Protection of University Autonomy and Academic Freedom in Serbia

This is a notice addressed to the international academic community about the violation of university autonomy and academic freedom at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Belgrade by the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church 

For more than a year now, we have been witnessing deeply discouraging events at the Faculty of Orthodox Theology (FOT), one of the 31 faculties – members of the academic community of the University of Belgrade. Professor Maksim Vasiljević and assistant professor Marko Vilotić were unlawfully deprived of teaching positions at their Faculty in 2019. In the fall of 2020, professors Rodoljub Kubat and Maksim Vasiljević were fired from FOT in violation of thе law and the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia. 

Professor Kubat was illegally fired as a result of obvious retaliation and persecution due to criticism of illegitimate decisions made at the FOT and criticism of some members of the Holy Synod, while prof. Vasiljević was fired even without that. The decision regarding the loss of the teaching position at FOT included the order of the Synod to the dean of FOT to immediately issue a directive on the termination of employment of Kubat and Vasiljević. The FOT statute contains a provision, contrary to the University statute, which authorizes the Synod to withdraw its blessing for any particular teaching position at this faculty. However, by the end of 2019, the Statutory Council of the University of Belgrade (the most relevant University body in charge of the statutory issues) concluded that the Synod’s influence was contrary to the Law on Higher Education and the Statute of the University of Belgrade. And this influence was crucial for the termination of employment that was enacted in the case of Prof. Kubat and Prof. Vasiljević. According to the same decision issued by the FOT dean, prof. Kubat and prof. Vasiljević could not even „perform other duties“ at FOT. The essence of this document is a statement claiming that the dean’s directive has been based on „a legally binding and executive decision of the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church“. According to this decision, prof. Kubat and prof. Vasiljević аre not allowed to defend themselves legally! This decision is not only contrary to the Law on Higher Education and the Labor Law, but also violates human rights of both professors: their freedom of scientific and intellectual creativity guaranteed by article 73 of the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia, as well as their right to a legal defense determined by article 36 of the Serbian Constitution. 

The Republic of Serbia is a secular state based on its constitution and only court decisions can be binding. Decisions of state executive bodies also cannot be binding, they can only be final. Moreover, only court decisions and state administrative acts have executive power. According to the Labour Law, the decision of the Synod cannot be a reason for termination of employment. The Holy Synod is not a state institution that governs public authorities. Prohibition of lectures at the University by any external authority, outside the University itself, is an open violation of its autonomy. Тhe university autonomy is guaranteed by article 72 of the Serbian Constitution. 

Until recently, the Serbian Orthodox Church has not been much involved in the academic affairs of the FOT, so a kind of modus vivendi sustained this fragile institutional cohabitation. The interference of the Holy Synod in the autonomy of FOT and the violation of legal norms of the University of Belgrade should be placed in the context of an illegitimate and uncontrolled demonstration of church power – this time directed against professors of theology who expressed freedom of thought, conscience and public opinion. There is no doubt that prof. Kubat and prof. Vasiljević themselves are victims of illegitimate interference of clerical power structures in the work of the University of Belgrade. Deprived of their academic position, they were exposed to open formal and informal persecution contrary to legal and civilizational norms. The University of Belgrade and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development of Serbia must not remain passive on this issue in order to prevent further systematic harassment of members of the university community. They should enforce state and university laws and regulations to protect colleagues by taking into account the existential aspect that directly affects the well-being of their families. In the recent past, under the same autocratic government, a number of professors were expelled from the University of Belgrade in 1998, following the ratification of a poor university law. 

Therefore, we appeal to international academic institutions to condemn the open persecution of university professors in Serbia. As stated in the UN special report (2020) on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression: „Without academic freedom, societies lose one of the essential elements of democratic self-governance: the capacity for self-reflection, for knowledge generation and for a constant search for improvements of people’s lives and social conditions“. The Bonn Declaration on Freedom of Scientific Research (2020) further emphasizes that the “freedom of thought and intellectual creativity require also freedom and security of individuals”. Needless to say, the level of democratic development of a society is measured by respect of academic freedom. The academic freedom in Serbia, university autonomy and freedom of thought in general should be vigorously defended by law, as well as by the solidarity of our colleagues and other intellectuals from the international academic community. 

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