Standing by the Students: A Brief Report on the Recent Situation at the University of Silesia, Poland and on the Autonomy of Polish Universities

By Wojciech Śmieja (University of Silesia) and Rafał Borysławski (University of Silesia).

 

Despite the recent and widely criticised reform, science and universities in Poland still enjoy the autonomy of conducting research and a relative independence of direct political influence. Nonetheless, Polish academics, especially those who represent social sciences and humanities, are acutely aware that the founding freedoms are under threat. Several years ago activists from the radically Catholic pro-life organization sent letters to the authorities of Polish universities with the demand that they reveal the names of staff who were involved in teaching Gender Studies courses. Jarosław Gowin, the former right-wing minister of science, was vocal in questioning  the rationale of the research devoted to gender and sexuality, while the ruling party politicians on numerous occasions disputed the validity of the Polish taxpayer having to fund “undesirable” research.

Such actions have not brought the anticipated result, consequently the current strategy, following the example of the actions of the global alt-right, has taken the guise of defending “freedom of speech.” An apparently unimportant event that took place at the University of Silesia in Katowice is, it would appear, the casus belli of this new version of the political struggle for the autonomy of the Polish academy.

The University of Silesia in Katowice is one of the largest universities in Poland, currently home to some twenty thousand students and three thousand staff. A group of twelve third-year sociology students lodged a complaint with the University authorities against one of the sociology lecturers, Prof. Ewa Budzyńska. The complaint procedure adhered fully to the internal rules and legal regulations of the University. In their complaint addressed to the Director of the Institute of Sociology, the students pointed to the improper way of conducting classes by Prof. Budzyńska and to their exclusionary, homophobic, and scientifically unfounded content. The case was referred for consideration to the university disciplinary committee. The committee did not manage to recognize the case (due to, among other issues, the coronavirus pandemic) and to present its position when the investigation was taken over by the police and the Public Prosecutor’s office.

The case of students vs. Budzyńska was publicized by right-wing media and organizations which started a campaign of writing letters to the Rector of the University of Silesia in defence of the lecturer and “freedom of speech.” Soon, in connection with this case, Jarosław Gowin,the then Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Science, announced the submission of a draft “Act on the protection of freedom of speech and research at Polish universities”. In the intention of the Minister and contrary to its name, the proposed act limits the possibility of supervising the content of the conferences and meetings organised by higher education institutions. In practice, it opens up the possibility of presenting within the walls of Polish universities the views that are beyond the most broadly understood scientific consensus, including racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic or denialist perspectives.

An otherwise unknown, apparently unrelated to the case person filed a notification to the Prosecutor’s Office about a suspicion of forgery of documents in the University’s investigation of Prof. Budzyńska’s case. The Prosecutor’s Office, whose head is the Minister of Justice, ordered the police to interview students as witnesses. Since May 2020, students have been interrogated at one of the police stations. The interrogations are extremely intensive and last for as long as five hours without any breaks. They are conducted by a police officer and a legal representative of Prof. Budzyńska from the Ordo Iuris organisation. This radical body, which has taken on Prof. Budzyńska’s defence, is gaining more and more influence and bridgeheads in political power centres (its representatives have held the positions of deputy ministers), the judiciary (the Supreme Court) and universities. Ordo Iuris is connected to the alt-right Agenda Europe network, the aim of which is to “restore the natural order” consisting, among other things, in annulling the notion of “human rights,” banning abortion and sexual education, and questioning equality policies (including those related to the prevention of domestic violence). After the first hearings, in which the students were bombarded with questions by the police officer and the Ordo Iuris representative (with up to seventy and more questions) and felt the psychological pressure being exerted on them, they received legal assistance from the University of Silesia. After the interrogation, one of the students required psychological assistance because of the stress caused by intensive questioning. The students claim that many questions are not related to the case directly, but instead probe their personal beliefs and values, and also concern the students’ personal acquaintances. They report that their social media profiles have been scrutinised and they feel that their privacy is being violated. The interrogated students also claim that the questions are posed with an intention to prove the existence of some kind of academic conspiracy aimed at supposedly eliminating “right-wing” lecturers from academia. They also sense that at any moment their status as witnesses may change and they may become suspects in the case of forging evidence (threatened in the Polish legal system with a punishment of up to 3 years in prison).

The University of Silesia’s authorities have issued a statement in which they expressed their concern with the interrogations: “the actions of law enforcement agencies undertaken while proceedings before university bodies are still pending are perceived by many members of our University community as interfering with the autonomy of its bodies.” A separate letter of support has been issued and signed by the staff of the University of Silesia, while the statements of solidarity, support, and also of deep concern have been released by many Polish universities, scientific societies, and organisations.

The representatives of the Polish academic community are aware that the authorities and the linked to them ultra-right organisations such as Ordo Iuris want to achieve the so-called chilling effect at Polish universities. Under the guise of “defending freedom of speech,” it aims at limiting university autonomy and self-government. It is also likely that in the long run this “defence of freedom of speech” will lead – the way it did in Hungary, Russia or, recently, Romania – to the elimination of “politically suspicious” subjects such as gender, minority rights, and sexuality studies from the curricula.

 

Wojciech Śmieja is currently an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Silesia in Katowice. His interests include Polish culture, literature and society of the 20th century on with focus on gender, sexuality and queer studies.

 

Rafał Borysławski is an Associate Professor in the Institute of Literary Studies, University of Silesia, Poland. His research focuses chiefly on Old English literature and its connections with enigmaticity, early medieval socio-cultural and gender history, and early medieval visual culture.