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The world around us is changing and we have to react

Milan Pospíšil

In October 2023, the UCT Prague Academic Senate elected Professor Milan Pospíšil as their choice for Rector. As of 1 January 2024, he will succeed Pavel Matějka in the top university position and begin a four-year term. In this interview, the long-term Vice-Rector for Strategies and Development and the Council of Czech Universities Chair talks about his intention to adjust the core curriculum and the need to diversify income sources, about his priorities in relation to employees, as well as about support for student associations and his ongoing hobby interest in photography

Is UCT Prague in good shape as you become Rector on 1 January 2024?

Our university is not in bad shape. R&D and instruction are functioning. We are still perceived as a high-quality, competitive university in the Czech context. Pavel Matějka has achieved a lot in four years and there is much to build upon. However, I see challenges in that the world around us is changing quite a bit and we will be forced to respond to those changes.

What do you mean by such changes?

Above all, potential student interest in going into technical fields, including chemistry, has been stagnating or even declining for some time. Many students prefer easier paths of study in order to have enough time for extracurricular activities. The views of fresh high school graduates are changing, and they have increasing demands about what university education should look like in terms of levels of difficulty, structure, student support, and the use of information technology.

After a period of sustained economic growth, the Czech Republic has fallen into an economic and energy crisis, with growing frustrations and societal concerns about conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East. The standard of living of the vast majority of the Czech population is declining.

We are also confronted with far greater competition from international universities, which are more attractive to students thanks to instruction in English and which can offer researchers better salaries and benefits.

How do you plan to address the decline in interest in studying chemistry?

Based on discussion and agreement with the UCT Prague Faculties, our core curriculum should evolve. We can tell ourselves over and over again that the current set up is ideal. But if we don’t have enough students, what good will our thoughts about this do? In any case, I don’t mean lowering standards, but exploring possibilities of distributing course loads in a more flexible way, making course choices more aligned with specific study programs and profiles, and taking student and employee preferences into more urgent consideration.

In cooperation with other universities, we must ensure that there are high-quality mathematics, chemistry, and physics teachers at the secondary school level. At UCT Prague, we already have a program in which we can train high-quality teachers who are keenly interest in chemistry. Other universities should do the same for physics and mathematics. This investment would pay off for us in more motivated, more prepared secondary school graduates.

Another problem is the real drop in university income with regard to inflation and the government’s inadequate higher education funding policy…

Teaching, training, and R&D at UCT Prague are expensive because of necessary instrumentation and chemicals. The government has funded higher education at low levels for a long time, and the basic governmental funding intended to operate our institution cannot even offset inflation. As a result, we have to compete hard with other universities and institutes of the Czech Academy of Science for grants to supplement governmental funding. Since Czech grant funding sources are not sufficiently high and considering the enormous competition on the national level, success in obtaining such grant funding is generally low. As a result, our instructors and researchers are frustrated by the inefficient use of their time in applying for grants instead of conducting research or improving their teaching competencies. Unfortunately, the chances are that the situation will stay the same for the next five years, if it doesn’t worsen. So, we will need to change our approach to gaining funding and try to diversify our funding sources more.

Where do you want to get such funding?

Funding sources that hold the greatest potential are in applied industrial and corporate activities. We will need to switch back from a pervasive model where it was profitable to simply conduct research and publish and return to our technological roots. We also need to get more funding from international research grants. Our success rate with international grants is not bad at all, but we need to prepare and submit higher-quality proposals. I would therefore like to support research groups who have the potential to break into prestigious European grant structures and to apply regularly for grant funding. The university is currently able to withstand the current adverse budget situation thanks to financial reserves, but the reserve funding pool is not endless.

How specifically do you want to raise funds from the commercial sector?

We need to learn how to better connect our knowledge and skills in order to provide comprehensive offers of research cooperation to interested commercial partners. With this, I do not mean just routine lab testing and measuring, but rather providing quality corporate research that companies do not have the space or human capacity to conduct on their own. We can take advantage of the fact that many of our colleagues prefer more hands-on applications and collaborations with the applied sector over publishing. Virtually no one in the Czech Republic is doing chemical-technological research at our scale and quality level. I want to emphasize that this does not mean giving up on competitive, basic and applied research, especially when our goal is to attract and keep high-quality doctoral students, who are literarily indispensable for UCT Prague.

We must not forget our up-to-now underutilized potential for providing continuing education and customized retraining to our industrial partners and the specific government agencies. If some of UCT Prague’s Faculties show interest, I am more than willing to contact the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs regarding the possibility of financing these activities. I know that interest also exists at the Ministry of Industry and Trade, the Confederation of Industry of the Czech Republic, and the Federation of the Food and Drink Industries of the Czech Republic (FFDI).

It is common in the corporate sector that if funding and new income streams are not sufficient, expenditures are also cut. Will you be considering savings in university operations?

A huge advantage of our university is the low student-to-teacher ratio, which is crucial from the point of view of training experts who are, as we can see, very competitive on the international job market. The downside of this, however, is a relatively large financial burden. Of course, we can consider how to save here, but I think that it would be a big mistake and that one of the great competitive edges of our university would be eroded. So we will look for saving opportunities together with the Deans and Vice-Rectors, primarily in operating expenses, not in personnel costs. Quality people are and always will be our best investment.

Let’s look at it from another angle. Aren’t you afraid that quality people will leave UCT Prague for better opportunities?

For me, it is a priority that university employees are satisfied and that they are paid decently for a job well done. I would like to continue gradually increasing basic salaries. Due to the developments in public financing anticipated in the coming years, this will mean lower individual percentage increases rather than tens of percentages year-to-year, but I would like to let employees know that they are important to the university. The first step after taking up the issue will be negotiations with the Faculty Deans about setting up a system for long-term employee motivation. We can start from the already-existing Employee Profile database, which can be used as a valuable initial data source.

What will Step Number Two be?

We need to conduct an analysis of services the Rectorate provides in order to determine which of them are more or less useful for the individual Faculties. Based on a statistical evaluation, we will propose their optimization and will prepare a catalogue of services provided by the Rectorate. Such an analysis has not been performed for twenty years and we are currently operating according to established habits. Today, we have a situation where various duplications appear, and some services are fine, but we don’t know if all of them are really necessary and if we can sustain them over the long term.

The closest collaborators for the Rector are the Vice-Rectors. Can you tell me their names already?

First, I would like to do some reorganization. So far, I am not counting on having a Vice-Rector for Strategies and Development position, since this agenda better fits the Rector’s responsibilities. In its place, I would like to create a Vice-Rector without a pre-existing portfolio position. Her primary responsibility for the next four years would be doctoral student support and doctoral studies in general. Considering the recent legal changes, there will be a lot of work related to this agenda since we are a university that depends on high-quality doctoral students. As a Vice-Rector for Doctoral Studies, I would like to see Prof. Michaela Rumlová (Faculty of Food and Biochemical Technology).

As for the Vice-Rector for R&D, I would like to work with Prof. Pavel Novák (Faculty of Chemical Technology) who will receive two important tasks from me: to start cooperation with the Czech commercial sector on a larger scale and to support and motivate our research groups for more active involvement in international grant competitions. I would like Associate Professor Milan Jahoda (Faculty of Chemical Engineering) to continue as Vice-Rector for Education. In addition to the many responsibilities he already has on his shoulders, I would like him to focus on extending partnerships with secondary schools and educating future chemistry teachers for primary and secondary schools.

The Vice-Rector for External Relations and Communications remains…

I will make a partial adjustment here as well and would like to have the Communications department report directly to the Rector, as is customary at other universities. The Vice-Rector’s agenda will therefore focus exclusively on internationalization and international cooperation. The main goal will be to involve UCT Prague in one of the university alliances; we also need to be more active in Brussels when negotiating scientific and research cooperation activities. I would be very happy if Prof. Pavel Matějka (Faculty of Chemical Engineering) would fill this role. I would also like to add that I, as Rector, would like to take responsibility for the Department of Safety and Risk Prevention’s agenda, which is crucial from the point of view of eliminating risks in operating a chemistry university.

You have announced that you want to involve the Faculty Deans more in university management. Why?

Most teaching and research takes place at the Faculties, and the powers of the Deans are therefore absolutely and legally essential. Faculties de facto determine basic directions of research and instruction. As Rector, my task will be to prepare optimal conditions for the Faculties and their core activities and, to this end, to ensure for them optimal functioning of the services provided by Rector’s Office. Furthermore, the Rector must coordinate the activities of the Faculties and, if necessary, act as a mediator, must be able to convince the faculties to pursue a common goal. Beyond UCT Prague, the Rector must be able to use diplomacy to ensure that the university as a whole can develop in the right direction. This applies, for example, to raising money for infrastructure development, promoting the interests of UCT Prague in decision-making processes, and in creating strategic documents on the national level.

Examples from the past show that if a Rector has communicated well with the Faculty Deans, university operations were very efficient. It is not a matter of resolving trifles, but of reaching a consensus on fundamental and conceptual matters.

Will you have enough time to manage the Departments that report to you?

This will depend on how we agree to set up the levels of managerial responsibilities. Of course, it can be overwhelming to deal with too many details, but that’s why there are very capable leaders as Heads of the Rectorate Departments. These departments work well and independently. I see my role primarily in the discussion of concepts, competences, goals and their implementation. It’s definitely not my intention to micromanage them.

What about instruction and research. Can you still perform these activities as Rector?

The position of Rector is more than a full-time job. I am internally reconciled to the fact that I will largely have to give up both research and teaching. However, I will keep participating in the Academic Council for the doctoral study programs at my home Faculty, will be ready to serve on examination committees, and count with supervising one or two doctoral students.

As Rector, you can no longer chair the Council of Universities. Won’t UCT Prague lose its influence there?

I don’t think so. We are an important member of the Association of Research Universities, an active part of the community of technology universities, and we are going to be more involved in the Czech Conference of Rectors. We will still have many quality contacts and connections and will make an effort to keep and extend them. I believe that I have done enough useful work for the entire higher education community in the role of Chair of the Council of Universities and will not lose my informal influence.

Rector Matějka strongly supported social and cultural activities for students. Will you continue to do this?

Clearly. Our student associations have a good reputation, even beyond our university. For example, many people marvel at our orchestra and say that we have such a wonderful and large orchestra at a tech university. The same applies to our theatre actors in Divoch. I would also add sports activities to the list because they also belong to being a student and can equip you with a number of competencies that come useful in life, especially team sports. I myself played basketball for UCT Prague for many years, so I know what I’m talking about.

What concerns me is the lack of infrastructure for leisure activities. I want to think things through with the Faculty Deans and to try to accommodate students as much as possible so that they have appropriate venues to meet and rest. On the other hand, I can’t work miracles. Only the new building on Vítězné náměstí will significantly improve the recent situation.

Professionally, you have primarily devoted your entire career to fuels. What drew you to investigating them?

Fuels were only an alternative path for me in the beginning. In elementary school, I wanted to study natural sciences, i.e., botany. When I was about the high school age, my teachers told me: Well, you are not suitable for natural sciences and you should go into the humanities (laughs). I was not particularly interested in Latin or history, however. So I successfully represented my humanities-oriented high school program in the mathematics and physics competitions, which was quite intimidating for the schoolmates from the science-oriented programs. Thanks to a nice chemistry teacher, I eventually decided to go study chemistry at UCT Prague. I wanted to focus on water, but at the admissions office I was told that water technology would probably be beyond my capabilities and that I should rather consider fuels (laughs). I met great people investigating fuel and stuck with the topic. Fuels were, are, and will be extremely important to society as is their impact on the environment. As a matter of fact, I am currently involved in preparation of a national, ten-year strategic plan for the use and modelling of the optimal composition of alternative energies as a part of a 20-member cross-sectoral expert team.

What was it about UCT Prague that made you entwine your entire adult life with it?

Above all, I have enjoyed the research topics, I met there excellent instructors and colleagues. I liked that our research outcomes have direct applied implications. I’m not the type of person who is satisfied solely with theoretical outputs. Furthermore, we all know each other at UCT Prague, the environment and inter-personal relations were always nice, enabling us to communicate and work together without any problems. I must also mention our students, who give us, older colleagues, energy and who enrich us.

What type of student were you? A slacker or a hard worker?

I was definitely good at chemistry; thus, my studies didn’t overwhelm me. I didn’t have to fool around all the time, I was able to deduce a lot of things, and so I also had time to play with experiments in the lab. Eventually I graduated with the highest grades and honours. I was also very involved in extracurricular student life. All the time I felt the urge to organize and invent something so that we didn’t get bored in the dorms.

You mentioned that you played basketball for UCT Prague. How long?

I started playing right after coming to the university in 1981 and quit in around 2005. In addition to the game itself, I enjoyed the incredibly diverse team, which included assistants, students, both Associate and Full Professors. In order to win, we had to be able to cooperate and communicate on the basketball court as we went, often suppressing our egos. For me, it was a valuable school for managerial skills as well as a great way to relax.

How do you relieve stress and work commitments these days?

I like to disappear into nature where I don’t have to think about anything. I also like to go to concerts and prefer quality over genre. Even cooking is a chemical discipline, so I’m happy to get behind the stove on weekends. I’ve also been taking nature and landscape photos all my life, and many of my shots are used in bookmark designs. Thanks to this, I have a rather funny deviation: I often perceive the surrounding world as a panorama, in 1:3 or 3:1 format (laughs).

Updated: 4.1.2024 11:17, Author: Michal Janovský


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