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Olesya Tkacheva, acting dean at Vesalius College, on the intersection of policy, academia, humans and technology

20:28 13/04/2019

This is not the first time social scientist Olesya Tkacheva has crossed the Atlantic to start again.

Born in Azerbaijan, then part of the former Soviet Union, she moved to the US after its collapse and became an American citizen. There she carved out an uncommon career that has seen her bridge the worlds of academia and policy. Although she’s a specialist in Russian foreign policy and EU-Russia relations, her research work has taken her into domains as diverse as cyber warfare, social media analytics, governance, post-conflict development and healthcare reform.

Moving to Belgium and taking up an assistant professorship at Vesalius College, part of the Flemish Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), was arguably the perfect move. An American-style ‘liberal arts, free-thinking’ college that offers undergraduate courses in English, it shares elements of the US learning dynamic she admires. The academic discusses with ING’s Dave Deruytter about juggling jobs, what Belgium might learn from the US education system, and enjoying travel without the jetlag.

How did your career bring you to Brussels?

I perceived myself as someone who could bridge the theoretical knowledge I gained from my PhD in public policy and political science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and the policy world. This is exactly what I’ve been doing since I graduated – moving between academia and policy. After teaching as a post-doctorate fellow at the University of Rochester, I spent seven years at the Rand Corporation, a think tank in Washington DC, where I was working on issues at the intersection of economics and security, and economic development. I travelled extensively – one project was on the development of post-conflict environments, including Kurdistan, and I also travelled to Tajikistan to look at health sector reforms.

Two years ago we relocated from the US to Brussels. It made sense for both my husband and me. It was a really nice shift, geographically as well as career-wise. Since I started at Vesalius, I haven’t closed the doors to the policy domain. For a year I was a member of the Nato task force on revising their strategy for future allied operations.

Does your work also include cyber-security?

To some extent, yes, because one of my first projects at Rand entailed looking at internet governance. We published a book discussing how regimes like China, Russia, Syria and Egypt do internet surveillance and what internet governance models they are advocating. But I’m a social scientist, not an IT person. I’m interested in looking at the interaction between technology and humans. If you look at most of the major data losses we’ve read about, what happened? Somebody clicked on a link they were not supposed to, they read an email that looked as if it had come from their friends, they opened an attachment. The bottom line is that there’s a human weak link in the chain of cyber protection.

My current agenda continues in this vein because I have an article coming out in the journal Post-Soviet Affairs that looks at how access to social media and the internet, in environments where governments more tightly censor traditional media, changes people’s perception of the US.

Where does fake news come into all that?

As someone who spent a number of years studying Russia’s foreign policy, what’s clear to me and other experts is that information warfare and cyber warfare are a continuum for tools of coercion, in Russia or China for example. In the western world, we clearly see the division between the defence of our physical cyber infrastructure and the protection of our information space. Because we are so committed to the protection of freedom of expression, governments have stayed away from interfering in the information domain. But for other regimes, there is very little difference between ‘cyber’ and ‘information’. If we don’t do anything to build resilience in the information space our adversaries are going to exploit these loopholes and try to manipulate our populations to their advantage.

But when it comes to whether people’s behaviour is influenced by ‘fake news’ – which is designed to confuse rather than misinform – that is very difficult to establish empirically.

How did you find yourself as acting dean of Vesalius College?

Vesalius is a unique experiment. I cannot think of an example in the US of a college accredited by the state where the entire instruction is not in English. It’s a testament of how tolerant and inclusive Belgian society is. So I’d heard about Vesalius a long time before I successfully applied for a job as an assistant professor. A few months later I was elected unanimously by the faculty as an associate dean. Then, this summer, our dean had to step down for health reasons and I gladly took over the tasks that needed to be done. It was totally unexpected but you step up to the challenge that life presents.

I couldn’t cancel courses that were already scheduled so this semester I’m also teaching quantitative and qualitative research methods. The hours that people work in the US tend to be longer than in Europe, so now it feels like being back at Rand where you have longer days and tighter deadlines. This place is extremely collegial, I have a wonderful team and colleagues who are helping me.

Do you keep up with your specialism in Russia?

You have to stay focused otherwise you lose touch with the region. When I graduated in 2009, the relationship between the US and Russia was much more cooperative. Now we are seeing, not just because of the 2016 election but also the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the allocation of resources and the amount of attention has changed.

On the one hand, being selfish, it’s interesting to see, but thinking of the overall welfare and that people are dying, it is rather unfortunate. In terms of staying engaged I have my article coming out in January and I presented at three conferences last year, but for the time being my leadership of Vesalius takes priority.

How does Vesalius keep up with the changing business and education world?

As a private university, we really have to stay focused and ensure that the skills our graduates have are in high demand on the market. We see lots of trends in terms of globalisation of education. Online education, or what we call blended learning, is part of our strength. We are rolling out a number of initiatives to facilitate exchanges of ideas, for example that bring scholars together and bring students closer to professors on the other side of the Atlantic. On AI, we’re not there yet, but next semester we are offering a course on big data. You can’t talk about AI without understanding what big data is.

Does Belgium need to improve its education offering?

As a person who studied federalism, for me Belgium is a very special case, where jurisdiction over education provision is not linked to geographic presence but to the linguistic one. Trying to mimic another country may not work for Belgium because it’s unique. But one way it could develop would be by taking aspects from the US education system – for example, they have a greater focus on student initiative and it’s less hierarchical.

I moved from a culture where students are expected to challenge the professor to one where you are expected to perceive that professor as the ultimate source of wisdom. That has very important implications for the entrepreneurial skills people develop. It could make people more inclined to pursue jobs in more hierarchical organisations, rather than start their own small business.

What do you think of Belgium and what are your tips for a newcomer?

There’s a saying that ‘New York is not the US and the US is not New York’. I have a feeling that I live in the Brussels bubble, so my assessment of Belgium is maybe highly influenced by my experiences here, which have been wonderful. I didn’t expect the transition to be so smooth and that people would be so open, welcoming and supportive.

When it comes to the negative side, it partly has to do with all urban centres, which is that I pick up on tensions when it comes to interaction between the different communities. My advice to newcomers would be general. You are solely responsible for identifying the opportunities a new place has to offer. The combination of individual responsibility and initiative, hard work and open-mindedness can open lots of doors that you hadn’t even thought about.

How do you create free time and what do you do with it? 

We make the time, it’s not time which defines us. So I make time for family and pursue hobbies I care about. On Saturdays I go to Aspria, which is like a country club. The entire family goes to relax and run around, it’s nice to catch up with friends or have dinner outside and I try to play tennis once in a while – being outdoors in the sunshine is a priority. I also appreciate Brussels’ diverse cultural offerings so Bozar and Flagey are popular destinations for me. I like to travel and I’m still playing the tourist in Europe because Brussels is so conveniently located. There’s no jetlag! It’s a perk of this job.

This article first appeared in ING Expat Time

Written by Paula Dear