Nationalistic fraternity members join Austrian university boards

Political appointees to governing councils are ‘the weakest and most provincial ones we’ve ever had’, says Universities Austria 

March 13, 2018
Board members in shadow
Source: iStock

Austrian universities have raised concerns that some board members appointed by the country’s new conservative and far-right coalition are under-qualified for the role or members of shadowy nationalistic student fraternities.

Academics fear that the new appointees at institutions including the universities of Vienna and Graz could use their power to block the re-election of rectors, and send a signal that Austrian higher education is provincial and inward looking.

Oliver Vitouch, vice-president of Universities Austria, said that “the appointment of the trustees by the federal government is not as bad as feared but still bad enough”.

To the relief of universities, there are no figures who have made openly racist comments in the past. However, nine have been identified as members of nationalistic student fraternities by the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance, which documents historical Nazi persecution and tracks modern-day extremism.

The influence of these fraternities, which members can remain in for life, has been debated in Austria since the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) entered government last December. A sizeable minority of its MPs are reported to be active members, including the leader, Heinz-Christian Strache.

In February, Austria’s former social democrat chancellor, Christian Kern, warned that fraternities were “infiltrating” the Austrian state, including universities.

Professor Vitouch’s other concern is about the suitability of the new board members. He said that on average, they were “the weakest and most provincial ones we’ve ever had”.

“Being a general practitioner, or a village pharmacist, alone” does not qualify a board member to contribute to a university’s mission, he said. “It’s just the wrong signal: a signal of provincialism and political connections.”

There are 142 new board members, of whom half are nominees by the ruling parties, and half are chosen by university senates. Previous Austrian governments have also appointed their political allies to boards in the past, Professor Vitouch acknowledged, and he said it was “not unusual” in other countries that people with “political proximity” sit on university boards – for example, US governors often sit on the boards of state universities.

But the problem this time around is that because the FPÖ had such a “narrow reservoir” of supporters, its chosen candidates had been particularly weak, he argued.

Professor Vitouch was also particularly critical of the appointment of tabloid editor Eva Dichand – herself not connected to fraternities – to the board of the Medical University of Vienna. It was “as if Rupert Murdoch was to be appointed into the board of the University of Melbourne”, he said. 

The new political appointees, who will be in position for five years, “don’t have a majority if every [other] member of the board is present”, he said.

But a two-thirds majority is required to re-elect rectors, and board members have considerable power to bog university business down with requests for information if they choose. “It’s a dangerous game,” Professor Vitouch said.

A spokeswoman for the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research said that board members by law had to possess “aptitude, integrity, unencumberedness, availability, diversity, qualification, [and] professional suitability”.

A spokesman for the University of Graz said that “all the boards have always collaborated constructively. We are going to continue this way with the newly elected university council.” A spokesman for the Medical University of Vienna said its new board members were “renowned personalities” and that it looked forward to “fruitful collaboration” with them.

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