Thessaloniki: A city on the fringe that often lacks the kind of attention the northern port deserves

THESSALONIKI – As the spotlight once again fell on Thessaloniki this month on the occasion of its annual International Trade Fair, the new rector of the northern city’s university, Professor Ioannis Antonopoulos, talked to Kathimerini about the city, which he feels has not always been given the attention it deserves. Thessaloniki University is among the institutions that have staged demonstrations on the occasion of Prime Minister Costas Simitis’s visit to the city for the Trade Fair. Are you participating in these events to show solidarity or do you have specific issues to raise? The university has its own issues and naturally shares the general concerns of the city, which has been marginalized to a great extent. What is your view of the prime minister’s various announcements over the past few years regarding progress in major public works for Thessaloniki, when in effect nothing has gone ahead, as the various local institutions have pointed out? My impression is that in recent years, things have matured generally in Greece, in all sectors. Perhaps we are now expecting these projects to mature. Are you among those who believe that Athens is to blame for everything, including the obstacles to Thessaloniki’s growth? Yes and no. I believe that we ourselves have not agreed on precisely what we want, but I do believe that Athens is partly to blame for the lack of activity and the delays in the projects. Perhaps this is an unfair accusation, since most of the population is gathered down there, and as far as I know, most of the country’s GDP is produced here in northern Greece. There are those who say that if the borders were drawn at Tempe, the rest of Greece would have nothing to eat. Does the university feel that the central government is indifferent to its problems? In general, I could say that the Greek education system is not aware of any indifference. On the contrary, we continually hear that everything depends on education, that nothing can move ahead without education, and that is true. There is not one person who does not recognize how important education is. Our problem, one shared by all Greek universities, is putting this recognition into practice. Thessaloniki University has specific demands, such as a lack of material and technical infrastructure. For example, we have the same number of lecture halls as we did at the time when there were only a third as many students as there are today. Why are distinguished academics leaving the country’s biggest university? Many other people such as artists and businessmen are also leaving the city. Are these isolated incidents or is it a general trend? I think that everyone who leaves has his or her own reasons. For example, to expand one’s clientele or acquire a post that is not available in Thessaloniki. There has been much debate about the link between the university and the city. To what degree has this been achieved? Does research carried out at the university benefit the city – such as in protection against earthquakes, environmental protection and traffic problems – or contribute to its growth in any way? Some time ago I wrote an article – in response to a comment at a conference that the university was not doing the city any good – asking people not to «shoot the piano player.» University members do help the city and in everything that happens there is a reference to cooperation with a specific professor or laboratory. But these things are not organized and therefore the university’s role is not obvious. That is our problem; it is a disadvantage and we will rectify it. The city has to understand that it has a university and that it must make use of it to solve its problems. The university, on the other hand, has to realize that it must get more organized so as to help the city. As the university’s new administration, we will try to conclude agreements with any agency or institution that is willing, from the Ithaca Rehabilitation Community to the prefecture. We will also try to bring the people of the city into the university’s cultural events, such as «Student Week.» We will try to open up the university more. Every department could have an open day so people can come and visit. We have to achieve better cooperation between the two. The university staff have announced demonstrations over pay issues. How far are they prepared to go? Might you close down the university itself, with all that entails for research and studies? The pay rise issue has been pending for three years. For the last two years a committee has been drawing up a new salary scale. There was an unofficial agreement at Easter, with a promise that by August 31 the issue would have been settled through legislation. That has not happened. The national federation of university academic and teaching staff (POSDEP) will decide on further action. At its last meeting in Ioannina, the rectors’ council told the education minister (Petros Efthymiou) that he would be «putting us in a difficult position.» «Do you think I have come here without an OK from (Economy and Finance Minister Nikos) Christodoulakis?» the minister replied. Those are the facts. Personally I am against closing down, but I cannot tolerate being deceived. Every September What is your comment on the fact that every September the focus is on Thessaloniki, its public works, productivity and the fact that it is often left out of things, only to be forgotten all over again? In my opinion it is both strange and unjust for the city and perhaps one of the reasons every prime minister says, «Let them forget, I’ll remind them again next September.» From now on they might not forget (about us). Some invoke the 2008 Expo. If this is held here, the government will be forced to implement the relevant public works, just as with the Olympics. But if we don’t get the Expo, I don’t know what will happen.

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