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Paying a Price for Opposing Czech President

Critics find their professorships blocked.

April 12, 2019
 

The president of the Czech Republic is attempting to turn the country’s population against intellectuals and polarize society by vetoing professorships for critical academics, according to an art historian who has had his promotion repeatedly blocked.

Miloš Zeman, who is known for his opposition to Muslim immigration and closeness to Russia and is often described as a populist, has repeatedly used presidential powers to block the professorships of political opponents since he was elected in 2013.

In the latest development during a dispute stretching back to 2015, Prague’s Charles University announced in February that it would launch new legal challenges against Zeman for blocking the professorships of two academics put forward by the university.

“He is struggling against intellectuals and polarizing society in this country,” said Jiří Fajt, currently director general of the National Gallery in Prague and one of the two affected academics.

The president’s “populist” aim was to convince the majority of the population that they did not need to listen to intellectuals, Fajt told Times Higher Education, eroding academic freedom in Czech universities. He wanted to undermine “the position of intellectuals in this society,” he warned.

Fajt said that he thought his appointment had been blocked in part because of his support for Zeman’s opponent during the 2013 presidential elections.

Czech presidents -- who wield far more political power than presidents in countries such as Germany, where they are in essence figureheads -- have had a long-standing right to approve professors put forward by university scientific boards, explained Tomáš Zima, rector of Charles University, but this had never caused serious issues before.

“These problems started only after Mr. Zeman became the president of the Czech Republic,” he said.

This is not the first time that Zeman has blocked the professorship of a critic. In 2013, the president refused to approve the promotion of Martin Putna, an expert on Czech literature who prior to the presidential election released a satirical impersonation of Vladimir Putin urging Czechs to vote for Zeman, Radio Prague reported.

The incident caused an outcry, triggering student protests in favor of Putna, and was seen by critics as an unprecedented use of presidential power, as previous incumbents had never overruled a university’s choice before.

In Charles University’s latest lawsuit, “our key argument in the current lawsuit is that the president cannot question or review whether a professorship candidate is sufficiently qualified or has adequate moral integrity,” explained Zima -- this is rather a judgment call made by universities themselves.

In a press conference announcing the lawsuit, Zima accused the president of menacing academic freedom. “At this moment, this is a violation of rules and academic freedoms at Charles University, but in future it may concern every one of you,” he reportedly warned the country.

Charles University’s legal challenge is now being processed by Prague’s municipal court, and the university is awaiting a hearing, he said. Both professorial candidates have also filed previous lawsuits against the president, Zima added.

Fajt said that the veto had denied him the opportunity to teach students, and the lack of a professorship was an issue of “social status” and “acknowledgment of my academic qualifications,” he said. The president had raised questions about his habilitation thesis -- a kind of second doctorate -- even before 2015, he said. “I don’t know him personally at all. We have never met each other,” he said.

A spokesman for the president said that he had rejected the professors for “substantial legal and moral reasons” but did not elaborate further.

But a presidential statement in January accused Fajt of demanding a bonus to his salary from a bank that had partnered with his gallery, and of not being truthful in his professor application, claims that Fajt dismissed as “total nonsense.”

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