Polish president stifles genocide researcher’s professorship bid

Head of state accused of ‘chilling’ research with three-year block

五月 24, 2022
Polish soldiers guard the entrance of the Presidential Palace to illustrate Polish president stifles genocide researcher’s professorship bid
Source: Getty

Poland’s president has been accused of blocking the promotion of a researcher who explores the psychology of genocide.

Michał Bilewicz, head of the Center for Research on Prejudice at the University of Warsaw, has been waiting more than three years for Andrzej Duda to sign off his appointment as full professor. 

The impasse has been seen as part of what critics say is a concerted effort by Poland’s right-wing government – which Mr Duda heads – to pressurise scholars who implicate Poles in the Holocaust and to aggressively enforce a narrative of exclusive victimhood.

“This postponing is a way to harass those academics who are doing research on the topics that our nationalist government doesn’t want to be studied,” Dr Bilewicz told Times Higher Education.

Dr Bilewicz, who currently holds the rank of associate professor, has published several papers on antisemitism and the aftermath of the Holocaust in Poland. His application for a professorship cited work exploring why countries deny their dark histories.

He said that this was a “very dangerous topic in a nationalist state”.

In Poland the path to full professorship requires habilitation, a postdoctoral qualification awarded by a central committee based on feedback from external reviewers. Dr Bilewicz sailed through until the final stage: a signature from the head of state.

There is understood to be only one other ongoing instance of the president refusing to sign off a full professorship, involving Walter Żelazny, an opposition activist and sociologist at the University of Białystok, who has reportedly been waiting four years for his professorship.

Mr Duda’s office said it declined to sign off Dr Bilewicz’s promotion as too many of the reviewers were from the same institution. “Psychology is a discipline practiced in many other Polish universities,” a spokesperson said.

The office said the decision to grant a professorship was “made solely on merit, and not on any other non-substantive aspects”, adding that the president was “not bound by any deadline to make a decision on awarding the title of professor”. Dr Bilewicz said the shared affiliation of the reviewers was an “absurd justification”, as they were deliberately chosen for their lack of connection to him.

Five psychologists wrote an open letter to the president’s office last year offering to provide alternative international reviewers, but this was reportedly declined.

Dr Bilewicz’s plight is now the subject of a letter sent to Mr Duda by members of the University of Oxford’s Centre for the Study of Social Justice, calling on the president to sign off the promotion. They signed the letter in a personal capacity.

“Bilewicz’s research amplifies negative facts about prejudice that the ruling populist-nationalist party, that also includes the president, do not take as seriously as they should,” said Zofia Stemplowska, the centre’s director and one of the signatories.

“The worry about this violation of the rule of law is that it will have a chilling effect on researchers, such as Bilewicz, who are researching antisemitism.” 

A 2018 legal amendment would have threatened jail for those who implied the Polish “state” or “nation” was complicit in Nazi crimes, although the law was repeatedly watered down after international outcry and stripped of its criminal component.

Last year a Warsaw court ordered two scholars based in Warsaw and Ottawa to apologise after they wrote about the case of a mayor of a Polish village who had allegedly betrayed a group of Jews to Nazi occupiers. 

Researchers have subsequently expressed caution about writing about the post-war trials of Poles, for fear of being sued by their living relatives. 

“Polish citizens have fought heroically in the past for our current freedoms and it is shocking to see that they are being rolled back,” said Professor Stemplowska, who is Polish.




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