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Author Margaret Atwood is a keynote speaker at the digital conference, which is raising funds to support academic work in Ukraine in the face of danger and wartime funding cuts.Monika Skolimowska

Margaret Atwood and acclaimed historian Timothy Snyder will give keynotes at a digital conference hosted by the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy this weekend to raise funds to stabilize academic scholarship in war-torn Ukraine.

The organizers of the conference, titled What Good is Philosophy?, hope to raise as much as $500,000 to fund a Centre for Civic Engagement at Kyiv Mohyla Academy, a national university. The money will provide institutional and financial support for academics and students on the ground whose work has been jeopardized by Russian’s invasion of Ukraine.

While Ukraine’s Ministry of Education says more than 170 institutions have been damaged by the war, with 21 fully destroyed, some Ukrainian academics have continued their work under dangerous circumstances with little support infrastructure. Setting up the centre, conference organizer Aaron Wendland said, will also help the country’s academic institutions prepare for postwar rebuilding.

Wendland, a senior research fellow at Massey College and a Vision Fellow in Public Philosophy at King’s College, London, spent time last year reporting and researching for Canadian news media outlets about daily life in Ukraine during the war. He was struck, he said, by the danger ordinary Ukrainians put themselves in, “fighting for values that we ought to cherish,” as much of the West reacted with complacency.

As Wendland began connecting with fellow academics there, he was drawn to the work of Kyiv Mohyla Academy’s Culture and Arts Centre, which had reconfigured itself into what is now called the Centre for Civic Engagement. It began functioning as a kind of outreach centre, hosting public lectures on Ukrainian history to counter Russian misinformation and co-ordinating student volunteers to assist local communities.

This work, Wendland said, made him realize that despite numerous institutions around the world that have established programs to host Ukrainian academics, those who are still on the ground there, along with students, need help.

“The rectors and senior administrators that I interviewed had explained to me – every single one of them without fail – that there’s been support for Ukrainian academics who’ve left the country … but there’s been no international support for academics who’ve stayed, and who are working in Ukraine.”

He has spent the past six months putting together this conference with hopes to raise seed funding to develop the Centre for Civic Engagement in Kyiv. Doing so will support academic work in the face of danger and wartime funding cuts, but Wendland hopes the initial work will attract attention from large foundations to sustain the centre in the long term and fund postwar research and discourse.

The conference’s name is a tongue-and-cheek joke about the value of discourse when war is afoot. But the conflict is itself inherently about values, Wendland said. “They are fighting for values that we hopefully hold dear – namely freedom and democracy.”

Atwood’s keynote will be a conversation with Wendland, in which they will discuss the value of literature in a time of crisis. The conference roster also includes Ukrainian philosopher and journalist Volodymyr Yermolenko, Kyiv-Mohyla Academy professor Mychailo Wynnyckyj and many public intellectuals Wendland encountered as a philosophy editor at the U.K.’s New Statesman magazine.

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