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Mara Šćepanović: The university will be liberated when Montenegro is liberated

By - 29.10.2019

Rethinking Academia (Part 5) — physicist from Montenegro talks about the only light in the darkness of the education system in that country.

In a recent interview, when asked about the state of democracy in her native Turkey, writer Elif Shafak warned of how the lack of 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’s a statement that strongly resonates. Around the region, universities are faced with the same complaints and challenges: the misuse of universities by political elites, a 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 of the professors agree that academia in the Balkans is not independent.

In the fifth part of our “Rethinking Academia” series, K2.0 sat down with physicist Mara Šćepanović, a regular professor at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the Podgorica-based University of Montenegro (UoM). She was among the professors who in 2016 began to fight for the independence of faculties and became blacklisted as a result. 

Professor Šćepanović speaks about her students, who she sees as rare lights at the state university, about problems with the rectorate and explains that Montenegro has no scientific or other kind of community — except for the partisan and interest-based one.

Photo: Boris Pejović / K2.0.

K2.0: As the reason for your decision to get more actively engaged in the public debate about the issues facing our society, you have pointed to [Russian poet] Yesenin’s verse: “Don’t be indifferent, a man can never recover from that.” What has “shifted” in you to inspire you to come forward and behave differently from a regular professor at a Montenegrin university?

Mara Šćepanović: What has shifted was what happened at the faculty of natural sciences in 2016. This amount of highhandedness, audacity and arrogance that we experienced from the rectorate was the drop that overflowed the glass.

It was back then that we realized for the very first time that there wasn’t any communication between faculties and the rectorate. We had experienced the rectorate up until that point as management that should be connecting us and facilitate working conditions. However, in 2014 the rules changed, and the then rector bragged that they had become the first integrated university in the region.

It was a bit funny to me, because the second and only integrated university of the region was the one in Novi Pazar. They simply wanted to incapacitate professors who could rebel and show a bit of academic integrity, and they had the opportunity to do so. However, they had just revised their rulebooks, and all the decisions were made by the rectorate.

Later I found Yesenin, when I agreed to say a few words to Mladen Bojanić, when he was a candidate for the presidency of Montenegro in 2018. It was the university’s policy that I was interested in, and I didn’t need Yesenin for that. But I needed him in order to communicate with people who weren’t my students or colleagues. 

I think that it was in that period that I saw Mladen Bojanić as someone who could peacefully transition us into a more normal society.

Since then, you began to behave in a manner atypical for a professor of the University of Montenegro, most of which are passive and cannot be heard in public discourse.

The trigger was what had been going on in public life. My voice could be heard within the institution and we could change something there. Hence, there was no need to expose it further.

However, in 2016, when the reform started, our voice could not be heard and we needed to react. Now we see that everything that was done in 2016 was a miss, and is changing slowly.

Why do you reproach the university that you speak so critically of?

Not the university, but the rectorate leading the politics. The university is bad because all the decisions are made by the rectorate, which has become completely autonomous next to its faculty units. They make decisions on their own, while we only serve as their implementers.

What are the consequences?

I am telling you, they are perverting the laws in all areas. Everything was — how do I say it and not be vulgar — everything was staged.

Our scene was staged. I felt like I was watching a theater play. We got a stage, the laws were the stage, but nobody cared about what was behind the stage. Not who would lead the class, which class, in which classrooms, with what teaching resources…

It was simply clear that it was all a scam and that the reform had been staged. The rector gathered people around herself who wanted more political influence, or to break into the world of politics, and they managed to push it forward.

Photo: Boris Pejović / K2.0.

Where were the university professors?

They have been marginalized, because all decisions are made in the rectorate and we have absolutely no possibility to react. We found out about stuff by chance, even though we had two representatives in the senate. The senate is something like an assembly, while the board of directors is something akin to a government, the rector is the president of the state, while the board of directors president is akin to the prime minister. This is literally how we function.

Their ministries are different committees they use to reward people who they know will implement some of their decisions. The fundamental detrimental decision is the integrated university, which is what made the rectorate completely autonomous. It became what the university should be toward the outside world.

Quality control of teaching is implemented in a way in which students are handed a questionnaire to confirm that a class was held at a given time in a particular place.

When the integrated system was launched, the faculties stopped being a factor in decision-making. We cannot employ more associates if we don’t have their consent. 

Our colleague, who got a PhD in Japan under the auspices of the world’s best scientist in the field of theoretical solid-state physics, could not obtain an approval to become a regular teaching associate because his diploma said that he is a PhD of polytechnical sciences, since it is a polytechnic university. They only had to Google the title of one of his papers and they could have seen the places at which this man publishes his work.

This is where those who don’t know, those who don’t want to know and those who know but are quiet for some reason stay, but it isn’t clear to me what the reason might be, except for some system of blackmail. I believe that we have touched the bottom, even though the results on paper are different, since we plunged a thousand places on some webometrics list, whatever that means…

But all this is the saddest it gets. Quality control of teaching is implemented in a way in which students are handed a questionnaire to confirm that a class was held at a given time in a particular place. And this is “control.”

All my resentment is directed towards the rectorate they have closed everything down, suffocated it all.

Who are “they?” Or do you think that one man [Duško Bjelica, president of the board of UoM] is holding everything in his own two hands and making all the decisions by himself, while having no political background?

He does have a political background. This ridiculous conflict between him and the former Rector Radmila Vojvodić constitutes a conflict between two factions within the Democratic Party of Socialists [the ruling party, the leader of which is Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović], and within the party it was decided that she would leave.

I don’t know if it can get any worse than this, because whenever I said it couldn’t, it actually did. But I think that the university will be liberated when Montenegro is liberated.

Are you criticizing youth for being passive? You claim that they do not have a voice.

And there really aren’t. When were there any except for 1941 [beginning of the antifascist struggle]? In the revolutionary, propellent sense? Never.

Youth should be characterized by rebellion. But here, rebellion ends when my son slams the door when leaving the house. Rebellion happens where you can have it your way, but where you can’t — they [the youth] are smaller than poppy seeds.

I will now utter a blasphemy: there is no trace of a scientific community here.

I haven’t seen students rebelling in Montenegro since 1941. Neither students or others, but we keep on crediting the students by saying “they’ll do it.” No, they won’t. They won’t, because we aren’t educating them properly.

I teach physics, something that is taught in Iceland and Japan, but through all of that I am trying to teach them to think with their own heads. I even think that our students were the most numerous at this year’s protests, thanks to us, their professors. I haven’t seen lawyers and economists, because they are walking into faculties in suits and high heels. 

When I see them like that, it all becomes clear to me.

Almost regularly, the public is shaken by scandals caused by the plagiarism of scientific papers at all levels. The first more notable was the case of the then minister of science and current Montenegrin ambassador to Rome, Sanja Vlahović, while there is now the case of an associate professor at the faculty of law, who is suspected of plagiarizing the specialist work of a student she was mentoring. Why is this happening to us and how has it become acceptable?

I will now utter a blasphemy: there is no trace of a scientific community here. It doesn’t exist, and there simply aren’t any other communities in Montenegro apart from the partisan and interest-based community. As a consequence of this, everything else that is going on is normal and nothing else can be expected.

My only response to your question is that the scientific community isn’t reacting, because it doesn’t exist.

Photo: Boris Pejović / K2.0.

I dislike the current ongoings at the faculty of law, because it is on a personal level, somebody targeted this professor because there is no database of specialist papers, hence this work could have been compared to her own. Since she was “selected,” I am prone to believe that if she did it once, then she did it multiple times — and if she did it once, then she learned from someone else that this is how it’s done. And this somebody taught all the others, so I can only imagine what is going on at the faculty of law.

There is a database of master and PhD papers, but not of specialist papers, which means that this procedure is directly intended for her, which I dislike. I would like it to be the result of some database; if these databases were to become public, then some figures could be interesting.

Do you believe that there are false diplomas as well, since scientific titles are also acquired through plagiarism? 

There are false diplomas; there simply are no reasons for there not to be any. Does it take place when somebody goes to a certain private faculty, takes the professor out to lunch and passes six exams in one day? This isn’t forgery, but a real diploma, professors stand behind it and I repeat that our society views this as normal, because there are no other communities apart from the partisan and interest-based one. Nothing else.

It seems to me that the private University of Donja Gorica (UDG), of which one of the founders is President Milo Đukanović, takes up an important place at the expense of the University of Montenegro. They have a more modern approach to teaching, they dedicate more time to the students, they have newer programs and it seems to me that there is no longer any public animosity towards this university. Do you have any insights into those who graduate there? Are private universities a competition to UoM?

UDG will not spoil these great children, they will still be outstanding and leave the university with the highest grades and knowledge, but there will also be those who got the highest grades while reading 50 pages of photocopied notes. That is what this is about.

Are you aware of any people who have renewed their study years at UDG? Is it possible that the students there are just so perfect? 

I know people who, after completing their master’s studies, come to us, but they enroll in their doctoral studies again back there [at UDG] since nobody has paid any attention to them here.

There, they also have a large number of associates, perhaps 200-300 — while around 30 professors might be getting a monthly salary, the rest are freelancers and they have to pay more attention to their students. Firstly, because there is a smaller number of them, and secondly, because they are blackmailed [due to their freelance status], and they might not even get that work compensation. Thirdly, they aren’t protected by a collective agreement and a notice of dismissal can be easily handed to someone who isn’t devoted to the students at a satisfactory level. 

In our institution, they mostly procrastinate at their tasks — and that is our problem.

Has the UDG contributed to the academic community? Does it work better or worse than expected?

UDG teaching staff are employed in ministries, but in a normal state, in my opinion, state universities should be the ones to educate state clerks. If bankers are the ones to offer employment, then they get to choose, but as it stands now — banks surely won’t employ private faculty graduates.

The majority of those who spend their time in coffee shops, wearing suits, are clerks from private universities. In ministries, there are around 30% who work and they have most definitely been enrolled in a state university; and there are 70% of “walkers” [transitioning between private and public university] who will present the work of somebody else, because there they just teach them to conduct presentations.

What should UoM be proud of? Are there scientific papers published at the faculty level?

Formally, scientific papers do exist. You may publish as much as you like, and I know that it is done at the faculty of natural sciences. We have two people at CERN, one has enrolled in master’s, one in doctoral studies, and a third physicist of ours is now in Germany, doing a PhD, a fourth physicist has been granted a PhD scholarship. 

Our physicists and mathematicians are great, programmers aren’t that great because their earnings are very good, hence scientific work is a waste of time for them.

I am proud of my faculty if there still remains a healthy core within, it is my faculty, which isn’t trying to push for something. We can send students from the first three years of bachelor studies at the faculty of natural sciences, from all departments, into the world. We are sending them in such a way that only those who don’t want to leave are staying — especially physicists. K

Feature photo: Boris Pejović / K2.0.

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