Charles University to sue President Zeman for not appointing professors

Charles University has filed two administrative charges against the Czech President Miloš Zeman for refusing to appoint two professors: physicist Ivan Ošťádal and art historian Jiří Fajt. According to Rector of Charles University Tomáš Zima, the President has violated the rules of the process for appointing professors, so threatening academic freedoms. Czech President Miloš Zeman insists on his decision, arguing that physicist Ivan Ošťádal is known to have had contacts in the former state secret police, known as the StB, in the late 1980’s, and that Jiří Fajt gave false information during the nomination process. The opinion of and action taken by Charles University is supported by the Czech Conference of Rectors.

The four-year-long dispute between Czech President Miloš Zeman and Charles University on the non-appointment of two professors has culminated in the bringing of two actions before an administrative court. One of the oldest universities in Europe and the biggest university in the Czech Republic, Charles University has gone to Prague’s Municipal Court with two lawsuits against the President because of his decision not to appoint physicist Ivan Ošťádal and art historian Jiří Fajt as professors.

The procedure was announced to reporters at a press conference on 11 February by Rector of Charles University Tomáš Zima, who added that in the opinion of the university the President had violated the rules for appointing professors, as well as academic freedoms. According to the Czech Press Agency, the President spokesman Jiří Ovčáček said that Miloš Zeman stood by his decision.
“In our opinion, the rules and laws must apply to everyone, each citizen individually, both the Rector and the President,” said Rector Zima. “At this moment, this is a violation of rules and academic freedoms at Charles University, but in future it may concern every one of you,” said the Rector at the press conference. He added that Fajt and Ošťádal had also turned to the court. The university stands by its decision to appoint the two professors. Rector Zima stated that the appointments were “strongly recommended” by Charles University’s Scientific Councils in a secret ballot.

President Zeman criticises bad administration and contacts with communist secret police

Charles University and the President of the Czech Republic have been in dispute since spring 2015, when President Miloš Zeman refused to sign decrees declaring the two men professors. According to the President, the university had not conducted the appointment procedure properly. Jiří Fajt, who is also Director of the Czech National Gallery in Prague, allegedly gave false information during the procedure for his appointment as a professor. Physicist Ivan Ošťádal is accused by the President of disregarding his contacts with the former communist secret state police (StB) in the 1980’s, which would mean an infringement of the university’s Code of Ethics. In a letter to Minister of Education Robert Plaga published on the Prague Castle website, the President argues against appointing Ošťádal professor with reference to the university’s Code of Ethics and the now associate professor’s state of ‘moral degradation’, derived from Ošťádal’s contacts with the communist secret state police.

Tomáš Zima, Rector of the University, has said that the university insists on its appointments and is likely to turn to the court again. This it has now done.

“It is evident that the values presented (not only) by Charles University in its Ethical Code, and its Statute, are very much in contravention of the ‘values’ once professed by members of the secret state police and their associates, of whom Associate Professor Ošťádal was one,” wrote President Zeman in a letter. According to the President, the university did not know of this information or simply ignored it during the administrative procedure. Also in the letter, the President writes that Ošťádal’s long-standing cooperation with the secret state police (StB) is testified to in a secret state police file kept in the Security Services Archive. The President writes that in the 1980’s the physicist served the communist secret state police (StB) as a cover address at which the secret police received correspondence from abroad. The President also mentions that Ošťádal was a support officer for the Military Counterintelligence Service, and that in 1984 he attended a specialized course at the Military Political School.

“It is obvious that students may not feel bound by the university’s ethics if the university itself ignores these rules and gives the highest rank [the title of professor – Ed.] to someone who does not meet their requirements,” President Zeman wrote to the Minister of Education. “A professor is supposed to be an authority and a prominent figure representing the highest qualities (including moral ones) to the general public, but Associate Professor Ivan Ošťádal is not such a person.” Physicist Ošťádal has admitted that he served as a cover address for the secret police. “I was young and naïve,” Ošťádal told reporters at the time. Rector Zima has always stood by Ošťádal in relation to his contacts with the secret police.

According to President Zeman, Jiří Fajt presented false and misleading information to the university during the proceedings. In the letter to the Minister of Education, the President stated that Fajt did not meet the condition of having taught for a total of five years at the university. He also questioned some of the data submitted by Fajt on his publishing activities. Art historian Fajt has misled university authorities, or the school has deliberately failed to notice discrepancies, President Zeman wrote to the Minister.

It could take years to resolve the case

Although the dispute has been to court already, last year the case was returned to the President for reconsideration. Provided he did not discover that the appointment procedure contained defects that could affect its outcome, the President was prepared to accept the verdict and so the nominations. “The President found absolutely crucial facts that the evaluation committees of the particular faculties, the Scientific Council of Charles University and, ultimately, the Minister of Education had not revealed in the proceedings of 2014-2015,” the President’s lawyer Marek Nespala said in his statement posted on the President’s website, in summary of the content of both new decisions.

Charles University’s Vice-Rector for Academic Qualifications Aleš Gerloch, himself a lawyer, claims that it is not the task of the President of the Republic or the Minister of Education to examine conditions for the appointment of a professor. “This should be within the competence of the university, which has its own administrative bodies for doing so,” he said.
When the case will be resolved, remains unclear. “It is a question of how quickly the appeal will be heard by the court,” said Gerloch, aware of the fact that the administrative office of the Prague Municipal Court has been overloaded for some time. The procedure for the reviewing of the charges may take over a year.

The opinion of and the action taken by Charles University in its dispute with the President is supported by the Czech Rectors. “The Czech Conference of Rectors rejects interference with the autonomy of universities and the failure to respect the legal process,” the Rectors wrote in a statement released on 14 February 2019.

The author is an editor with the daily newspaper Hospodářské noviny.