After months of talks, professors to begin strike for independence tomorrow

University students’ and professors’ summer recess just began, but it might be an extra long one this year: Professors are threatening an open-ended strike, beginning on 3 July, to call for ousting university leadership around the country. 

The strike, organized by the Unified Coalition for the Independence of Universities, comes on the heels of a drawn out discussion on how to free universities from the influence of Mubarak-era appointees, who are accused of corruption and being close to the security services and Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP).

In mid-May, the Ministry of Higher Education convened a committee of 20 prominent professors to put forth proposals on to how best choose deans and department heads for public universities. Presently, two proposals are on the table and, according to the Ministry, were supposed to be voted on by different departments in a referendum open to every professor in Egypt earlier this week. Professors say the poll never happened.

Those involved in the committee also complain that the process did not address their core demands for change.

The group leading the protests includes prominent university activist groups who reject the interference of the state with universities. Member groups include Ain Shams Movement for the Independence of Universities, the 9 March Movement (Cairo University), and University Professors for Reform, a group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

“We decided we would not go on strike or do anything that would have an impact on the students taking exams,” said Laila Soueif, professor of mathematics at Cairo University, and a member of the 9 March Movement.

The committee's first proposal stipulates that university heads will be chosen based on qualifications decided on by the minister of higher education, coupled with a loose and vague form of elections. The second proposal suggests that deans and department heads are elected directly by faculty, with a higher government authority choosing between the three candidates with the most votes. It remains unclear which proposal the ministry will decide on, but the minister will meet with the prime minister on 3 June to discuss the matter.

Activist professors, though, are skeptical. “He will not discuss anything that we voted on,” said Khaled Sameer, spokesperson for the Unified Coalition for the Independence of Universities, and professor at Ain Shams Universities Medical School.

Participating professors from the coalition quit the committee at the end of the proceedings in protest that their call for an immediate ousting of current heads was ignored, and that neither proposal guarantees the constitutional right of universities to be entirely free from the shackles of government control. They say that both stipulate the eventual role of a higher authority in final decisions.

“We withdrew from the committee because they insisted on talking about the procedural and administrative aspects of choosing university heads without addressing integral issues such as the need to force the resignation of current heads, who were handpicked by the previous regime, and State Security Investigative Services,” said Madiha Dos, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts, Cairo University.

According to Dos – who is also a member of the 9 March Movement – the committee's entire proceedings were disconcerting. ”Whenever voting would happen we’d see new people appearing in the committee, and then after, voting faces would change,” she said, suggesting that the ministry played too large a role.

Not everyone on the committee, however, felt that it was fruitless.

“The committee worked out well. The ministry was responsive to the professors. The minister is unable to fulfill the requests of those professors who withdrew because removing university heads is a decision that’s not in his hands,” said Wael Qirtam, a professor in the Faculty of Commerce at Cairo University. 

Qirtam helped write the final two proposals the minister of higher education claims are being voted on now.

But the committee’s failure ended up mobilizing activist professors to start work toward university reform after a hiatus that began mid-May when they received assurances from Prime Minister Essam Sharaf that their demands would be addressed.

At all the country's public universities, members of the Unified Coalition for the Independence of Universities will participate in the sit-ins, which will be held at the administrative buildings of each university. Along with calling for the ousting of the Mubarak-era heads, the sit-ins will address the need for more funding for research and university wage structures.

“People don’t know that university deans can end up making over LE1 million per month. The positions ended up being gifts to NDP and state-security darlings for their subservience to the system. This is why these people must go now,” said Sameer.

Sameer contends that around 80 university heads around the country receive half of university's entire salary budgets. They also receive, he says, commission from any additional funding that goes through to the notorious “private funds” earmarked for university discretionary spending.

“It is time to escalate, as it has become clear that NDP leaders who are in power at universities – just as in many ministries – will not be changed immediately,” Sameer says.

The coalition is also calling for professors around the world to show solidarity, as they view the independence of universities as a universal cause. 

The coalition plans to begin the sit-in on 3 July and then join the protests scheduled for 8 July in Tahrir Square. On 17 July they will take the protest to the cabinet building.

“I think that they will reach a settlement with the ministry before then,” says Qirtam, who believes that forcing the resignation of university heads goes beyond the minister of higher education and all the way to the presidency, or in this case the Supreme Council of Armed Forcs.

The coalition stresses that their sit-in will be open-ended until their demands are met. 

“There will not be a 2012-2013 school year at universities if they do not heed the demands,” said Sameer. Adel Abdel-Gawad, the spokesman for the University Professors for Reform group, is reported to have reiterated this statement.

The minister of higher education insists that the ministry is doing all it can to ensure university heads are chosen from within, and that universities have their independence. In public statement he has said that the new methods for choosing university heads will only be applied when positions become vacant. He also claims that once there is a shake-up in leadership spending on research will increase.

The coalition, however, would like the way universities are run to change immediately, from the laws ensuring their independence to the leaders in place. They say that the 3 July sit-in will continue until this happens. 

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