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Rector: My work on improving the university is fulfilling

In a recent interview, Martin Bareš summed up what he has done thus far as the head of the university, summarized the events of 2020, and talked about the future of Masaryk University.

Rektor MU Martin Bareš.

Martin Bareš is nearly one-third through his term as the rector of Masaryk University. Even though during most of that time he has had to deal with the unexpected obstacles and demands stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, he has been able to fulfill his election promises.

Could you briefly sum up 2020?
If I had to do it in three words, I’d say “work”, “contentment”, and “growth”. I am nearly one-third of the way through my term, which has been marked by a lot of work – work that I find fulfilling, work that contributes to the university’s growth. In this regard, I’d like to thank my immediate team, everyone I work with – and everyone at Masaryk University for all their hard work last year.

What have you already achieved and what is still to come in the next six months?
I’d say I have accomplished at least half of the things outlined in my election platform. I am very glad that I was able to fulfill these promises thanks to the efforts of many people during the coronavirus crisis. I’d like to have most of the goals set out in my programme met by autumn 2022 so that the following year, the last year of my term as rector, I will be able to stand before the academic community with everything checked off.

What do you value the most about your time as rector so far?
Above all the clear elimination of the “climate of distrust” at our university. I thought it would be a much harder task. But today what I see around me is great trust, openness in negotiations, and team work on important tasks. This isn’t only within university leadership, but also within the Rector’s Board, which brings together all the deans, as well as within the Academic Senate, with students and the broader public. Therefore, I have the feeling that this distrust, which has a long history in Czech society, is successfully being rooted out and that the academic community at our university trusts the steps that university and faculty leadership are taking, even if they are not the most popular things. If I had to give a specific example, it would be the difficult discussion about and the subsequent unanimous approval of a new course of action for budgeting rules, which must reflect developments in the greater society around us and take into account student-teacher ratios and the pressure on improving research quality.

Why do you think there has been success in building trust?
I am intrinsically a very competitive person and a maximalist. My entire life I have been trying to see things in a broader perspective. Therefore, whenever we are dealing with problems or proposing certain measures, we first complete a thorough analysis, we openly speak about things, we debate things, and stay on course when it comes to growth. Perhaps this is the reason we have been able to build trust and foster cooperation quicker than I once thought possible. The academic community, faculty leaders, and senators see why and how we prepare and implement various measures. This is in stark contrast to what we see around us, with how the epidemic is being dealt with – society’s distrust in the steps the government has taken perhaps spring from the feeling, the justified feeling, that these measures are not introduced based on careful analysis but often quite randomly.

So, for the time being you are happy with the progress you have made in fulfilling your campaign promises. Is there anything else you’d like to do beyond what you promised?
I recently looked at an interview that was published at the time I was elected rector, and I was surprised to see that everything I said then still applies. We are still holding the line, making sure we don’t lose our way; we are placing emphasis on quality; we are opening up unpleasant topics for discussion, for example, those related to HR policy. When it comes to HR policy in particular, I am ready and willing to go beyond my campaign platform.

One of the biggest tasks was to prepare the university’s strategic plan. In the second week of December, it was approved by the MU Academic Senate. What awaits us in the coming years?
I must stress that this is a critical and very comprehensive document, which, among other things, obliges the university to be a socially responsible and sustainable institute. We will begin implementing the strategic plan next year. The plan for the first year has already been approved and involve many things. The first of which is education. And considering the current situation, we will also focus on developing and improving online and hybrid forms of teaching.

Another area is internationalization. Here, I will mention one of Masaryk University’s recent success stories: we received three ERC Consolidator grants. It was a great day for our university and for Czech science. Few members of the general public and maybe even of the academic community are aware that being awarded this grant is like winning a gold medal at the Olympics. Ten of these prestigious grants were awarded in new EU Member States – four in the Czech Republic, three of which are focused on the social sciences, which shatter the myth that we can only find international success in the natural sciences. And this increases pressure on improving research at Masaryk University, when we clearly see what kind of progress we can make in internationalizing research, even in the humanities and social sciences. It’s a question of having competent people, well-prepared projects, and the ambition to reach such goals. Therefore, in terms of research, the strategic plan says that in the coming years we will focus less on the national context and more on the prestigious international arena. We are Masaryk University, we are a prestigious institution, and we absolutely must recognize this ourselves.

An important part of the strategic plan is the further growth of the university. What are the priorities?
From the National Plan for Restoration in Excellent Research we want to gain financing for growth and for moving the Faculty of Pharmacy to the University Campus and for related projects such as the Institute of Virology. The national plan is focused on four areas: virology, oncology, cardiology, and the social sciences. We are interested in all four fields.

Along with growth come changes in budgeting rules. What is their goal?
I view a budget as a tool, not a goal. The goal is not to see in a certain column that the annual budget of a certain faculty has grown. The goal is to answer the question where it is headed. Therefore, when it comes to budgeting education and research activities, we are looking at qualitative parameters. The budgeting rules reflect the student-teacher ratio because it’s impossible for one academic staff member to teach dozens and dozens of students, and the demand for and relevance of the programmes we offer. We may not like it, but our budgets are tied to the state budget. We are a publicly funded institution, and therefore we must be prepared to provide society with highly educated graduates who can find jobs. Although I reject benchmark figures, I see a great opportunity here for interconnecting faculties when it comes to educating our students. Up until now we have not taken advantage of the opportunities promised by combining the study of computer sciences and medicine, economics and pharmacy, languages, law, sociology, and so on. Financial support for educational activities should increasingly reflect the quality of teaching.

We already began putting more emphasis on research quality parameters in budgeting last year. They are connected not only to the new 17 + Guidelines for evaluating research but also to increased efforts in publishing prestigious journal papers and books and support for grant writing, especially to win international grants. I would like to note, in connection with the ERC grants, that every significant amount of financial support we get brings added value to every part of the university. We are all on the same team, and it doesn’t matter who “scores the goals”. We cannot look at things through the prism of a single faculty, or even a single department. We must look at things from the perspective of MU as a whole.

Internationalization is incorporated into the budgeting rules. How?
Internationalization is another budget chapter that boosts our awareness of the importance of being more visible at internationally renowned universities. The goal is to increase the number of students and academics we send out to schools that rank among the top 300 universities globally. They deserve to be seen there because they are being successful there. I want to stress that the financial impact of this measure is marginal. Its non-financial impact is important. But I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t go study at universities below us on the rankings, but just to think about where we make ourselves better seen in the international arena.

It’s also important to say that the budget is conceived as a whole. You can’t look at it and think that funding for education is one thing and funding for research is another. Faculties get money from different sources and work with it as a whole.

Another change involving internationalization is that the regulation stipulating that habilitation theses be submitted in English or another world language has been eliminated. Why?
This elicited a huge, at times emotional debate, and I am glad it did. When this regulation was originally adopted, blanket exemptions were granted, seemingly at random. For example, 90 percent of the fields of study at the Faculty of Law received exemptions. Even though at the time this regulation was being debated I was a vice-rector, and a person coming from the natural sciences, I didn’t see any problem with it. But then, after engaging in discussions with others, I began to see this issue from a broader perspective. In the end, my colleagues and I agreed that language does not determine whether one’s work is of high quality or of international stature. And that we can put greater stress on the other aspects of the habilitation procedure, such as publications, monographs, the members of the habilitation committee, reviewers. In this respect, the coronavirus epidemic has helped us because all of a sudden it is relatively easy to find foreign experts to sit on committees. They don’t need to come to Brno; they can do it all remotely. The new regulations about habilitation and professorship procedures and the related directives are in the end stricter and provide a better solution for internationalizing qualification procedures.

We have a lot of work ahead of us before spring. What do you think the situation will be like at the university due to coronavirus?
We most definitely can expect the epidemic to continue. I have already hinted at it, and I have been letting the academic community know since October that there would still be heavy restrictions in the spring semester. And I am concerned about next year as a whole. But of course, I’ll be glad if I’m mistaken.

You often receive positive feedback from students for all you have been doing for them during this period.
I am aware of the gratitude and support I get from students, and I thank them for it. The current crisis is difficult for everyone, especially for students. Their generation has essentially experienced nothing but permanent growth. We all enjoyed travelling, liberty, freedom of thought and religion, and all of a sudden we are in a situation unlike any since World War II or the last pandemic that struck 100 years ago. It is something totally new. I would like to give the students a message: hang in and persevere. Be patient, be humble, and have faith in the steps that we are all taking together. Self-confidence and high spirits are also important. I promised to ensure the quality of online classes, and I think that now there is a big difference between the state of things in the spring, and that the autumn semester is running more smoothly. We are in difficult times, but I believe that when in five or ten years students look back, they’ll say that it was a dynamic time that taught them a lot. And it still surprises me how volunteering took off and how we showed the country and the world what we are made of at MU.

You consider gaining students’ support important. Why?
Students are the essence of our day-to-day work, and when students and graduates prosper, it brings us joy. And if they later remember that Masaryk University not only equipped them with knowledge but also provided them with a broader worldview, that’s a good thing. This is how a modern, quality university should be. When I was the dean of the Faculty of Medicine, there was a significant change in the relationship between faculty leadership and students. The relationship became friendly, but there were clear boundaries. At the University Campus we have been holding informal meetings and events such as the “Dean Roast” and Campus Day, a sporting event. I am committed to continuing in this vein at the university level. If the coronavirus hadn’t happened, we’d already be holding a “Rector Roast”. We also planned on having a charity floorball match between university leaders and faculties. All things that support the idea that we form a single university community.

So, despite all your activities, do you have time to play sports and exercise?
I don’t, and it bothers me. It’s pretty visible. Ever since I was young, I’ve been good at sports. I played football, ping-pong, tennis, and ball hockey, and thanks to my sons I became a fan of hockey and baseball. In recent years, I’ve been running quite a bit, but in the autumn when I was just starting to get over having COVID-19, I wanted to get back into it, but I couldn’t. I was used to running at around midnight, but due to the state of emergency and the curfew, it was impossible. But physical activity puts me in a better mood and boosts my immunity, so I look forward to being able to exercise more.

How do you recharge then?
I like challenges. They give me energy when I have to deal with unfamiliar situations, ones that no one knows anything about. People sometimes ask me how do I do it, how do I have enough energy. Looking for solutions and wanting to be the best truly energize me. Especially when the university is involved. I want to prove that we can solve crises. Even though personally I am never really satisfied with any solution. In the spring, it was very difficult but at the same time exciting. I felt like a doctor who still didn’t have his medical license, working a nightshift alone, who had the knowledge he needed but not the experience and had to figure things out. Suddenly, everyone was waiting for the rector to make decisions: what would classes look life, would buildings be open, how would the university as a whole operate... They trusted me. And that gave me the most energy.