I want to focus on quality and move ahead of Charles University

Martin Bareš, a neurologist and the dean of the MU Faculty of Medicine, was elected the new rector of Masaryk University in early April after receiving an overwhelming majority of votes from the Academic Senate in the first round of the elections. He will take over from the current rector, Mikuláš Bek, in September this year. “I’ll start my term in office with the university in good shape and with a clear focus,” says Bareš. He is unequivocal about his ambition, which is for Masaryk University to become the most successful Czech university and an important institution at European and international level by 2030.

Read the interview in Czech original version.

You were elected the rector of Masaryk University by the MU Academic Senate, with 36 out of 50 senators voting for you. Do you think this overwhelming support gives you a strong mandate?
Yes, I do; being elected in the first round always gives you a strong mandate. When you calculate the percentage, I received the vote of 72% of the electors, meaning that I won both in the staff and in the student chamber. I must admit I was moved when I first heard the results. While the Faculty of Medicine, where I currently serve as dean, is one of the four founding faculties of our university that first started teaching students 100 years ago, our position between the university, the university hospitals, and the whole healthcare system has sometimes made us stand a little apart from the rest of the university. This makes the support of the senators and the academic community across the whole university all the more valuable to me. I see it as a sign of immense trust, and no less immense obligation.

What are your thoughts on the fact that there were only two candidates in the rector elections, you and Jaromír Leichmann from the MU Faculty of Science? When the current rector, Mikuláš Bek, first ran for office he had four rivals.
I was surprised, especially as both of us hail from the “natural sciences” section of the university – even though I dislike this division; it is the personal qualities of the candidates that should matter, not their chosen discipline. However, I can merely speculate about the reasons. Perhaps the academic community is happy with where the university is going. I already have a proven track record from my work in the academic senate just after the revolution in 1989, as one of the vice-rectors, and currently as the dean of the largest faculty of Masaryk University.

You were long rumoured to be a serious candidate. I already asked you about it last year.
Yes, it would seem that many others were sure about my candidacy before I was (laughs). It is not that easy to resign as a dean mid-term when a number of significant changes are already under way. But you are right in that the academic community probably anticipated my candidacy.

What are the plans for finding your successor as the dean of the Faculty of Medicine, where you entered office last February?
The elections for dean will be announced once we have a full academic senate; right now, we need to fill some seats in the student chamber. The new faculty management must be in place as soon as possible to make sure that everything, including the student admission process, runs smoothly, and certainly no later than by September.

Before you can assume the office of rector, you must be officially appointed by President Miloš Zeman. Under Mikuláš Bek, the relations between MU and the president were less than ideal – are you expecting any “hiccups” in the process? /Martin Bareš was appointed by President Miloš Zeman in July, the interview was done before the appointment - editor's note/
I would like to point out that the president of the Czech Republic appoints – and dismisses – the rectors of public universities as suggested by the academic senate of the university in question. As the elections went smoothly and I received a large majority of the votes, I really do not expect any issues. And if President Zeman decides to present me with the letter of appointment in person, I would be very happy to use that opportunity to share my views on the role and position of Masaryk University in Czech society.

What would you like to tell him? What are your top three priorities for your time in office?
Number one is to make sure that MU continues to improve in all respects and achieves higher quality in education, research, and human resources. Masaryk University has made huge investments in the campus and other faculties and departments to make sure they have all the up-to-date facilities they need. Our biggest job is to focus on the people. We must continue developing the potential of our academic community, whether they are staff or students. We are only as good as they are.

And your number two priority?
I would call this breaking through the mindset of mistrust prevalent in Czech society. As an example, even though it might be too simplistic: I experienced this in the US, where I worked as a post-doc at the time when the internet was still in its infancy. My apartment had just been vacated by a colleague who was returning home, and he gave me a couple of phone numbers and told me to call them to put the utilities in my name, transfer the payments and so on. It was Saturday morning and I was really unsure they would even believe me if I just called them like this, on a weekend and in what was then my less-than-perfect English. And, of course, they did. This would not happen here, and this fundamental mistrust permeates the whole of Czech society. We just don’t trust each other enough, and this is something I would like to change. It might sound like a lofty goal, but this is something that could change things such as cooperation between the faculties and the internal process of milestone setting, which underlies the annual budget negotiations – for example, some faculties could focus more on “scoring” ERC grants and patents and some would be more focused on teaching and our role in society, which are both just as important.

And your third priority?
My third priority is for Masaryk University to become more involved in civil society. I would like the university to be much more aware of current social needs and context and integrate them into the curriculum. I have close ties with the Anglo-American system, where universities boast about which president or other personality graduated from their programme and publish their position papers on pension reform or healthcare. In our case, it could be an economic and sociological study of the proposed relocation of the train station in Brno. This is very important. We are an apolitical institution, but also a public one, and we have both the responsibility and the necessary expertise.
Our goal is clear: we want to be an excellent and socially responsible institution.

Why do you think that three of your predecessors – Jiří Zlatuška, Petr Fiala, and Mikuláš Bek – entered politics?
It’s not about Masaryk University “producing” politicians; this is always a personal decision. However, it shows that the university has always chosen strong leaders who put their own stamp on its history during their term in office. It is only natural that the general public takes notice and that they use their experience to start a career in politics. I feel I am following in the footsteps of all the rectors since the revolution, from Milan Jelínek and Eduard Schmidt to the three you mentioned, because each of them took MU a step higher. You cannot lead a university by making sudden U-turns. Our goal is clear: we want to be an excellent and socially responsible institution. The university’s annual budget is close to eight billion Czech crowns (€312 million), which means that the leader has to be a strong personality.

Do you have any ambitions to enter politics?
No, I don’t – even though, as they say, never say never. Most importantly, I want to move forward in my profession.

Can you compare Zlatuška, Fiala, and Bek as rectors? What was their contribution to the history of an institution that is celebrating its one-hundred-year anniversary this year?
Rector emeritus Zlatuška was an IT specialist and it was he who ushered the university into the “electronic era”, which was a ground-breaking thing to do for a university at the time. He was able to foresee the hunger for university education and from a relatively regional university with a small percentage of students, we became an important institution. Afterwards, Professor Fiala led MU through the precarious era of structural funds, construction of the campus in Bohunice, and starting the CEITEC research centre. And the current Rector Bek again moved the university forward during the period of public budget stagnation from 2011 to 2015. Despite the difficulties, he was able to increase the university budget and salaries while the number of students dropped from 44,000 to close to 30,000.

In what shape is MUNI now when you are about to start your term in office?
I’ll start my term in office with the university in good shape and with a clear focus. The next step is to move forward to reach the goals we’ve been talking about. I am very competitive, and most of all, I compete with myself. This attitude gets passed on to the people around me, who sometimes find it overwhelming. I am also thorough. My ambition is very clear: it is for Masaryk University to become the most successful university in the Czech Republic and an important institution at European and international level by 2030 – even though this goes well beyond my term in office. In terms of university rankings, this means making it to the top five hundred in the overall rankings and to go as high as possible in the individual fields. We are off to a good start, our archaeology programme is already ranked 150th in the new QS rankings.

To sum it up, you would like to make it to the top 500 internationally and be the best in the Czech Republic?
Definitely. We want to move ahead of Charles University, certainly by 2030.

Does this goal spring from your competitiveness and sporting spirit?
I used to play football and run; my son plays baseball. Losing a game when you gave it your best is all part of the sporting spirit, that’s ok. But if you don’t aim to win, you have lost before you even started.

So, you don’t want to be the “second best” Czech university anymore?
I don’t believe we are the second. We are the most dynamic university (laughs).

What are your weaknesses, then?
We do have a few, of course. There is a lot to improve in our internal communications and in communicating our results to the public, and definitely in internationalisation with regard to students, and even more so, with regard to our academic staff and researchers. One of our major weaknesses is the lack of a common spirit. It might sound too lofty – some might say too “American” – but unless we begin to feel that we are all playing for the MUNI team, it is difficult to promote it to others and believe that we are going to win. We have to band together to build the Masaryk University brand and be proud to be a part of it to start our second century on the right foot.

Are you happy with the current university marketing and the new style of the MUNI brand?
Now I’m trying to find the middle ground between self-flagellation and exaggeration: we are, of course, disadvantaged in that we are celebrating our one-hundredth anniversary this year, while Charles University has been around since 1348. There was also a relatively long period before 1990 when we weren’t called “Masaryk University”, so we have to work on building our brand. I like the new visual style of Masaryk University, but I have major reservations about its overcomplicated implementation. Although I am no artist myself, I am interested in antiques and in Art Nouveau and functionalistic styles and am somewhat of an art collector; from this point of view, I like the new MU style and disagree with the objections against it. I am not an expert and I trust those who chose the uniform visual style.

You have experience working at the University of Minnesota in the US. How would you like to improve the internationalisation of Masaryk University?
We still have a long way to go and there are several ways to get there. Every bachelor’s or master’s degree student should spend some time, perhaps a semester, abroad, whether through Erasmus or some other programme. Thanks to the amended Higher Education Act, this is now compulsory for PhD students, even though it’s only a month – even that is a big step forward. As regards academic staff, we can update the conditions for habilitation and professorship. I think that right now, the Czech system is not yet ready for us to say, “You have finished your master’s, now you have to earn your PhD at another institution, preferably abroad.” However, this is the direction we should go.

There are some departments that do that, for example, at the Czech Technical University.
Yes, and that’s how it should be. We could achieve that by changing the criteria, but this has to be done at faculty level; it is their decision to make. A rector can only facilitate the discussion within the university and create general frameworks. We should also make much more use of creative stays abroad, and not only short-term but also long-term ones, such as sabbaticals. And the university should be more proactive in looking for people in other countries who would like to go abroad – and making sure they come to us.

There was quite an uproar recently regarding habilitation theses submitted and defended in English. I think it was the lawyers and the Slavicists who didn’t like it?
The opposition came from members of the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Arts. The discussion then became simpler and slightly shifted in focus. There are no limitations on the language or languages of the papers that form the basis of a habilitation thesis. And the rector decided – I was then the vice-rector for that area – that the last paper should be in English or in a language usually used in the given field, such as German, French, or Russian for language studies etc. so that it has an international reach. If we are interested – and our strategic plan says that we are – in making sure the theses are reviewed by experts from other countries, then we need to make the texts accessible to them. Yes, there was some disagreement, but the motion was passed by the academic senate and registered with the Ministry of Education. The new measure will only take effect after a set period of time and there was an option to apply for exemptions. It is certainly a good sign that this subject was broached; the debate in itself put more pressure on the higher quality of habilitation theses.

How would you like to present the university to students and attract applicants?
I don’t want to distinguish whether we are a teaching or a research university; these two things go together. In general, we have to be more welcoming and friendly towards the students, but we also need to clearly define the rules for communication and remain strict when it comes to the demands of our programmes. Studying at Masaryk University is – and should be – demanding. Our students and graduates are the public faces of our university. It is important that they feel comfortable at their uni and that they feel that the system is fair and the demands that it places on them will help them with their personal and career development. I am strongly against the tendency, which I sometimes also see at the Faculty of Medicine, where academics behave like secondary school teachers and treat their students like pupils, which creates a barrier between the two groups. This is something that really belongs in the past. We have to realise that our students are the future elite of our nation that will determine where we are heading as a country and a continent. As a side note, this is one of the huge benefits of internationalisation: if you go abroad, you can see for yourself what campuses elsewhere look like and how informal the communication between students and their teachers can be.

Teachers talk to their students, put on theatre performances with them…
Exactly. Those academics who have achieved the most are usually the most easy-going people. And this is a culture that we have certainly not yet established in the Czech Republic, and I would very much like to support this. It is something that I’ve also been trying to achieve as the dean of the Faculty of Medicine: we have introduced a new way of communicating and we are organising many informal events. It’s all about informal relations, having a dean who can conduct a normal conversation with his students, whether it’s about research, studying, or just life in general. After all, I also used to be a student (smiles).

You will not be implementing these changes on your own. Have you already put together your team of vice-rectors?
The role of the rector should be similar to that of a conductor. Yes, I have already come to an agreement with all seven vice-rectors of Masaryk University, and their areas of responsibility have also been clearly defined, I think.

And the bursar?
The bursar, Ms Marta Valešová, will remain in her position.

Several weeks ago, MU raised the subject of the student dropout rate: it announced new counselling services for students and started a campaign to support students in finishing their degrees. Do you think this problem was overlooked in the Czech Republic?
I have a very clear stance on this: the dropout rate is a very sore point at Czech universities. To a certain extent, the high rate is created “artificially”, since undecided students apply to several study programmes; the good ones are also accepted in more programmes and once they decide on their programme of choice, they drop out of the rest. One of the reasons could be that the differences between the programmes are relatively small, and I think the new institutional accreditations could play a positive role in this respect. These will allow us to move closer to the developed Western countries, where universities are much more responsible for what they teach, and the external authorities have a much smaller role. Some faculties have already taken up the challenge and reduced and streamlined the number of programmes and the curricula. At MU, the Faculty of Medicine has by far the lowest dropout rate because our students know that they want to become doctors or nurses – our study programmes are a clearly defined entry point to specific professions. Most of the students who drop out do so in the third year. Therefore, we have also been considering some changes to our curriculum, but we have to identify the root of the problem first, and any changes can only come after a thorough analysis of the situation. Study programmes at other faculties can be relatively similar to each other, so the solution could be the one that was already suggested by the current Rector Bek: to go back to the system that was in place in the 1920s and 1930s, where the students did not choose their study programmes right away. After enrolling at the university, they had a year to decide on their specific programme. I think this is something that would help our young people although we would need to amend the Higher Education Act first.

Are you in favour of the Anglo-American system – having a major as your broader field and a minor as a specialisation?
I certainly am. We are already heading in that direction. In the future, I think it will be a necessity due to the “market demands”, however much I dislike this phrase. In my opinion, this inward focus, where you are at the MU Faculty of Arts, or Faculty of Medicine, or Faculty of Economics and Administration, and the rest of the world does not exist for you, is now obsolete. Just look at how IT permeates everything, so there are various bioinformatics disciplines that combine IT and artificial intelligence with biology. And doctors could use some knowledge of economics and legal matters. This is an area where we really need to pick up the pace, and it will also be useful for Czech society at large.

Are there any completely new areas of study that will open in Brno?
There are at least two that I know of at the Faculty of Medicine, which are now moving from the draft stage to the accreditation process. One of these is clinical pharmacology, which is a discipline where I see a huge market gap. This is a study programme that we want to get accredited at the Faculty of Medicine, but also take advantage of our links to the Faculty of Science, the CEITEC research centre and other departments. The other is public health, which synthesises the expertise of most of our faculties: it is designed for those who need medical knowledge, but also need to be well-versed in the law, such as the people who make decisions about purchasing new technology.

As a dean, you lobbied last year for increasing the number of doctors and their teachers at the medical faculties across the Czech Republic. How will you advocate for this as rector?
Increasing the capacities of Czech medical faculties is an absolute necessity given the huge long-term and society-wide demand for general medicine graduates. The shortage of doctors, especially outside large cities, is now alarming. There are places where it has begun to undermine public healthcare, and the Czech association of deans of medical faculties is trying to accommodate the strategic need of our country. As a socially responsible rector, I will continue to support all meaningful incentives with a society-wide impact. Another area where this is a particularly topical issue is teacher education. I want our current and future pupils and students, including my own children, to be able to obtain high-quality education at all levels – and we need motivated and educated teachers to achieve that.

And now to science and research: how are you planning to improve conditions and attract new ERC grant recipients?
This is a key area. If we are serious about the goals that we describe in our strategic plans, and we actually want to move up in the rankings, we have to take a close look at what these rankings are based on. And they are based on the number of international grants, citation rates, the ratio of students to faculty, international visibility – which is an extremely difficult one – applied research results, etc. The university has to properly set up its internal mechanisms to be able to achieve all this. To use sports terminology, the ideal combination is to buy a “star” from abroad while having a generation of your own home-grown players. The ambition of Masaryk University should be to receive scores of ERC grants, not just a handful.

The author works as an editor for Lidové noviny, in which part of this interview was published (Czech only).