Groves of Academe

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I had planned to write something lighthearted, to balance out my recent posts on graft, tax evasion and general fecklessness at the top; but then I was sent this account and I couldn’t ignore it.

If you have experienced academic life elsewhere and find the internal politics tedious and the administration frustrating, this charming vignette of university life in Greece which took place last Monday should put things into perspective:

At approximately 10:30 in the morning, around 40 unidentified individuals entered the office of Mrs Mantzourani (Eleni Mantzourani is an internationally respected Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at the National Kapodistrian University of Athens (UoA) on the fourth floor while she was holding a seminar for 12 students. The intruders started insulting and threatening Mrs Mantzourani in an attempt at intimidation. “We know where you live and we’ll be following you from now on if you go to testify.” They leafletted her office and the School of Philosophy with two types of flyers, one containing accusations against Mrs Mantzourani and the other stating their views on the upcoming trial of administrative staff. Another lecturer who happened to be passing came to her aid, and the intruders insulted him too, while the Dean of the School of Philosophy who was informed of the incident arrived 45 minutes later. She was also insulted on the grounds that “you were selected by the Council”. After a lengthy dispute that lasted two hours in total they eventually left.

This incident was condemned in an open letter circulated on the university’s interal network and received very little attention in the national press (the account above combines the two sources). It appears that Eleni Mantzourani was targeted because she has been called to appear as a witness at the trial of a number of administrative staff of the university who went on a protracted strike in 2013, in contravention of a court judgement which had declared the strike illegal. The trial is due to start this Monday. The strike was called after just over a thousand administrative positions in Greek universities were eliminated in an attempt to cut spending, but also to reform the universities’ governance.

Since then, a new government has come into power, and the university administrators now have friends in high places. Those whose positions were eliminated by the previous government were summarily reinstated by ministerial decree in June, along with the cleaners of the Finance Ministry, another cause celebre of the anti-austerity movement. The new Deputy Education Minister, appointed after the September elections, is the former Chancellor (Πρύτανης, University President if you are American) of the UoA, Theodosios Pelegrinis. Prof. Pelegrinis was at the helm when the administrators’ strike shut down the university for three and a half months at the end of 2013, almost costing an entire academic semester. At that time, Pelegrinis lent his support to the strikers with understatement typical of his personal style: “I feel awe for the the strike by our employees, they are giving their blood to save their flesh.” Pelegrinis has also been an outspoken critic of the previous government’s reform initiatives, referring to the newly established institution of independent University Councils (Συμβούλια Ιδρύματος), of which Mantzourani is a serving member at the UoA, as “fifth columnists“.

This is a mere skirmish in the ongoing battle of reform and counter-reform over the Greek university system. It is no exaggeration to say that Greek institutions of higher learning are like an alien landscape to most students and academics in the developed world. In 2011 an international group of experts commissioned by the government of the day delivered a diplomatically worded but damning report on the state of Greek universities (controversial in some respects but irrefutable in others). The report noted among its findings that while Greece has one of the highest rates of expenditure per student among European countries, its graduation rates are the lowest; universities are not safe because their governing bodies are reluctant to use their powers to protect staff, students and facilities against politically disruptive incursions; that party-political influences have a malign effect on performance and allow a vocal minority to hold undue sway over governance. The report found that the Greek tertiary education system after three decades of mismanagement is suffering a crisis of values and requires not merely an overhaul of governance, but also a radical culture change.

The observation about security is pertinent here, and as I say, the report put it mildly. University authorities are reluctant to institute security measures or invite police on to university premises to deal with threats to people or property, for fear of being compared to the junta generals who ordered the tanks into the Polytechnic in November 1973 to quell the student uprising (ironically, the tanks that broke down the Polytechnic gates on the 17th November rolled in from the location that since the early 1990s houses the “new” Polytechnic campus, back then an army camp). As a result, facilities are routinely vandalised and walls covered with artless (only ocassionally witty) anti-authoritarian graffiti. Aside from the almost routine protests and sit-ins which disrupt the academic year, staff and students regularly fall prey to intimidation by political factions who operate with impunity in what is effectively a police no-go zone. Campuses are not only occupied in protest by various political factions within the university, but have become a safe haven for anyone looking to shelter themselves from the law, from black marketeers to urban terrorists. A few examples will suffice. In 2007 a post-graduate Physics student at the UoA was the victim of an unprovoked armed attack on campus in which a leading member of neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn was implicated (but subsequently cleared in court). In the Polytechnic (NTUA) campus a weapons cache was discovered in 2011 and subsequently linked to an urban guerilla group; on a previous occasion another local terrorist group fired an ΑΚ-47 out of the campus at a bus of riot police leaving their nearby headquarters; the police station in the residential neighbourhood on the opposite side of campus is protected by a high chainlink fence against petrol bombs thrown from inside the university. In 2012 a targeted police raid on the main building of the Αthens University of Economics and Business (ΑΣΟΕΕ) in central Athens confiscated contraband goods hidden on the grounds by illegal street vendors, along with gas masks, helmets, makeshift weapons and a radio transmitter presumably used by a different group of troublemakers. The “groves of academe” are clearly growing the wrong kind of fruit.

The UoA campus, where the latest incident took place, and the adjacent Polytechnic campus are set in extensive parkland. In a certain light, they bear more than a passing resemblance to recent photographs of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, where verdant nature contrasts with decaying buildings. Never more so than during the administrators’ strike two years ago. The strikers set up pickets and lit bonfires at the entrances to the campuses and turned away anyone who looked like university personnel or students (though strolling pensioners, runners and dog walkers were allowed in to savour the ghost town ambience).

But life does go on inside, students graduate, and achievements are made despite, not because of, the system. I recently caught the tail end of a TV debate in which two university professors disagreed vehemently on just about every subject discussed: politics, the economy, moral philosophy. But when it came to university education they were united in supporting reform. They were challenged by one of the politicians on the panel. “How come,” he asked, “if Greek universities are such a mess, do Greek researchers distinguish themselves worldwide?” “Genetics,” answered one of the profs. “You can’t defeat genetics. There will always be a 10% that will distinguish themselves in any environment. Our job is to help the other 90% and we are failing them.”

This week’s trial could be a test case on many fronts: how serious the university authorities are about protecting their staff and students; what the government’s intentions are towards education, and how far they are willing to go to pursue them; how willing anyone is to defend one professor against forty thugs; how independent the justice system is capable of being. It will be worth watching closely.

Images: Polytechnic campus building during the university administrators’ strike, 2013, courtesy of koutofrangos.

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Groves of Academe

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