COMMUNITY

Princeton’s Hellenic Studies Center gets new Athens home

APOSTOLOS LAKASAS

TAGS: Education, Interview

Dimitri Gondicas speaks passionately but modestly when discussing the new branch of Princeton University’s Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies in Athens.

Gondicas has been at Princeton since the 1970s, first as a student of physics and then as a lecturer in Modern Greek, going on to become the director of the Seeger Center of Hellenic Studies in 2010.

“The first foreign students to attend Princeton on a scholarship were Greeks. They were brought from Cephalonia in 1825 and presented to the university as descendants of Pericles and Plato,” says Gondicas.

“I have been very fortunate to have the honor of serving in the field of Greek letters at a leading university that cultivates the humanities, in an excellent academic environment where Hellenic studies have a solid foundation. I have had the opportunity to work with distinguished colleagues – such as Edmund Keeley, Alexander Nehamas and Peter Brown – whose work has advertised Hellenic studies worldwide and who support our collective effort.”

Gondicas explains that other than the study programs and academic chairs it has helped create, the center also arranges for students and professors to visit Greece for on-site research and studies, as well as to work with their Greek counterparts. It further provides research grants for Greek and non-Greek scientists, and works with Greek museums and institutions.

The center’s history dates back to 1979, when Princeton established the Program in Hellenic Studies – thanks to a generous donation from philhellene alumnus Stanley J. Seeger – which later evolved into the Center for Hellenic Studies.

“We wanted the program and the center to act as a bridge between different scientific areas and a link between Princeton and Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean,” says Gondicas of the Athens Center for Research and Hellenic Studies.

What is the next step?

The aim of the new center in Athens is to offer support to high-level research in the humanities and social sciences and to promote Hellenic studies. We aim to bolster our already active scientific cooperation network with Greek academics and Greek institutions.

How will the new center be funded?

Resources will come exclusively from funds from the Seeger trust, as well as donations from graduates and friends of Princeton’s Center for Hellenic Studies.

Where is it based?

In a small interwar building that we have renovated with respect for its architectural identity. We chose the neighborhood of Pangrati, which is dynamic and a short distance from scientific institutions, museums and libraries.

What is your view of Greece from overseas?

I work in the US but have very strong professional and personal ties with Greece, so I have a firsthand view of the situation. Despite the ills of the crisis at every level (economic, institutional, social), society has endured. It has not ruptured. I believe this is not due to the structures and welfare institutions of the state, which have basically collapsed. The Greek family is still guided by certain values and sustained by a sense of dignity and pride. Despite the existence of extreme, anti-democratic and violent phenomena in public life, the economic migrant, once a “xenos” (stranger/alien), has now become a member of the community, accepted and respected – eventually – for this diversity. This brings us to the subject of cutbacks in funding for the humanities. The cultural flexibility to coexist with the xenos, to evolve into that kind of person, is something that lies within us following centuries of cultural dialogue with the “other” and is a comparative advantage that we should be cultivating – without arrogance, of course. This is also evident in the way that we have reacted to the refugee crisis.

Do you believe that Greece should reach out to the diaspora for solutions?

The Greek diaspora alone cannot find the solution for Greece. But, with a strategic vision, with imagination and with innovative thinking from both sides, the “communities of Greeks” can inject the country with new ideas and people. Stemming and reversing the outflow of manpower and equal partnerships with Greeks abroad should be the priority in order to launch the country beyond the crisis.

What would you say was the biggest problem in the Greek university system?

I wouldn’t like to approach such an important and complex question with haste, but here are a few thoughts: Public universities in Greece are centralized and weighed down by bureaucracy in terms of their structure. Interventions by the state often create more problems than they solve. In the Western world, universities are organized according to their own goals and function autonomously to a great degree, under conditions of transparency and constant (internal and external) assessment. We should be worried about the fact that Greece has some very significant pockets of excellence and many scientists – in Greece and abroad – who are internationally distinguished, yet its universities fare badly in international rankings. It is disappointing that excellence is not set out as a national goal, and this is a broader issue that affects the entire country. The way that society is organized, the institutional structures, rarely offer motives for fair competition, with transparency. Nevertheless, the human dynamic is there, it is competitive and extrovert, but is not given the opportunity to flourish. Of course it takes courage and generosity of spirit to make way for the younger generation and promising people so that they can pursue a leadership role in decision-making and institutional centers.

Can this change?

Of course it can, foremost on the condition that the university community wants it, and of course that the state allows institutional improvements and helps finance the effort. This takes planning and strategy, a set of priorities and not half-hearted efforts. It takes partnerships with leading institutions abroad in order to mobilize ties with the Greek scientific diaspora, with think tanks and with healthy entrepreneurship. The state needs to invest – also by forging public-private partnerships – in knowledge and innovation, with meritocracy. People alone cannot bring change; it takes broader consensus and synergies, it takes society demanding extrovertedness and excellence at every level of education.

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