One-on-one | Education

Antonija Petričušić: The apathy in Croatian academia reflects the broader social picture

By - 05.11.2019

Rethinking Academia (Part 6) — Zagreb professor talks gender equality, apathy, activism, and academic freedoms.

In a recent interview, when asked about the state of democracy in her native Turkey, writer Elif Shafak warned of how the lack of an independent academia, among other issues, is one of the components of a “damaged and broken” democracy.

Looking at the rest of the Balkans and at the state of democracy and academia, it is a statement that resonates strongly. Around the region, universities are faced with the same complaints and challenges: the misuse of universities by political elites, the questionable quality of education, opportunism among the academic staff, a decline of ethics and the so-called “brain drain.”

Wanting to explore this situation further, K2.0 has spoken with some of the most prominent intellectuals from the region. In this special series of interviews with academics from seven Balkan states, all professors agree that academia in the Balkans is not independent. 

In the sixth part of our Rethinking Academia series, K2.0 talks to Antonija Petričušić, an assistant professor at the Chair of Sociology of the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Law and a member of the Advisory Committee on the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

Photo: Tjaša Kalkan / K2.0.

K2.0: Croatia regularly appears at the very bottom of world university rankings. What is it like to be a part of Croatian academia in 2019 and what are some of the challenges it faces today?

Antonija Petričušić: I think that working in the academic world is a great privilege that most members of the academia are seemingly not even aware of. There is a freedom of choice pertaining to the topics you want to cover, the ways in which you may approach your work and pass on knowledge to your students, flexible working hours, collaborative efforts with your colleagues abroad, the ability to take part in conferences and research projects, the intellectual debate… For me, this is the most beautiful occupation in the world, because we deal with a transfer of knowledge.

However, it would indeed be great if we could engage in further professional training, if we could learn more and additionally improve the quality of scholarly activities by participating in a larger number of research projects, both domestically and internationally.

The Croatian scientific community’s international contribution is negligible.

I believe that we are deficient in methodological and didactic education due to the fact that we as professors cannot become fully accomplished ourselves as educators only through completing our university studies, getting a job, and earning doctoral degrees. Meanwhile, when you do get a university job, the assumption is as follows: That’s it, you’ve got the hang of it by observing your teachers, no improvements are needed.

Another thing is that the Croatian scientific community’s international contribution is negligible. Consequently, the opportunities to partake in international research projects are limited, while budget investments are insufficient. Another issue is that this same scientific community of ours has not been reinvigorated for the past few years, owing to an inefficient system of taking in new, younger staff. The consequences will be seen in 10 to 15 years or so.

Moreover, it appears to me that the most ambitious young people do not pursue doctoral studies in Croatia nowadays. They prefer to do it elsewhere because they know that other countries will provide them with a better education and experience, train them to work in line with the most cutting-edge methods and make them more competitive in a global market. This will prove to be a major loss to our scientific community unless we come up with a plan for how to get these people back at some point, or at least on how to connect them with our universities and research institutes.

On the other hand, the glass ceiling endures in the world of science in spite of nominal equality. The governing bodies of our universities are evidence enough. Even though scientific vocation has already been quite feminized, particularly when it comes to social sciences, hierarchical structures are difficult to change.

Photo: Tjaša Kalkan / K2.0.

In today’s context, we work on curricular reform at the lower levels of the Croatian education system, yet no one points out that we should revamp the way university education is conducted. I perceive my university as an antediluvian dinosaur as a world where nothing changes, a sluggish environment that does not want to update and open itself, that refuses to be transparent — neither in terms of finances nor administration — and is closed to the public. It would be much more preferable for the situation to change, so as to make for new people and new winds to steer the university.

In this day and age, to what extent is academia involved and to what extent could it be involved in shaping public opinion, as well as in the discussion of pressing social issues?

As per the majority of academic professionals, there is this unwillingness with reference to public involvement and taking a stand on relevant social issues and disputes. It could even be said that people are afraid of exposure, that they are afraid to disseminate certain ideas and insights. 

I suppose that these circumstances could be partially ascribed to the fact that a rigid hierarchism permeates the structure of our universities. As a result of that, a teaching assistant would rarely dare to come forward in public since they reckon that their boss would be the one to make a public appearance to present their discipline. 

Nevertheless, university professors are not merely scholars who bear knowledge in their field of study, but also politically literate citizens allowed to hold their private views and at least marginally defend them in some situations. And most of them do not dare to do so.

Or, for example, they do not want to involve themselves in any sort of initiative in cases where we are trying to preserve the integrity of the university and scientific community or challenge faulty legislation regulating our professional present and future.

We, as the members of this privileged professional community, have an obligation to make ourselves capable of employing our knowledge — and I am primarily referring to our expertise, which could be useful in explaining and shedding light on specific social matters of contention — in order to contribute toward the pacification of divisions and conflicts within our society. Conversely, we could use it so as to unequivocally condemn some social groups that rise up and deprive or intend to deprive minority communities of their rights, or that foster values antithetical to democracy.

I cannot get my head around a social science professional saying that they have got no opinion on a burning social issue.

Do you deem apathy as deriving from the fear for existence, i.e. the fear of losing one’s job or position in academia?

I would not say so. Because in academia, you automatically step up in ranks if you meet basic requirements laid down in a relevant regulation. It is a fear of confrontation that we have at hand, a fear of “outing your beliefs.”

I cannot get my head around a social science professional saying that they have no opinion on a burning social issue. How can you not have an opinion? You have an opinion as an intellectual. You may say that you do not have enough information about some issue, but you probably do have an opinion about it.

It seems to me that this apathy reflects the broader social picture, including a lack of accountability among university staff, them being unwilling to compromise or expose themselves. The thing is, as long as you have not exposed yourself, it is still possible to be promoted, knowing that no one regards you as part of any ideological clan and that none of your colleagues would presume you to act against your own interests. 

You preserve your existential security by being anonymous. To me, however, this is cowardice.

How likely is it for anyone to remain politically uninfluenced in academia today; is it even possible not to belong to any political party or interest group?

You do not have to be a member of some political party to have this elaborate sense of social justice or a stance on desirable worldviews. Value-wise, we are all pointing to a certain pole.

I think that non-partisanship is important to scientific work, primarily in social sciences, but I do not frown at those colleagues of mine who join parties, since I reckon they have a feeling that they could bring about social change through those means and channels.

You can write about politics, yet if you are not a part of it, you will be unable to overhaul the political system or structures. Therefore, I admire my colleagues who mobilize themselves in a political sense, having evidently decided to make use of their knowledge in real-life politics.

In Croatia, politics often meddles with science. Last year, for instance, the former Croat member of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Presidency, Dragan Čović, was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Zagreb, while this year, an honorary doctorate was offered to the Mayor of Zagreb, Milan Bandić. Several members of academia have spoken up against both decisions. How are their actions seen? Are there any repercussions?

I suppose that a major part of academia reads about and processes the responsibility of a few individuals’ actions and says: “I agree with them,” at least that is what I can tell from discussions I have had with my colleagues.

As an example of a brave appearance, I would like to point to the one made by Đurđica Čilić, an assistant professor from the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb. She has addressed the University Senate twice, where she opposed Čović being given an honorary doctorate, as well as Prime Minister Andrej Plenković’s father being given the title of Emeritus Professor. She had the courage to tell eminent men, the holders of institutional powers at Zagreb University: “The emperor has no clothes!”

Photo: Tjaša Kalkan / K2.0.

She was the only one to put into words that this should not be done, that what we have at hand at the university is utter politicking. Her appearance required outstanding boldness because she did not speak on behalf of any party or interest group. She acted in a moral manner, induced by her desire to tell the truth.

It is not that such events are not viewed with awe or held in high regard, but there are few people like Đurđica Čilić. Even when someone does make an effort to react and come down on what happened upon the attempt to award Mayor Bandić a doctorate, a great deal of people in academia ignore calls for petition signatures, or turn a blind eye to being a part of a group that voices opposition to the Rectorate, or do not attend faculty council sessions so that they do not find themselves in a position to collectively decry the Rectorate’s decisions.

You are not afraid of coming out against various issues yourself, having come under the criticism of conservative association “In the Name of the Family,” not due to your public appearance, but for a scholarly article titled “Gaining Political Power by Utilizing Opportunity Structures: An Analysis of the Conservative Religious-Political Movement in Croatia.” Do you fear their backlash?

In this article, my co-authors and I have merely demonstrated how conservative actors have used “opportunity structures” — socio-political developments that provided them with leverage to advance themselves as political actors effectively and swiftly.

Naturally, every scholarly article can be questioned, but if you opt to do so, you [should] try to deconstruct it relying on scientifically acceptable methodology. They sought to discredit us by claiming that our article is biased and that we cited fake news as our sources. They reached out to newspapers, they ran after the journal editor to make him take down the article, they wrote to our dean and colleagues. We were downright harassed.

The duty of science is to analyse matters of relevance to the society, to analyse social trends, even more so if they stand in opposition to cornerstones of democracy.

Personally, I am not scared of situations like these. However, I think that it sends out the following message to academia: Do not deal with us, because otherwise we can attack you all the same. Yesterday, it was us that they attacked. Tomorrow, they may attack someone who will have authored an article on women’s right to reproductive and sexual health or on the right to life, yet not an unscientific one. Rather, it will have been merely contrary to their belief.

As a result of their actions, some colleagues will think twice before they set out to examine controversial issues, even though the duty of science is to take into account these exact apples of discord. The duty of science is to analyze matters of relevance to the society, to analyze social trends, even more so if they stand in opposition to cornerstones of democracy and virtues spelled out in our constitution, such as pluralism, equality, and non-discrimination.

These fundamentals can easily fall prey to certain groups, but the scientific community is there to protect them through their work.

You completed your postgraduate studies at the Central European University that was subsequently relocated from Budapest, owing to political pressure exerted by Viktor Orbán’s conservative administration. Do you suspect similar scenarios to play out in Croatia?

I am most grateful to have been offered an opportunity to study at that modern university bursting with the high quality of education and exquisite teaching staff. The government of Hungary did not want to cultivate liberal ideas and freedoms on their own soil, so they managed to boot that institution out by changing legislation.

The Hungarian prime minister is no longer that distant from us. We cannot pretend that the idea of illiberal democracy is in Orbán’s sole ownership. This idea is in the hearts and mouths of many a Croatian politician and the ones who delve into politics in one way or another. The very same thing could easily happen to us, all the more so since education is an area where ideological leanings are made known by various groups.

Due to academia’s complacency and lack of engagement, I believe that some interest groups — both conservative and clerical ones alike — have slowly, as well as unobtrusively, succeeded to populate our education sector. The majority of those in the scientific community who hold that someone else would fight for their rights and defend their freedoms are indeed uninterested and languid, which is why we are where we are, and it seems to me that we are not heading in a good direction. K

Feature image: Tjaša Kalkan / K2.0.