Zeman’s refusal to appoint professor sparks outrage

Martin C. Putna holds the sign ‘Catholic queers salute Bátora’, photo: Czech Television

The Czech president, Miloš Zeman, has caused an outcry by saying he will not confer the title of professor on a Charles University academic. Czech heads of state normally just rubberstamp such decisions, and Mr. Zeman’s position on the appointment of Martin C. Putna is wholly unprecedented. The president has not been entirely clear on the reasons – but says he objected to a placard the academic carried in a gay pride march.

Martin C. Putna holds the sign ‘Catholic queers salute Bátora’,  photo: Czech Television
In a satirical video released during January’s presidential election, Martin C. Putna imitated Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Wearing an ushanka and holding a bottle of liquor in his hand, the Charles University academic advised Czechs to elect Miloš Zeman to make sure Russia’s interests in the country were protected.

Mr. Zeman has denied that Mr Putna’s support for his rival in the presidential vote is behind his reluctance to appoint him professor. After initially refusing to reveal his motivation, the president told reporters on Monday that he thought Mr Putna’s involvement in a 2011 gay pride parade was unfitting for an academic. The head of state said he respected Mr Putna’s sexual orientation. “But it’s something entirely different when you walk around Prague with a sign that says, ‘Catholic queers salute Bátora’”, he told reporters. Ladislav Bátora is an ultra-conservative former public official who then served as advisor to the education minister.

Mr. Putna is a leading Czech literary historian and an expert on Catholic literature. He has authored some highly acclaimed works, including a spiritual biography of Václav Havel and a study on homosexuality in the history of Czech culture.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Kristýna Maková
Under Czech law, professors are formally appointed by the president. However, previous post-Communist heads of state Václav Havel and Václav Klaus never refused to respect the choice of the university officials who are in charge of the appointment process. Jiří Zlatuška is deputy chair of Czech Republic’s Council of Higher Education Institutions and a former rector of Brno’s Masaryk University.

“Such a step, if taken by the president as informally announced by the president to the education minister, would be an unprecedented intervention of politics into the academic sphere. That’s one thing. Another is that it would be against the law, it would be against the obligations the president has to fulfil.”

The president’s move has caused uproar in the academic community and among some politicians. Some said he was behaving like communist president Klement Gottwald. Others believe that Mr Zeman is testing how far he can go in extending his powers.

Charles University students, meanwhile, have started organizing rallies in support of Mr Putna. They also called on some two dozen other professorial candidates due to be appointed next month to show solidarity with the academic and refuse to accept the title from Mr Zeman. Mr Zlatuška supports that idea.

Jiří Zlatuška,  photo: Noemi Holeková
“In my understanding, everybody in the academic community is Mr Putna in this situation. This is about protecting the academic community rather than defending one individual. Of course, I pity everybody who would be awarded the title at the ceremony in June if Mr Putna is not there. Those degrees signed by the president would have the symbolic value of trash.”

Mr Putna himself says he will leave the issue to Charles University officials. The university’s rector, Václav Hampl, has demanded an explanation from the president, and is set to meet Mr Zeman later this week.