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Yaroslav Kuzminov on Amendments to University Regulations

Yaroslav Kuzminov on Amendments to University Regulations

Yaroslav Kuzminov,
HSE Rector

I have read discussions on the suggested amendments in the Internal Regulations and the related documents, and I’ve taken part in several debates with colleagues and students. I believe it makes sense for me to express my view of the situation.

On the New Regulations for HSE University Staff

First of all, the key new aspect in the regulation is an expanded range of rights and responsibilities for HSE staff. In terms of rights, this is the right to compensations and bonuses; financial support (in addition to one’s salary); access to the university’s continuing education programmes; participation in the university’s medical care programmes; university-provided educational advice as it relates to themselves, their children and grandchildren; advice on legal issues, personal finance, and career planning, and finally, psychological counselling.

Today, only students have some of these rights, while HSE staff do not. Some of these rights have been implemented but are not stipulated in legal documents. I believe that it is important to provide this guarantee officially. For us, this is an important step in forming the university’s corporate culture. For the first time, we are using a binding document—our Internal Labour Regulations—to guarantee employees’ right to demand and receive something from the university. I believe, we have reached a point in our development  as an institution to support this.

On the University’s Corporate Interests

Letters and comments by my colleagues represent a whole range of opinions on employees’ rights: from ‘follow the Charter – everything else is evil’ to the opinion that working at the university does not impose any additional responsibilities, only the Criminal Code applies, and ethics means unlimited freedom.

What is the university and what limitations on rights can exist there (in addition to those legally imposed for all citizens)?

The university is not a private firm with an owner. By the way, all big companies have long turned into public corporations with collective ownership. They are regulated not by the interests (or follies) of some individuals. Corporate regulation of employees’ public behaviour is based on society’s moral values, on the one hand (i.e., a focus on avoiding irritating large groups of citizens). On the other hand, it is based on corporate marketing and reputational interests (for example, criticism may be welcome inside a company but may be seen as unacceptable when used in public, as competitors may take advantage of it).

The university is a unique organization. On the one hand, it is a public institution. This presents us with two key limitations: (a) at university and on behalf of the university, we can only do the things that are stipulated by our Charter: research, education, teaching and project work (institutional limitations), while all other activities concern our work as individuals, which is limited by law and protected by the courts; and (b) we should not cause deliberate harm to the founder’s interests (by becoming a platform for opposing the state). Regarding this latter point, the Russian tradition is quite liberal: the state is calm as it relates to criticism of its social, economic and humanitarian policies, especially if this criticism is reasonable and professional. This is confirmed by the history of HSE University and the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA). When criticism concerns individuals in power, or political solutions, it is usually unacceptable, since raising issues concerning the authorities means involvement in politics. When you are engaged in politics, as well as political or criminal rights defence (if it is not legal counselling, professional union or student council activities, but, for example, organizing campaigns and rallies in support of certain legal interests that are external to the university, which is sometimes hard to distinguish from lobbying) – you should do it as a private individual, but not as a professor or student of a public university. The same is true for commerce.

On the other hand, the university is a community of professors, teachers and researchers who possess unique intellectual and cultural capital. The university provides them with a solid academic environment, which is just as important as monetary compensation. The community is a kind of intellectual corporation, and it would seem that this would be the most precise definition when we talk about HSE University. Does the university as an intellectual corporation have the right to impose limitations on its members’ conduct? Of course, it does. The leading international universities that are our partners have rather detailed and strict codes of conduct. The issue here concerns the specific nature of a university as a corporation with regard to a firm as a corporation.

In comparison with a company, for example, a university imposes limitations on the professional and private expressions of its employees that are much less strict. First, any of us can express our professional opinions on any issue, with the exception of particular cases in which there are limitations on information disclosure (e.g., confidential papers). Second, any of us can use our affiliation with the university in such expressions: the sum of our opinions is the university.

What, then, are the limitations? We should behave in a way that is not harmful to the university. That’s why our professional opinions should sound more like those of professors speaking rather than like kitchen arguments, which is not uncommon on the internet.

Some colleagues only understand reputation as the opinions shared by their friends on Facebook and by an international association of teachers of Slavic languages J. This is certainly not the case. The university operates in a society consisting of a variety of social groups, and it’s important not to offend them.  The experience of Western universities gives examples of very fast and tough penalties for expressions that might cause negative public reactions. Conduct drawing criticism also includes drawing public attention to the shortcomings of one’s university, especially spreading false information about it.

In Russia, public opinion is different from that of the U.S. or Europe, and the ‘public risks’, so called ‘hate speech’ that mobilizes the public opinion, are also different. Every person who thinks and reads can feel these ‘areas of risk.’ Russian society today is broadly less sensitive to issues of gender and minorities than Western societies, is just as sensitive with regard to issues of ethnicity, and is much more sensitive about problems concerning history, the state and authority, and Russia’s international interests. Others could probably propose a different list, and I don’t insist on mine: I simply provide it as an example. Aggravating broad social groups (even if they do not represent the families of prospective HSE students and partners) is irresponsible. We should remember that ‘our rights end where the rights of others begin.’

On Political Activism and Upholding Reputation

Speaking about new responsibilities, including those of students, it has been suggested that we add a provision on the responsibility ‘to promote problem-solving as defined in the University Development Programme’ (I would remove excessive mention of the founder). This is a very important requirement, despite its seemingly abstract nature. It implies the involvement of employees in the university’s operations and goes beyond their narrow job descriptions. Each teacher should take part in administration, should attend relevant workshops and should be involved in advising students who ask for it. HSE staff members can’t be overly formal about their job responsibilities: we should address this problem that some students continue to complain about once and for all.

The requirement ‘to avoid actions and/or expressions that do not adhere to the university’s goals and values as defined in the HSE University Charter and Declaration of Values’, which has been proposed for consideration by the Academic Council, is one I find to be excessive. This provision is more suitable for the Ethics Code, or maybe it’s not needed at all given the possibility of numerous unwarranted interpretations. I will be recommending that the Academic Council reject it.

One more requirement is ‘to avoid political activity at the university or on behalf of the university as university employees, and to stay within the confines of analysis and expertise in public presentations and publications, including those made online.’

This is simply an acknowledgement that the world is going online, and that the university walls have become completely virtual. Up to 10% of our classes are already held online, and the term ‘within the university’ is becoming blurred.

Are there any other meanings? No, there are not. Each of us has our civil rights, political positions, social stand, and we are free to express it. We simply don’t need to do it on behalf of the university or inside the university.

Fourth, ‘do not commit actions that damage the business reputation of the university, its staff and students, and do not spread information that harms the business reputation of the university, its staff and students, including in the media and online.’

These are ordinary corporate requirements that are covered in the regulations of most if not all international universities.

Of course, this is a problem that has to do with self-regulation. Some colleagues have suggested that we add this in the future Ethics Code. I am not sure this would be effective enough: we have seen some people regularly disseminating compromising and false information about the university. Nevertheless, I suggest that this issue be discussed at the Academic Council meeting.

On Respect for Students

I believe that the next three points are critically important for changing the conduct of university staff.

The first is clarifying anti-corruption practices. Employees must not only keep actions related their personal financial or other interests from impacting their job duties, but they must notify the university of whenever anyone attempts to engage them corrupt activities in their jobs.

This will apply to academic office staff, teachers and research staff who negotiate with client representatives. Such cases are unacceptable for the university and harm our reputation. These notifications are part of the anti-corruption law, and we are only sharing them here.

Second, ‘considering the situation at hand, take all measures to prevent and/or limit the damage of unfortunate incidents involving HSE University students and staff, as well as student violations of university regulations (if direct interaction with a student is needed—informing them of your full name and position)’.

And lastly, ‘avoid addressing university students and staff in a blunt or humiliating manner.’

Some colleagues will have to overcome their behavioural stereotypes, when they pat students on the shoulder and go ‘watch and learn, young one.’ If we want our students to behave themselves and communicate in line with academic and cultural standards, let’s start with ourselves.

We have to be respectful of our students; if a staff member doesn’t know a student, they should introduce themselves and talk to them politely and in a civilized manner.

One more point is ‘when a staff member uses research results obtained by HSE University students under their supervision in their publications, they should acknowledge this in the publication by stating the specific contribution made by the students and in compliance with their intellectual rights.’

We are a research university and we consistently battle with cases of inappropriate conduct in research. I believe that we are not only free of plagiarism, but that we are actively combatting it.

On Students’ and Employees’ Obligation to Identify Themselves

Here are some of my thoughts about the regulations that have to do with students. Like many of you, I have read the open letter that some of our colleagues have suggested that we sign. For example, it suggests not adopting some of the amendments. They reject the suggestion of showing one’s student ID at the request of HSE administration representatives or security guards.

But this is merely a clarification of the responsibilities of students and employees. First, this requirement is meant to ensure the university’s security and safeguard its property. Even staff members at relatively small companies usually wear badges with their names and departments. This is part of the corporate culture.

Security staff should be able to understand who they see at all times: students, staff members, or visitors. Yes, there is a problem with how this is actually carried out, but I think we can clarify this requirement. We are a university, not an army barrack, but if you are approached by someone who says: ‘Hello, I am Petrov, library manager. Please identify yourself’, you should identify yourself.

On Open Letters

It has been suggested that we adopt a requirement to ‘refrain from speaking in public or making declarations on behalf of the university.’ In this case, we mean such wording as ‘we, the students of HSE University’ or ‘on behalf of staff of such-and-such department, we angrily demand.’ This is quite often a manipulation, since 10 people are speaking on behalf of 200, and 1,000 on behalf of 45,000.

No one is forbidding the signing of open letters, but they should be signed appropriately so that it is clear to everyone which students specifically are speaking through such a letter.

At the same time, I believe that the wording should be different. We should include the phrase ‘refrain from speaking in public or making declarations’ and add ‘avoid public statements and proclamations from an undefined group of university students or staff, which creates an impression of broader support for a position than is really the case.’

On Unacceptable Statements

The next provision is to ‘refrain from actions and/or statements contradicting HSE University’s goals and values, as defined in the Charter and Declaration of Values, the university’s priorities as defined by its founder, and the university development programme.’

I don't think that this is a good addition, and this provision should be withdrawn from the regulations and perhaps added to the Ethics Code if we agree to put it there. Maybe, it should only remain there as it relates to values.

One thing is that we should work towards university goals. This is a positive obligation and I support it. Another point is refraining from activities that do not align with the goals as defined by the university’s founder. This leads to ambiguity, and I believe that this requirement should be removed.

On the Use of Classrooms

I was surprised to see the criticism about the use of university classrooms for purposes other than intended. Unsupervised study in vacant classrooms, staff and student meetings and other activities in classrooms when they are free are considered use for purposes intended.

Here, specifically, we mean cases when students sleep or eat at the library or continue occupying tables in the cafeteria during peak hours. To sum up, this is when they disturb others, clearly showing disrespect towards other people and the university. We can also recall the attempt to organize a smoking area in the underground garage. This provision doesn’t have any other meanings. It is very clear and I can’t understand why it should be rejected.

On Student Media

Mikhail Fedotov, who is incidentally one of the authors of the current Law on Media, has already said that student-run media cannot naturally be considered student associations. The law says that a media organization must have a founder who approves the editor-in-chief or the editorial office and determines the media’s area of interests and scope of activities. The law requires media to be registered with the appropriate authorities. We can have differing opinions about the law, but we cannot insist that the university violate it.

This means that student media have two options.

The first is to become a university media organization. Then, the university (probably, the Academic Council) will approve the editorial office and determine the scope of activities and interests. I would suggest that this falls under the purview of academic councils of the university, a faculty, or a campus. As part of the approved scope, we will guarantee independence regarding editorial policies and journalists. As it has been the case previously, such media will be able to criticize the administration and the quality of specific programmes and projects, carry out investigations, and stand in support of or in opposition to certain regulations and changes. But its main role will be to disseminate information and ensure that it is true and objective. In particular, it will have to represent the opinions of all interested parties.

The second option is to register as an independent media organization. The university will continue collaborating with such media if they are interested in university-related themes. This means that they will be invited to briefings, given interviews, and accredited at events.

In addition, HSE University may have teaching media, but these are clearly supervised by the respective degree programmes.

On Student Associations’ Information Activities

If they provide information about their activities, there are no limitations.

On University Freedoms

The letter that is being distributed on social media includes several requirements: to introduce and support the autonomy of student associations and student media, to refrain from censoring the activities of students and student associations, to remove the ban on involvement of students and student associations in human rights activism, and to ensure the freedom of speech.

Everyone who is connected with HSE University naturally asks the question of whether student associations and, even more so, student media are under the control of anyone. Are they told what to do? Are the media censored? Are students banned from doing anything? Who has encroached on freedom of speech? It seems like they are talking about some other university.

All these points in the letter are fearmongering in nature. Since its foundation, HSE University has set an example in supporting student initiatives and associations that have freely evolved ‘from below.’ Their areas of activities are varied: research, career-building, hobby clubs, social and educational volunteering, sports, and tourism. Among the 140 HSE student associations, there is not one that would be ‘imposed from above’ or whose operations would be controlled by the university administration. HSE University has independent student media that often criticize the administration but that have yet to face a case of censorship.

The university does not have and cannot have any ban on students and staff engaging in human rights or political activism, or in media. Such a ban would be illegal. The idea is that such activities should not be related to the university and, furthermore, be carried out at the university or in its name. In addition, this would undermine the university’s academic independence and political neutrality—the things that allow it to operate successfully and to recruit talented researchers and professionals with diverse views from various countries.

We often hear that we limit human rights activities that are not political. I repeat that we respect such activities undertaken by our staff and students. This is an important example of civic engagement, regardless of which rights are being defended: the right to vote, the right to housing, or the right to good medical care. But neither defence of human rights nor politics nor commerce are HSE University operations prescribed by the Law on Education and the Charter. The university is a public research and educational institution with a clearly defined scope of activity. Our students and staff members can be engaged in defending human rights. They can go to rallies, join political parties, create media and speculate on the stock market. These are their civil rights protected by the Constitution. But these are their rights as citizens, not as university students or employees.

The things that form HSE University’s external reputation are that it is seen as an academic, educational and expert-based institution, with impartial attitudes that are not imposed by the authorities or clients, and that makes its assessments and recommendations are based on unbiased research. This reputation should not be lost.

On the University Being Above Politics

The authors of the open letter mentioned above suggest (or, to be more precise, demand):

‘Accept the following interpretation of the “university above politics” principle: the university does not take sides in political discussions, does not provide joint support for any of active politicians, but provides for freedom of political discussion and ensures the opportunity to invite (and allow to speak) active politicians.’

Here is a key difference in our positions. The university should not and cannot ‘provide for freedom of political discussion.’ Political debates and the logic of politics in general are completely different from academic debates and the logic of university discussions. The aim of a university is to seek the truth, not affirming one’s views, making demands or causing emotional mobilization of supporters. A university audience can look at any issues, but the nature of this consideration is essentially in contradiction with politics.

First, we should continue to question our positions and views. We should challenge everything and substantiate our opinions using new information. This is the principle of academic beliefs (unlike political or religious ones). Second, in a discussion, we should not just be tolerant of opponents, but we should look at them as peers and friends and search for rational and true elements in their positions. In other words, we should join them in the search for truth.

A university is a space for dialogue. Its educational mission is not just to train professionals (a military school can perform this mission well), but to enrich society with people who are able to doubt and engage in dialogue.

A university is essentially the opposite of a political rally. A university is essentially the opposite of a barrack. The university is making its own path and will not surrender to pressure either from the outside or from the inside.