It’s hard not to believe in destiny if you are Jan Svejnar. As a student in his last year of high-school and the son of a pro-reform Czech economist at the ILO in Geneva during the Dubcek period, Jan fled Czechoslovakia in1970 with his guitar, his skis and his 13-year-old sister, one step ahead of the police who were about to revoke his exit visa. Eighteen years later in1988, after a Cornell BA and Princeton PhD, a chance encounter with a Czech researcher at a conference in Vienna would again profoundly alter the life of Jan Svejnar, then a professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Can I buy you beer?” the genial Svejnar asked the pensive, middle-aged man at the railing as their dinner boat glided along the Danube through Vienna’s lush suburbs. “I’d seen him standing apart from everyone else. The others were talking and drinking and enjoying themselves after a long day of conference presentations. I wanted to know what his story was.”
The man at the railing was Josef Zieleniec, a senior researcher at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, which was expecting him, in a year’s time, to organize the first international economic conference in Czechoslovakia since 1948. He had been sent to this conference in Vienna to see how it was done. “Unfortunately, his sponsors had given him very little Austrian currency for food or local transportation, and certainly nothing for beer.” This act of kindness by the young Czech emigre professor initiated a friendship that continues to this day, and over the next 16 years would result in the formation of the most successful and far- reaching of the post-communist education initiatives, CERGE-EI.
“I could not know, as I stood on the deck chatting with Josef about possibly bringing some Czech students to Pitt for PhD work, that I would be returning to Prague for the first time since I was17 for Josef’s conference in 1989. Nor could I dream that by year’s end, a mass movement spearheaded by university students would topple the communist government and end 20 years of Soviet occupation. Overnight, the basic conditions were there to create a new democracy with a market economy. On the other hand, the need for economic reform was staggering.”
“I saw an incredible opportunity to give something back to my birth country, and to apply the tools a superb American university education had given me, plus the research and organizational experience I had gained as a college professor, as director of a couple of programs at Cornell after I returned to teach, and as an OECD and World Bank consultant. The question was how could I pull it together operationally when so much assistance was needed, and there were so many avenues it could take?”
Talks with Josef Zieleniec led the two economists to decide that building a first-rate economics PhD program based in a transition country would be the best way to contribute.
“It’s the old story of ‘Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day. Give him a net, teach him how to use it, and he can feed his family for a lifetime.’ This is what we needed to do. Not just bring in experts from the West to make suggestions and leave, but grow a whole new generation of economists right here in Central Europe who would be grounded in the culture and experiences of their homelands, but have the skills and the commitment to take their countries into the future. It made sense to locate this new Center for Research and Graduate Education (CERGE) in Prague because, of all the cities in the region, we knew it best, but to focus the program regionally, so it could draw students from all the former soviet republics.”
In the transition’s uncertain early days, the hurdles to making CERGE a reality were significant, most critically how to organize it and how to support it financially. A rough division of labor emerged: Zieleniec would handle the Prague end, finding space and dealing with the bureaucracy; Svejnar would take on the U.S. side, fund-raising, finding faculty, forging alliances with American academic and philanthropic institutions.
“I threw myself into it completely, talking to anyone who would listen about the critical need for growing the expertise to implement reforms that needed to happen not only now, but well into the future, until these fledgling democracies had fully made the transition to healthy free-market economies. I was only too aware of how fragile such changes could be from my memories of my father and the Dubcek reforms of 1968-70. The Communist establishment perceived them as such a threat, it triggered the Soviets to invade and occupy Czechoslovakia for the next two decades.”
Since founding CERGE in 1991 with Josef Zieleniec, who became Czech Foreign Minister in Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus’ government, Jan Svejnar has continued to work towards improving the region’s economic health. In 1993, soon after Czechoslovakia split into two countries, he was asked to head the Economics Institute, a research arm of the Academy of Sciences of the newly created Czech Republic. Svejnar accepted on condition that EI be merged with CERGE to form a new entity CERGE-EI.
“It was not an easy task. Old attitudes die hard. As in other communist countries, research and higher education were kept completely separate. It took six years to houseclean and hammer out a joint workplace agreement, but now CERGE-EI is a model for how other institutions can successfully integrate these two functions.”
In addition to his ongoing involvement with CERGE-EI’s development through teaching and presiding over its Executive and Supervisory Committee, Professor Svejnar’s research agenda has evolved to reflect his fascination with transition problems and his keen interest in public policy. He was economic advisor to Czech President Vaclav Havel from 1994 until the latter’s retirement in 2002. As his reputation in the transition field grew, Professor Svejnar was tapped to be co-director of the Transition Programme at the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) in London, a member of the board of trustees of National Council for Soviet and East-European Research (NCEER) in Washington, and a consultant to both the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in London and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris. In 1996, the University of Michigan offered him the prestigious Everett E. Berg Professorship and asked him to head the William Davidson Institute (WDI), which specializes in transition issues, a position he held through 2004.
Professor Svejnar continues to be active at CERGE-EI, serving on its US Foundation board and as Chair of its academic board, the Executive and Supervisory Committee (ESC). In 2008, he founded the Institute for Democracy and Economic Analysis (IDEA), the think-tank arm of CERGE-EI focusing on a non-ideological, evidence- based approach to public policy.
“I’m always interested in building bridges, in connecting people and resources. When I think about it, I’m amazed at what we’ve accomplished. I also know that as a mature institution, CERGE-EI’s best work is yet to come.”
Barbara Forbes, Marketing Design and Website Project Manager, CERGE-EI