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Pavlík: My greatest joy was Scala full of international students

Jan Pavlík, the former director of the Centre for International Cooperation of Masaryk University, sat down with M Magazine to talk about the 40 years he spent working at MU.

Before the start of every semester, the director of CZS MU Jan Pavlík welcomed at Scala hundreds of new international students.

At the end of March, Jan Pavlík retired after working at Masaryk University for more than forty years. For the last eight, he headed the Centre for International Cooperation. Before that he served four terms as vice-dean for international relations at the Faculty of Arts and was also the dean for six years. For more than 30 years, he taught at the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, co-founded a French-Czech public administration study programme at the Faculty of Economics and Administration, and also chaired the board of the Fulbright Commission of the Czech Republic.

In 1992 you became vice-dean for international relations at the Faculty of Arts. What was foreign collaboration like 30 years ago when the Erasmus programme did not yet exist in the Czech Republic?

It was incomparable with today. Computers were rare, email didn’t exist and, of course, neither did the MU Information System. Back then, our main goal was to find and provide departments and institutes with offers of foreign collaboration. We even began putting together information on a regular basis, what you’d call today a “newsletter,” that we at first printed on dot-matrix printers and distributed ourselves.

Sure, international cooperation existed back then, but there weren’t many opportunities. At the end of the 1990s though came the Erasmus exchange programme, through which today most MU students get to travel abroad. But internationalization in today’s meaning of the word was something that we couldn’t even imagine, and we had no idea to what extent it should occur, how much it should change the environment within MU, or that we could or should support it financially, as we do today. It’s unbelievable how much everything has changed over the last 30 years.

In 2000 you became the dean of the Faculty of Arts. How do you look back on that period?

It was a rather difficult time; in the second half of the 1990s the Ministry of Education changed the rules for financing higher education institutes in a way that – when applied within universities – had a fundamental impact on faculties of arts [throughout the country]. They often discovered they were facing major budget deficits that needed to be taken care of, and these faculties had to balance their budgets. Amazingly enough, we were able to do just that, and, as far as I know, at least some of the performance-based parameters that we introduced into the faculty’s internal budgeting are still applied in some form today. During those six years we also managed to increase the number of students and significantly modernize our facilities, including IT infrastructure. I was also delighted by the new library that we opened in 2002.

In 2014 you moved from the Faculty of Arts to the Centre for International Cooperation (CZS), whose main goal is to make MU more international. How did you like working at the CZS?

It was basically my dream job. Ever since I was a child, I always enjoyed being with people from different cultures and speaking with them, ideally in their own language. So, that job offer was one I couldn’t turn down. It was a wonderful eight years, during which I met hundreds of interesting people from different parts of the world, both abroad and in the Czech Republic. I was always proud to show foreign guests around Brno and MU. I enjoyed seeing the amazement they experienced touring our university and its facilities, not to mention our new or renovated buildings. This is not commonplace abroad, not even at Western universities.

But what brought me the greatest joy was when, before the start of every semester, I would welcome at Scala hundreds of new students who had come to MU, whether through Erasmus or other exchange programmes. That was a moment I really looked forward to – Scala packed to the rafters with foreign students, who sat there listening and laughing when I welcomed them in Brno, “a city whose name many of you probably still don’t know how to pronounce correctly.” Sometimes, they would even say hi to me when we happened to meet in a hallway or in the city. I am going to miss that event at Scala. Every single student that came to Brno gave me, and still gives me, happiness.

What successes did the CZS have during those eight years? And were there any failures?

We definitely had a lot of successes, so many that I probably can’t mention them all: we joined the EDUC Alliance, we launched a international ambassador programme, we organized a reunion of foreign graduates as part of MU’s 100th anniversary celebrations, when more than 100 foreigners from 28 countries returned to Brno. We also sold our own system for mobility administration to several Czech universities. We have been developing this system at the CZS for more than 20 years, whereas other schools have been working only with Excel, for example. We also celebrated 30 years of the Erasmus programme in the Czech Republic. That was of course a major milestone for Czech universities, and I’m a bit sorry that I was not at the CZS during that “foundational” period.

In contrast, one thing that we weren’t as successful in as I would have liked was opening new programmes taught in English. For the kind of university we want to be, there are still too few of them. Of course, I understand that opening a new programme is not easy and that we can list many more-or-less objective reasons, such as limited capacity, for why it has been impossible. But still, I feel that the main reason for this failure is unfortunately the inability of many teachers to express themselves and teach in English. This is something that we often read in the evaluations that foreign students fill out before leaving MU.

I also regret that so few of our students go abroad. On average, 20 percent of our graduates have international experience, but there are enormous differences within MU. At some faculties more than 40 percent study abroad, whereas at others this figure is barely 10 percent. You know, I guess you could call me an international extremist; I think that every student should go abroad. Every single one. And I even think that students who don’t automatically want to spend part of their studies abroad should not study at university at all – and definitely not at Masaryk University.

Not studying abroad is such a great pity, considering all the incredible opportunities there are. Of course, the situation today is incomparable with the way things were before 1989, when opportunities to study abroad were exceedingly rare. After the revolution, when the borders opened up, I was afraid that everyone would want to study abroad and there would be no one here to teach. But that never happened, and it seems like it never will: many students simply “don’t want to”. I think in this respect teachers are failing in their educational role; at every opportunity they should be reminding their students how important studying abroad is and should give them examples that prove it from their own experience – if they have any, that is.

Do you go abroad when you were a student?

I was fortunate that my father was a specialist in the English language, so in the 1960s we lived almost two years in India, where my father worked as an interpreter and translator. I went to school there, to a Czech school, but it was in an Anglophone environment. I was 10 at the time, but it had a huge impact on me. It was a completely different world, a different culture, different people, different behaviour. It couldn’t have not had an effect on me.

In secondary school, I really did study abroad. In my first year at a Brno grammar school, my French teacher asked me if I wanted to take part in a competition and study in one of the Czechoslovak sections at a lycée in France. My God! To have such an opportunity a year after the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia... So, I studied for three years in Nîmes, where I also graduated. And as a student at Masaryk University, I also spent a year in Florence.

Spending time in a foreign country and in a foreign culture has benefits that last a lifetime. But we often recognize the profundity of these benefits only several years after coming back home. It is a formative experience for which there is no substitute, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the kind of person you are is formed in large part by living abroad. Not studying elsewhere is a great mistake, I would even say a fatal mistake. It’s something that you will never be able to make up for, an experience you can’t learn, whereas you can always catch up on a chapter from your chemistry book by studying. When you study abroad, the most important things happen outside of the classroom. That is a quote from Professor Peter-André Alt, the president of the German Rectors’ Conference.

Jan Pavlík welcomes new international students at Scala, Orientation Week, February 2018.