Photo of Roman Sheremeta

Weatherhead School’s Roman Sheremeta works to launch university in Ukraine

As talks of a Russian invasion intensify, Roman Sheremeta remains in Ukraine working to bring “a beacon of light” to his home country.

Sheremeta, an associate professor of economics at Case Western Reserve University, returned to Ukraine—while still teaching in Weatherhead School of Management’s online MBA in healthcare management program—to open the country’s first “American-style” higher education institution, American University Kyiv (AUK). He’ll begin a temporary leave of absence from Case Western Reserve in July to become AUK’s founding rector, essentially its top academic official, before he eventually returns to his family and career in Cleveland and at CWRU.

“It’s always been my dream to go back to Ukraine and share what I have learned in the States,” Sheremeta said in a Zoom interview Monday—about an hour after the U.S. government announced it had shuttered its embassy in the capital city of Kyiv due to the buildup of Russian troops surrounding Ukrainian borders. “Obviously I was not planning to be in Ukraine during a potential Russian invasion—that was on nobody’s radar. But it’s an exciting project.”

Rebooting Ukrainian education

It’s one that Sheremeta calls “probably the biggest educational project of Ukraine” since the country’s independence in 1991.

“After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian higher education system has been on the decline … and the educational value of the diploma has significantly decreased,” Sheremeta explained. “If you look at the Times Higher Education list, in the top 500 universities in the world, you won’t find a single Ukrainian one. But we have 2.5 times more universities per capita than Great Britain. So we should be doing really well, but we’re not.”

With the launch of American University Kyiv, a partnership with Arizona State University, Sheremeta and the leadership at AUK are looking to “reboot the system.”

First, he explained, they’re “setting an American standard” of what high-quality education looks like. Second, they hope to shift the view of a university education from what’s typically seen as a “parent-forced” diploma to a career-centered opportunity.

“At Weatherhead School of Management, we make sure our degrees are very relevant. We make sure our students go to top companies prepared to start a career and that they’re very employable,” Sheremeta said. “That’s not the case in Ukraine. As you graduate from a university, the education is very detached from reality.”

AUK is slated to open in July with two schools, business administration and digital technologies, before launching an engineering school in 2023.

Because it has “so much value proposition,” Sheremeta is confident Ukrainian students will be drawn to AUK—once the university can officially open.

Opening amid turmoil

The timing of launching AUK, with Russian and Belarusian fighter jets performing military exercises near Ukraine’s border Monday, has proven challenging. 

Though his role as founding rector doesn’t officially start until summer, Sheremeta still is thinking about big questions: What if they can’t fully launch because of the invasion? Will this affect donors, including large U.S. and international companies, that have invested in the institution? And, perhaps most importantly, who will teach the students?

“Obviously if there are high-stakes risks that involve a potential invasion from Russia and U.S. citizens are asked to evacuate Kyiv and Ukraine, it’s going to be difficult to involve U.S.—or even European for that matter—faculty,” Sheremeta explained, noting that he is hopeful U.S. faculty will consider showing their support of, and sharing their expertise with, Ukrainians by teaching.

Yet even with the extreme circumstances—including needing an evacuation plan to safely exit Ukraine if necessary—Sheremeta is excited by what the university could mean for the future of his home country.

“There’s a lot of headwinds that are facing this project, but this has become sort of iconic in Ukraine right now,” Sheremeta noted. “It’s a beacon of light in a pretty dark tunnel.”

Sheremeta suggests individuals who want to show their support for Ukraine do so vocally and/or financially, considering supporting a humanitarian aid organization even before a potential invasion occurs.