Dean sacked 'Soviet' style

June 2, 2006

Strong-arm tactics by a university rector have left an historian out in the cold, reports Nick Holdsworth.

The dean of one of Russia's leading university history faculties is fighting to keep his job after his rector dismissed him on allegations of "anti-government attitudes" and undermining academic authority.

Velikhan Mirzekhanov, elected dean of Saratov State University's history faculty twice in the past seven years, said that the tactics reflected a nationwide trend towards pressuring academics to demonstrate their loyalty to the state by joining United Russia, the key political party that backs President Vladimir Putin.

Professor Mirzekhanov said the move by rector Leonid Kossovich to sack him without reference to the faculty's electoral body, its academic council, followed clashes over growing bureaucracy at the university, lack of financial transparency and an increasingly dictatorial management style.

The dispute came to a head mid-April after a series of complaints about political activity, mismanagement and allegations of falsified students' marks.

The rector called a faculty meeting, at which he announced Professor Mirzekhanov's dismissal. The historians present walked out, leaving the rector, his staff and members of the university's 150-strong uniformed security staff.

The next day, an impromptu meeting of many of the faculty's 2,000 students and 120 staff was broken up by security officers, some armed. Only staff intervention prevented the students from marching to the rector's office.

"It was as if Soviet history was repeating itself as farce - the tactics of 1937 being applied to 2006," Professor Mirzekhanov said.

"The rector's accusations - all unsubstantiated - that I was involved in anti-government activity, connected with the political opposition, attempting to foment an 'orange revolution' in my faculty and - because I receive Western grants - a supporter of Western ideology, smacked of periods of Soviet repression. I did not believe something such as this could happen at my university until it did."

The confrontation forced the rector on the defensive and he temporarily suspended the dean's sacking, pending a full university academic council discussion.

Professor Mirzekhanov is taking legal action against the rector, citing university regulations that state that only the body that elected him, the history faculty's academic council, can dismiss him before his tenure expires in 2008.

Publicity over the case forced the local chapter of United Russia to issue a press release distancing itself from the dispute.

The rector is rallying his forces: an entire issue of the administration-published newspaper Saratovskii Universitet was devoted to the dispute.

Professor Kossovich told The Times Higher that Professor Mirzekhanov was guilty of "numerous infringements" of university regulations and that he was sure the university's council would ratify his dismissal.

"Despite the publicity, we hope for a prompt resolution of the matter,"

Professor Kossovich said. "Under my management, there has been dynamic development in the university, the most graphic evidence of which is that its ratings have moved steeply up the national league table."

Vladimir Mitrokhin, the university's vice-rector for academic affairs, told a Saratov newspaper: "Everything would be fine if [university] developments were based on Orthodox values and those of the Soviet period... in 20 years, Saratov State University will be a shining example."

Boris Kagarlitsky, director of Moscow's Institute for Globalisation Studies, said: "Whatever the real reason [for the dispute], you can't help noticing that it occurred immediately after [Professor Mirzekhanov] was criticised by the State Duma deputy from United Russia. The response from university officials was speedy even by Soviet standards - and today we supposedly have a multi-party political system."

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