University of Latvia Rector Indriķis Muižnieks: I'm bothering someone. But not the university

Next to the two buildings of the Academic Centre of the University of Latvia (UL), which are the most modern buildings in Pārdaugava, a third one - House of Letters - is already under construction. "This is just another step, because the University Senate has just reviewed the future infrastructure development plans - for the next six to seven years," says Indriķis Muižnieks, Rector of the University of Latvia.
21.06.2022. Elita Veidemane
 
©Kaspars KRAFTS, F64 Photo Agency

The development of research and studies, including the new structure of faculties and institutes, requires "space for excellence, environment for development, time for responsibility" - as defined by the vision of the University. "Yes, also for responsibility. For the implementation of the mission. Not for answers to incomprehensible accusations," says Muižnieks.

More on the accusations later. First, let's finish talking about what has been promised and done in university governance.

"We have been lagging behind our neighbors the Estonians in higher education funding for a very long time," Muižnieks continues, "by several tens, and recently even hundreds of millions of euros every year. And in those years, the missing money adds up. Material fatigue builds up in a metal structure until it can no longer hold up and breaks. Teachers in several faculties at the university, and colleagues from other universities, are telling me that they will not be able to continue working in the autumn. Promises of even inflation-adjusted pay rises are still on the unattainable horizon."

Just recently, university councils were invented. So things are improving, are they not?

The Council of the University of Latvia, I think, understands that its main strategic objective is to attract more funding for the university, higher education and science in general. I just don't know what it can do in the Latvian political culture. There was the Covid crisis, now there is the war in Ukraine, and in order to put out these fires, billions of euros were found at the expense of increasing the national debt. In order for future generations to be able to repay this debt, they need to be educated, creative and innovative. The various crises and their consequences would be easier and more effective to deal with if the people were better educated. This was also evident in the vaccination results: the university vaccinated faster than the national average. World experience shows that investment in higher education and science pays off more reliably for a country than any investment in production.

Maybe that is why the university was faster, because students were in danger of being expelled if they did not get vaccinated?

No, it was not because of such threats. It was rational thinking. And more. The economic and epidemiological crises that we have been patching up at the last minute with hundreds of millions of euros would have been much easier and more effective to end - before they escalated - with tens of millions of euros in education. And even in wartime, technologies based on scientific advances can be more effective than a few well-used armored vehicles in reducing the threat posed by radiation or the propaganda of an aggressor.

OK, enough about patching things up. The millions needed for the university should be used for development.

Exactly. We have big development plans that seem ambitious and unrealistic to some people, but nothing will move without them. There will be no rise in rankings, no student interest, no research projects. The House of Letters is only the end of the first third. And the attack on me that is going on at the moment - I do not rule it out - is an attempt to tear down what has so far been a good and proper start.

Let us start from the beginning. What is this attack?

I am accused of having illegally and single-handedly paid compensation to four people for restricting competition in August 2019, when the Cabinet of Ministers - illegally, as it later turned out - did not confirm me as Rector of the University. They left the University immediately after I was not confirmed. My demand was that the information available to them about the University's contracts with banks, companies, including the projected costs of specific facilities, market valuations, disposal or development plans, should not be passed on to competitors. The legality of these costs was confirmed in January 2020 by a KNAB inspection. Opinions of independent lawyers also confirmed that such information is essential for the University and must be protected by acting, in the words of the law, "as a careful and responsible steward".

However, when I was confirmed in March 2020, a number of staff members who had received compensation returned to the University. An audit by the National Audit Office in the same year considered that the university should require the staff to repay part of the compensation received. The National Audit Office issued this report in March 2021, in parallel with the KNAB, as I understand it, with the aim of making sure that we were taking action to ensure that reimbursement took place.

How long afterwards did the staff return to the university?

Some after seven, some after thirteen months.

But the allowances were paid for four months. I assume that people had already spent the money.

The National Audit Office pointed out that the compensation should have been divided into 24 instalments.

Why in 24 instalments?

Because the annex to the agreement said that for 24 months these employees would not work for competitors, would not share our project designs with them and would not disclose information relevant to our plans. In accordance with the instructions of the National Audit Office, the University has demanded the return of the overpaid part of the compensation, and the University Senate acknowledged last November that as Rector I have done everything in my power to comply with the decision of the National Audit Office. The National Audit Office itself has suspended the progress of the case until the dispute over the reimbursement of the compensation is settled in court.

Ok, the staff received the allowance, some are not paying it back, but what does that have to do with you?

I understand from the indictment that I am responsible for everything, and the Prosecutor does not seem to think that any compensation has been paid for restricting competition at all, even though it is again stated elsewhere that it would have been paid from the wrong account. The Prosecutor acknowledged that this is a legal dispute and the Prosecution is entrusting it to the courts. I do agree with that, but you can try to make a mountain out of this molehill. You just have to understand the purpose of it. This spring, since the end of March, I have very rapidly gone from being a witness in this case to being the accused. In a few meetings with the investigator and the prosecutor, I got the impression that their opinion was decided beforehand and that my testimony was needed only as a formality. The lawyer representing me also felt that there was absolutely no merit to the case, but his application for dismissal was also summarily rejected. I have not yet received the case file, so I cannot and must not divulge details.

From the official texts available: what are the "serious consequences" of your actions?

The "serious consequences" are measurable in monetary terms and exceed twenty minimum monthly salaries, that is more than 20,000 euros. It is true, however, that half of the money paid out has gone into taxes.

What do you yourself think of all this?

First of all, I am convinced of my innocence and I am looking forward to this case going to court.

I noticed on social networks that the Minister of Education said: "Muižnieks should still be careful because there are reputational risks and so on..."

The Minister of Education, Anita Muižniece, is more coherent and tries to talk to the sector more than the previous one. However, it is not really in her competence to tell the University Council or the Senate exactly what to do. But there is also party discipline to be observed...

...and that party is also known - the Conservatives, who organized the previous campaign against you.

Yes, it is interesting that the accusation, the news about it in LETA columns and the minister's letter to the Council, the Senate and the Constitutional Assembly of the University of Latvia appeared within a few hours last Monday evening. This is a very coordinated action...

In general, the heads of public institutions should refrain from making statements that may give the impression that a person is guilty before this has been established in accordance with the procedure laid down by law.

The question of proving guilt or innocence is clearly a matter for the courts, and that body will deal with it. The Public Prosecutor's Office has not imposed any restrictions on my activities as Rector. The Minister is now calling on the University Council and Senate to decide immediately on my removal as Rector, as my reputation is in serious jeopardy.

Reputation is, of course, a multi-faceted issue, and an accusation certainly does not improve it, but here, I think, we should reflect on the motives and consequences of the actions of one or other of the officials.

Suppose I take part in a cycling race, not even individually, but as part of a team - as a leader. Someone from the outside throws garbage on me, I am wet and dirty. The competitors shout: "Come aside, wash, dry your shirt!" I could do that, but while I'm sitting on the sidelines, the team will split, the bike will get damaged, and in the end - the shirt will get taken away. At the moment, I believe that the reputational risks are more likely to be seen if I resign as Rector.

I do not want to influence the decisions of the Senate and the Council in any way, but if the decision is to suspend me, then I will go to the countryside to mow the grass. If there is no such decision, then I will continue to work, even though some may not like it for various reasons.

When could the Council and the Senate of the UL consider this issue?

It just so happened that it was during Monday's meeting of the Council that I informed the members of the Council that information about the accusation against me had appeared on the LETA news tape. The Council immediately started to decide what to do and how to do it. At the end of the same meeting, the Minister's letter also appeared. I have also met with the Council at a special meeting devoted to the accusation and the subject of reputation. The Council has also met the Minister. This has been reported on the UL website. I am really sorry that, at the very beginning of the Council's work, when so many strategically important issues are being addressed, the question of my performance as Rector is taking up so much time. The next meeting of the Senate is scheduled for June 27.

Don't you think that this accusation is a second round in the fight against you? In the first round, the New Conservative Party (now the Conservatives) never succeeded in kicking you out of the University.

It really looks like a second round with similar expectations but with different performers.

In this case, it is more serious: with a criminal case.

A criminal record is not in itself an obstacle to acting in a position of responsibility, for example, Juris Jurašs, Artuss Kaimiņš, Atis Zakatistovs...

Yes, I suppose there are forces that I am bothering. There are other miracles happening here too. Someone might still be bitter about the fate of the Kronvalds Boulevard building, the former Faculty of Biology, becoming the property of the Academy of Arts, even though a serious investigation into the circumstances of the case took place and is probably still ongoing before the government's decision on the matter.

SIA Skonto būve is still suing us for not having been declared the winner of the 2011 tender for the construction of the House of Nature. At the time, the Procurement Supervision Office did not allow us to conclude a contract with Skonto būve, but the court later ruled that this decision was unjustified. Now Skonto wants to get €800,000 from us as alleged lost profits, although this claim should be addressed to the Procurement Supervision Office rather than to the university. In any case, the builders must prove how they would have earned the thousands.

There are probably some unhappy people who have failed to realize their ambition to put their paws on the University of Latvia's portfolio of properties for sale, the proceeds of which are earmarked for the development of the Academic Centre.

In any case, we will not give up and we will not compromise.

You are stubborn. Good. But there is one other issue, and I hope it is not based on stubbornness. There are some lecturers at the university whose political views are, to put it mildly, peculiar. But no wonder: for example, you have Professor Ojārs Skudra, who, during the Russian times, was an instructor in the press sector of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Latvia. Now he is one of the most popular political experts on public media. At the time, he was an ardent hater of the Awakening and a hater of journalists. Then you have Didzis Bērziņš...

...he's one of the almost young ones.

Yes. He and the historian Mārtiņš Kaprāns went to the Zedelgem conference to beat the monument to the Latvian legionaries into the ground. And here, he recently apologized to the Russians, against whom he said "nationalist hysteria" had been launched. Is a university lecturer really, as they say, not feeling the vibe at all? Or do you keep such “interesting” lecturers because of some kind of stubbornness?

The university - as we all know - is open to different opinions, different ideas. This belongs to academic freedom. Let us remember: “I am against your opinion, but I will give my life so that you have the right to express it”. For example, last week, students wanted to hang an LGBT flag outside the buildings of the University. They didn't, because they didn't have a flag at hand, but they promised to display the colors on the university's electronic media and screens. We may not understand enough about the ideas and thoughts of young people, but they are basically for an inclusive society, which is also a university value. In this society, everyone loves each other, despite the diversity of opinions, the belonging to how many genders...

...fifty-six.

The LGBT flag with four arrows, indicating the rejection of all forms of discrimination, was voted for by all student governments, as well as the Student Council. The new generation has its own understanding of an open and inclusive society, which it has already acquired before attending university. This is not something that is close to my heart, but to ban it would be unacceptable.

But about those lecturers...

Mārtiņš Kaprāns and Didzis Bērziņš are scholars and are free to express their views and ideas, as long as they do not contain - I will not quote exactly, but approximately - legally prohibited glorification of authoritarian regimes, hate speech and the like. This is academic freedom, within which they choose their objects of research, their methods, their conclusions, trying to be as precise and objective as possible, which I have no reason to doubt.

Of course, research projects are funded by various organizations, and I hope that these organizations do not make ethically unacceptable demands on the content and results of research.

Ojārs Skudra's working career is much longer, but he is also currently a researcher at the University of Latvia. The University of Latvia can take action against him not because he has changed his political views, but only if he still praises the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, if he has been convicted of some criminal offence, defamation, which has had serious consequences, loss of job, restriction of student rights...

Now there are no "serious consequences". Now he is a respectable lecturer and an expert "without any history". Back then, he used to call us journalists of Atmoda bourgeois nationalists.

But he did not send your files to the KGB.

I must agree. He didn’t send them. Now, one has to wonder why former communists are so often called upon as experts to analyze various political issues.

The Germans say that every car becomes an Opel one day. Perhaps this also describes the level of the media, where every discussion always comes back to Ojārs Skudra in the end...

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