GREECE: Close a university - open a museum

Education Secretary Aris Spiliotopoulos has outraged the Greek academic community following a chance remark he made before his appointment. Spiliotopoulos had suggested the National Technical University of Athens be removed from its present neo-classical building in the centre of Athens to an unspecified area outside the city boundaries to combat the increasing violent behaviour of sundry anarchist groups which use the university campus as a refuge during riots, demonstrations and marches.

Home to the school of architecture and civil engineering as well as the school of fine arts, the National Technical University is the country's oldest higher education institution. This year it celebrates 171 years of uninterrupted activity in its present headquarters - a donation from a wealthy Greek family.

Spiliotopoulos' statement came in the wake of last December's riots when the institution was used as an operational base by various anarchist groups. Although besieged by the police, they were prevented from storming the building without the express permission of the university's senate committee.

The sanctuary inside the university environs was established to promote the free dissemination of ideas and protect the academic community from prosecution, not to condone criminal activities. But the senate committee was reluctant to allow police operations inside the institution for fear of more extensive damage to the buildings and equipment.

Many academics believe the increasing violence is not best dealt with by making a scapegoat of universities or by removing long-standing institutions from their traditional environs but by political decisions that strike at the root cause of the problem.

National university Vice-chancellor Professor Giannis Polyzos, a distinguished city planner and civil engineer, was the first to make his opposition to the suggestion abundantly clear by threatening to resign.

Polyzos accused the government of abrogating its own responsibilities and of attempting to transfer its inability to deal with the violence to the universities. Academics are angry with the Education Secretary who appears to engage in a form of double-speak: he professes to be open to dialogue and then takes decisions without consultation with any of the interested parties.

Recently, Spiliotopoulos had a meeting with Athens Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis in an effort to find allies for his suggestion without consulting the university or the staff or students.

In a statement after the meeting, however, he said: "We are under obligation to see what else we can contribute towards this present climate apart from our own convenience. I am sure that in cooperation with the university authorities and the senate committee we will be able to find a solution."

He further proposed the university building could be turned into a museum dedicated to democracy - a reference to the university's contribution, actual and symbolic, to the fall of the colonels' military junta in 1973.

But Polyzos responded angrily saying the abolition of the sanctuary and removal of universities from the centre so the areas they occupied could be turned into dead museums was "promoted as a solution of sensitivity and environmental improvement".

"If we follow the same logic, then the Greek parliament should be removed from the troublesome Constitution Square," he declared.

Athens Mayor Kaklamanis appeared a little more conciliatory, saying the scheme could not progress without the cooperation and agreement of all interested parties including the students: "My own strictly personal opinion is that it is a very fine and positive step in the right direction."

Writing in a leading newspaper, architecture professor Panagiotis Tournikiotis said the idea that students could be taught architecture outside the city was "tantamount to saying that they can be taught medicine outside the hospital".

Tournikiotis said the university in general and the architecture school in particular "lived and breathed within the city together with libraries, museums, bookshops and cultural centres".

"One cannot ask from a university to become a cemetery in order to satisfy the demands of a consumerist society."

Supporters of the suggestion claimed many lecturers had their private research offices near and around the university and that the main reason they were reluctant to move outside the city was fear of losing their clients.

Spiliotopoulos, however, knows his suggestion does not have a chance in a million of being implemented. The National University, though a state university, enjoys full autonomy and the building itself was left to it as a legacy.

The Education Secretary is fully aware that removal of the university from its present position will not solve the problem of increasing violence among the young, the underprivileged and those who feel they are not shielded from the worst effects of the economic crisis.

That is a problem the present government is unable and unwilling to find a solution to in the increasingly short time it has before it is obliged to relinquish power - probably sinking under the weight of several successive scandals.