Wall Street Journal
November 15, 2012
On Monday, the 1,891 faculty members of the University of Athens woke up to an unpleasant surprise. They didn't have access to their email accounts, and they couldn't connect to the web, not even from their offices. The university's entire electronic communications system was down.
The breakdown was not the result of technical difficulties. The faculty was deliberately isolated by a fringe leftist group that occupied the university's computer center and shut down the servers. The aim was to obstruct electronic voting in the election of a new governing body for the university.
Why such an extreme reaction to a university election? The story is one of entrenched interests reacting violently to change—all too typical of today's Greece.
Higher education in Greece is provided only by the government. Private universities, even nonprofit ones, are prohibited under the Greek constitution. This monopoly has led to a higher-education system that, like the Greek political system, is crippled by statism, cronyism, nepotism, corruption and inefficiency. Faculty members seeking to better their university have had to deal with decaying infrastructure, political patronage, minimal research funding and humiliatingly low salaries—and that was before the euro-zone crisis hit.
In the summer of 2011 the Papandreou government tried to change this with a reform bill that, although far from bold, was a step forward. For the first time, universities' funding will be linked to research output and external evaluations. Limits have been imposed on the number of years for which a student could be enrolled and a minimum has been set for the number of lectures a course must give during a semester.
The law also repealed the infamous right to asylum in universities, a relic from the 1970s, when political asylum was important in the aftermath of the military dictatorship. University asylum had become a shield for radical groups occupying buildings, disrupting student elections, terrorizing the academic community and transforming campuses into a no man's land for legal authorities.
The most important part of the law, however, was the adoption of an organizational structure modeled after British and American universities. All universities are to be governed by a body consisting of faculty members, personalities outside the university—for example, Cambridge University professor Richard L. Hunter was recently elected as the new president of the governing body of the University of Thessaloniki—and a rector selected through an international call. This is meant to undermine the influence of the political parties and the university-affiliated unions, which had long corroded academic life.
The reform law was approved by the Greek Parliament in August 2011 with an unprecedented majority of 85%. But the reaction of interest groups and fringe groups was fierce: Radicals occupied buildings and threatened faculty members while the authorities in many universities refused to apply the law.
In response, the current coalition government passed another law, last August, moderating the previous one. But fringe leftist groups managed to cancel elections for governing bodies in every Greek university by occupying polling stations and intimidating faculty members who attempted to vote.
The only solution was for the Ministry of Education to introduce a system of electronic voting last month. The far-left Syriza party condemned electronic voting as "technofascist" and "unconstitutional." But in every Greek university in which voting has been allowed to take place, participation has been very high, dealing a blow to the interest groups that claim to speak for the academic community.
This brings us to Monday, when electronic elections were set to take place at my university, the University of Athens. Early in the morning, some 15 people occupied the computer center, holding hostage the email accounts of faculty members, students and administrative personnel, including those of the University of Athens hospitals. With a few exceptions, nobody has condemned what has happened, and no university officials have dared appeal to the authorities, for fear of retaliation. Physical violence and bullying is so common in Greek universities and across Greece that almost nobody dares react anymore.
This incident comes only a few weeks after members of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, together with fundamentalist religious groups, shut down the production of Terrence McNally's play "Corpus Christi in Athens" after harassing audiences and the people involved in the production. Golden Dawn, in alliance with the bishop of Piraeus, sued everyone involved in the play for blasphemy.
In Greece today, fringe groups both right- and left-wing are trampling upon what remains of the rule of law. Greece's institutional failure is far more severe than its economic one.
Mr. Hatzis is an associate professor of law, economics and legal theory at the University of Athens.
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