Can Kosovo's biggest university sweep away its rampant graft?

Abuse of admissions procedures, salaries for teachers who don't teach, and plagiarized dissertations: the University of Pristina had them all. But the new man in charge is trying to change that.

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    Ramadan Zejnullahu sits in his office at the University of Prishtina campus. A former mathematics professor, Mr. Zejnullahu was elected as the university’s new rector last September and will serve until September 2016.
    Valerie Plesch
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Ramadan Zejnullahu, a bespectacled mathematics professor, is more comfortable giving a classroom lecture than taking on politicians and special interests.

But since becoming rector of Kosovo's largest public university in September, he has gone after graft with the precision of his profession, implementing a wide range of reforms in how the university is run. And these reforms are impacting the highest levels of government and upsetting some powerful public figures. 

Nonetheless, his commitment to transparency and reform in a country suffering from high unemployment, corruption, and poverty has won him public support. While his efforts may appear a drop in the bucket, they have given citizens hope that corruption can be rooted out – and that someone is willing to do it.

“People are excited about what he's doing,” says Leon Malazogu, a member of the university's board and director of civil society organization Democracy for Development. “It's energizing people. Ordinary people believe he's working for the benefit of education,” rather than for politics or himself.

Problems

The University of Pristina has been a troubled institution since the end of Kosovo's war of 1998-99, says Mr. Zejnullahu.

After the war, jobs at the university were given out as political favors; advancement was based on connections, not academic qualifications. Some professors plagiarized their dissertations. The previous rector resigned amid student protests after he was revealed to have met academic publishing requirements by publishing a paper outside his field in a dubious pay-to-publish journal.

Further, some 85 public figures, including the prime minister and several members of his cabinet, were employed as professors. They draw salaries from the university in addition to their primary jobs – despite the fact that some do not teach any classes.

There were problems with enrollment as well, Zejnullahu says. While children of war veterans were granted an admissions advantage, this devolved into veterans simply handing over a list of students for admission without question. Some weren't even veterans' offspring but had used bribes or favors to get their name on the list. 

Meanwhile, the university is failing at its primary role: educating Kosovo's young people. There are 55,000 students at the university, and just 996 professors and assistants. Students complain of overcrowded classes, inadequate facilities, absentee professors, and lax academic standards. Employers say graduates are ill equipped for many jobs.

Reform U

After the previous rector's scandal, the minister of education at the time appointed members of civil society to the university's executive board, a first for any public institution in Kosovo, says Mr. Malazogu. That increased accountability and made Zejnullahu's election possible.

Once in office, Zejnullahu, who started teaching at the university in 1980, got down to business. He put an end to enrollments outside the normal process, halting abuse of the veterans' affirmative action policy. He also changed the way academic staff were hired and promoted by the faculty senate in an effort to end nepotism and increase transparency, which he says has already been successful.

And he did not shy away from reforms that affect the powerful, as well. Zejnullahu decided that dual-employed professors will be paid only for the work they perform at the university – affecting the prime minister and his cabinet. “It was risky to do this, but we are determined to continue in this way,” says Zejnullahu.

The rector also mandated that all dissertations should be published online, a step many expect will expose plagiarized or problematic papers, including by powerful Kosovars. And he has plans to crack down on lax academic standards – and shift the balance between what most students choose to study and the demands of the labor market.

Zejnullahu's appointment alone has shaken up the university. After he took over, the price of paper sold to the university for diplomas abruptly dropped; someone had previously been skimming 22,000 euros (around $23,861) off the transaction, he surmised. 

Will it last?

His efforts have not gone unopposed. War veterans groups protested outside his office for months. Most students grumble about changes to exams meant to make the university more academically rigorous, which they say impose unfair requirements on them. And a group of public figures challenged his decision on dual employment of professors, and the issue is still before a court.

But while Zejnullahu recognizes that much work remains, he says that simply by proclaiming a policy of transparency and resolutely enforcing the rules, he has already changed the atmosphere of the university. University should be a place that is about education, not politics, he says. Success, for him, would mean that students were outside his office protesting because professors didn't show up to teach, instead of over the enrollment issue, which he considers political.

He is eager to get back to teaching once his two-year term ends next year, but worries what may follow. “The only thing I wanted when I ran for this position is that when I hand it over, it will be to someone who will continue what we started,” he says. “If this doesn't happen, it will be my biggest disappointment.”

Agron Demi, director of the Pristina think tank the GAP Institute for Advanced Studies, says Zejnullahu has a formidable job ahead, especially since he opened so many fronts of battle at once. “If he continues like this, he will deliver something. But personally, I don't expect miracles to happen in a short time – the problems have been there for a long time.”

The rector should get civil society and university alumni more invested in his efforts, says Mr. Demi. But he says the rector, along with the mayor of Pristina who was elected in late 2013 on an anti-corruption and reform platform, has created some positive momentum. “These are small cases that show that something good can be done.”

 
 
 

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