I don’t think there are many things more important than being a teacher and being a student. That, to me, is the deepest social contract, to understand the idea that individual creativity within a willing community is a profound social act. — John Hejduk
The first time I heard of Walter Benjamin, and the fact that Michel Foucault had anything to do with architecture, was in my first year at the Faculty of Architecture in Belgrade. The lecture, given by Professor Ljiljana Blagojević — who at the time taught the course on contemporary architecture and urbanism — had an intriguing title that proposed a connection between the concepts of punishment, surveillance and architecture. The following presentation weaved an intricate narrative that interpreted early-20th-century architecture through the prism of various cultural phenomena. Those couple of hours, during which Prof. Blagojević drew parallels between Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, Foucault’s theories on punishment and contemporary surveillance mechanisms, had a transformative role in how many of my peers and I thought about architecture.
The idea of probing architecture history and theory through topics was refreshing and contrasted the taxative listing of facts, dates and seminal projects I have grown accustomed to hearing at lectures. The educational system in Serbia and Montenegro back then was, and to a degree still is, burdened by insularity caused by the 10 years of isolation and sanctions affecting both the organizational structure of our universities and the way disciplines are taught. The contemporaneity of Prof. Blagojević’s lectures felt like a long-overdue software update. Her refreshing approach, along with that of a handful of other brilliant professors at the time, also helped erode the collective shyness among students accustomed to a rather authoritative “ex cathedra” teaching style.
Professor Ljiljana Blagojević giving a lecture entitled “Architecture of Deconstruction,” Faculty of Architecture in Belgrade; via YouTube
A few months ago, after some 20 years of teaching, Prof. Blagojević — one of the school’s most distinguished teachers — has been denied promotion to tenure in a rather questionable way. No objections were made to the candidate’s qualifications or personal conduct throughout the process. Her academic credentials, ethics or pedagogical merit haven’t been called into question neither by the committee, which provided a favorable report on her application, nor the Department’s tenured faculty members, who then voted in a secret ballot.
The answer was “No.”
Prof. Blagojević’s attempts at getting any sort of explanation as to why her application had been rejected hit a wall of silence and received tepid expressions of solidarity from higher University authorities. Needless to say, a petition with over 600 signatures, organized independently by students, demonstrated her popularity but had no legal bearing. After two decades of teaching, Prof. Blagojević’s stellar career, which included teaching engagements at the Yale School of Architecture and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, an election into RIBA membership as well as a plethora of publications and conference talks, seems to have taken a truly Kafkaesque turn.
BArch student projects exhibition, Faculty of Architecture in Belgrade, October 2014; photo by M. Bulatovic
It is common knowledge that the world of academia in general is far from a just meritocracy. Even at Ivy League universities in the US, the tenure process is often shrouded in mystery. Secret ballots are a common practice meant to protect academic autonomy and freedom. The reality is: These decisions, theoretically based on quantitative criteria — teaching, service and scholarship — are rarely fully objective. This is where collegiality, the Pandora’s box of tenure evaluation criteria, comes into play. Though not formally added to the traditional triumvirate of teaching, scholarship and service, collegiality plays an important role in the tenure and promotion decisions.
The real problem occurs when a justifiably long and arduous process of obtaining a permanent teaching position trickles down to a decision based on nonacademic considerations, with no accountability to the academic community or the candidate. A higher education institution, implicitly considered a bastion of constructive discussion and transparency, can become a kind of bureaucratic nightmare that leaves room for misuse and a free interpretation of the concept of collegiality. While displaying “a collegial spirit of cooperation and avoidance of disruptive behavior” seems like a reasonable expectation, this can create context for confusing collegiality with congeniality.
Because of its ambiguous definition, the criteria of collegiality may interpret dissent, the cornerstone of critical thought and pursuit of truth, as obstructive behavior. Similarly, social ineptness, inability to make small talk or disinterest in attending lunch dates can also be seen as a lack of “constructive attitude that fosters harmony.” Particularly in state-owned universities in developing countries such as Serbia or Montenegro, a deeply flawed system leads to various transgressions and allows personal agendas, egos, latent animosities and mercantilist calculation to shape the way our schools operate.
Faculty of Architecture in Belgrade, June 2016; photo by M. Bulatovic
Though the news of Prof. Blagojević’s troubles was disturbing, it hardly came as a shock. A number of similar scandals have surfaced over the last few years, involving cases of highly regarded professors, adored by students and enjoying a practically unanimous support from eminent figures, academics and the public. The situation is not much better in my home country, Montenegro, where the rule of nepotism, political affiliations and cliques continues to undermine the fine work done by those with less-than-sharp elbows.
The lack of accountability paints a bleak picture of our educational systems and can be only discouraging to Ph.D. students and aspiring scholars. Judging from how things are currently done, those applying for a tenure might as well be facing a bouncer in front of a popular nightclub. Young scholars should have the right to know what it takes for them to thrive and advance in a specific academic environment. This doesn’t mean that a cozy teaching position should be guaranteed to all who pursue it, but instead proposes that what they deserve is more than a promise that a life-changing decision made by their peers would be unquestionably dispassionate.
There seems to be a widespread acceptance of the fact that tenure decisions are fraught with politics. In her essay “‘Collegiality’ a Criterion for Tenure? Why it’s not all politics,” Professor of Philosophy at Emory University Ann Hartle gives a perfect response: “Current intellectual trends would have us believe that there is no such thing as truth and that ‘everything is political.’ But, if so, then we have no grounds on which to justify the prerogatives of tenure and academic freedom that we hold so dear. And if we permit political considerations to determine tenure decisions, then we have no grounds for asserting institutional autonomy.”