Interview with Senator Josef Holeček
Not always do new and current students realise the context associated with the operation of our academic parliament. You have experience of the operation of the Faculty Senate, but also of the University Senate. Could you give readers an overview of these academic bodies?
Five students and ten teachers are elected to the Faculty Senate. And so the entire senate is very close to the reality of what is happening in the operation of the school. The senator – teacher or student – therefore knows at every moment what is being discussed in detail. The topics have a direct link to the reality in which the senator operates. In the case of the great senate, which is composed of student and teacher representatives from all eight faculties of the university, the situation is completely different. There, real politics is made, real negotiations are made, money is dealt with a lot, and of course, the general conditions for the student body at the university level are the main issues. Etc. Our faculty has had quite a strong voice in the big senate lately. And this is thanks to, for example, Dana Matějovská, who is serving her second term on the board. By the way, it is not always easy for our faculty to defy other faculty in debates. We are and will be simply different as a partly art school... And this environment is far from us. But if we are talking about the context of the actual powers of these key organs of the university, then I must point out that the small senate mirrors the great senate... The basic function of the unit – the senate as a self-governing body – is essential in the body of the school. It elects the dean, as mentioned. Which I say because among the many powers of the senate, the law lists the election of the dean somewhere in tenth place. Formally, of course, the rector appoints the dean. Yet this is the office which for four or eight years determines the orientation and operation of the school. This is not entirely common in the Anglo-Saxon world, for example.
The position of dean there is usually filled not by election as here. The student government there has fewer powers. Continental Europe is very specific in this respect. And the Czech Republic in particular. It is probably a legacy of the Velvet Revolution in 1989, when the key role of the student body was translated directly into legislation.
The role of the Senate in the public school body is remotely similar to the parliament of our democratic, rule of law state – in the system of the so-called separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches. While it does not create legislation, it elects the head of the school and approves key documents...
The very role of the student in the senate has been traditionally established since perhaps the Austro-Hungarian Empire... There is absolute trust in the academic world and the university is regarded as something untouchable. And it is said, for example, that on 17 November 1939, Bedřich Hrozný walked out of the door of the Faculty of Law and, as rector of Charles University, confronted the Gestapo who had intervened against his students. Out, you villains, he roared. This is the campus! In summary, the senate represents a form that communicates outward and inward within the faculty. It dominates the web of facts and relationships that take place on the faculty. And what it requires above all is complex thinking. It also offers a place where anyone can come to ask for advice or help. There is probably not much that a member of the Senate as a person alone can do about such a problem, but the point is that the topic is discussed in the floor, which is primarily open and which is primarily there to debate these topics. And to proceed efficiently and in detail if the need to deal with these topics simply arises. If we go into detail, it also follows that the right to sit on the Faculty Academic Senate is itself a kind of responsibility. And, let's say, prestige. This is what one has to keep in mind permanently: one has earned the trust – and therefore the mandate – of the students... That is why I myself see it as my duty to represent the voices of my constituents. Related to all this is the specific fact that there is a very important element in the student environment of our faculty that is an excellent mediator between the faculty, the senate and the students. And that is the Architecture Students' Association. It has a considerable reach and also contacts... Just because of how active it is on various networks. And in this sense, the cooperation between the Society and the Senate is very important. It has worked for years that a number of student senators are also members of the Association. This connection is important, especially when there is a topic that needs to be addressed, whether it was accreditation, covid, the war in Ukraine...
Approval and expression of views
If we talk about the similarity with the public space of the state, the very form of agency plays a prominent role in the public school. After all, even in architecture... Some of the documents that go through the Senate require approval, some of them you as senators only comment on... Could you give examples of these processes from the last term?
We discussed the accreditation of individual programmes. In this context, as a representative of the Senate, I attended various meetings where the heads of the departments also met and the existing curriculum was discussed. We tried to reduce, to cut down what we could. At least I did for the students. But money flows and it flows according to the volume of teaching, or the number of hours, so it cannot be done too categorically. The heads of the departments are logically trying to maintain the volume, they do not want to give up hours. And that is because of finances.
Let's stop with the approval. Next to the election of the dean, the faculty budget document is probably next in the hierarchy of importance. The financial plan is of the highest importance... How would you describe the process of its approval?
Management will present a schedule for our approval. Unless there is a problem. Of course, the approval process will be presented in great detail by the Senate Economic Committee. And we are also discussing, that is to say, approving another document: the Annual Financial Report. This, in turn, accounts for the previous year retrospectively. And when it comes to financing the operation of our school. At the moment, it touches on the subject of energy management, because the costs of running the faculty building are high. There was quite a lot of debate about this at the last senate meeting as well. So that millions are not blown up, but also so that the school does not have to be closed. We have to take into account, for example, the operating standards, which stipulate, among other things, that the temperature in the teaching room must not fall below, I believe, 18 degrees, otherwise it is simply forbidden to teach there. One more current topic: in the framework of the approval process, we also dealt with the function of the ombudsman. It was necessary to create a document on the basis of which an open competition could be launched. It is simply an instrument for establishing this new function at the university, the appointment of which is not based on a standard selection procedure, where the dean nominates a selection committee, but on the basis of experts from within or outside the university. The Senate working group proposed that in this case it should be the Academic Senate body that makes the selection. It exhibits the greatest mandate from the broad mass of the academic community to make the decision. The appointment is then, of course, the responsibility of the Dean.
As an aside, is this position even necessary at the faculty? What do you think about it as a senator?
It is true that the ombudsman theme resonates through the school. Perhaps also as a consequence of social discourse. No one here is saying that it is absolutely necessary, but it is true that many people have gone through the study and solved many problems, and solved them certainly with difficulty, because they did not know where to turn. And it may not have been just purely personal issues, but also administrative issues and so on. The ombudsman represents the interests of everyone, i.e. students, teachers and staff who are not members of the academic community. It will defend their needs when they need it. Sometimes colleagues ask if they need to be here; I say the opposite: why not, it is not a burden on the school. And we know that the faculty environment can affect different types of people in different ways: perhaps problematic, unfriendly, etc. And the ombudsman can change that environment for the better, more cooperative, more peaceful. And those who may not have confidence in the institution gradually gain it. There are really absolutely terrible things happening in various schools that are difficult to get out without this person, through questionnaires and so on. An ombudsman can fundamentally accelerate and co-moderate cases.
Has the coronavirus pandemic also become a subject of debate in the Senate?
When the epidemic emerged, the Senate was brand new at the time. And we had to sit not physically together, but suddenly online. In terms of direction, the senate, at least the student part of it, was trying to initiate a more proactive approach by the faculty leadership at that time. Though admittedly, few knew what to do. Subsequently, two years ago, in the second semester with covid, we had already switched to online teaching on a regular basis. And there was more pressure on choosing the right technology or how to implement virtual teaching systematically. The management already knew how to do it, so everything worked relatively better and suddenly there was room for evaluation of the results of the teaching process.
If we try to look at the epidemic from a broader perspective. Could something like a lesson be drawn?
For a school, it is probably how it functions hierarchically; how it is able to manage itself hierarchically in such a complex situation. I cannot, of course, from my level, judge the results of online learning, but it is probably true that the generation that is now in their junior or senior year probably had trouble. After all, they did not start learning properly until about a year ago. This fact is frustrating and inevitably leaves a mark on people. But on the other hand, it is interesting that regardless of the overall impact, pandemics always somehow fade from people's memory. Until recently, how much was said about the Spanish flu at the end of the First World War? It also lasted three years and left a hecatomb of dead. The war, yes, but this crazy pandemic does not get much historical coverage... And it sort of fades from people's consciousness. I guess even after all these years, no one will be looking back. Already we have forgotten about those two years, even though we have suffered the consequences.
There are various controversies in the school circles on the topic of streaming or not streaming lectures. Or the virtual reality continuum of the epidemic era. According to most teachers, it only makes sense to stream lectures during exam periods...
I am kind of glad no one asks me too many questions about it. That I do not have to express myself, because I do not have a clear opinion on this. If I am going to be a little personal, I will admit that I prefer to stay at home at my computer and not travel across Prague for one lecture.
And the value of social connections and discussions among colleagues during or after the lecture?
I wish it worked that way. But you have to have colleagues around you who are very interested and probably have a common language, especially in technical subjects. I mean, there probably is nothing to talk about. But while we are on the subject. Covid showed something else. The concept of the frontal, classical lecture for two hundred students may be on its way out – in standard university teaching, that is. More and more specific, one-off, ad hoc presentations on a particular topic are making sense. Simply a keynote.
Could this also be part of the lesson of the pandemic...?
It certainly leads us to think not perhaps about the content of teaching, but perhaps more about its form. That its revision might have repercussions in the methodology itself. In the future, the school will certainly count more on certain cycles and workshops, more thematic ones, where the student will connect the contents of the teaching, practical and theoretical, where he will concentrate more intensively on concrete situations, case studies. The dean is well aware of this and is slowly starting to work on it.
Probably no one in the Czech Republic thought that we would all soon experience the consequences of the current war bloodshed near our borders. Russian aggression is also affecting our university, which stands in solidarity with the invaded Ukraine. And the school is helping Ukrainian students in every possible way... To what extent is the Academic Senate also participating in this solidarity?
Soon after the aggression began, the Senate issued a statement. And then, of course, we discussed ways of providing concrete assistance to our Ukrainian colleagues. So the issuing of the statement was a formal act, the minimum that could be done from the position of the Senate. I should add that subsequently a short-term working group on aid to Ukraine was formed, which was a conglomerate of people from the university administration, from the students of the Association, etc. There were collections and there was an auction... Of course, this no longer applies to the floor of the Senate – but possibly to individual members. The Senate just kept an eye on the activities of the leadership, which, in my opinion, handled this extraordinary problem with dignity; after all, it had been in office barely a month at the outbreak of the war... Many Ukrainian students came to the Czech Republic, often for short internships, and many of them started their full-time studies here. This happens at all schools. It is a basic condition for showing solidarity. And I am very happy that the leadership is succeeding in this and I thank them for it.
The interview was conducted by Jiří Horský, and published in the Bulletin Alfa 3/2022. Czech version of the bulletin is available here.