On May 26, 1998, the Serbian parliament passed the University Act, giving the Serbian government broad new powers over public universities in Serbia. The law was published in the official gazette of the Republic of Serbia and signed into law on May 28, 1998. The University Act abolished the autonomy of the universities through the following measures:
· The law ended faculty self-governance by mandating that university rectors and faculty deans be appointed directly by the government (Article 108; Article 123, para. 2). The law then strengthened the power of the government-appointed rectors and faculty deans through provisions giving each the rights and duties of a company director, unless otherwise determined by this Law (Articles 109, 122).
· The law created new university and faculty-level managing and supervisory boards, the membership of which is to be determined by the government, giving such boards many of the powers formerly exercised by electedfaculty councils (Articles 128, 131). Although such boards include places reserved for professors and students, such individuals are appointed by the government, and can be removed by the government and there is no provision for input or proposal of candidates by teaching staff.
· The law authorizes the government to shut down public universities at its discretion (Article 18, para. 2).
The University Act also abrogates existing contracts of teaching staff, including the contracts of tenured faculty members:
· The law requires that all professors and other teaching staff sign new employment contracts. Article 165 of the law states: Employees of the University who have begun employment up to the date of entry into force of this law are obliged to conclude a labor contract within 60 days of the entry into force of this Law.
Depoliticizing the Campuses
As described below, the ruling coalition has used the powers conferred by the new law to place its own people in university leadership positions and to dismiss, suspend, or otherwise sanction dissident professors. Since the law was enacted, administrators deemed unsuitable by the government have been replaced at universities across Serbia. Roughly 150 professors refused to sign the new contracts, viewing them as unconstitutional and as akin to loyalty oaths. Fifteen of those professors have been fired, forty-six have been suspended or otherwise sanctioned, and the status of the rest remains uncertain. All who have not signed have been threatened with dismissal.
Government officials and university administrators close to the government have justified their actions by saying that they are merely asserting the states rights as founder of the universities, that the faculty members who were targeted were more interested in opposition politics than in teaching, and that the changes were necessary to prevent the campuses from again becoming a center of political protests. The Serbian governments academic justification for its assault on the universities is pernicious. Experience has repeatedly demonstrated that academic freedomand the spirit of critical inquiry it embodiescannot flourish where members of the academic community must fear censorship and politically motivated reprisals for the expression of their views. Although it is true that professors have an obligation not to use the classroom for partisan political purposes, professors no less than other citizens have the right to state their views and participate in public affairs without fear of losing their jobs. The governments actions have thoroughly politicized the campuses, violating the rights of those professors who were fired or suspended to express political views and chilling inquiry and expression on campus.
If university officials believe that professors or other teaching staff are not fulfilling their responsibilities they should proceed against such individuals on a case-by-case basis according to the terms of existing employment contracts and, where applicable, existing guarantees of tenure. Such proceedings should be adjudicated by an impartial arbiter, giving the individual professor or teacher involved every opportunity to defend himself or herself according to recognized principles of contract law and due process. Finally, whatever the motives of the government in passing the University Act, the new law removes existing safeguards for academic autonomy and thus opens the door to political meddling in academic affairs by both present and future governments of Serbia.
Faculty and Student Response
As soon as the law was announced on May 9, 1998 faculty members organized to oppose it, seeing it as politically motivated retribution for the role played by the campuses in the 1996-97 protests and as a way to bring the entire academic community to its knees. Prior to the May 26, 1998 parliamentary session, academic councils at twenty-four of thirty faculties at the University of Belgrade issued resolutions declaring the law unacceptable, as did a majority of academic councils at universities nationwide. None of the councils endorsed the law.
Faculty groups also issued statements condemning the law and put forward an alternative draft law providing protections for university autonomy. Outside the Faculty of Philosophy in downtown Belgrade, a group called theCoordinating Committee for the Defense of Universities in Serbia (CCDUS) held daily protests for three weeks. The group obtained more than 15,000 signatures on a petition in opposition to the draft law and more than 10,000 on a petition calling for enactment of the alternative law drafted by faculty members. Faculty efforts to oppose the new law, however, were hampered by the fact that although faculty members were able to get summaries and eventually a copy of the text of the proposed law, the full text was not made public until the law had been passed in parliament.
On May 26, the parliament met to consider the draft law. One faculty member described the atmosphere in parliament as follows: Ordinarily parliamentary hearings are not televised. This time they were. Government officials used the opportunity to demonize faculty members and portray the 1996-97 protests as the work of a small band of traitorous academics who had never done a hard days work in their entire lives. The entire presentation was anti-intellectual and anti-academic.7 On the floor of parliament, Ratko Markovic, vice-president of the Serbian government, reportedly asserted that the government, as founder of the universities, was merely taking back its ownership rights of the university from faculty who had abused the public trust.8
On the day the law was passed, anti-riot police in Belgrade moved in on approximately 1,500 protesting students, professors, and residents. At least ten students and professors required medical attention after the confrontation. Another student demonstration protesting the law was violently dispersed on June 2, 1998. Both demonstrations reportedly had been nonviolent. The government claimed that the protesters lacked proper permits for the rallies. In the weeks following passage of the law, there was a strike by philosophy faculty in Belgrade and, at the University of Nis, 700 students occupied the philosophy faculty building for three days.
On June 11, 350 professors at Belgrade and Nis issued a declaration condemning the law. Other professors brought a court case challenging the constitutionality of the law. By the end of the summer break, opposition to the law centered on the 150 or so faculty members who were continuing to refuse to sign the contracts, and student groups, particularly students in those faculties most directly affected by the law. Many of those who signed the contracts, however, also strongly opposed the terms of the law, but determined that defiance would be futile given the stance of the government. In this sense, the law had a divisive impact. Nikola Tucic, a geneticist who is one of only a small handful of professors in the biology faculty who refused to sign the contract, explained his predicament: I have been pressured by my peers. Everyone says that theyre opposed to the law, why should I stand out? I end up having to apologize for my refusal to sign. I understand their positions but I have sons who are college age. I could not face them if I allow the principles I believe in to be compromised in this way.9
Since the law was enacted in May 1998, more than fifty academics and several professional academic associations in Europe and North America have protested the new law. Within Serbia, many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as well as faculty and student associations have also spoken out, including CCDUS (see above), the University Committee for the Defense of Democracy, the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, and the Belgrade Circle. The analyses and reports of many of these groups are now available on-line.10
7 Human Rights Watch interview with Zoran Milutinovic, Belgrade, November 11, 1998.
9 Human Rights Watch interview with Nikola Tucic, Belgrade, November 12, 1998.
10 See http://www.ups.opennet.org/english.htm.