Human Doing: Lessons from Dmitry Semyonov
September 26th marked 40 days since the tragic death of Dmitry Semyonov, the Head of the IOE Laboratory for University Development and Aide to the HSE Rector. Below, the Academic Supervisor of the HSE Institute of Education, Isak Froumin, discusses the impact Dmitry (Dima) had on his colleagues, as well as his contribution to education research.
The sudden death of a person – particularly a young person – is always a reason to stop and take a look around. It pushes you towards a new way of thinking about the whims of fate. Such thoughts ensure at least temporary refuge from feelings of loss and emptiness. In Dima’s case, these feelings come from remembering all of the times we discussed the impact the university had on students. This topic was not the central focus of his laboratory, but it was important in our evening conversations and walks. What was most important about the subject for me was experience, while Dmitry thought mostly about the idea of self, subjectivity, and drive. I now understand that he relied on his own reflexes; after all, he came from HSE. Having spent nearly 14 years at the university, he was involved in the dynamics of the university, as well as in the school’s change and growth processes. His trajectory is the best example of how a bold and productive university can help a person go down a path that creates other paths. To use a phrase coined by Igor Chirikov, this is the path of shifting from ‘human being’ to ‘human doing.’ For us – higher education researchers and practitioners – this is an unexpected way of viewing an alumnus. It’s not about knowledge or competencies, but about effort and choice, about productivity. How does this happen?
I always viewed Dima as a student, a junior staff member who was growing before my eyes with the support of his elders. But now, after his tragic death and after seeing what his friends have posted to his Facebook wall, I see that a lot of people saw him as their mentor. He was able to build a reputation for himself in spite of his young age. What does a 30-year-old do to get a 25-year-old to view them as a mentor?
Dima joined me in the laboratory as a manager in 2010. From the very beginning he liked just carrying out assignments. He fought for autonomy, and pushed the boundaries of his freedom. He did this by not only raising issue with certain assignments, but more so by suggesting his own ideas and initiatives. Sometimes he would make me face the facts, and something new was happening in the laboratory. It’s not surprising that he wasn’t afraid to be direct and say that the time had come to promote him not to manager, but to deputy laboratory head, and then to laboratory head.
What does a 30-year-old do to get a 25-year-old to view them as a mentor?
Before joining the laboratory he worked in several different areas – at a consulting firm, at Skolkovo, within HSE’s administrative divisions… In choosing a manager for the laboratory, I asked several applicants why they wanted the job. Everyone used process verbs: ‘I want to do something new,’ ‘I want to make money,’ or ‘I want to work at HSE.’ But Dima said he wanted to make something interesting. Not do, but make. Working at the laboratory was a project that allowed him to achieve his ambitious goal of creating a centre of competencies that was cool, contemporary, and recognised not just in the country, but around the world.
On the one hand, he didn’t want to remain on the periphery or focus on small endeavours like lunches with famous western researchers. On the other, he categorically did not want provinciality, even if it was original. The only solution was to find a large task, but not a consolidated one – something that was interesting around the world. In searching for this objective, he met a lot of people, read, went to Stanford… As a result, Dima’s laboratory was the first in Russia to study the systematisation of universities by focusing not on the individual university, but on the entire system of schools that were part of a university’s evolution. A lot of work was published. Suffice it to say, in 2014 the laboratory did not have a single piece of work that had been published in a serious foreign journal. But in 2016 the number had already reached six. Over the last several years, thanks to Dima’s initiative, serious discussions took place on the question of how a system of education is linked to a country’s overall development. Under Dima’s leadership, work was carried out that focused on transforming higher education in Moscow. He prepared analytical material on the merging of universities, centring on the driving forces behind a system of education’s evolution.
Unfortunately, Dima did not see the results of his main research endeavour – an analysis of higher education systems in former Soviet states in the post-Soviet period. He started the project himself, working with the team here to find other research teams in each of the 15 countries. Dima got everyone together in Moscow on two separate occasions, shared data, and prepared a final text. Dima found one of the book’s editors, a very famous scholar, in Belgium, and I was amazed at this kind of independence. The publishing house Palgrave will release the book very soon.
In 2016, a directory of the world’s higher education research centres was published in the U.S. The Laboratory for University Development was included in the book. Dima did not ignore the ‘older greats’ – he invited famous international professors to HSE, and they were surprised at how such a young group of people could advance so quickly in the research field with practically no help from the ‘adults’ of the industry. Neither Yaroslav Kuzminov nor I helped them; we actually just watched over them. Over the last three years, all of these substantive initiatives originated from Dmitry and his younger colleagues.
Dima criticised the depressingly conservative, and this included songs from the past meant to celebrate [the first day of school on] September 1st. For Dima, academic success was something contemporary and young. When we studied universities, he looked for cool emblems, anthems, or silly ads. Later, when we wrote our first article on the post-Soviet transformation of higher education, ‘From Gosplan to a Master Plan’, Dima created an epigraph out of an excerpt from the absurd anthem of the Textile University.
He built the laboratory like both a project and a collection of projects – differently from how someone from my generation would do things. He was also quick to let people go if they seemed unproductive to him; over the years he fired more people from the lab than I had from the entire institute. He believed that one’s salary should depend on results, and not from just one’s efforts. He would say that this is how he understood fairness. Dima was a person focused on the product. He was able to achieve results and put a bow on them.
Dima had an excellent understanding of the role of promotion in a project’s success. This is also a feature of his generation. The laboratory was the first division of our institute to get its own website and social network profiles. Dima began releasing a news digest on higher education that is still put out to this day and has a lot of subscribers. He made a booklet for the laboratory’s five-year anniversary, and regularly gave interviews to the media. Dima pushed other young employees to do this as well, as he believed the younger generation should be exposed to the public sphere. This kind of ‘promotion of the new’ was very important for him. This might be why he liked walking around in red sneakers and white socks – when you work in consulting, management tells you not to wear red sneakers to work. Dima left consulting.
He rarely invited his friends or acquaintances to come work at the laboratory. Hundreds of students came to work as part of his university-wide team focused on developing the university. He hired a lot of people from this very group of students. Dima was active in opening up the job application to everyone. He loved interviewing people and spent a lot of time on this step of the process. His laboratory was a surprising phenomenon in Russian academia in the sense that truly informal relationships were built there. For Dima it was really important that the employees play soccer together and that there be a foosball table in the office. Two Fridays a month he organised pizza parties that accompanied a seminar on new publications. Dima also didn’t have a desk – he liked working on his computer from the couch.
The IOE Laboratory for University Development is one of the highest earning divisions of the Education Institute. Universities have signed contracts with the lab for consulting services, and projects have been completed for the Russian Ministry of Education and Science. The ministry even offered Dima the role of deputy director of a department. He declined because he didn’t want to leave HSE. Dima went on to defend his dissertation and probably had a hard time seeing himself as a government official.
All of this is not some holy story for young people. It’s real life and a true lesson for all of us. It’s a lesson of not just knowledge and diligence, but of enthusiasm and drive, a lesson of the productive and the bright. Dima will be missed.