New UP Rector Martin Procházka: We can all pitch in to make our university feel better

Prof Martin Procházka
Photo: Jan Andreáš, MMOL
Monday 3 May 2021, 8:00 – Text: Ivana Pustějovská

Since 1 May, Palacký University Olomouc has had a new rector: Prof Martin Procházka. In this exclusive interview for UP Žurnál, he introduces his plans and visions, and his team of vice-rectors.

You are a doctor of medicine and you are taking over the leadership of Palacký University in the middle of a difficult time; many people feel hurt by what has been happening at the university recently, or by the overall situation in our society due to the pandemic. Has a time of healing for the university come in tandem with your election?

I would like that very much to happen, and I’ll do my best to achieve that. I think that this is what the entire academic community at our university wishes for – at least this is what I have felt in various meetings across the faculties, of which I have attended dozens, either during the campaign or now when taking over the rector’s agenda. But to maintain your healing analogy, I must add that every patient is cared for by a whole team of doctors and nursing staff, so I will not be alone. I will rely both on my team of vice-rectors and on the deans of the individual faculties as well as on many other smart and talented people, of whom there are plenty at our university. However, a necessary condition for successful healing is also the involvement of the patient in the whole healing process. So, I think we can all pitch in to make our university feel better soon.

By healing, I also mean support for students who find the current form of study very difficult. Some of them are not sure whether they will be able to complete their studies. What can the university do for them?

You are absolutely right, students do need our help, and it would be terribly wrong if they could not complete their studies due to the pandemic, which poses many obstacles and complications for them. We definitely want to take good care of their smooth return to university; without a doubt, this is the most important task at the moment. This is also the reason why I initiated making a joint statement by the deans in which we made an appeal to all teachers as well as other university staff to be as helpful and understanding as possible towards the needs of our students. We must not lose these talented young people: they are needed not only by the university, but mostly by our society.

You did emphasise the importance of taking good care of students during your election campaign. Where do you want to further take the relationship between the university and its students? Have you got any specific plans or projects in mind?

I will pay more attention to improving the quality of teaching, which is the genuine concern of students. Our students are, in fact, the university’s users, so we need to respond to their needs and get more feedback from them. That is why I’d like to get students more involved, and for example, add student representatives to the Rector’s Board, and significantly strengthen our communication with student clubs and organisations. Students should perceive the university as their own and should have the desire as well as the opportunities to participate in decision-making and in the university’s vision. We have got the potential to be a truly student-oriented university.

What are your priorities on the short-term horizon, i.e. the end of this semester and the next academic year?

I’ve already mentioned bringing students back to the university, that’s our number one priority. I firmly believe that next semester will get back to normal, that most teachers will be vaccinated and that there will be enough vaccines for the students as well. Hopefully everything will soon return to normal, and I don’t just mean just classes, but also student life, which is extremely vital for the university, too.

I also want to calm down the overall situation at the university in relation to the disputes regarding the new university institute, and that’s a big challenge. We need to separate the CATRIN negotiations from the ordinary university agenda, as they have disproportionately burdened the management meetings as well as the deans’ meetings. There is no simple solution to this; both sides are right in their own way, and both feel wronged. Nevertheless, I do believe that we can find common ground. I would like to have the support of the Academic Senate to help me decide on this matter. I believe that the lawsuit will be dropped and that the matter will be resolved internally. After all, we are adults and educated people and our first and foremost concern is supposed to be for our university.

What will be the long-term vision of Palacký University? What do you want to achieve during the four years of your term of office?

The university has at least two or three pillars. The first one is education, which mainly concerns students, but the best students are also involved in science and academic research. This is the second pillar, related to the allocation of finances for science and research. When we are evaluated by the International Evaluation Panel in five years’ time, I expect us to be at least as good as we are today in the evaluation of science, but my aim is to get even better. I’d also like to reach the point when the evaluations by current students would provide us with relevant information, on the basis of which we could become an attractive school for our future students, a school that has a large applicant pool and can offer the highest-quality education in the country.

Could you say something about your team of vice-rectors? Why did you choose these academics as your closest partners?

I’ve chosen people I trust and am convinced of their professional qualities; at the same time, I tried to make sure they’d fit together as a team and pull their weight. Our cohesion and strength have been tested in the campaign for the Rector’s election; however, we face other great challenges ahead now, and I’m confident we will successfully deal with them together. The Vice-Rector for Strategy and External Relations is Michal Malacka (Faculty of Law), who has thus ended his term as the President of UP Academic Senate. The role of the Senate is to control the actions of those who lead the university, so it was not conceivable that he could continue in that office. For the same reason, another member of my team, Vít Procházka (Faculty of Law), has also terminated his office in the Academic Senate and become responsible for Communication and Student Affairs. Dušan Lužný (Faculty of Arts) is in charge of Doctoral Studies and Projects, Vít Zouhar (Faculty of Arts) is in charge of Undergraduate Studies, and Zdenka Papoušková (Faculty of Law) takes care of Legislation and Organisation. Jiří Stavovčík (Faculty of Health Sciences) is responsible for Internationalisation, Zdeněk Hradil (Faculty of Science) for Science and Research. Information Technology, Environmental Issues, and Sustainable Development fall under the responsibility of my rival candidate Tomáš Opatrný (Faculty of Science), because the election campaign has shown to me that our programmes converge the most.

Palacký University does not exist in its own world, it’s a part of our society. How will UP under your leadership fulfil the third role of the university, i.e. being active in the public space, in the city, in the region?

The pandemic has shown just how important is the role of the university in the community. Our students displayed extraordinary loyalty, accepted their societal responsibility, and helped in every possible way to cope with the pandemic. I think this is a very good signal to the whole society. In terms of the third role of the university, we will undoubtedly continue our lifelong learning projects, foster employment in the region, and engage in ecology and sustainable development. There are also other projects underway, such as Euforka or UniON, which help us fulfil the university’s societal role, for example, in the fight against disinformation, which is a very urgent task now in the current societal crisis. We will, for instance, continue to support the activities of the UP Volunteering Centre. There are many such areas, and I believe that we can build upon all the good work and positive things that the university brings to the community.

What do you think is the mission of the university in the 21st century?

We are living in a time when we’re constantly bombarded with a flood of information from all directions, and it’s not easy to make sense of it. It is vital for the healthy development and orientation of the entire society as well as for each of us individually to be able to distinguish which information in this immense surge is really important and, above all, true. The ability to distinguish information according to its source, to recognise disinformation, and not to fall for manipulation, is a very practical skill, especially nowadays, when a great deal of our social contacts take place in an on-line environment. The university and academic education as such can play a very positive role in this regard if we effectively train our students in one of the key skills of the 21st century, which is undoubtedly the art of critical thinking.

The main role of the university is to educate our students and cultivate their free thinking so that they become personalities who will positively influence the development of our society. We must spare no effort to defend academic freedoms and freedom of research and do our best to maintain a high level of quality in science and research. It is also important to encourage students to think and act independently and freely in the spirit of traditional European values; this is the most effective way of combating social scepticism and populism, as well as many other dangerous phenomena in our society.

In recent years, Palacký University has placed great emphasis on internationalisation. UP has established close collaboration with European universities in the Aurora Alliance, is actively involved in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the number of foreign students at UP is growing. What do you think about this opening of the university to the world? Why is it important?

The mutual interaction and mix of various cultural influences shapes us, broadens our horizons, and encourages tolerance towards differences, understanding, and solidarity. All these qualities are crucial for the healthy development of society, and we must try to cultivate and promote them in young people. Europe has always been a place where various cultures have been meeting and interacting, which has had a positive influence on its development, and universities have always had a role to play in this.

In terms of internationalisation, we will certainly continue to collaborate with our partners in the European Union and the Aurora Alliance. However, I would like to place more emphasis than ever on cooperation with universities in Austria and Germany, which are the closest to us culturally, due to the common history of our nations and many centuries of coexistence in Central Europe. The inclination towards English, the dominant language in almost all areas of human activity, was typical and quite understandable for the time when we needed to quickly declare our commitment to Western values and open up to the free world after four decades of totalitarian oppression. However, I think that the time has come for us to start giving space to the German language again, along with English. Without German, it’s impossible to get acquainted with historical sources, comprehend older philosophical texts, and better understand our own roots and past. This is highly important for the preservation of our collective memory.

If you were to introduce Palacký University Olomouc to someone who has never heard of it, how would you describe it?

Olomouc, with its monuments, parks, and abundant history, is one of the most beautiful cities in the Czech Republic, and Palacký University jointly creates its distinctive atmosphere. In a mere two years we will celebrate the 450th anniversary of our foundation: UP is the second oldest university in the country after Charles University in Prague, and although it has gone through many trials and tribulations since 1573, it has always managed to pick itself back up and move on. The proportion of the natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences at UP is quite balanced, with more than 22,000 students currently studying at eight faculties, 4,500 of whom are foreign students from more than 100 countries. The university is an integral part of Olomouc. It is housed in beautiful historical as well as modern buildings, and this symbiosis makes Olomouc a “city of students” in the truest sense of the word. It is reminiscent of similar university cities abroad, such as Heidelberg in Germany and Lund in Sweden. Some time ago, the city of Olomouc started to use the Latin term Genius loci as its motto, and Palacký University makes up a big share in the “spirit of the place”.