Polish universities are walking a political tightrope

The country’s conservative government is wary of academia’s social influence and values, but a ministerial letter offers hope, says Agnieszka Piotrowska

November 30, 2021
Statue of a tightrope walker crossing a Polish river
"Man Crossing the River" by Jerzy Kedziora, in Bydgoszcz, Poland

The troubles on the Poland-Belarus border and Poland’s refusal to admit the refugees and migrants stranded there in the cold is only the latest incident that has brought Poland’s populist right-wing government to international attention.

Amid a ban on abortions, a clampdown on LGBT rights and a refusal to recognise the ultimate authority of the European Court on such matters, Polish academics up and down the country have been whispering for months that their precious intellectual freedom might be at risk. For instance, a professor of literature I know, who recently joined the protest against the abortion law, was subsequently invited for a conversation by her dean. He suggested that she might like to be more careful in her social media posts.

“This is an absolute nightmare,” she tells me. “I remember being scared as a student in the 80s and now I am scared again.”

In July, education ministry advisor Pawel Skrzydlewski issued a curious direction instructing educational establishments to ensure they are cultivating “traditional feminine virtues”. This was seen as another move to suppress the education and careers of women. The statement was ridiculed by the media and was subsequently reframed by the ministry, which said Skrzydlewski was referring to accepted classical philosophical traditions.

One could take issue with this as Plato, the ancient father of ethics, insists in The Republic on giving women equal opportunities to run city states. And in The Symposium, it is the priestess, Diotima, who takes on Socrates intellectually. But for all its absurdity, the “traditional feminine virtues” edict sent shudders through Poland’s female academic community.

“I refuse to be a part of a conversation about my place in a home when, in fact, I teach Medieval history,” one senior academic in Cracow told me. “The fact that I need to whisper that I am a feminist in 2021, in the heart of Europe, really is crazy.”

Political tensions are creating anxiety among both students and staff, not helped by the global pandemic. In a recent study about well-being at work, almost 75 per cent of Polish academics said that they felt unhappy and bullied.

It is possible that this staggering figure was what prompted the recent letter from Skrzydlewski’s boss, education minister Przemyslaw Czarnek, to Polish university rectors. The letter stressed the importance of freedom of speech, dignity for all, respect and tolerance. Czarnek, a young lawyer with a doctorate from the well-respected John Paul II Catholic University, added that “all members of the academic community, the students, the researchers, the academic teachers and other employees of the university, have the right to be respected, have their personal rights observed, and have the freedom to express their beliefs and values.”

The letter refers to earlier instructions but is more urgent in tone, demanding concrete actions to eradicate anything that might constitute discrimination on the basis of gender, race or social status. The letter also requests vigilance regarding any form of molestation, including sexual. The rectors have until 15 January to review their anti-bullying and anti-discriminatory measures.  

Some observers have suggested that the minister, who has previously expressed hostility towards LGBT rights, might only be concerned about freedom to express right-wing opinions. Meanwhile, many academics have expressed concern at Czarnecki’s request that all behaviours be “monitored”. Nonetheless, the letter can be interpreted more universally and is widely seen as a positive development. Czarnecki’s phrasing is different from Skrzydlewski’s, who has also called in interviews for the eradication of “dangerous non-Christian ideologies” from universities, including those linked to LGBT, feminism and, bizarrely, vegetarianism.

It is difficult to imagine that anybody in Polish academia would agree to abolish such well-established disciplines as queer studies, gender studies or atheist philosophy. Defiance may, for instance, be read into the honorary degree recently awarded by Poland’s oldest and most prestigious higher education institution, the Jagiellonian University, to the Nobel prizewinning writer Olga Tokarczuk. The degree was awarded despite the government-controlled media’s previous description of her work as “anti-Christian” and “eco-terrorism” (she is a vegetarian). Her novels are populated with unconventional female characters, who deliberately and, at times, violently subvert patriarchal structures. In its justification of the honour, the university called Tokarczuk “a sensitive heretic” and praised her intellectual courage.

The jury is out over where Czarnecki will ultimately choose to position himself in the complex political map of contemporary Poland. One can only hope that the genuine ancient virtues of courage and wisdom will guide his next move.

Agnieszka Piotrowska is the author of The Nasty Woman and the Neo Femme Fatale in Contemporary Cinema (Routledge) and the editor of Creative Practice Research in the Age of Neoliberal Hopelessness (Edinburgh University Press).

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