Back in the (Former) USSR: Charles K. Whitehead's Work in Ukraineby LINDA BRANDT MYERS | PHOTOGRAPHY by GARY HODGES and CHRIS KITCHEN | ILLUSTRATION by ANNE BENJAMIN
Pop quiz! Name the largest country in land mass entirely in Europe. Germany? Nope. France? Guess again. It's Ukraine, with 576,628 square kilometers, not including Crimea (recently annexed by Russia), and close to 45 million people.
Long considered the world's breadbasket, it remains a major grain exporter, and its industry and technology sectors show tremendous promise.
But these days, still reeling from the effects of the financial crisis and an ongoing-sometimes very hot-conflict with neighboring Russia, Ukraine is not a destination for most people.
For Charles K. Whitehead, Myron C. Taylor Alumni Professor of Business Law, however, Ukraine is a land of opportunity, which is why he has been eager to visit the country, learn more about the legal issues affecting it, and most recently, assist as a visiting law professor at Yaroslav Mudriy National Law University in Kharkiv, about twenty-five miles from the Russian border.
"Of course, we are always a little worried when a faculty member ventures near a war zone," says Eduardo M. Peñalver, the Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law. "But the future of Ukraine has significant geopolitical implications, and Professor Whitehead's important work there is very much in keeping with Cornell's identity as a 'global law school.'"
"Ukraine always has had close ties to Russia," notes Professor Whitehead. "Russian is spoken there, in addition to Ukrainian; people have family in Russia; and there has been a strong economic connection. But now, because of the conflict with Russia, many feel they must look elsewhere. Increasingly they are looking west," Whitehead explains.
Which is exactly why he chose to go there-and hopes others will follow.
"Ukraine is trying to transition to a more Western-style economy," Whitehead points out. "I've met a number of impressive businesspeople there, but as a general rule, Ukraine is not set up to support a market-based approach to business, or new or innovative businesses," he says.
"Successful entrepreneurs will tell you they're successful not because of Ukraine's system but in spite of it," notes Whitehead. "The same is true of the law. Ukraine can benefit from understanding the U.S. approach to business law-not necessarily to adopt it, but to better understand how laws affect economic relationships and growth."
"Things are difficult in Ukraine today, but ten years from now the economy and the country will be in much better shape," he predicts. "Developing ties now, when we can have a real, positive impact, not only on education but also on business and law, is an extraordinary opportunity. And I think it's also important to the well-being of people in that part of the world," Whitehead says.
Kharkiv, where Yaroslav Mudriy is based, is a university town with a young, well-educated, technical population, not unlike Boston, Whitehead points out. It is also home to Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute, "a leading educational and research university -sort of like their MIT," he says. In addition, it's the location of an array of successful IT start-ups. "Businesses from around the world outsource work to Kharkiv because it's inexpensive and you've got a lot of smart people," he notes.
"I thoroughly enjoyed the visit," Whitehead says of his most recent six-week stay at Yaroslav Mudriy. Founded in 1804, the university has thirty-four departments and more than 800 faculty members and enrolls about 23,000 students. "It is an entire university devoted to law studies, with colleges specializing in areas as diverse as international law and military law," Whitehead notes. Considered one of the former Soviet Union's top three law universities, Yaroslav Mudriy also boasts a vast alumni network across the former Soviet republics and around the world, he points out. At the end of his most recent visit, Whitehead was asked to become a special member of the Yaroslav Mudriy faculty as their professor of U.S. business law.
Whitehead was pleasantly surprised to discover too that the university's vice rector (a position similar to provost in the United States) is a constitutional law scholar who studied U.S. constitutional law. "He has a copy of the Bill of Rights on his wall and the U.S. Constitution on his desk, both of which he believes are relevant to understanding Ukraine's constitution," Whitehead says.
"Exceptional" is the word Whitehead uses to describe the faculty and administrators he met. "The university's senior administrators understand the changes occurring in Ukraine, and they have committed to staying ahead of the curve," he notes.
Whitehead is working with Yaroslav Mudriy to construct a new IT and entrepreneurship program for law students, lawyers, and entrepreneurs, the first of its kind in Ukraine. "The program is part of a broader public-private effort to encourage new business and growth in Kharkiv and across Ukraine," he explains.
"Having Cornell involved is important for a number of reasons," says Whitehead. "First, even if U.S. law doesn't apply in Ukraine, the concepts underlying the U.S. approach to law and regulation are helpful. Second, U.S. lawyers have a lot of experience around the practical issues that affect IT start-ups, regardless of where they're located. And third, let's not forget Cornell Tech and the Law School's continued involvement there."
Whitehead will continue to teach at Yaroslav Mudriy, in person and by videoconference, and hopes to involve others. "There is a lot of interesting and valuable work to be done, and I would welcome the support of alumni who would like to help," he says.
He has also arranged for a graduate of Yaroslav Mudriy to enroll in the Law School's LL.M. program this fall, with more to come in future years, he hopes.
Whitehead was eleven when he first visited Ukraine. He accompanied his father, an American diplomat posted to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, who had permission to travel to Ukraine as a tourist. "I remember eating Chicken Kiev in Kiev," Whitehead recalls.
His second visit followed soon after, when he was "volunteered" to be the first U.S. boy to attend Artek, the premier Soviet pioneer camp, also in Ukraine.
"You can imagine what it was like being the only American boy among 7,000 young Communists-not always easy," he says. But by the time summer ended, "I'd played a lot of soccer with kids from all over the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and my Russian was pretty good," he recalls. "At the end of the day people are people, and I made a lot of friends."
Today his Russian is a lot worse than it was back then, Whitehead admits. "But my interest in the region and hopes for Ukraine remain strong."
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