The appointment of the chancellor at the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest has turned into an unexpected scandal. Csilla Papp, who had been given the post
by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, announced her withdrawal earlier this month because of the “unworthy and unlawful” approach of the university’s senate to her.
Rector Géza M. Tóth denied putting pressure on her to quit but mentioned a possible “ideological difference” between the artist members of the senate and Papp, who previously had a legal career. Although a new chancellor has since been appointed, the incident raises questions about the political significance of and professional expectations towards the recently founded role.
The education reform accepted in July 2014, including the introduction of chancellors, was justified by the often irresponsible financial management of universities. Appointed by the prime minister, chancellors are entrusted to take care of financial matters at higher education institutions, separating these duties from the rectors’ scientific and educational responsibilities.
More specifically, the chancellor is responsible for preparing economic measures and propositions and has to be consulted by the rector about the salaries of professors and researchers. Chancellors are employed by the Minister of Human Capacities, currently Zoltán Balog; he presents the list of potential candidates to the prime minister, who makes the final choice.
Csilla Papp should have taken office on January 5 but the rector refused to sign her working contract in time. According to M. Tóth, he was asked not to do so at the meeting of the senate on January 2; the members wished to have a personal meeting with her first.
The rector informed the Ministry of Human Capacities about this decision, who deemed it unlawful because the law states that the rector and the senate have no word in the appointment of the chancellor. Papp nevertheless appeared at a scheduled meeting and, after hours of questioning her, the senate submitted their report to the ministry.
The content of this dossier was not made public to the press and due to the news blackout ordered by the rector it seems unlikely that it will be in the near future. While it would certainly help to explain what Papp meant by a “process unworthy of her person and family” (the announcement of her withdrawal came directly after the meeting), looking at her previous career can potentially help to uncover some issues.
She has no experience in economics, or higher education management; she earned a law degree and continued to work in the legal field, most recently as the notary public of Zugló’s previous Fidesz mayor, Ferenc Papcsák. She has other ties to the right wing too; her husband, László Szabó, is the secretary of the Hungarian Teatrum Society, led by Attila Vidnyánszky (the Fidesz-supported director of the National Theatre).
Imre Kerényi, the personal representative of the prime minister for cultural affairs, has previously called for a change in the education provided by the university, which, according to him, does not represent Hungary’s Christian cultural roots enough. He even declared that he would take away the university’s finances and its right to educate professionals in the theatre and film arts. Although Balog later denied any governmental intentions to go through with Kerényi’s plans, many saw Papp’s nomination as an attempt to carry out a right-wing change in the institution.
Meanwhile, M. Tóth did not only state that he moderated the discussion to prevent any negative comments concerning Papp’s person, he added that he didn’t consider her appointment as a sign of an intended conservative turn. Whether or not the senate shared this opinion, sources at the university say its approach to the new chancellor, Dr. Lajos Vonderviszt, is much more favourable, despite the fact that he has a relatively unrelated professional background as well.
Although he owns an MBA from Corvinus University, he built a career in IT (most recently working as director of E-services at the National Széchényi Library) and does not have direct economic or financial experience. He served as the vice-head of department at the University of Veszprém, therefore, unlike Papp, he has experience in the higher education sector, although in a field unrelated to theatre and film arts.
According to the law, with a university degree and at least three years of experience in a higher education institution, business organisation, or central or regional public administration, anyone can apply to be a chancellor. It is therefore not required to have received an economics, or business education; legally, both Papp and Vonderviszt would have been able to take on the role.
The law justifies the relatively low minimum requirements towards the person’s degree by stating that their competence and experience as a manager matter more than a paper. This point of view can be defended, along with the fact that the chancellor is not expected to have any previous knowledge about the subjects taught at the university he applied to work at; after all, he is responsible for the financial management, not the fields of research and education.
However, despite the reformers’ best efforts, these two can rarely be completely separated, giving rise to potential problems. According to the Hungarian Rectors’ Conference, the system of chancellors is not good or bad in itself, but its ability to function depends on a clear definition of the authorities of the rector and the chancellor, and they urge amendments to the current law in this respect.
The fact that rectors cannot make decisions concerning research projects, or the provision of certain degrees, without the chancellor’s approval adds a bureaucratic step to the system, slowing down the decision process and endangering the quality of the work carried out at a university. It also goes against international trends, where chancellors have typically less authority and the process of their nomination is equally different.
In the United Kingdom, they act only as ceremonial figureheads of universities but even in Germany, where they have a similar function as in Hungary, they are appointed by the president of a university and the government only approves of the choice. This gives a chance to the institutions to nominate someone who they think can cooperate with them in academic projects and is financially competent at the same time.
The lack of this autonomy in Hungary makes the current system vulnerable to the threat of being numbed by disagreements between rectors and chancellors, the contrast of academic and financial interests. While there is still little known for sure about the concrete case of Papp and the reason she rejected the post, the problems with the system remain universal. It is yet to be seen if they will arise in other universities as well or if changes will be made to the text of the reform.