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Bareš: I would like to build our team spirit. We are all Masaryk University

Martin Bareš, the new rector of Masaryk University, took office on 1 September.

He was elected to the four-year term by the MU Academic Senate in April and appointed by the president of the Czech Republic in July. What are the first steps that he will take in his new role and where would he like to see the university heading in the long term?

Martin Bareš

You have been in the office of rector since 1 September. What will be your first steps? Will students and employees notice the change in management this autumn or are you planning more gradual and evolutionary changes?
While the process will be gradual, there will be some clearly visible steps taken by the new management. A university is a large institution and you cannot make sudden U-turns at the helm. It wouldn’t be a good idea anyway. Nevertheless, students and employees will see new faces in the MU management, we will restructure the Rector’s Boards, there will be new organisational rules and new faces on the Scientific Board, with a higher percentage of women. I am planning personal meetings with the heads of the individual departments of the Rector’s Office and the university offices outside the faculties. In these meetings, I would like to discuss how their activities relate to the MU strategic plan, which is currently in the pipeline, and we will conduct an HR and organisational audit of the Rector’s Office. Together with our students, we will make sure that the MU centenary celebrations reach a dignified grand finale, commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in November 1989, and expand our student scholarship programme with sports scholarships – these are just a few examples. I think everyone will soon notice that I am very straightforward when it comes to meetings and fulfilling our common goals and visions.

Are there any areas where you would like to change things quickly, something that requires immediate action?
I am very performance-oriented; for my closest co-workers and colleagues, this means that they will immediately step it up a gear. I was a dean at the MU Faculty of Medicine for eighteen months and I managed to fulfil more than 80% of my election programme. I can safely say that there are no items on my dean programme statement that are currently not being developed or implemented. I would like to take a similar approach to my new role as rector. Immediate action is required to prepare several strategic documents (science and research strategy and investment plan) that have to be submitted to the Ministry of Education within shorter deadlines than what we’ve been used to. I have already started discussing the matter with Josef Menšík, the chair of the MU Academic Senate so that we can submit everything in time. And, of course, I will start discussing the budget for 2020 with the deans and directors of university institutes.

And what will take more time? What are the long-term goals for you and your team of vice-rectors?
The priorities that I talked about before the elections and then in the interviews after I was elected will need more time. These are improving the quality of education, better international visibility of our research, fostering our internal institutional culture and team spirit – which might require a dose of humility and the willingness to see beyond one’s own department, clinic or faculty. We must always remember that from the outside, we are mostly viewed and regarded as a whole, as Masaryk University. I would also like Masaryk University to become an important expert centre for national or regional institutions that would help them prepare position documents for important society-wide matters and issues, such as sustainable economic development in the changing demographics and social circumstances, the environment, healthy ageing and so on. Furthermore, I think it’s key to break through what I call the mindset of mistrust, which has taken deep roots in Czech society and you can see the consequences of this in everyday life at the university, whether it’s the external controls system or the internal discussions that make it obvious that we don’t really trust each other.

Internationalisation takes a prominent place among your priorities, whether it is going abroad or creating a welcoming environment for international students and employees at MU. What has to change?
When you look at the international rankings of universities or any educational institutions, internationalisation is one of the key factors determining both the visibility of the institution and the evaluation of its quality. We should speak English more, not only in our study programmes and research but also in administrative positions. At CEITEC, for example, this is more or less routine. However, we have to proceed cautiously and rationally and be aware of the intense competition in the labour market. While I believe that the support system that the university has in place for international researchers is very good, there is always room for improvement. A rather pressing issue, I think, is setting up a system for PhD student stays abroad, as the amended Higher Education Act, which came into force on 1 September 2016, requires every PhD student to spend at least one month abroad. I will work together with the deans to find a simple solution to the financial and other aspects of this new requirement.

Recent years have been marked by intense competition among universities for students; another related topic is the high dropout rate, which is a problem at universities both here and abroad. What is your view on the future numbers of accepted students and the size of Masaryk University? Will the number of students drop even lower?
We really have to thank my predecessor in office, Rector Mikuláš Bek, that Masaryk University accurately predicted the trends in the number of students in our changing society and has recently been rationally reducing the number of students while increasing budgets and – of course – improving the quality of the education provided. In my opinion, the number of students at Masaryk University will not reduce further in any significant way and we should keep our “market share” of about 10 to 12% of the overall university student population in the Czech Republic. However, we have to focus on attracting the best, most talented and most motivated applicants, which gives us a clear framework for our future communications with secondary schools and their students. Dropout rates will soon become a major topic in the whole country and we have to prepare for that by adjusting the terms of the admission process and taking further steps while acting responsibly within our free university education system.

As a dean, you made a lot of effort to breathe new life into the social life at the campus. As a rector, you talk about the need to strengthen the team spirit at the university. What can students and employees expect to see?
I like to say that a student’s life is not just about studying and a researcher’s life is not just about research. We must not underestimate the importance of informal chats and meetups with students and employees at events such as the Campus Day that was organised upon my proposal in 2018. We are currently exploring options for making that event more widespread next year. Sports events are another opportunity for students of different faculties and different programmes to meet. For a long time, the campus was lacking an area for students to meet, have a chat and relax. As all those who have ever been on a campus abroad know very well, a “student house” is a standard part of a good university. This is one of the things we should focus on and find suitable areas for our students who attend faculties in the city centre, outside the campus. I would also like to start a tradition of debates or lectures on various topics, whether global and society-wide or regional and improve communication with our local community in Brno.

In mid-2019, Masaryk University became one of the founding members of the Association of Research Universities. One of the goals of the association is to improve the funding of research universities. What is your view on the subject?
I see it as a very positive development. The Czech Republic, with ten million people and positioned right in the centre of Europe, must go the extra mile to stand out in the global competition. And the “extra mile” is an educated population with the emphasis placed on the quality of education. This quality, international visibility and prominent position in international rankings can be achieved by concentrating our know-how, knowledge and human potential, and infrastructure. It is obvious that such a high standard cannot be achieved everywhere, at all Czech universities. It all comes down to financing and if the Czech government does not have a long-term and coherent strategy for university development, it is only logical that the biggest players work together to formulate and assert their requirements.

One of the points that you stressed was that sizeable investment into infrastructure must be followed by investment into human capital. Does this mean that Masaryk University will now focus its efforts on people rather than construction?
It certainly won’t mean that we will stop developing our infrastructure. We are currently working on developing investment into the Faculty of Informatics and we are planning further extensions to the university campus for public healthcare, pharmacology, and PhD students. However, developing and investing in our infrastructure must go hand in hand with developing and investing in our people, whether they are students, academic staff and researchers or administrative staff. Similar to other universities in the Czech Republic, we still have a long way to go in this respect and I will promote a debate about incentives that would attract highly regarded researchers and academics from abroad. We already have many tools in place, such as our programme for ERC grant holders and the rector’s programme to support the staff policy, and we need to take a look at how extensively and effectively they are used.

Support for our staff policy should also be acknowledged in the discussions surrounding our new budget and the MU Strategic Plan for 2021–2025, which we will start drafting in September. We should realise that external factors such as the research quality evaluation framework Metodika 17+ – which brings substantial changes to research evaluation without making it clear whether and how this will impact research funding – a likely economic recession and the inevitable noticeable increase in the government’s mandatory spending on healthcare and social services, are forcing Czech universities to decide what they want to be and in which direction they want to go. In this respect, Masaryk University has to strive for higher quality and better international visibility. We have to be dynamic and flexible and not be afraid to take slightly radical steps. However, I would like to emphasise that I am well aware that staff policy is mostly in the hands of the deans of the individual faculties and the directors of university institutes, and that the rector’s role is only indirect.

You will be inaugurated in October when you will also give a speech to the academic community. Have you already planned what you will talk about?
My inauguration speech is still, to put it neurologically, in my “mind”, and I would like to keep the content a surprise.

This November, the Czech Republic will commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. What does this historical milestone mean to you personally?
The most important milestones in my personal life and career include marrying my wife Michaela, the birth of our first son, working at the university clinic, a long-term stay at a US university, earning my research and teaching degrees and serving the faculty and university in leadership positions. With the exception of my marriage and the birth of my children, none of this would have been possible or even imaginable without the change in the political regime in 1989, free elections, free travel and the freedom to make your own decisions about your life. Therefore, I am really looking forward to a respectful and dignified commemoration of the events of November 1989 and I hope that the celebrations of this anniversary will be an occasion to stop and reflect on our current era and modern society rather than just entertainment.