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July 1, 2022



Czech Republic: Dean at Charles University standing by controversial ethnologist

6.5.2015 19:18
Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Charles University, Mirjam Friedová (PHOTO:  Faculty website)
Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Charles University, Mirjam Friedová (PHOTO: Faculty website)

In February 2014, Docent Mirjam Friedová became the first female Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Charles University in Prague. Friedová, who was originally the director of the Linguistics Department, came into the leadership position as Dean with a new concept of how to direct the faculty - how to make up for the university's lack of money, how to solve staffing cuts, and how to focus more on research activity.

In October of last year, as part of beginning these changes, Dean Friedová appointed Docent Marek Jakoubek the new director of the Institute of Ethnology, a choice that sparked a wave of indignation in the academic community both in the Czech Republic and abroad. The core of that criticism concerned Jakoubek's perspective on Romani ethnicity in particular, about which a long-lasting argument was conducted in the journal Český lid (The Czech People) between anthropologists, ethnologists and Romani Studies scholars seven years ago.    

Many educators and, last but least, students of ethnology count themselves among Jakoubek's critics, and they are sharply objecting to the personnel changes that the new director undertook after his appointment. The most striking objection is their disagreement with his firing of the anthropologists Jaroslav Skupnik and Martin Soukup, in favor of whom both former graduates and current students at the Institute wrote a petition.  

Today and tomorrow students will be on strike calling for the removal of Jakoubek as director. News server has long been covering these issues at the Institute of Ethnology; the following is our interview about the current events with Dean Friedová.  

Q:  Madame Dean, where is the faculty supposed to be heading under your leadership?

A:  To be brief, it should be heading into the world. It should be heading into the broader international community and into our national community so that we are not just the Faculty of Arts of Charles University, but part of the broader educational and scientific community to which we belong.

Q:  You have taken up the leadership of the faculty during a financial situation that is not exactly favorable. How, in your opinion, will it be possible to get out of the current financial predicament?

A:  That's a bit more complex of an issue. It would be unfair just to say that I have inherited this from my predecessor, as he also had to grapple with many other matters. The basic problem is that as a university institution we live in a state of permanent insecurity, we never know ahead of time how much money we will be receiving. We are constantly addressing the situation at hand, we are unable to plan well enough, we mustn't rely on the notion that next year it can't get any worse. The state of affairs I have inherited is the result of the economic situation of the faculty and is about somehow adjusting, on the one hand, the economic management itself, and on the other hand how new people have been accepted into the faculty, what the plan for them basically is. It is only now that I have ascertained that some matters have not been supervised at all, or that there have not been any strategies for them. However, it doesn't seem important to me to engage in finger-pointing. I have a situation here, and I must resolve it.    

Q:  What has the economic management been like?

A:  It's a confluence of various factors - three main ones. The first is that the faculty has gradually, for a wide variety of reasons, exhausted its reserves. I have not had any money to draw on to aid matters. My predecessor didn't have to address that dilemma - as long as you have somewhere to draw from, you will do so. In the second place, at the end of 2013 the support ended for the so-called "small departments". They cannot be paid for by the per capita subsidy given by the ministry per student. The problem is that when you give a two-hour lecture for 100 students, you get money for 100 students, and when you give a two-hour lecture for six students, then naturally you only get money for six - but the work is the same. My predecessor succeeded, twice in a row, in raising financial support for these departments through the Interior Ministry. I will probably also succeed in raising at least some money for this year, the negotiations are still underway. Thirdly, the university introduced new salary regulations three years ago. They were introduced during two phases, and the second, most expensive phase, which applied as of 1 January 2015, involves the fact that I must raise the base salary for all the academics. That's CZK 14 million right off the bat... and where I am supposed to get that money when we no longer have reserves? That's the situation I have come into. It's not happy, it's not simple, but I am taking it as an opportunity.    

Q:  So you have some sort of plan for replenishing those reserves and improving this situation?

A:  Naturally, I have a plan. On the basis of an evaluation that took place in the autumn, which was immeasurably useful, I scrutinized the entire faculty to see whether we have any black holes through which our financing is leaking or whether, on the contrary, we have a situation in which we will simply need to raise more money. It's an evaluation of all the workplaces that goes right down to the level of individual employees. Once I know I have a budget that fits my needs, then if I can manage to raise a little more I can begin building up our financial reserves.

Q:  That money would go for something specific?

A:  I would like to see it divided between various purpose-built funds for supporting international collaborations, conferences and travel, attracting professors from abroad, supporting students so they know where to turn when they plan various activities, and last but not least, funds for releasing publications. I think the public basically is unaware that we pay for much of our own publication work out of our own pocket. I would also like to be able to reward the employees - to remunerate them according to their actual performance. Another important matter is to give young people prospects. Sometimes I admire them for going into such an uncertain profession at all.

Q:  Generational transformation... that's another area you are concentrating on. 

A:  That term is haunting me, because various people are coming to tell me how horrible and undignified it is... but I don't see it that way. It's a natural thing. The aim is not to throw people of retirement age out, but for every department to follow a qualifications structure. It is important to have someone experienced, someone in mid-career, and then someone who is just now learning and will one day take over.

Q:  What are the specific criteria?

A:  You must look at the age structure and then the qualifications, they go hand in hand. I didn't mechanically proceed according to people's ages, I am looking at the quality of 

their work. For example, we do not have an age limit in our departments like they do at Czech Technical University or in Olomouc. I am planning to create career rules, because we lack them and they are important not just for young staffers with their careers ahead of them, but also for those who are potentially leaving. I really miss the institution of emeritus status at this university - I am used to that from my experiences abroad. Here when someone retires, he or she basically doesn't belong here anymore and it's a shame - when such a person is still capable of publishing and has enormous experience, then he or she can still pass it on. As an emeritus member of the academic community, these people could continue to do so - they would not have to teach as many hours, but they would always know that we consider them our colleagues.    

Q:  Currently there is a great deal of discussion about the changing of the guard and the departures of people at the Institute of Ethnology.

A:  That, naturally, is about several different overlapping matters. The Institute has long been very neglected, and that is why there was a selection procedure for a new leader. It was clear that if a leader were chosen from within that nothing would change there, and for a long time nothing has happened there. I did not anticipate 12 candidates applying to be director, that is unheard of in this country. There were many candidates to choose from and the commission agreed unequivocally on Docent Jakoubek, so I do not have the slightest reason to doubt their choice from the beginning. By the way, the faculty would crucify me if I were to say:  So, everybody voted for Jakoubek, but I will choose someone else. Today, naturally, it suits people to say "but he shouldn't be here".  

Q:  How do you believe it came about that the Institute has "long been very neglected"?

A:  My predecessor had to address this situation:  It is a beautiful example of the fact that there was no strategy (which should have come from the leadership of the Institute) for how to accept new people and build the institution up. I am not an expert on ethnology or anthropology, so I cannot speak to that, but there has to be a concept in place that convinces me that it makes sense for the range of expertise at the institution, all its departments and sub-departments, to be located all together as an integral whole. The strategy should also establish opportunities for projects, because today you can't get by without them, not financially, and not in terms of scholarship. Previously the Institute of Ethnology did not have that, it was just a group of lone wolves.

Q:  The new concept that the director presented and won his appointment with will address that situation?  

A:  The Institute is very overpopulated, it has 21 employees, and culturology was artificially attached to it under pressure - its a kind of weird agglomeration, it doesn't form a coherent whole. The new director's concept will introduce a system emphasizing the effectiveness and quality of the education and scholarship there, and I believe it is a very rational one. Simply put, the days when anyone could go in his or her own direction and not be involved in shared project work are over. I have spoken with quite a few people from ethnology and I did not get the impression that everyone there is equally willing to engage in that kind of essential cooperation.      

Q:  In your position you rely on the directors of the individual institutes. Does it personally seem correct to you that the director of the Institute of Ethnology let go Dr Skupnik and Docent Soukup?

A:  All of the arguments that have been made to me in defense of Dr Skupnik are that he is a very capable, well-liked educator, which no one disputes. He is most probably an excellent pedagogue, he gets good teaching assessments, the students like him. However, the popularity of an instructor is not the main reason, and definitely not the only reason, to keep someone at the Institute. I have to look at the faculty as a whole. Charles University is a research university which still has a very good name abroad, and I must pay attention to that. I understand the students will be unhappy to lose a good teacher, but that does not mean they will not gain an equally good one in his stead.  

Q:  You are putting a greater emphasis on research than on teaching, then.

A:  Scholarship is important in and of itself, it's not just about teaching well. If you do good scholarship, you will be an even better educator. That's where I see the main problem. To be honest, it's terribly easy to whip up such passions among students. They don't see anything beyond what is right in front of them, they don't see it from the standpoint of the entire Institute, of the whole faculty. I cannot back down in the face of such pressure, that's out of the question, because the first victim of that would be the Institute of Ethnology itself. As far as Docent Soukup goes, there the problem is rather a sectoral one - he studies Melanesia, and for the faculty that is proving to be inefficient. No one else there studies that part of the world, and I don't see any effort to find him co-workers or to involve him in the work of the faculty or Institute more broadly.    

Q:  So once again:  What are the criteria according to which one determines who is the "right" educator and scholar? Docent Jakoubek is also, shall we say, a controversial figure. 

A:  Docent Jakoubek has received, just like the heads of all departments and institutes at the faculty, criteria and instructions that are essential, according to which they are to evaluate their institutions and their educators and say where they see the strong points and what the weaknesses are. I don't approve the expenditure of this money just because I'm supposed to pay people - it's tied to an evaluation scale dictated by the university's salary regulations. There is a description, for each academic position,of what the staffer should do in order to be classified in that salary category. However, that doesn't mean that if you are a Docent you automatically are in the Docent salary category - there are about six or seven points, requirements that you must fulfill in addition to having that title. Those requirements, however, have not been adhered to for quite some time. That's why there's this shock now. The docents and professors are supposed to be the motive force behind significant projects, international publications, etc. In other words, this has been established by those above us - Jakoubek did not invent this. Teaching is only part of a faculty member's evaluation. If an educator doesn't publish high-quality work and doesn't contribute to project work, then naturally that is reflected in the overall evaluation. That [work] is, naturally, also a source of money. Today the entire academic world functions like this, we didn't invent it.    

Q: You mentioned passions - the atmosphere really is rather an escalated one, and to many people Docent Jakoubek is genuinely controversial thanks to the conclusions he has drawn from his research in Romani settlements. Thanks to that, the public is taking more notice of what is going on at the faculty - might these goings-on at the Institute harm its name?

A: I really hope I won't have to see it that way. Matters are being mixed together here that should not be The Institute of Ethnology is being accused of destroying Romani Studies at the faculty. The Institute is not, however, a Romani Studies workplace - and the Docent is not a Romani Studies scholar. Every change takes time, it's not possible for us to evaluate today whether something is or is not being destroyed, whether it is deteriorating or improving. We will only know this two years from now. It's absurd to make judgments now. I understand that every change involves psychological stress, but these are hypothetical discussions I have no desire to enter into. I have no intention of getting involved with whether there are some personal relationships at issue here either.      

Q: The fact, however, that longtime critics of the director are among the first to be thrown out of the workplace prompts doubts.  

A:  I studied that controversy very carefully from the very beginning, precisely to be sure I understood it. The hiring commission knew about it too. As far as the research by Docent Jakoubek which is sparking that response goes, there are two separate areas at issue here. One of them is the research area - what happened is just part of the research, even though that might be controversial to some. In fact, the controversy ultimately sparked discussion and pushed the topic forward. At the level of research, scholars must not be restricted by anything, we simply perform our research and we are not then responsible if parts of our scholarship or our results are taken out of context, interpreted in a particular way, or indirectly abused. To be a scholar does not mean one supplements social activism - one performs research and is responsible for the academic quality of one's work. Docent Jakoubek has not been focused on the Romani topic for a while now, he is involved in other areas.

Q: In this case, however, the topic did not stay just at the level of research. Many people are still drawing on Docent Jakoubek's so-called "non-ethnic" concept, whether they be some circles of people involved in discussions about the integration of the Romani minority or supporters of antigypsyism and neo-Nazism.  

That's exactly the mistake - those results are being interpreted apart from their original context. Personally, I am horrified by the atmosphere in this society now. When I came back here after 25 years in the USA, the degree of intolerance and racism among people in the Czech Republic greatly startled me, and to this day I am somehow unable to reconcile myself to the fact that this is how it is. I thorougly condemn racism and such tendencies and if I suspected that the work of Docent Jakoubek stemmed from some sort of racism or desire to urge people towards racism, I would be the first person to intervene. However, to the degree that I am familiar with his work, I do not suspect him or it of any such tendencies.    

Mirjam Friedová graduated in Czech Studies and Classical Philology (Czech-Latin) from the Faculty of Arts, Charles University (1976-1981). From 1979 -1982 she also attended English Studies there. She began living in the USA in 1982. She studied linguistics starting in 1987 at the University of California at Berkeley, where she attained her doctorate in 1995. After a year as a guest lecturer at Oregon University (1997/1998) she worked at the University of California at Berkeley from 1998-2001 as a research assistant. From 2001-2008 she lectured in Linguistics and Slavic Studies at Princeton University. In 2008 she was awarded a docentship at the Linguistics Department of Helsinki University. From 2008-2011 she worked at the Czech Language Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. From 2011-2014 she was director of the Linguistics Department at the Faculty of Arts, Charles University. On 10 October 2013 she was the sole candidate chosen to become Dean of the Faculty of Arts, succeeding Michal Stehlík on 1 February 2014.

Jana Baudyšová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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