Many academics unhappy with the outcome of “Putnagate”

Miloš Zeman, photo: CTK

At a traditional ceremony in Prague on Tuesday, President Miloš Zeman elevated 58 academics to the esteemed position of university professor. The notable absence of literary critic Martin C. Putna, upon whom the president refused to confer the title in person, caused an uproar among Czech academics and even led some nominees to boycott the ceremony.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
It was supposed to be a momentous occasion for over 60 academics, whose lifelong efforts were being publicly recognized, but Tuesday’s confirmation ceremony for new professors has been largely overshadowed by the highly publicized conflict between one of the nominees and the president.

After first refusing to confirm the professorial nomination of Martin C. Putna, who is an active gay rights advocate, President Zeman seemingly gave in to the public outcry and agreed on a compromise with the Education Minister Petr Fiala. The president said he would sign Mr. Putna’s decree, but will not personally confer the title upon him. He also asked to be stripped of the prerogative to confirm and name professors:

“Either you want the president to name new professors, and then you have to respect his right to turn down some of the nominations, or if you don’t want him to have that right, then change the law.”

Petr Fiala,  Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
Once again, as he has done throughout his first 100 days in office, Mr Zeman willfully tested the limits of the presidential powers. This time, rather successfully, although not without earning widespread criticism.

The Education Ministry is now in the midst of revising the law on higher education, so that the president’s traditional role of appointing professors would be abolished. The president had suggested that the Education Minister himself could take over this responsibility, but the change may not get enough political support. Here what the chairwoman of the education committee of the lower house of parliament, Anna Putnová, had to say:

“A minister is a political figure, and the nomination and confirmation of professors should be done by someone without party affiliation.”

Even the Justice Minister Pavel Blažek does not approve of amending a law because of a single incident.

Many academics are also not happy with the possible change. Most feel that if professorial titles were conferred by the education minister instead of the president it would be a degradation of the academic position rather than an abolition of an outdated tradition, as President Zeman defined it.

Martin C. Putna,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
In the end, Martin C. Putna will receive the certificate confirming his professorship from the education minister on June 25th. At this week’s ceremony, a number of professors who were meant to receive their decrees did not show up in protest, and at least five university chancellors were absent, having expressed strong disagreements both over the actions of President Zeman and the planned legal changes.