for the past several years. Even before the pandemic, I talked about the so-called flipped classroom, which was successfully introduced in the USA. Elements that took place at the university have been moved to students’ homes, and the work that student used to do at home, have been transferred to universities. Students can easily listen to lectures from home, while working on various tasks, including team projects that are extremely important for learning the principles of team work, should take place on campus. The pandemic may accelerate changes in the education model, including those going in the direction of flipped classroom.

Thank you for this conversation.

A.E.: Thank you. I would also like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to all my coworkers, from all departments of SWPS University, with whom I had a privilege to work. Please forgive my concentration on psychology, because psychology was the corner stone of the university, and psychology spearheaded the brilliant development of the University.

 

andrzej eliasz

Professor Andrzej Eliasz

is a co-founder and first rector of SWPS University (1996 to 2016). Prior to funding the Warsaw School of Social Psychology SWPS, he worked at the University of Warsaw until 1984, and subsequently at the Institute of Psychology of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN). Apart form his continuous contributions to the improvement of the quality of Polish higher education and the development of study programs, he held numerous positions of responsibility, including Deputy Director of the Institute of Psychology at the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN), Chair of the European Association of Personality Psychology, Editor in Chief of the Psychological Studies journal, and an editorial consultant of the European Journal of Personality Psychology. He was also Presidium member (intermittently for three terms) of the Conference of Rectors of Academic Schools in Poland (CRASP), and a member the President’s Council for Education and Research (2007-2010).

Professor Andrzej Eliasz specializes in psychology of individual differences, in particular in shaping of temperament over the course of human development, and the impact of temperament on personality development. He is also interested in ecological psychology. His studies on temperament, the correlations between temperament and character traits as well as the environment, resulted in the formulation of the Transactional Model of Temperament. The Model has inspired further research on temperament.

marszal-wisniewska

Professor Magdalena Marszał-Wiśniewska

 – is a psychologist. For many years, she had held the position of Vice-Dean of SWPS University’s Faculty of Psychology in Warsaw, where she has been working from its inception. She is the Head of the Department of Psychology of Individual Differences, Diagnosis and Psychometric Research. Professor Marszał-Wiśniewska specializes in psychology of individual differences as well as personality psychology and personality psychopathology.

She is a proponent of a differential-processual approach, combining questionnaire and experimental research. Some of her studies focus on the mechanisms of volitional control. She is interested, in particular, in the way temperament and volitional competencies influence human behavior in everyday situations, and what the consequences of potential misalignment of volitional competencies to one’s temperamental abilities are.

She also researches mood dynamics and regulation as well as individual and environmental determinants of mood disorders. Recently, she has become interested in the influence of time perception on human behavior, and the impact of personal differences on this matter.

Professor Marszał-Wiśniewska has published numerous articles on perseverance, volitional control and ways of researching this topic, emotion regulation, personality structure, human behavior in difficult situations, and mood disorders.

For many years, she was combining research and academic teaching, with psycho-therapeutic and coaching practice (she holds a coaching certificate from the Polish Psychological Association). She specialized in brief therapy (mainly in the Ericksonian therapy), and addiction therapy.

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About SWPS University

SWPS University excels in exploring the human mind and applying this expertise to address practical challenges of today and tomorrow. We believe that through better understanding of human intelligence we can learn to thrive in the world of new technologies and dynamic social change.

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