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An interview with Professor Vladimíra Dvořáková

On Banalities, Mistrust and Politics

Almost all political parties in the Czech Republic are, according to Vladimíra Dvořáková, confusing. “I am missing a deeper set of values,” she says. We asked her how one can recognize a good political scientist. And why does “trivializing” the media lead people to uncritically accept anything they see? In this interview for Leaders Magazine Prague, we also focus on her activities in the Accreditation Commission and The University of Economics Prague.


Professor Vladimíra Dvořáková - A top female professor among political scientists

Dear Professor, it is typical for Czechs to enjoy commenting on current political events. Does it mean we are a nation of “non-professional political scientists”?

“If people talk about politics in the pub, or make statements in social media, then it is rather positive. It shows that they are interested in the situation, and everybody has a right to express their opinion. It is bad, however, when someone publicly presents themselves as a political scientist, with not even the slightest professional approach. The lady who sells herbs can often help when you are sick, but if the illness is serious, I would rather see a doctor.” 

How much do the opinions of common people agree with your own assessments – for example in the case of a political crisis, or some important event on the political scene?

“It depends on the issue itself. If I use health care as an example again, I think we all know that if we have a cold, we must see a doctor for a serious diagnosis. Political negotiations can be analyzed by anyone with common life experience. But a political scientist should look under the surface, recognize deeper social connections, and the possible impact of events on further development.”

If you chose one word to illustrate the current political situation in the Czech Republic, which would it be?

“Mistrust.”

What topics will be crucial for Czech politics in 2015? What topics will you lend your voice to most?

“It depends on what people ask me about. If I choose an issue, I would want to discuss restoring trust in society, trust among people in general, trust in promises, trust in the state and politics. I would be glad if we could talk about positive (and negative) examples of how elections influenced local politics, which impact our everyday lives. I would be glad if we talked about the function of the state, about the modern (un)transparency of decision making, the shady appointments of high officials, and other shenanigans. These are much more important topics than the bickering between this minister and the other. But of course, the media loves personal conflicts, it promotes them, as they are much more interesting than the tediousness of passing laws, funding schools, and improving our nation.”

During foreign conferences and other trips, are you met with fundamental confusion over Czech politics?

“Scientific work has many interpretations, and scientific truths are only valid until somebody proves them wrong scientifically. This can be seen in natural sciences, where new research methods and technologies enable new interpretations of phenomenon. Thus new truths are created, ideas which nobody ever thought of. This applies to social sciences as well. A good researcher must ask the right questions, and have excellent researching skills. To put it simply, if a political scientist focuses on the role of the Czech president in the political and constitutional system, they are ignoring whether he promotes economic diplomacy or human rights. Or if he believes in global warming. A good political scientist wants to know if the president´s powers are interpreted consistently in the long term, if he respects the constitution (or crosses the line), how he communicates with his government, and how foreign and defense policy are decided. The rest is rather unimportant for him.

On the other hand, if somebody studies the issues of Czech foreign policy, they focus on how presidents rule on certain topics.”

We can see many political scientists in the media. But how can we safely distinguish the objective and capable from the incapable ones?

“It is not so easy, because though opinions may differ, it does not make them wrong. A political scientist should definitely have a basic knowledge of and a professional approach to analysis. There should also be a certain ethical rule, that if a political scientist works for somebody, they should at least inform the public of the relationship. But the real problem is related to the questions a political scientist is asked. I remember when during a big corruption scandal I was asked if I think that the person in question “accepted a bribe”. I felt like answering, “I have no idea, dear Watson.” This would have been a good question for an investigative journalist, but the question meant for a political scientist should have been completely different. For example: “What does this scandal tell us about politics?”; “How can there be such tight relationships between politicians, businesses, and organized crime?”; or “How can we determine the cause of this, and how can we stop it from happening again?”

So, you see the problem as mainly caused by journalists and the media?

“It is very easy to criticize the media. If you consider the wide scope of journalism, as well as the background that an editor or moderator has to work with, then it is of course very difficult for them to be able to ask excellent questions on all subjects, including politics, economics, art, science, climatic phenomenon, etc.. On the other hand, only a few years ago it was common that a moderator, and respectively their assistant, would ask me to make some interesting or significant comments. I mostly pointed out three or four issues, and briefly explained the context of them, and why these issues should be interesting. It was of course the moderator´s decision to choose from my suggestions or not, but they usually did. And then the listeners learned something other than the trivial replies so often given to trivial questions. This “trivializing” of the media finally leads us to the fact that people will uncritically accept almost anything they see.”

So, these days moderators are not asking for this anymore?

“They are asking for much less, or they do not follow recommendations, or they push for a certain reply because you are supposed to fit a certain scenario in which other material, already worked out, will follow. Let me give you a recent example. It was at the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, after president Yanukovych was brought down. I was invited to a program to comment on the situation. I told the assistant that this topic is not my “cup of tea”, as I am not an expert on Ukraine, so they should find somebody else. However, I suggested that it could be interesting to discuss in general what impact the conflict could have on both sides, the rebels vs. the militia. Experiences from Bosnia and Herzegovina, or Kosovo, could be referred to for similarities. The assistant agreed with this suggested topic, but the question which the studio finally aired was completely trivial, and the effort to get at least something substantial into the reply was prevented. On the other hand, I also often hear political scientists reply to good questions with meaningless banalities.”

If we observe political scientists in the media, they often comment on very recent issues. Often these issues occur just a few minutes before the comments are made. Has your view or comment on a situation ever been completely different from the final result?

“I strive to speak rather about connections, to show various possible approaches and perceptions, not to formulate definite statements. I think this method is much more interesting for viewers or listeners, as they not only receive information, but they think about it more. However, sometimes an expert or editor can get into trouble. I remember a live broadcasting in 2003 at the time of a NATO summit, where I was asked to comment on US foreign policy. First, I arrived late because of security measures, and somebody else was speaking on this topic. However, since the closed negotiations of Václav Havel and G.W. Bush took longer than expected, there were 4 of us - 2 editors and 2 guests - holding a panel discussion for more than 30 minutes. Under such circumstances there is a kind of solidarity of course, as you know that the editor must ask questions and you have to reply. So, I evaluated the state of preparedness of the Romanian army, the strategic importance of the Baltics, and finally the possibility of sharing fighter planes with Slovakia. The depth of my analysis corresponded with my knowledge of the issues and the level of banalities was very high. On the other hand, not many listeners knew much about the issue. But I have never left the studio so exhausted…”

It is not a secret that in 2003 you were the first woman among political science professors. How many women are there now?

“As far as I know, there are two of us. But in related fields, especially international relations and European studies, there are more.”

In your opinion, what is a reliable method for distinguishing which side of the political spectrum a certain political party or movement belongs to?

“It is not so clearly decided, but the key is of course a party’s stand on the basic socio-economic division of society, simply said – work vs. capital. But it is very important where a party’s “center” is. Many times, attitudes of the right wing parties in northern countries would be perceived as almost dangerous leftism here. Also, since the 60’s we have seen the growing importance of focusing on the questions of “quality of life”, questions of the environment, discrimination, and the importance of human rights. These issues have been introduced mainly by the Greens, while the Pirates are concerned with the right to access information sources. However, I think that the socio-economic point of view still holds its importance, and the financial crisis after 2008 has made it a rather strong issue globally.”

Which political party or movement do you consider most “confusing” from this point of view?

“To be honest, it seems to me that almost all parties are “confusing” these days. I miss discussions about deeper values, and while a certain level of pragmatism is always necessary, a party’s main values and ideas should be evident. This is the result of many parties’ small membership bases, other than the parties whose memberships strongly connect to the situation before November 89, namely KSCM and KDU-CSL. The other parties have very few (in some places close to zero) members. The memberships of CSSD and ODS are around 20,000 and that is rather small, and it strengthens the tendency of competition between single power fractions. TOP 09, without Mayors and with the fading symbol of Karel Schwarzenberg, is rather a virtual party, as the municipal elections has showed, and the question is whether they can manage to anchor locally. ANO is structured like a company, which is nothing new in the world (see Berlusconi), but there is always a risk of managing to transform a “company” structure into the structure of a political party (or movement). How will very heterogeneous personalities, whom the party is marketing, tune up, and how will succession be managed after the founder and owner of the company step down?”

Can a political scientist actually go to the polls?

“I think they should. It may be a bit different for them than the others, as sometimes there is too much strategy in their thinking.”

During your studies, you came to political science through a combination of various fields. Today, the path is much easier. Is this good for the field?

“Political science was created from various sources here, founded by people who felt close to it but were active in other fields. We can see the influence of social scientists, historians, lawyers, and philosophers. As a matter of fact, even today the main working places of political scientists are a little bit influenced by that founding spirit. Also, oftentimes political science is studied alongside other fields as well, and so a certain variety is therefore not only correct but also beneficial when the main contours of the field are preserved.“

Is it possible nowadays for a graduate of political science to find a good job and make a living from it?

“I think it is. Of course, when deciding what and where to study, everybody should be interested in a concrete program of studies, including who the teachers are, where you might study abroad in foreign countries, and what internships and practical experience is offered. It is also important to realize what the final profile of the field looks like. For example, at VSE (University of Economics Prague) we try to profile the field that would connect economic and political science, i.e. so the students have not only the basic knowledge of both fields, but so that we can gradually introduce new courses in this inter-field background. These subjects may include lobbying, anti-corruption activities, as well as the functioning of institutions, decision making processes, and control mechanisms. And of course non-governmental organization activities, which we often cooperate with closely. For example, I am active in The Otakar Motejl Fund, and my colleague cooperates closely with the Transparency International. In this way we also try to develop internships for the master´s degree students.”

So they have no problem finding work?

“That is basically correct, but we have only been active for a short time. The field is developing, and meanwhile we are paradoxically facing a lack of students. It is true that for bachelor´s degree students the requirements for matriculation exams are very demanding – mathematics and two languages. And due to a fall in demographics this year, we were not able to open the field, and we have not even listed it for the following year. We will see if the problem can be solved. The follow-up master´s degree program also has examinations in economics and one foreign language. For the bachelors who did not study at the VSE, the demands on economics may also be quite hard, but on the other hand there is nowhere else with such an excellent profile combined with the possibility of practical experience and foreign trips, which is absolutely unique.”

What are the students of today like? Generally we hear about a lower standard of students.

“There is no doubt that the quality of university applicants has been in decline. It is not only because of a declining population, the problem is also the senseless politics aimed towards increasing the number of university students. On top of that, we adopted the ideal image of a successful person as a “manager” type: young, assertive, dynamic, flexible; one who makes decision based on instant results, regardless of the fact that he may possibly destroy long-term foundations of a company or institution. Ethics, empathy, respect for knowledge, and life experience are actually disappearing from education and management teams. It is certainly necessary to consider the competitiveness of graduates in the labor market, but we are going toward the opposite extreme, where students are not actually getting a real “education”. This is going to limit them in the future, and it will have a very negative impact on society. This is not only happening here; an Austrian researcher named K.P. Liessmann nicely analyzed this in his book Theory of (Non)education, which is definitely worth reading and thinking about. With a bit of ironic hyperbole I described this managerial type in the book “Něco se muselo stát” (Something Must Have Happened), suggested and edited by Václav Cílek. I have a short text there called “Ať žijí manažeři” (Long Live the Managers).” 

But our schools do not produce only this kind of student.

“Of course, there are also great managerial students and great graduates. But it is also necessary to teach students how to think critically, based on a certain overview, and knowing how to defend opinions, while at the same time being able to accept the convincing opinions of opponents. To be able to listen, and try to understand problems in a wider context is very important. I have great experience with students for example at our Vysočina Summer School, where we usually have around 30 students, and the education is rather interactive, and in the evenings we have discussions with interesting guests and important personalities. Under these circumstances you see the students in a completely different way, as they gain much more knowledge and in a certain sense they personally mature.”

Originally you were a historian, and at the beginning of your professional career you focused on the modern history of Latin America. From there you got into political science. Is the political scientist´s work harder in Latin America than here?

“The work of a political scientist is the same everywhere. You introduce research questions which reflect the issues of a particular society or region. It may not seem so, but many issues (legal culture, corruption, ineffective and politicized state administration, weak civil society) are similar. By the way, recently there was an interesting conference in Hradec Králové focused on the issues of democracy and state in Latin America and post-communist Europe, and there are many topics for comparable political science. At my department, I have an intern from Brazil and currently we are considering a publication on post-communist Europe and Latin America, in cooperation with Czech and Latin American researchers, which would then be published in Brazil.”

Have you ever thought of moving to Latin America?

“There were some offers, but the beginning of the 90’s brought the foundation of the discipline of political science here, and at that time I considered this most important. It was really demanding, you could not make money in it, but it was fascinating. No other generation of political scientists will experience this. I founded a specialized magazine “Politologická revue” (Political Science Revue), and this year on the occasion of its 20th birthday I passed the position of editor-in-chief to my successor. Contacts with foreign countries and cooperation with foreign researchers have always been a natural necessity. I was a member of the executive board of the International Political Science Association (IPSA) for six years, and for three years I even served as one of its vice presidents. My seat expired in 2006, but this year the association asked me to become one of the three editors of the magazine World Political Science Review. I was really pleased.”

The public will also remember your work for the Accreditation Commission. After spending so much time there, would you prefer an alternative approach, for example what we saw in the case of the Law University in Pilsen?

“Public awareness of the Law University in Pilsen still remains. However, I also find it very important that in the Accreditation Commission we constantly prevented taking the same approach toward education as toward doing business at a Vietnamese market – minimal cost with maximum profit. The quality of students then corresponded with that approach. I say “prevented” and not “always successfully prevented”, as the powers of the Accreditation Commission are, as with any other institution, limited by law, which means all negative opinions must be clearly and properly justified according to the law. Many businessmen with educations can find unbelievable ways to bypass quality control. Our education system has many problems, conditions are changing all the time, and the public school system is strongly under-financed, so we often find various problems. However, you can distinguish two different types of schools based on their reactions to our notice about their problems. The first type tries to solve the problems, even though it may be step-by-step and slowly. The second type of school hires advocates to help them protect “the right for low-quality education”, and then they provide confusing information, information that has no meaning, while refusing to provide the information which is relevant. I have even seen a defense by advocates who argued that the reproach of the Accreditation Commission, regarding the school’s acceptance of bad-quality bachelor´s dissertations, is irrelevant, because the law does not say that bachelor´s dissertations should be of a good quality.”

Lets get back to The Law University in Pilsen.

“Sure. That´s what I am talking about. Their reactions to our evaluation were strange in this way, and they provided information that was kind of “advocating”. At that time rumors were going around that if you had a problem completing your law studies in Prague, then you could graduate in Pilsen. We asked the faculty how many students complete their five-year law studies program sooner than five years, and the management gave a “funny” lawyer-like answer, saying almost 90% because they start their studies in October and finish in June or September, i.e. their studies take less than five years. It was a funny answer; however for us this was a signal that there might be something true in the rumors. So, we contacted the Ministry of Education and asked for this information from the students’ register that is kept there. And suddenly it came out that the few “turncoats” from Prague to Pilsen are not the main problem at all, but that a network connected with top politics was actually being created here, connected with business, police, justice, and organized crime. And that a five-year master´s study can be completed in 3 months during holidays. Not to mention a strange organization of this lifelong learning program, including bachelor’s studies attended by tens of policemen, customs officers, and so on. We also found connections with other schools, professional institutions, and scientific institutions. Although it never really was investigated (the investigation was stopped), the breaking of, or at least disturbing of these networks was very important, although I can still see the names of graduates in top political structures, important auditor companies, and proposals for high positions in the state administration. For those interested in the analysis of the whole case I recommend a little booklet “Rozkl(r)ádání státu” (translator´s note: play on words, Pilferage/Decomposition of the State); there you can find a really detailed analysis of mine.”

The range of your activities is really wide. When you can choose, what do you prefer: teaching, writing an article, writing a book, or a TV discussion?

“I am a teacher; I need to communicate with students. It gives me a lot of satisfaction. At the same time, I would like to write a book on the issues of corruption, and to do this I need a bit of space for work, i.e. reducing various administration duties. To be honest, I am looking forward to finishing my work in the Accreditation Commission, even though this experience gave me an incredibly lot of experience, and enabled me to meet great people and colleagues. My mandate ends in August 2016, and if an amendment of the university law is passed, as it is being prepared, then I will finish even sooner. So, the priority is the students, professional work, and communication with people through various civil groups. Every year I have at least ten of them, maybe more.”


By: Jaroslav Kramer


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Source: Prague Leaders Magazine