As he handed in his resignation earlier this week as head of the board of directors of the University of Crete, one of Greece’s finest institutions, Grigoris M. Sifakis said that the purpose of a university is not to propagate ideology but to cultivate excellence. His choice of this last word was especially poignant, as it is one of the unmentionables in the government’s vocabulary.
The word excellence caused quite a few waves during the tenure of former Education Minister Aristides Baltas and continues to do so, it seems, under his successor, Nikos Filis. He may not have described excellence precisely as a stigma but his abhorrence of it is evident in many different ways, including in a legislative decree that he is currently drawing up that foresees the abolition of university councils. The truth, of course, is that such councils – introduced by Anna Diamantopoulou under the New Democracy-PASOK coalition and comprising local academics as well as foreign professors who help oversee the function and standards of universities – had little chance of enjoying the support of the present government, if only because it holds so firmly to the principle that every successor must wipe away every trace left by their predecessor.
The disbanding of the council was also evident from efforts – by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras himself as well – to distort the understanding of what they do and why they do it. The letter and spirit of the law calls for the council to assess the actual qualifications of candidates for the seat of rector or dean, and to select those they see fit to run. The inevitable exclusion from the process of certain candidates has been presented by the SYRIZA government as an expression of an anti-democratic mentality or even as a show of dominance, instead of as part of the process and jurisdiction of the body of experienced academics. The situation with the university councils reflects a problem that pervades the entire public sector: the absence of evaluations. And evaluations are being gradually phased out everywhere. This is because those in power fear excellence as it has the potential to remove from decision makers their ability not only to set the criteria but also to choose the people they want.
The Greek political system is not at all well inclined toward rules, unless, of course, they serve the parties’ narrow interests. What we end up with is not rules but tailor-made decrees that prevent the “undemocratic” forces from doing their jobs and promote whoever is in favor at any given time.
Excellence presupposes some level of evaluation. Otherwise, all we will see is mediocrity being embraced as the norm, which is something that may suit the political system very well but is devastating for the country.