Protecting universities

Protecting universities

I recently received from a non-Greek academic friend an email that has been circulating widely in international academic circles calling for solidarity with Greek universities because they have supposedly been imperiled by the Greek government and, by extension, democracy in the country is now in danger. According to the text of the email, the government has unleashed an orchestrated attack on Greek universities in order to control and silence them. The text then claims that the lawlessness and criminal behavior observed on Greek university campuses, the catalyst for the government’s new policies, are in reality a smoke screen for something far more sinister.

As we know, however, the truth is completely different. The problems at Greek universities manifest themselves in many ways. I shall remind you of three: the constant vandalism and damage to university property is something immediately obvious to anyone visiting one of the country’s bigger higher learning institutions. There is also the criminal behavior that takes place on university campuses across the country (for example drug dealing or the fencing of stolen goods), which has consistently been pointed out and substantiated.

Finally, there are attacks on university staff and academics that, despite their frequent occurrence, only become part of the public discourse when they are particularly extreme in nature. I am not aware if there is an index that can quantifiably illustrate how widespread this phenomenon is, but personally I do know a number of academics who have been targeted and suffered violence at the hands of political extremists. Groups of these extremists operate in a manner reminiscent of the Mafia, with widespread support and the ability to impose their own version of Omertà on campus. The attack on the rector of the Athens University of Economics and Business might be the most recent and outrageous of the lot, but I will remind you it would have gone unnoticed if the perpetrators of the assault had not shared photos of the incident themselves. In stark contrast to this, at none of the universities where I have taught (four in the United States, one in the United Kingdom and several European, South American, and Asian universities I have visited as a guest lecturer) have I ever observed anything similar.

In other words, Greece has a festering problem that continues to perpetuate itself. The need to solve this is self-evident. There cannot be any serious attempt to reform higher education in Greece without tackling this issue. The real question is if the proposed creation of a special university campus police force is the best solution. There are two aspects of this to tackle.

The first is a question of communications strategy. A police presence on university campuses is inherently symbolic and carries various negative connotations. While the messages calling for solidarity continue to circulate and promote an absolute and propagandistic reversal of the truth of conditions at Greek universities, there is no doubt that they will fool the naïve and well-meaning who cannot fathom the dismal reality of Greek university life. Additionally, there is no doubt that the proponents of lawlessness will do anything in their power to escalate the violence in an attempt to manufacture a crisis, proving that policing campuses is dangerous. Therefore, the government should create a strong operational and communications strategy. As the closure of the Greek public broadcaster ERT in 2013 illustrates, without effective preparations, interventions of this sort can easily turn into public opinion Waterloos.

The second aspect that needs to be tackled is more fundamental. It is easy to see that the creation of an unarmed police force faces the prospect of failing to resolve the issue of lawlessness and violence on the grounds of Greek universities. As the suggested intervention in university life is highly symbolic, if it escalates or even fails to resolve the problem it will carry a great political cost. If this happens, there is the risk of hampering the government’s whole reform initiative, not just its educational program. And that would be a true tragedy.

However, the government should obviously cautiously continue to tread the path it has carved for itself. It must have faith that the new measures it seeks to enforce shall be effective and it should create a robust operational and communicational framework to help it manage any upcoming confrontation with those who will fight tooth and nail to keep the country from changing for the better.

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