Talking leadership 34: Denise Pires de Carvalho on political interference in Brazil

The president of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro discusses budget cuts and encouraging interdisciplinarity

July 12, 2022
Denise Pires de Carvalho, president of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro
Denise Pires de Carvalho, president of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

In Brazil, when a university requires a new rector, the institution’s academics vote for a candidate. However, they do not have the final say. Their selected candidate and two others are put to the country’s president, who makes the final decision. It is not uncommon for Jair Bolsonaro to choose one of the candidates not favoured by the university.

This is “the worst” example of political interference in higher education, says Denise Pires de Carvalho, rector of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Carvalho herself was nominated by her peers for the post of rector in 2019; while she was awaiting the president’s decision, she told a national newspaper that he had no reason not to nominate her, a forthright statement the publication printed on its front page.

“People said, ‘You should not have said that,’” she says with a laugh. The move did not backfire, though: Bolsonaro approved her selection.

At other universities, the president has for political reasons picked someone without the backing of the institution, she says. The government also interferes if an academic is a politician for an opposition party.

“I’m questioned if they are not from the same party of the government. Our freedom is really challenged at this time,” Carvalho says.

Women in the running for leadership posts also seem to get a hard time from the president, who has rejected female academics with the backing of their faculty. There used to be 20 female rectors in Brazil, now there are 14.

“He’s biased against women – he said that!” adds Carvalho. Bolsonaro, she says, has described his one daughter as a punishment for his wrongdoing.

For the love of research

One reason Carvalho felt confident that Bolsonaro would not reject her is that she is a true researcher’s researcher. She started studying medicine when she was 17 years old but fell in love with lab work. Specialising in endocrinology, she became a full professor at the age 25. She was dragged away from her beloved lab as colleagues nominated her to represent them on committees: “People chose me, [but] I wanted to be in my laboratory.”

She coordinated the graduate course in biological sciences/physiology at UFRJ for five years. “Each time a new director came in, I said, ‘I’m going back to my laboratory,’ [and] they said, ‘No, no, no.’” Eventually it was decided that she should take the top job. “People wanted me to be the rector. It’s not something that I decided; it’s not like this. There is a group of people that decides that now it’s your turn.”

That turn came at a particularly difficult time for universities, which were feeling the effects of Bolsonaro’s anti-science agenda as well as the impact of the pandemic.

According to the Academic Freedom Index, which assesses the level of respect for academic freedom in 175 countries and territories based on surveys of more than 2,000 country experts around the globe, Brazil is one of four countries (alongside Hong Kong, India and Turkey) that “saw the greatest declines in academic freedom between 2011 and 2021”.

While political interference is no walk in the park, it is the squeeze on her institution’s finances that keeps Carvalho up at night. The university’s budget has been cut by 50 per cent since 2015, at the same time as student numbers have risen. “Imagine that!” she says, with more than a hint of outrage.

Public trust

It is not all doom and gloom, however. The pandemic has boosted the standing of universities in the eyes of the general public.

Previously, universities had been viewed with some distrust; as public universities had become more inclusive and awarded more places to under-represented groups, they felt the wrath of parents whose children missed out on places, according to Carvalho.

“Society questioned, ‘Why are these universities important?’” she says. Meanwhile, people also thought, academics have “more or less a good salary while the public does not earn a lot”.

But the pandemic changed hearts and minds. It started when the country ran out of ethanol, which is used as an antiviral agent, and universities were able to supply it, she says. Then, academics began appearing on television to explain the pandemic. When there were no lateral flow tests, it was universities that stepped in. “We did the diagnosis for society every day during those more than 24 months,” she says.

“We did not want the pandemic to occur, but [because of it] we reached society in a way that we never did before,” Carvalho adds.

Has this newfound respect for academics continued, even though the pandemic is no longer so novel? Yes, she believes so. Epidemiologists and other experts still make regular television appearances to update Brazilians about the pandemic, unlike the government, who “behave as if the pandemic has stopped”.

Now, universities have proven their worth to such an extent that “when we say we do not have [enough] budget, society is with us”, she says.


The other bright side is that the pandemic was a rocket booster for interdisciplinary working, something Carvalho is especially passionate about.

“If society has a question, it has to be answered by multidisciplinary teams,” she says.

Boosting interdisciplinary working further will require a change in approach among local universities, she thinks.

“There are people working on the same subject all over Brazil. And they do not talk to each other,” she says. “Sometimes we talk to people that are in France, in Portugal, in the United States – but not in our own country, or in the countries that are here [in Latin America]…We compete with each other instead of cooperating.”

Despite this, she thinks interdisciplinary working will be the future: “The 21st century is a century of more cooperation, in networks, and we have to work together to solve problems.”

In October, Brazilians will head to the polls again, and Bolsonaro could be ousted by former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. What are Carvalho’s hopes for the outcome?

“I hope that Brazil chooses the best politicians who will be able to continue with a project for our country [to become] a developed nation. This means that we have to support politicians that defend science, technology, universities and the adequate budget for these public institutions that produce knowledge,” she says.

Whatever happens, she is positive about the future of higher education. “Governments, they pass; and we [universities] will continue because we are important for society.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

The Times Higher Education Latin America University Rankings will be released at 18:00 BST on 14 July.

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