“A university is a place where people, not scientific disciplines meet,” says Professor Roman Cieślak, Rector of SWPS University. Together with Director General, Ewa Ger, Ph.D., they talk about the role of academic freedom and the university’s social responsibility; about building an institution that gives people a sense of security and allows them to spread their wings; and about creating a community that maintains and respects diversity of its members.

Academic freedom and continuous development

SWPS University is the first non-public university in Poland. How do you see the role of universities in contemporary Poland and the contemporary world?

Professor Roman Cieślak: Talking about the role of universities or higher education institutions, one may indicate at least two perspectives – the external perspective and the internal one. The first one emerges form the expectations that the society and collaborating partners, and sometimes even politicians, have towards universities. The other perspective derives form the autonomy of universities in defining their own role, mission, and the ways of implementing the mission. All over Europe, including Poland, a lively discussion on the necessity to maintain this autonomy is ongoing. Ideas, which we verify and implement in our research, stem from freedom and a free exchange of thought. Passion for knowledge sharing and the desire for learning and shaping the world that we want to leave for the next generations are rooted in academic freedom. Contemporary universities have been changing significantly – this is their strength. The desire to transform them is effective and useful, if it is integrated not only with the autonomy of academic community, but also with values that are important for this community. In the context of this transformation, one may say that a university is never fully formed – it is constantly in a process of becoming a university.

This resonates loudly with our 25th jubilee. By itself, the act of establishing a non-public university (then called the Warsaw School of Social Psychology SWPS) was an action arising not only from an apt assessment of needs, but it also stemmed from courage and a dream to realize a vision of a higher education institution that would work according to values, which the founders and first employees of the university carried in their hearts. Their perspective included a modern university, one that transforms the world through research and education. I think that this vision is shared by other universities, but our difference – and I am not afraid to say it aloud – our uniqueness, stems form the fact that the development of our university has been and still is rooted very strongly in psychology. We began with psychology, and subsequently we systematically extended the scope of research and education to other disciplines. Our difference lies also in the fact that although SWPS University’s main campus is located in Warsaw, we are an institution that carries out its mission across Poland – our campuses in Sopot, Wrocław, Poznań, and Katowice are branches of the same tree. Therefore, integrating different perspectives comes to us naturally and, at the same time, we maintain our identity and diversity.

Ewa Ger, Ph.D. I think, that after this conversation, the answer will emerge by itself. Straight to the point – undoubtedly, SWPS University is an example to follow for other non-public universities in Poland. Close to 18 thousand students and course participants are currently studying at SWPS University, which is significantly more than in many other non-public higher education institutions. For sure, we stand out thanks to our research achievements and positions in international rankings, which Professor Cieślak will most likely talk about. We receive impressive grants for research and development projects, in competitions organized by different granting agencies and institutions. We have launched a Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Clinic and a Community Center for Child and Youth Mental Health, which, especially nowadays, meet actual social needs. Several spin-offs have already been established as well, and they begin to generate income. We invest in new technologies, and one may even say, that we are undergoing a technological transformation on an unprecedented scale. We renovate and improve our buildings. This year we are planning to expand two of our campuses. I think, it is a good moment to share a few numbers: governmental financial support for higher education and science institutions in Poland amounts to over EUR 3.1 billion (PLN 14.2 billion), while for non-public institutions, it is barely EUR 2 million (PLN 9 million), which is just 0.06 percent. In a nutshell, we implement the public mission with a big M, practically without public funding, thanks to our own efforts, hard work, thrift, and good management. Instead we enjoy independence.

And more broadly? Education, science, and social mission on the one hand, and quality, methodology, and ethical standards on the other hand. Educational role that we fulfil as a university is crucial. The perspective of our students and course participants is constantly at the center of our attention. We want to become better and more modern for them. We want to develop and improve, because we know that the future and the quality of our society depends on the way we educate our students and the way we prepare them for their professional careers and their social and public roles. They are the hope of the world – I know it sounds like a cliché, but it is important. With their youth, creativity, energy and fresh view on the world, students also influence our development as people, employees, teachers, researchers, and the institution. We constantly learn from our students, and they are constantly a challenge for us. I say this, because it is important to me that all our alumni and students know about it. Without you, dear students and graduates, we would be a different place and we would be different people. Thank you for that.

The role of the university lies also in popularization of research and implementation of research results in the community and the economic sector. Our goal is to elevate the significance of Polish science in the international context. It has already proven to be our strength at the level of our researchers, but it is still a huge challenge a the level of the institution.

Finally, ensuring that regardless of the direction the world is going, constantly bear in mind that people and humanity should constitute the core of our mission, including the shaping of pro-ecological attitudes that do not deprecate technological and economic growth.

Managing a community

Professor Cieślak, SWPS University is a meeting place of many, often diverse, scientific disciplines, cultures, and world views. What is most important in managing a university with respect to ensuring its sustainable development and taking care of all members of the community?

R.C.: First of all, a university is a place where people, not scientific disciplines meet. We often say that we are a community. Community does not mean that we think the same way, act the same way, and like the same things, or that we are all the same. On the contrary, it means that we are diverse, but we draw on the riches inherent in this diversity. This way we complete each other, by seeing more from different perspectives, and sharing uniqueness and diverse talents. What unites us is attachment, and perhaps even love for traditional academic values (truth, goodness, beauty), respect and trust that in the end, despite all differences that divide us, we all pursue common values. We have decided that for our university’s institutional culture certain attitudes are important. They are embodied by our values: openness, courage, and responsibility. We strive to act according to these values, we teach our students to do the same, and we expect this behavior from each other.

You have asked what is important in managing a university – Director General Ewa Ger and I often talk about it. University means people and an institution. Therefore, we strive to strengthen both, our community and the power of our institution. Managing a community is not the same as managing an institution, and vice versa – managing an institution is not the same as managing a community. Besides, the phrase “managing a community” is rather inadequate. Because, how are you supposed to manage a community of clever, ambitious, independent people, for whom institutional goals are as important (and this is great!) as their personal development goals? In this context, people management happens to a large degree through relationships, where respect, willingness to listen, and dialogue are important. On the other hand, managing an institution includes not only goals, tasks, procedures, but also mission, responsibilities towards our students, employees, collaborators, and partnering institutions. It also means that we talk the talk and walk the walk, on daily basis.

We take great care to make the process of managing the university non-hierarchical – égalité in the academic world is not easy. Nevertheless, thanks to openness, which is very important to us, we implement working methods that are more participatory, more transparent, and flexible. Without a doubt, our university is undergoing not only a digital transformation, but also a transformation of institutional culture and changes in the management model. In recent years, especially during the pandemic, a project approach and task-oriented team work, where people, both academics and administrative employees from across all our campuses, have collaborated on equal terms, has proven very successful. And this is a good occasion to sincerely thank everyone, who has been engaged in this type of projects. It is a unique experience to be able to participate in this process, which is not only effective, but also conducive to the development of every one of us.

Director General, Professor Cieślak talked about openness and the directions of development for the university. We would like to expand on this topic a little bit more but from a different side. Is there anything that you dream about and aspire to in the context of SWPS University’s development?

E.G.: I dream about many things. I will list just a few:

- I wish that everyone was proud of being part of SWPS University, specifically because of the openness exemplified by respect, tolerance, dialogue, pursuit o innovation, and sensible modernity. This is possible only by being open towards other people on the one hand, and being open to new experiences and challenges in exploring new areas of activity and new methodologies on the other hand.

- I wish that everyone knew who we were, what we did, and what our goals and values were. This common identity (not uniformity) is required not only for strengthening our community, but also for effective institutional communication directed externally.

- I wish for SWPS University to have a visible social and economic impact in Poland. In case of the latter, it is a long-term goal (a dream), but we keep believing that with such a huge potential, we are capable of organizing and, together with the affiliation of SWPS University, start implementing strategic projects for significant business partners. The potential to impact economic growth is huge, but as long as we keep working on these projects at the level of individual relationships of our employees, we will not be able to achieve such scale and impact. I believe that this is possible.

- I wish for our university to systematically and methodically increase its contribution to cultural development. I know that it sounds hard, but culture in Poland needs a hard approach. Culture is a cure and fuel for the society. If culture is strong, the society is healthy and experiences continuous development, and as the result it takes on a new expression, shape, unique identity, and personality. By practicing the highest quality of education, we realistically contribute to the development of culture, in its broad meaning. We are also proud of our first achievements in the arts, of our study programs that in an innovative way, develop sensitivity towards culture (not entertainment) in young people. In other words, not only education for culture or in culture, but also education about culture. For the time being, this is still a small area of our activity. We also rejoice in all student initiatives, even the smallest ones, which as we know, may transform into beautiful meaningful projects. The more young people realize how important culture is, the more they will want to participate in it. Therefore, we should not forget that this is also our mission.

- I wish that we never wasted any student potential, which means that we were always able, at every step of working with young people, to recognize, develop and support their talents, so that we never overlook a chance of educating a Nobel Prize winner.

- Finally, my greatest wish is that in the upcoming generations, our University becomes one of the most renowned academic centers in Europe, or even better, since we are talking about dreams, in the world. Looking at the speed our university is developing, perhaps it will happen faster than I think, and if it does, all other dreams will naturally come true.

Our social responsibility

Professor Cieślak, as a Rector, you are also responsible for the development and wellness of the University, the students and employees, and for University’s impact on the world outside of the organization. How does this responsibility manifest in your daily work? How do you define SWPS University’s social responsibility and how does it look like in practice?

R.C.: Right, we are going back to the theme of management and institutional culture – I think that I am co-responsible for all these areas. My responsibility is certainly greater, but other members of our community also shoulder this duty. We are all co-responsible for the university as an institution, for the community of students, employees and alumni. We are also co-responsible for the results of our work that are intended to change the environment where we live and work.

In English, the Polish word odpowiedzialność carries two meanings: accountability and responsibility. Co-responsibility that I am talking about refers to this second meaning. While holding certain positions, you must ask yourself whether you are fulfilling your responsibilities well (and this is the ‘accountability’aspect). Your work and your results should be evaluated by other people, confronted with facts and data, which make your own perception more objective.
I am aware that the goals, which we pursue as a community and as an institution, are complex. No one is capable of achieving them on their own. If someone thinks so, they are wrong. In this sense, we all are co-responsible for the quality of education we offer, our research, and our relations with the world outside the university.

Shaping the relationships with our community, with partners of our university, and our impact on the external environment happens in many different ways and on a varied scale. I would like to emphasize that everyone contributes to this process. Starting with the fact that to a certain degree, everyone of us, employees, students, and alumni, represents the institution and, using marketing jargon, acts as a SWPS University’s brand representative. We are assessed individually, but this evaluation also builds reputation of our university. Hence, my actions impact the way other members of our SWPS University community are perceived and treated. It is a huge responsibility. Therefore, the fundamental rules of relationship building and professional approach to fulfilling one’s duties, such as reliability, kindness, keeping one’s word, and meeting deadlines are so important.

I am a realist, and I know that people not always are as they would wish to be. In those cases, we naturally, honestly and sincerely talk with our partners about a given situation we have found ourselves in. This is conducive to building trust. Without trust, it is hard to initiate and implement actions in cooperation with others and for others.

Of course, this is just the first step, related to responsibility and work ethic. The second area is the potential of our university, which is geared towards a transformation of the surrounding world and, what I believe, also a transformation of ourselves. It can be summarized like this: everything begins with curiosity and questions for which we seek answers through research, analysis and reflection. Very often, as early as this stage, we talk with our stakeholders and partners. Then we strive to publish the results of our research and enquiry in the best journals and by the best publishers. We also work towards popularization of the newly gained knowledge via our communication channels, such as Psyche Space, Law Space, Culture Space, Design Space, and Management Space. Some research results lead to implementation and in those cases academic special purpose vehicles (SPVs) and spin-offs, mentioned earlier by the Director General, are formed. Our postgraduate programs that provide professionals with practical skills required by the job market, are also rapidly growing. These are just some examples of our activity. During the pandemic, many of our partners desperately needed our competencies related to psychotherapy or mental health. The role of our Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Clinic and the Community Center for Child and Youth Mental Health for the City of Poznań, which were mentioned earlier, could not be overemphasized in this context.

Director General, what does the phrase “responsible university” mean in your opinion? How does this value influence university management and decision making?

E.G.: For me, ‘responsible’ means ‘managed transparently’. It was one of the biggest challenges, a paradigm change from power-based management to truly participatory one, which allowed employees to undertake this responsibility. If we want for this to happen, we – the management – must build relationships founded on trust, we must communicate openly, honestly, and effectively inform people about everything that is happening at our university, as much as this is possible. Not only when things are going well, but also when things are not so great; when we are successful and when we fail. This leads to quality and stimulates growth. But mostly, it strengthens confidence that everyone’s efforts are meaningful because they influence the development of the whole institution, in other words it builds conviction that engagement translates into actual functioning of the university.

But SWPS University is also a university mindful of its environment – both the close one and the one further away. The close environment means the local communities in the cities where our campuses are located, communities which notice, and take advantage of, tangible benefits that our presence brings there. The further environment, of national and even broader reach, is a space where we fulfil our public responsibility, not only through our students and alumni, and the best level of education, but also through implementation of research results, research commercialization, and by providing services for people and business partners – always of the highest quality and always based on the latest research results, i.e. the consistent implementation of the so-called 3rd mission of universities.

It is worth mentioning that responsibility means a future perspective. One cannot talk about a responsible institution, by focusing solely on the “here and now”. Responsibility means taking a long-term perspective, a perspective of many years ahead, not just a few upcoming years.

Respecting diversity

Professor Cieślak, the motto of SWPS University reads “We, the University”. Where did the idea come from and what does it mean?

R.C.: The motto was created when we were developing the university’s strategy for the period 2016-2022. As the then-Vice Rector for Research, I was charged with coordinating the development of the new strategy of the university. The previous strategy was to expire soon, and we knew that we wanted to build a new one from the ground up, recognizing what values, attitudes, and goals were important for the members of our community, and developing the content of the new strategy in broad consultation with everyone.

That participatory approach engaged numerous members of our academic community and included activities of different task teams. During that creative process, most of us discovered that we shared similar values, and that not only the University needed us, but also that we needed each other and we needed our University. Certainly, the process of building our academic community did not rely solely on this process, but for many of us this was a crucial moment in switching form the “I” to the “We” perspective. This is what our motto means – We (the community), University (the institution).

Director General, how does this motto manifest in daily operations of SWPS University?

E.G.: “We, the University” indicates that strength comes from unity and solidarity, from common identity, and from tolerance and respect for diversity. It is also a beautiful symbol of freedom, which is indispensable for the existence of universities. I hope that this is self-explanatory. Besides, Professor Cieślak who actively participates in the ongoing heated debates about academic freedom (which we are very proud of), highlighted at the beginning of this conversation, the importance, the essence, and the significance of academic freedom in the Polish and European culture.

„We, the University” means an institution where people – students, course participants, employees, and collaborators – are most important. People who have already left, these who currently are here, and those who will arrive in the future. People who are mindful, free, who subscribe to a certain common set of values – apart from the fundamental academic values, such as truth or beauty, we have chosen openness, courage and responsibility. An institution managed by developing attitudes based on such values does not tolerate, nor does it require control, power, and dictatorship, but rather needs good coordination, cooperation, and facilitation, and it needs to guarantee adequate resources for people. And this is what we are trying to do.

Director General, you have been co-managing SWPS University since 2018. What inspired you to accept the position of Director General of this organization? Did you have any specific expectations, when you were joining the university? What, in your opinion, has been your or institutional most brilliant success?

E.G.: What inspired me? First of all the fact that besides the goals and values stemming from market rules, the university also fulfills a social mission, meets economic goals, and subscribes to humanistic values. Moreover, the way the Founder of the University, Piotr Voelkel, and my future colleagues talked about SWPS University while they were inviting me to join the organization, ensured me that it was a beautiful mission and a huge challenge.

As far as the expectations go, I would turn around this question. For me it was important, what was expected of me, and I would like to ask you if I am meeting these expectations. It would be hard to define this work in terms other than “mission” and “service”, and this is how I have been treating it since the first day I joined the organization.

And there are many successes, but I would not dare to call any of them my successes. They are successes of everyone who is a part of this University.

Professor Cieślak, you have held various roles at SWPS University, including a lecturer, researchers, and Vice-Rector, until 2016 when you became the Rector. What was the most important moment for you on this journey? What was most memorable for you? In other words, how has SWPS University influenced your life?

R.C.: I became a lecturer at the Warsaw School of Social Psychology SWPS in the second year of its existence, in the 1997/1998 academic year. At the time, many higher education institutions were being established in Poland, but only a few were recognized for their academic position thanks to the people who worked there. An opportunity to work among those people was – and still is – a unique development opportunity. I am glad that so many people take full advantage of this fact.

I became a permanent employee of the university in 2001, which means 20 years ago. Over this period, I was combining my duties at SWPS University with my work at the University of Colorado. For me, working at SWPS University is an important academic, professional, and personal experience.

Moments that I remember as important? Probably, I will not be very original. Obtaining the status of a university with a specific teaching profile in 2015, excellent results of research evaluation published by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education in 2017 (two A+ categories, four As, and one B), in 2019 implementing changes at the university brought on by the new law on higher education, and operating during the COVID-19 pandemic, since March 2020. I am omitting here our dynamic development in terms of academic achievements (e.g. rights to confer academic degrees, new programs of study, and numbers of granted doctorates, publications and obtained grants) as well as different rankings – these achievements can rather be classified as a process, instead of events. For example, I am very happy with the May 2021 Shanghai ranking of universities according to academic subjects. Our psychology is ranked between 201 and 300, among all psychology programs in the world and this is the best rank among Polish universities. However, these are merely external proofs of something that I am most proud of, which is research, teaching, and organizational excellence pursued by our employees. Our students have an opportunity to learn from really exceptional people.

Towards responsibility, openness, and mature courage

Professor Cieślak, we are living in the era of not only continuous changes, but also worrying phenomena, such as the pandemic, both on the local and global scale. SWPS University constantly must face new challenges. How does the university adjust to the changing world?

R.C.: The saying that the only constant in life is change is attributed to Heraclitus of Ephesus. This is rather an overstatement, but it contains important wisdom. Change is continuous and natural. Steering change requires wisdom, knowledge, competencies, cooperation and effort. All these attributes can be found in academia. Of course, development also requires a sense of security and being grounded in something solid. I think, that we can also find these elements in the academic community and the values that we share – regardless of differences and changes.

Some of my research focuses on the sense of self-efficacy. A conviction that one is able to face challenges is an excellent predictor of success. The source of this conviction lies in previous successes, positive emotions, and activity and availability of people similar to us, who have managed to succeed in similar circumstances. It seems to me that our sense of self-efficacy as a university and as individuals is growing year to year. For example, we can be proud of the way we handled the transformation to distant learning during the pandemic. Therefore, believing in our abilities and competencies, I look towards the future of SWPS University with hope – we not only undertake new challenges rationally, but also we are able to face them.

Director General, how do you define courage in the context of the university’s daily operations.

E.G.: Courage is multidimensional. Firstly, courageously does not mean loudly, courageously does not mean by force. I think that it is much harder being courageous without attacking others, and without putting oneself and one’s ambitions and goals in the center. Courage requires maturity, and such defined, it often is a prerequisite for efficacy. Many things would never happen without courage. Overcoming risk aversion for the benefit of engagement, forward thinking instead of conservatism, and considering consequences of actions instead of acting hastily “here and now”, this for me means courage in daily work, and this is how I understand it. On the other hand, we can demand, or maybe expect, courageous attitude in the fight for academic values, such as freedom, in ongoing public debates, when we provide our employees with a strong institution, where they find certainty and sense of security. And this is also our, mine and Rector’s, responsibility. Let’s be wisely courageous.

25th jubilee of SWPS University

This year, SWPS University celebrates its 25th jubilee. What do you wish for yourself and all members of the university community on the occasion of the 25th jubilee, and for the next 25 years?

R.C.: We are a very young university. I think that our 25th jubilee is exceptional, not just because it is ours. I think, that objectively speaking, we have achieved a lot in a relatively short time. We can be proud of that and enjoy our successes. However, we do need to continuously reflect and talk about our future and what kind of a university we want to be. Moreover, this reflection and discussion should inspire our personal decisions and behaviors, including the everyday ones. The potential of what we are building is much greater than the next 25 years.

We are participating in something, which may not only change our current world, but also shape the future. In that sense, our University extends beyond us and our times. I wish for SWPS University community celebrating the upcoming jubilees to think, as we do now, with gratitude about the people, who came before them and contributed to the development and flourishing of the university, and those who contributed to the education of many, many great people. This is what I wish for myself and all of you.

E.G.: Dear students, course participants, employees, and collaborators, I wish for you to always derive great joy from learning, sharing wisdom, knowledge, and experience. I wish for you not to forget that this huge effort has a deep meaning and to never doubt the power of a community. I wish that you truly believe in yourselves. I wish for you to experience joy and understanding of your advantage for being a part of this community. And while you are fulfilling this mission, I wish that you remember that behind you is an institution, a strong institution, which may provide you not only with a sense of pride, but also security, which means a lot, especially nowadays. Finally, I wish for you to pursue your goals with enthusiasm and courage, overcoming all challenges and discomforts. I believe that our university, which is an anchor of beautiful values, especially freedom, will never stop supporting you in your development.

Thank you for this conversation.

back to the 25th jubilee page →


profesor Andrzej Eliasz
From vision to implementation...

Professor Andrzej Eliasz, co-founder and first Rector of SWPS University, talks about the early years of the Warsaw School of Social Psychology SWPS, which later has become SWPS University. In an interview with Professor Magdalena Marszał-Wiśniewska, he talks about choices he had to make while leading this huge undertaking, and about relationships and mutual trust shared with his colleagues.