Ivan Lacko: You can’t have an ideal world

09/02/2011 19:04

Ivan Lacko (Photo: Katarína Koreňová)


The word “change” has been on our lips a lot recently. It also surfaces often in discussion with Ivan Lacko, an instructor of American literature in the Department of British and American Studies and senator to Comenius University’s Academic Senate. He believes in change and he therefore heartily agrees with H. L. Mencken who said that “human progress is furthered not by conformity, but by aberration.”

Perspectives talked to Mr. Lacko about things he would like to see changed at our faculty and university, his work with the Academic Senate, as well as the election of the rector.

Perspectives (PP): Where did you study, here at the department, or somewhere else?

Ivan Lacko (IL): You mean university? I studied at our university, English and German translation and interpreting, but it was a different type of study, because for the first two years we had a very general linguistic study and then from the third year on, we decided whether we wanted to be interpreters, translators or teachers. I also studied for one year in the United States while I was a student.

PP: Do you think that the then system of study was better than it is now - when you know from the first year what you are going to be?

IL: One thing that happened between the 1990s and now is that we had to meet the Bologna criteria as a country and the system introduced 3 levels of study – bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. So the 5 years that the study took back in the 1990s, as well as now, are basically the same. It’s just that now they are divided, so it’s a technical difference rather than a difference that would be related to content. Now people have to do more things, like state exams after the third year, and then after the fifth year again, they have to write their bachelor’s thesis and then they have to write the diploma thesis again. We didn’t have to do any of this because we only studied for straight 5 years and we directly received a master’s degree. I think it made more sense in terms of the content of what we actually studied. It’s ok to have bachelor’s studies for 3 years and then master’s for 2 years but the content would have to be radically changed.

(The change Mr. Lacko proposes is creating a more general bachelor’s program of English studies, which would offer a general outline of linguistics, culture, literature and other subjects, plus students would not be divided into translators and interpreters and teacher trainees. The division would come at the master’s level, where everybody would study what they want to. In Mr. Lacko’s opinion, only those who really want to carry on should do master’s studies.)

PP: Did you remain with the department after you finished your master’s?

IL: I didn’t stay at the department. I worked as a freelance translator and teacher for over two years and then I became an external Ph.D. student and I taught a few classes. And then, when I did my Ph.D. in 2004, I became a full-time teacher, but in the five years between 1999 and 2004 I was a part-time assistant.

PP: If you look at the department now, are there any things that you would like to change?

IL: I think the problems are related to the overall state of our faculty. I see people who really want to change things, and then I see people who really don’t want to change anything. And, unfortunately, this is something that I can’t change because you can’t have an ideal world. I see great hope, but I also see a great danger in people becoming sedated by rules and regulations that come from the outside. And people give up hope. When things get started, this really takes a lot of effort on the part of teachers in particular to start things to go against the flow, to fight with the lack of resources, and it’s not just financial resources. When you get things started and you see that students really appreciate it and then from the Rectorate or from the Ministry you receive administrative rules, bureaucracy, which is useless and actually obstructs all progress, you wonder what the point of all this is. And I don’t want to be an anarchist or anything but I think that we need a discussion, some kind of conversation, communication with people about why some things are good and why some things are not so good, or why some things, in fact, most things, are somewhere in between and how we should be aware of the positive things, as well as of the negative things, but if you just blindly accept what comes, regardless of what it is, then I think it’s very dangerous, particularly at a university.

PP: You are a member of the university’s Academic Senate. What does that mean? What power do you have?

IL: Well, the power is: I represent our faculty. Every faculty has 5 members: 3 teachers and 2 students and I’m one of the five for the Faculty of Arts. Most of the work is very dull. The Academic Senate is only a legislative body that approves some things. Important decisions aren’t really made. Of course, we have to approve the budget, but then again, there are 65 senators and every single one of them can have a different opinion on the budget, and we do, and then it’s the majority that approves it. One of the greatest powers is that we are able to elect the Rector, which we did. And it was disappointing to me – the process, as well as the result.

PP: Professor Mičieta was elected. Which of the candidates was the most suitable in your opinion?

IL: I officially proposed Professor Šucha as a candidate.

PP: Why?

IL: This is very strange, because I didn’t know him until last May and he contacted me. And he said, “I’d like to run for the post of the Rector and I’d like to meet people mostly from the faculties of humanities.” He’s from the Faculty of Natural Sciences, he’s a geologist. And I thought: OK, he wants to come and do some lobbying, so I was very sceptical. And he came and we had a talk. It took about three hours in the end and during that first meeting, what he said about his plans, his ideas about how the university should be run, he spoke from my heart. And I thought: Well, this is a person who is really willing and motivated to do something. And I learned that he had experiences as a manager, because he worked in the European Commission at quite a high position in the General Directorate for Education and Culture. He worked with quite a few organizations, institutions on projects, which had nothing to do with natural sciences or geology. Actually, he was more involved in social studies and culture and he helped present Košice as a city in the effort to make it the Capital of Culture. You know, he worked on projects like this, and I felt that with a person like this, something could happen.

PP: A more general question: why is it that Slovak universities aren’t even among the best 500 in the world, while our neighbours, e.g. Czech Republic, or Hungary, or Poland, are?

IL: All sorts of reasons. (He smiles.) I don’t know if it’s the most important thing to be in the first 500 universities according to some kind of ranking. I mean, rankings are good and they are helpful, but I don’t think they should be the only way of assessing whether universities are good or not. There is a difference that can be measured, but what is the purpose of a university, if you think of it?  It’s to give something to students. And also to give something to the society, through students, but also through what teachers do. Socially, it’s not just about the books they write, but it’s also about what they say in public, it’s also what the people who work at universities do, that is visible. It usually has something to do with their expertise. You know if a doctor is medialized because he did an operation that nobody else had done before, and we know that the doctor is also a teacher at university and teaches other students to be surgeons just like him, then we make the connection, because we understand that this is something progressive and good. In many other fields this works the same way. So if these are the criteria, then how do you measure those? You don’t put them in a ranking. I think we should first know what we are doing and why we are doing it. And then I think it will come automatically, I think it will come without our noticing.

(As a proof that changes at university are possible, Mr. Lacko named the example of Masaryk University in Brno, which didn’t have very good ratings either. However, there was a rector who had a vision and decided to change the standards of the university. He met people from the Brno region and found partners in regional politics who helped co-finance the new campus and its technical equipment.)  

PP: Do you think that our new rector has a vision?

IL: Let’s see, because I really don’t know. One thing is what he says, and I think he took quite a lot of the rhetoric from Mr. Šucha and is trying to present this as his own. Maybe, let’s hope. But from experience, I think he would be more of a guarantor of the status quo rather than real change. Because real change would involve turning things upside down. I think Mr. Mičieta has been part of the system for too long. It’s not just him, but also other people. They all have been part of the system for so long that it disqualifies them from being proponents of any change, but hopefully, I will be wrong.

Benjamín Erban, Kristína Kallová