In an interview for Rain TV (‘Dozhd’), HSE Vice Rector Valeria Kasamara discussed the circumstances surrounding the proposed amendments to HSE University's Internal Regulations. These regulations, including clarifications regarding HSE's policy of political neutrality, will be reviewed by the HSE Academic Council at its upcoming session.
Valeria Kasamara: HSE students hold very different political views. Some are liberal, some are conservative, others are communist, and others are monarchists. And when somebody begins to make political statements, saying that they are speaking on behalf of all students of HSE University, then, first of all, this is not true; it is misleading and misrepresentative of reality.
The first thing we postulate is that the university is not involved in politics and we in no way want to act as an arena for political battles. If we are talking about politics at the university— we focus on research results and analytical assessment. We are here to study the entire political spectrum and to understand what it consists of. It is necessary for political scientists and students of the social sciences. But when a student says: ‘We, the students of HSE’, followed by a political manifesto, we are categorically against this. This applies not only to students, but also to faculty members. However, we in no way put limitations on students as citizens of the Russian Federation. They, as citizens, may take an active stand, both political and social, and as citizens they may speak out, sign collective letters, say that they want to protect someone, help someone, or protest something.
Hypothetically speaking, if Yegor Zhukov runs as a candidate in an election, can he introduce himself as an HSE University student? Can he say ‘I am so-and-so, a student of HSE University’?
When I was running for the Moscow City Duma last summer, I was legally obligated to indicate my place of work when submitting my documents—I could not hide it. Therefore, as a candidate, I submitted documents indicating my place of employment and position—the Higher School of Economics, Vice-Rector. Yegor Zhukov will be in exactly the same position. If, at the time of running, he is an employee or a student, he will indicate himself as such.
What then does ‘speaking on behalf of unspecified groups of students or employees’ mean?
Here is an example: there is a group of students who study in a certain degree programme (this may be a mathematics programme). If they make a statement, saying ‘we, students of Group 115 of the Bachelor’s in Mathematics Programme, want to tell you something’, this is a very specific group of people, that is, it is clear who is making the statement. That is okay. When mathematics students decide to speak on behalf of all 45,000 students, this is an indefinite group of people, which is a misrepresentation and may be interpreted incorrectly. That’s what we are talking about.
And why has it become necessary to regulate this matter?
In general, this process is part of our routine operations. We are merely tweaking our internal regulations so that they are in line with the legislation of the Russian Federation. In addition, we have come across a number of cases in which it has become clear to us that this area has been under-regulated, so we want to start regulating it now.
What kind of cases are you talking about? What was the occasion?
Over the summer, we had a lot of letters that were signed ‘we, professors and lecturers of HSE’ or ‘we, students of HSE’. After reviewing our internal rules, we discovered a gap with regard to this issue, so now we want to put official language in place. What’s more, I want to say that this is not our innovation; this is the practice of European and American universities, where the rules are clearly defined and are part of written ethical codes. And now the next step that lies ahead is the development of ethical codes for both teachers and staff, as well as for students.
If HSE students want to speak out in support of prisoners, they will not be allowed to say, ‘we, the students of HSE’?
HSE students do not cease to be citizens of the Russian Federation.
How will they be able to introduce themselves?
If a person signs their name as ‘Name, such and such student’ then this is their position, which has been clearly stated. They do not cease to be a student: ‘I, a mathematics student’, ‘I, a poli-sci student’. But if there is a recourse to ‘we, the students’, this can be grounds for punitive action from the university.
Why is it important for a university to distance itself from politics now?
You know, the university has long been talking about its positioning. We see how the situation is changing, how political division is growing, and in such circumstances we want HSE to remain a place for dialogue. At the same time, any political force is interested in polarization; it needs supporters who will support it. Accordingly, if we bring political forces here, they will divide us in their pursuit of supporters rather than people who will compare and analyze. Therefore, we state that we are not a political party and are not going to be one. We are not a resource base for political parties where they can recruit supporters; there are many other places for this. We want to remain a university, and this is our main value.
One major concern of an initiative group (inaudible), which used to be a student organization, and then was deprived of this status, is the amendment to the provision regarding support for student initiatives. Did I understand correctly that student media can no longer receive support, and that there is some wording that alludes to this?
The wording does not allude to it. We absolutely clearly said that if students position themselves as student media, then we will revoke their student organization status. To clarify, this in no way means that we will shut them down. We do not shut anyone down, nor do we censor anyone. HSE student organization status is a notion that only exists within the university. At present, the majority of student media (they cannot be called mass media per se because none of them are registered; in fact, they are blogs) have gone beyond the university’s agenda, focusing on issues that are outside the scope of HSE. Throughout the entirety of their existence, we have never censored them, we have never asked that they retract anything, nor have we ever asked them to write about something in particular. As a result of such a policy, we now realize that they have effectively become independent players, with an agenda that is independent of the HSE agenda. And we believe that in this case it’s right not to take responsibility for what they do; the views they express should be their own responsibility, just as their editorial policy should be their own responsibility. Therefore, in order to avoid having to censor them, we have put in place boundaries to separate these organizations from the University.
As I understand it, after these changes, they will have problems obtaining venues on campus for their activities?
Any HSE student can reserve a room for an event. We have a procedure, where you say what you will be doing, how, and with whom. And you don’t have to be a student organization for this. But a different issue altogether is that now the students will be independently responsible for the materials that they write. Like TV Rain, which has a founder and an editor readers or viewers can contact if they have complaints about something they have seen or read, audiences will know who they can contact. Because now the situation is as follows: the students write something, and the party that takes the blame is HSE University, which does not share their views and does not want to take responsibility for publications that cause controversy.
Could you say that the need to regulate and once again emphasize the university’s division from politics became particularly acute after the summer protests, the Moscow City Duma elections, and the situation with Yegor Zhukov?
Of course, all this political activism and all these events have prompted us to clearly define what is possible and what is not. Because our aim is for the university to remain a university. Therefore, if you want to be involved in politics, if you want to be a civic activist, this is very good. We all respect human rights activities and we all closely follow current events. But this has to be done outside HSE University.
And how can this be reconciled with the fact the students are outraged (inaudible). They say, ‘the university is politically neutral, ‘we are forbidden to politically associate ourselves with the university, or speak out’, and meanwhile you were running for office in the Moscow City Duma. How does it all fit together?
As a candidate, I took leave to conduct my election campaign. I did not hold a single campaign event on HSE University premises. I did not recruit students as volunteers during the election campaign, nor did I cause dissension within university walls. The fact that some people did not like that I decided to run for office—well, it turns out that students believe that they have the right to make decisions regarding others, and at the same time want others to take responsibility for what they do here and are not ready to reckon with this opinion. Here I see a very one-sided approach: do what we’re comfortable with, don’t do what we don’t agree with, and then everything will be fine. But even now I can say that the initiative group which was very concerned about the amendments to the internal regulations is very small. And there is an overwhelming segment of the university that is continuing on with their studies, conducting research, and generally has no idea why others are outraged and what all the fuss is about. There are a lot of things that cause outrage among a very narrow group of people, while these things are perceived as the norm in European universities and large companies. The students at the meeting on Friday said, ‘Now, as it turns out, they will have to present an HSE student ID in case of some disturbance’, when I approached someone, introduced myself and asked them to introduce themselves. But there are companies in which you are required to wear a badge so that everyone knows your name. These are things that turned out to be very sensitive issues for them, but for some they have long been the norm.
Could you please clarify the point about HSE staff not allowed to do research?
As for the HSE staff, we in no way infringe upon their rights and freedoms as researchers; this would be strange and it would be the end of the university. But here there is exactly the same requirement that employees do not make statements on behalf of the university unless they are authorized to do so. Because we have the entire political spectrum, and if someone begins to attribute his opinion to the whole team, the team will collapse. We have very liberal economists and very conservative-leaning economists—and we still haven’t started fighting because we are not addressing each other’s political views. For us, the main objective is to aspire to the truth and to conduct research that inspires dialogue.
Speaking about research—there was a case about a year ago with Elena Sirotkina when she left HSE University.
Elena Sirotkina left in a very unpleasant manner because she gave notice when she already had an offer from an American university, and she said that she was asked to leave the university when in fact she was only asked to adjust her research tools. Because the complaint was not about the research she conducted. We have many researchers who research Alexei Navalny, his supporters and himself; this is not a prohibited topic. For political scientists and sociologists, he represents an interesting phenomenon, and we cannot pretend that it does not exist. It was a matter of needing to adjust the research tools. From this Elena constructed an elaborate story, which she capitalized on politically and turned it into a political process by saying that she was not allowed to conduct research. To avoid such reputational damage, we must understand how we regulate our relations with teaching staff, in particular.
In the summer, the School of Political Science was a topic of wide discussion as it merged with another department and Alexander Kynev quit. He attributed it to his political position, claiming that he had to leave because he was not given any classes in the new department that was being created. How did it all end and what is the situation now? What can you say about this?
It all ended with Alexander Kynev saying at the time that teachers were quitting en masse when it was in fact only he who left HSE University. His contract expired and it was not renewed, because the ethics committee considered his behavior unacceptable for an HSE professor. So, when the hiring process started, Alexander Kynev’s application was rejected. But he does not talk about this. As for him causing reputational damage—yes, everything he said was untrue and had nothing to do with what was happening at HSE.
Could you please clarify the changes regarding student organizations and their financing? The students have said that due to the fact that the media groups are no longer student organizations, problems may arise if students of the School of Media wish to complete their internships there.
As for internships, this decision should be made by the administrations of a student’s academic programme. This is the case for all degree programmes. If a programme considers that this is a suitable place for an internship, then this will be their professional decision. The university administration has nothing to do with this.
What do you expect from tomorrow's discussion? What will happen?
First of all, I expect a constructive dialogue. Because when Armen Aramyan comes to the meeting on Friday, and the first thing he say is ‘We didn’t come here for dialogue, we want to voice our demands’, I understand that Armen Aramyan and I have fundamental differences. Because I came for dialogue and spent three and a half hours there in the hope of a dialogue. And if we go down the road of putting forward demands, then we are killing the university, because the university consists of proposals and discussions. Dialogue is the most important thing we have. I know very well that we can agree on a number of issues. Students may not agree with us on some issues, and we will insist on our position, but in any case we will do our best to explain our position again and again. Here we offer them much more than they think we can take from them. The students are worried that when their student organization status is taken away it may affect their activities. We are discussing this with them and going through different options. Even if basic funding, which last year amounted to 10,000 rubles and this year is 15,000 rubles, is taken away from you, no one deprives you of the opportunity to submit your projects to the student initiative competition, and the funding there can be up to 300,000 rubles. What’s more, you can submit three applications a year. If all goes well and you submit three projects a year, you can receive financing of up to 900,000 rubles. When you understand what opportunities you have and what you can do to realize your potential, you need to weigh your options and understand.
There was a case when DOXA, before it was stripped of its student organization status, was banned from setting up a student org. stand at HSE Day.
Because DOXA at the last moment changed the rules of the game. The HSE Day programme was drawn up well in advance because it was being held in Gorky Park, and Gorky Park has very strict requirements for us, as organizers, about what can and cannot be done. DOXA first announced a completely academic programme that suited everyone. At the last moment, they changed it and stated that they would collect signatures in support of political prisoners. The students were warned that the situation was tense and that it can be used against them. Which is exactly what happened when there were provocations—the supporters of those political forces came and they did not behave quite properly. But in this case I understand that for DOXA the reputational costs and HSE security issues were not their top priority. The main focus was the publicity that they currently generate for themselves, releasing a lot of false information.
They talked about the latest changes— that if the student council had not sent a new version of the regulations with these amendments, had they not done it publicly, there would have been no discussion at all.
DOXA exaggerates the role of DOXA in history. And in the university administration, we have a student council that actively discusses these amendments and more. We regularly meet with them to discuss a lot of pressing issues. Never in the last year can anyone say that we have not had any discussion. If we debate something for three hours, this is actually quite a short amount of time, and this happens regularly. It seems to me that there is no need to infringe upon the student council of the HSE, making it into some bogus organization. These are students who take their work seriously, in a mature manner, and I always look forward to the solutions we reach.
Are these discussions open or closed?
All student council meetings are open and everyone who wishes may attend. Moreover, when we have heated discussions, there are many who watch the broadcast. And when HSE says that it is open, it really is open, and it is not just a show.