Srdjan Vujica and Zoran Milutinovic on the loss of autonomy at Yugoslav universities
filed December 1998
As the winter 98/99 issue of electronic book review went online, news reached us that a number of professors at the University of Belgrade had been removed from their positions for political reasons. Two of the dismissed professors wrote in with a report on the situation. --eds.
At the end of May of this year, the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia adopted a new Law on Universities by dint of which autonomy of the universities was totally abolished. There is no doubt that the motivation for the adoption of this Law was political: universities in Serbia, especially the University of Belgrade, were and still remain nuclei of the process of democratization of society as a whole. Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Ratko Markovic, putting forward the Law to the National Assembly, spoke of "pots and whistles," the instruments usually used to make noise during the four-month student protest against electoral fraud in 1996/97. The deans appointed by the Serbian Government were even franker: the Dean of the Faculty of Philology said in a radio interview given on the second day of his tenure in office that the Law was "a desperate attempt to save the university from democratization," while the Dean of the Faculty of Law explained the suspension of a professor by saying that he was working "from a list provided by state security." The Law is, evidently, the authorities' revenge for the 1996/97 protest, but also an instrument for preventing any public and political activity of university employees in the future.
According to this Law, prepared in secrecy and revealed only at the very session of the National Assembly at which it was adopted, all administrative bodies of the faculties are to be appointed and dismissed by the Government. Employees of the university do not participate in the process of naming members of the supervisory and managing boards, or of the deans and chancellor, not even by providing suggestions. There is no mention in the new law of the fact that the appointment of these bodies and officials should depend on the support of the faculties and universities they come from, as is usual in countries where they are also named by governments.
There was no doubt that the members of the managing boards, the deans, and the chancellors would be appointed according to political, not professional, criteria. The list of appointees published after the Law was adopted showed that practically all were members of the three ruling parties. This circumstance deserves attention because of the powers given to the deans. According to the new Law, hiring and firing professors and associates is the exclusive competence of the dean. He alone decides whom to employ and whose contract to renew, and there is no longer any body of the faculty - such as the former teaching council, which consisted of all professors and associates - which could at least ask for an explanation of the dean's decisions. There is a justified suspicion that the deans appointed in this way will also avail themselves of political, not professional, criteria in hiring new professors and renewing the contracts of those already employed. This is only one, if the most important, of the numerous powers which deans have according to the new Law. In a series of newspaper commentaries after the adoption of the Law, a colleague remarked, with a certain cynicism, that the only thing missing from the deans' list of powers was the ius prima noctis. It would be correct and more concise to say that the deans have all possible powers: from the internal organization of the faculties, via naming departmental heads, to changing curricula and programs. According to this Law, not even a trace of autonomy has been left at Serbian universities.
Particular concern was caused by the last article of the Law, Article 165, which was evidently tacked on at the last moment. All university employees, including professors and associates who already have perfectly valid contracts, are obliged by this article to sign new contracts within 60 days of the Law's entry into force. Although Article 165 is unconstitutional and in collision with several other laws, it was adopted. Its evident purpose is to publicly humiliate all critics of the Law by requiring them to provide proof in writing of their submission and loyalty to the regime.
At the same time, the Law in no way obliges the deans to sign those very same contracts. This practically means that in the process of concluding the new contracts, deans are empowered to dismiss from the faculties whomsoever they wish, outside any legal procedure, simply by not signing their contracts. Most of the deans in Serbia did not make use of this possibility; some, however, did. In the interview already mentioned above, the Dean of the Faculty of Philology said he did not care who wanted to sign a contract with him, but only whom he wanted to sign a contract with. All this means that the existing universities, with the professors employed at them, are practically abolished, and new ones put together from scratch.
Implementation of the new Law has caused the worst consequences at three faculties in Belgrade: Law, Philology, and Electrical Engineering. Representatives of the authorities had already earmarked these three faculties, along with Philosophy, as the "ringleaders" of the 1996/97 protest. It is also at these faculties that the majority of the 200 professors and associates who refused to sign the new contracts is concentrated. It is no coincidence that it was precisely these faculties (with the exception of Philosophy, where the situation so far has been quite normal, precisely thanks to the new dean) which were given the most radical deans, who began persecuting, suspending, and firing practically the moment they took office. So far, four professors have been fired, all from the Faculty of Law. The official position of the Government is that all those who did not sign must be banned from teaching. As universities in Serbia are exclusively educational institutions (i.e., they do not include research institutes), the Government will not give money for the salaries of those who are banned from teaching. At this moment, new systematizations of posts are being prepared at all faculties, and these will show that those who have not signed are technological surplus, and they will then be fired.
At some faculties, such as Philology, the removal from teaching went quietly, but at some it was dramatic. After issuing decrees on suspension, the Dean of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Vladimir Teodosic, hired private security guards who physically prevented the suspended professors from going into classrooms, and literally removed - by carrying out into the street - those who were too insistent in their intentions. The "removed" professors continued giving lectures in front of the building of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering to students who had followed them, carrying blackboards.
To the number of the suspended should be added the number of those who out of protest left the faculties of their own will, either by taking early retirement, or by quitting. At some faculties, for example, at Philology, the number of those who chose to leave is equal to that of the suspended. All this has brought about serious disruptions in teaching, especially in disciplines for which Serbia does not have a sufficient number of competent teachers, due to the state's inadequate educational policies and a brain-drain spanning several decades. At some departments, such as the Department for General Literature and Theory of Literature of the Faculty of Philology, teaching has completely ceased, as all the teaching staff, with one exception, have refused to sign the contracts, while students are boycotting the classes of two replacement lecturers, whom they consider incompetent, or competent only to teach other disciplines. At the Department of Italian, all professors of Italian literature have left or have been suspended, and as there is nobody else in Serbia even formally qualified for this job, these classes have been canceled as well.
Those who have signed the new contracts are not in an enviable position, either. They realize that by signing they have only temporarily put off the threat which has already descended on the non-signatories: the absolute self-will of the deans, including blackmail with threats of transfer to other faculties (in other cities), change of courses they teach, for which they have specialized for years, and, worst of all, with political criteria in re-appointment.
A particular problem at some faculties is the change of curricula and programs, which the new Law includes in the list of deans' powers. The probable reason for this is that the authorities wish to exercise direct political control of curricula. At faculties of natural and technical sciences deans will probably rarely resort to this power, but the humanities will be seriously threatened. Radmilo Marojevic, Dean of the Faculty of Philology and member of the extreme-right and nationalist Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj, has already introduced a series of innovations which alter the educational profile of the Faculty. He has renamed Croatian literature, until now taught under this name, as the "literature of Catholic Serbs." Marojevic, a professor of Russian grammar, has introduced Russian as the obligatory first foreign language for all post-graduate students, offering them a choice between Polish and Czech as second language and among English, German, or French as third language (with the briefest course). He was also good enough to provide an explanation for this change: the largest quantity of scholarly literature is available in Russian, so this language will be of greatest use to students. This decision by Dean Marojevic is certainly a consequence of his lack of knowledge of writings in other languages, but if it should stand for long it will certainly lead to weakening and loss of scholarly and cultural ties to Western Europe and the USA.
The far-reaching consequences of this Law and its implementation are disastrous. The persecution of university teaching staff will cause a new wave of emigration of highly educated people. Inadequate replacements for those fired and suspended, as well as preventative "self-censorship" practiced by those who go on teaching (especially in the humanities), combined with an unambiguously political, not professional, selection of new staff, will lead to a drastic fall in the quality of teaching, and, consequently, of the educational level of the whole country. A further contribution to this will be given by the self-isolation of universities in Serbia which can be expected, and which will cement the consequences of the isolation imposed on Serbian and Montenegrin universities in 1992 by the international sanctions (officially abolished in 1995, but still persisting in the form of non-cooperation with Serbian universities by most European and American universities).
The professors and associates who have been banned from the university have already started the founding of the Alternative Academic Network, envisaged as an organization of a chain of independent teaching and research centers. We are aware that the founding of the Network will be accompanied by many difficulties, some of which may prove to be insuperable. We do not count on the benevolence of the authorities and expect all possible forms of harrassment - from administrative to personal. Help for these centers - material, moral, and professional - as well as individual help for the professors and associates threatened, is welcome. The politics of isolation, however, will not help: the greater the external pressures, the stronger the self-isolationist tendencies within Serbia, which help only the most radical political forces, both right and left. The new Law on Universities is the work of precisely those forces.