John L. Hagan Marina Zalonznaya Northwestern University

This project is a mixed-methods study of petty bureaucratic corruption in Eastern European universities. University corruption entails exchanges whereby students compensate university officials for illicit academic assistance, allocation of credentials, and favorable treatment. At the heart of the study lies a comparison between present-day Ukrainian and Belarusian universities, and their common point of origin - late Soviet universities. The breakdown of the Soviet Union marked a divergence in the development trajectories of culturally similar Ukrainian and Belarusian societies. Treating the fall of the Soviet bloc as a natural experiment, this study explores how structural transformation affects bureaucratic corruption, focusing on the differences that materialized in Ukrainian and Belarusian university corruption systems in response to their different paths of transition from totalitarianism. On the one hand, this study considers how economic and political changes affect citizens' participation in bureaucratic corruption by changing their material circumstances. On the other hand, it explores whether structural changes also alter popular understandings of the boundary between private and public domains, attitudes to money, law, and bureaucracies, thereby affecting the patterns of petty corruption. Methodologically, the project is based on a combination of comparative-historical, ethnographic, and interview research. Marina is spending 3 months in Ukraine and 3 months in Belarus in order to observe the informal cultures of universities, talk with students, their parents, and professors, and visit local archives and libraries to uncover the mechanisms of university corruption and understand how corruption systems are connected to the broader structural contexts. The findings of this study will significantly enhance the socio-legal understanding of bureaucratic corruption by revealing the actual mechanisms of bribery and nepotism. Due to the difficulty of studying illegal and stigmatized activity, sociologists, political scientists, and legal scholars know very little about how petty corruption actually happens.

Broader Impacts

These findings will contribute to our understanding of the effectiveness of anti-corruption policies, oriented at combating street-level corruption. While most current anti-corruption initiatives are based on the rational-choice model of deterrence, this study will probe the importance of cultural logics, in addition to instrumental incentives, in shaping illicit behaviors, and offer novel insights and different solutions to this social malaise. The findings of the project will be widely disseminated to academics, policy groups, and non-governmental organizations, interested in decreasing educational corruption in the regions undergoing political and economic transition.

Project Report

The goal of this project, supported by the NSF Dissertaion Improvement Gant, was to compare the corruption systems of universities and other higher educational establishments in the two former Soviet republics – Ukraine and Belarus. Although Ukraine and Belarus share centuries of common history, they have followed drastically different paths of development after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which, I found, resulted in different rates and patterns of corrupt exchanges in the universities of the two countries. While Ukrainian higher educational organizations are permeated with bribery, nepotism, and fraud, Belarusian universities are relatively ‘clean’. Through interviews with university actors, analysis of unofficial online forums of various universities, and through observation in Ukrainian and Belarusian universities, funded by the award, I discovered that this divergence began in the early 2000s, when Belarusian authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka identified universities as threatening to his Soviet-like totalitarian regime. From 2001 to 2005 President’s administration closed down several private institutions, replaced many members of university administrations, discontinued all progressive reforms in higher education, instituted stricter controls of students and university employees, and reintroduced mandatory job placement of university graduates, which had been practiced during the Soviet era. The decrease in university corruption, I argue, was an unintended consequence of Lukashenka’s crackdown on the higher educational sector. In the second half of my dissertation I explore the variation in patterns of university corruption within each of the two countries. Many social scientists believe that Ukraine and Belarus are characterized by cultures of corruption. I, then, seek to explain why other bureaucratic sectors such as healthcare, customs, and tax revenue collection services are still corrupt in Belarus, while in Ukraine there are a lot of people who regularly abstain from corruption. I argue that local organizations develop specific cultures of corruption and transparency that affect citizens’ predisposition to engage in informality. Thus, Ukrainian university actors tend to avoid corruption if it is not appropriate within their specific departments. In Belarus, then, the culture of transparency, associated with Lukashenka’s repressions, is specific to universities and is absent in other organizational sectors. I conclude that organizational cultures tend to mediate national cultures of corruption, determining the variation in corruption on the ground. Intellectual merit: The findings of this project offer a new way to think about the notion of corruption and the causes behind this social malaise. It sheds light on the mechanisms that connect political and economic structures and the everyday decisions of regular citizens, contributing to an already-existing vast body of scholarship in sociology, political science, economics, educational policy, and organizational studies. Broader impact: In addition to intellectual merit, these findings can have very beneficial impact if translated into policy. The conclusions about the organizational-basis of people’s choices to either engage in or abstain from corruption imply that organizations should be the platforms for change. The findings of this project, therefore, suggest potential avenues to decrease bureaucratic corruption and promote democratization of the developing countries.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Patricia White
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Northwestern University at Chicago
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