Academic Freedom in Serbia

By Saunders, Joseph | Contemporary Review, October 1998 | Go to article overview
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Academic Freedom in Serbia

Saunders, Joseph, Contemporary Review

Serbian policies in Bosnia and Kosovo have been widely condemned throughout the world. These policies and the consequent decline in the Serbian economy have also brought mass demonstrations against the government. The government, under the domination of President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, saw the universities as the centres of these protests and it devised a plan to deal with this.

On May 26, 1998, the Serbian parliament passed a new law, the University Act, giving the Serbian government broad new powers over public universities. The University Act abolishes the autonomy of the universities:

The law authorizes the government to appoint university rectors and faculty deans without input from professors or other members of the academic community (Article 108; Article 123, Para. 2).

The law strips professors and other teaching staff of the right to propose members of university and faculty-level governing and supervisory boards, the membership of which is determined by the government (Articles 128, 131). Although faculty governing boards continue to include places reserved for professors and students, such individuals are appointed by the government and can be removed by the government.

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 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 labour contract within 60 days of the entry into force of this Law.'

The precise implications of Article 165 are unclear. Although the University Act does not expressly declare existing contracts null and void, or provide for specific penalties for those who refuse to sign new contracts, there is widespread fear among faculty members that government-appointed deans will interpret the new law aggressively and take punitive measures against those who do not sign. Since the law was passed, hundreds of professors have signed declarations opposing the law and stating that they will not sign new contracts while their existing contracts are still in effect. Many academics have compared the new contract requirement to an oath of loyalty to the existing government. The sixty-day period specified in the law expired on August 5. At the time this article was prepared, the fate of professors who had refused to sign new contracts was still uncertain.

Since the adoption of the University Act, administrators deemed 'unsuitable' by the government have been replaced at universities across Serbia. Not all new administrators have cracked down on perceived political enemies among faculty and staff, but the broad powers given them under the new law invite such arbitrary exercise of power. The most dramatic changes under the new law have taken place at the University of Belgrade, which in recent years has been a centre of student protest and is home to a number of prominent faculty critics of the current Yugoslav and Serbian governments.

The law has had the following consequences at the University of Belgrade: Of thirty deans of faculty sixteen have been replaced even though the terms for which they had been elected had not expired. Four of the sixteen themselves resigned in protest against the new law. All four had participated in protests in 1996-97 against what they believed were rigged elections and the rector's support of police measures against student demonstrators. Of the twelve deans who were removed by the government, at least half had taken part in the 1996-97 protests. None of the replaced deans, however, were members of political parties. By contrast, fifteen of the sixteen newly appointed deans are members of the ruling parties. In addition, Mr.

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