The election of university deans is one of the topics with the most potential to cause a tug-of-war between the new government and federal universities
Depending on the intentions of the Ministry of Education, the election of university deans is one of the topics with the most potential to cause a tug-of-war between the new government and federal universities. The executive branch is willing to waive choosing the most voted name in the triple list of candidates, in some cases, breaking a habit consolidated during Lula’s government. But despite the possible reaction from some sectors of academia, the measure is perfectly legal and, at least in some cases, justifiable.
In the military regime, which Jair Bolsonaro praises enthusiastically, the selection of federal university deans was done by the government, with no consultation whatsoever made to the academic community. The chosen dean was often someone with no familiarity with the learning institution he was about to head. A significant change in the appointment model was only brought about in 1995, when a federal law defined that the universities themselves would hold elections. The names of the three most voted candidates would then be sent to the President of the Republic, who would then appoint one of them to occupy the position. The rule also established that professors should have a weight of at least 70 percent in these elections.
Since the Lula administration, the practice has been to opt for the first place in this triple list, without adhering to this 70 percent weight for professors during the consultations made to the academic community. Bolsonaro, who sees universities as instruments for left-wing groups opposed to his government, is not planning on maintaining this tradition.
And that is his right.
Public universities have autonomy, but that does not mean complete independence. They must be held accountable to the taxpayers, who pay for the (hefty) tab of these learning institutions, and the representatives elected by popular vote. Professors, employees, and students enter these universities through admission exams, and not through suffrage. This is why it is reasonable for the federal government to have its say on the dean succession process.
University of São Paulo Law professor Elival da Silva Ramos says the position of the new government is legal. “Judicially, there is no problem whatsoever. If the government opts for a candidate which is not the most voted name in the triple list, there is nothing to question.”
The custom of appointing the most voted candidate can be praised for respecting university autonomy. In theory, professors, employees and students have a better knowledge of the realities of the campus than bureaucrats in Brasília. On the other hand, when political groups seize control of the electoral process and prevent the free debate of ideas, shouldn’t the federal government have a more active participation?
Developed countries usually adopt different solutions for the appointment of the directors of their public universities. But the practice is usually to allow public authorities to have their say.
In the United States, which has the world’s best learning institutions, major public universities are administered by the states. The University of Michigan, one of the biggest and most prestigious ones, selects its president (office equivalent to dean) through a voting made by the institution’s council, which in its turn is elected in a voting process open to the general population every two years. The University of California, responsible for institutions such as Berkeley and UCLA, has its president appointed directly by the governor. The State University of New York (SUNY) elects its main official through an 18-member council – 15 of them appointed by the governor.
It is not absurd, therefore, for the government to have the final say. For professor Elival, however, judicial legitimacy does not mean the government will not have problems. Abusing this right may generate unnecessary conflicts. “What is important is that the decision is well-founded and well-explained, and that the chosen individual have a voting percentage which gives him legitimacy,” he says.
Professors are already showing signs of discontent. Eblin Farage, general secretary of the Higher Education Faculty Members Union (ANDES), criticized the possibility of choice. In January, when the issue surfaced, he said there would be “confrontations” if the government did not choose the most voted candidate in the triple lists. “The consultations themselves are already limited actions, and very little democratic, and no government has changed that. We will do the necessary confrontations to ensure that consultations are respected,” he said in a statement released by the entity.
There is another obstacle of a more practical nature to Bolsonaro’s plan: candidates usually have a gentlemen’s agreement that they will not accept any appointments in which the president disrespects the election results. The custom may be strengthened as a way of confronting the government.
During the government transition period, Bolsonaro’s workgroup discussed significant changes in the dean election format, and ending the triple list system. One of their goals was to make this choice more professional. “All over the world search committees are done, and in some countries, the dean also undergoes a process of assessment by councils or individuals associated with the government’s education sector. We have ways of evolving in this issue,” says Stavros Xanthopoylos, a professor at Getúlio Vargas Foundation and one of the coordinators of the government’s program for the education sector.
Sociologist Antonio Flávio Testa, who was also a member of Bolsonaro’s workgroup, says he has no opinion regarding a hypothetical change in the election system. He says, however, that in many universities the elections for the office of dean do not select the most prepared candidate, but that who has the best capability of mobilizing partisan militants. “Most universities are rigged against Bolsonaro’s government. I won’t say all of them, but most are. And these elections are a political game, with little details which direct the game towards those who are in control,” he says.
A more radical change in the succession model, however, would require the approval of the National Congress, through a bill. And that battle is not among the government’s priorities.
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A depender das intenções do Ministério da Educação, a eleição de reitores é um dos temas que têm maior potencial para gerar quedas de braço entre o novo governo e as universidades federais. O Executivo está disposto a não escolher o nome mais votado da lista tríplice em alguns casos, o que quebraria um costume potencializado no governo Lula. Mas, apesar da possível reação em algumas alas da academia, a medida é perfeitamente legal e, pelo menos em alguns casos, justificável.