When inmates take over the asylum

The concept of «university asylum» must have seemed like a good idea back in 1982, when the newly elected Socialist government of Andreas Papandreou wanted Greece to be the springboard for a Latin American-type liberation movement in Europe. PASOK was elected in 1981, seven years after the collapse of an extreme right-wing military dictatorship and eight years after a student uprising whose immediate consequences were a coup by even more rabid right-wingers. The new gang then engineered the coup on Cyprus, which triggered Turkey’s invasion and occupation of part of the island but also the Greek junta’s collapse. Papandreou made good use of public rage at the right wing and the United States (which were broadly seen as having backed the junta), speaking like a Third World revolutionary while not actually taking any substantial measures – such as kicking the US military bases out of Greece or torpedoing the country’s accession to the European Economic Community as he had promised. Making a grand gesture that would exploit the mystique around the students’ role in bringing down the dictatorship, while also launching a broadside against the parties that were further to the left, PASOK passed a law banning «the intervention of all state forces in these areas (tertiary education institutions) without the invitation or permission of the university’s governing body.» The idea was that students and professors would henceforth be able to participate in an ideal environment of intellectual interaction without worrying about another invasion by the police and army, such as the one that had crushed the uprising at the Athens Polytechnic on November 17, 1973. In practice, however, this intellectual immunity degenerated into impunity for the thugs who gradually took control of the universities. The process was as simple as it was inevitable: First the universities became a battleground for student political groups that were granted unprecedented voting rights in the election of university officials, especially rectors. The smaller the student group, the more dynamic it had to be, leading to a situation in which marginal groups became so powerful and so organized that they imposed their will on the less militant majority. Nature loathes a vacuum, so the violence that was supposed to have been banished from universities came back, this time perpetrated by the smallest – but most determined – of groups. With professors depending on student groups’ votes for their election to university office, the students knew that they were the ultimate authority in the universities. Meanwhile the students themselves were cowed by the extremists among them. The pyramid was turned on its head: A few, unelected students imposed their will on the entire university community. The universities are now in the grip of violent minorities. They break up meetings and conferences, they assault professors and students, they create a climate in which anyone can carry out criminal activities on university premises secure in the knowledge that no one has the guts to challenge them. At long last, prominent voices are now speaking out in an effort to save the universities, calling for an end to the absurd immunity provided to criminals by the asylum law. For many years the debate was skewed by the sentiments that had led to the adoption of the law in the first place. However, 35 years have passed since the fall of the junta. We cannot all remain hostage to the sentiments of the past. Our universities – our society – must resolve today’s problems and try to deal with the challenges of the present and future. Professors, students, political parties and the public will be judged not by their devotion to obsolete concepts but by how they measure up to the demands of our own time. And putting our universities in order is the eye of the needle through which our society must pass.