Unlawful Promotions At The Sarajevo University

Some teachers and associates from the University of Sarajevo (UNSA) moved up the career ladder without meeting the legally stipulated criteria.

At this largest and oldest higher education institution in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) individuals have been unlawfully promoted for years.

CIN journalists found that from 2018 to 2022, at least 12 teachers and associates from faculties and academies were promoted to senior assistants and assistant professors or kept their titles without meeting the essential requirements for that. They did not publish scientific articles, skipped positions in the promotion process, or continued to work after the expiry of their election period.

The Sarajevo Canton Higher Education Act stipulates essential criteria for promotion, but the Ministry of Science, Higher Education, and Youth of the Sarajevo Canton and UNSA failed to set more detailed rules, thus leaving room for manipulations and favoring individuals.

In the absence of rules, the selection commissions and UNSA Senate have been promoting candidates based on their subjective assessments, aware that they thus break the law. No one has been held accountable for that.

For years, cantonal inspectors have been warning about these irregularities and imposing fines, but UNSA Rector Rifat Škrijelj disregards these warnings, interpreting them as a personal attack against him: “As rector of the University i.e., UNSA, I am under constant pressure from the inspection authorities.”

In the meantime, individuals keep the titles thus awarded.

“This is what I call intellectual corruption. (…) Simply put, it is the corruption by which one destroys the positive values of the academic community”, said Benjamin Fetić, assistant professor at the Faculty of Sciences in Sarajevo.

The disputed criteria for academic promotion are one of the reasons for UNSA being among the lowest-ranked universities in the region on all important world lists.

Rektor UNSA-e Rifat Škrijelj, iako svjestan da ispodprosječni kadrovi napreduju u akademskim zvanjima, ignoriše nalaze inspektora koji su u utvrdili nepravilnosti pri ovim procesima (Foto: CIN)
While aware that below-average staff are being promoted on the academic ladder, the rector of UNSA Rifat Škrijelj ignores the findings of the inspectors who found irregularities in this process (Photo: CIN)

Disregard for inspection findings

When the Sarajevo Canton Higher Education Act was adopted in 2017, the Ministry of Education and the University of Sarajevo had one year to set the rules specifying the kind of papers that must be produced and the journals in which to be published in order to qualify for the promotion.

The Ministry and UNSA never did it. The former ministers of education say that the University’s proposals were not good, while the University claims that the Ministry should have written them.

The national and cantonal laws governing higher education stipulate essential requirements such as the number of articles that need to be published in recognized journals.  Since it is not defined which journals these are, the selection commission decides on this matter arbitrarily.

As a result, in the selection process, a candidate who is actively engaged in science and publishes in a foreign language in recognized world journals and a candidate who publishes articles in less important journals are in the same position.

“People simply write anything, publish it in a children’s magazine and dailies, and say ‘this is now a scientific article’.  Hence, it is necessary to say what a scientific article really is instead of stipulating the number of articles that one must publish to qualify for selection”, says Dejan Milošević, full professor at the Faculty of Sciences and chair of the UNSA Science Council.

This method of selection enabled Mirsada Zećo, a senior assistant at the Faculty of Education in Sarajevo, to become an assistant professor in 2020. The requirement for this position was to have three scientific papers published in a recognized journal, but she had none. She presented to the selection commission four papers, none of which was classified as a scientific paper.

Despite this, the three-member Commission gave her a positive assessment.  The selection was then confirmed by the Faculty Council, the Humanities Group, and finally by the Senate. She was elected assistant professor for a period of five years.

Mirsada Zećo je na Pedagoškom fakultetu u Sarajevu imenovana za docenticu, a da nije imala nijedan objavljen naučni rad (Foto: Facebook)
Mirsada Zećo was elected assistant professor at the Faculty of Education in Sarajevo without having published any scientific paper (Photo: CIN).
Mirsada Zećo je na Pedagoškom fakultetu u Sarajevu imenovana za docenticu, a da nije imala nijedan objavljen naučni rad (Foto: Facebook)
Mirsada Zećo was elected assistant professor at the Faculty of Education in Sarajevo without having published any scientific paper (Photo: CIN).

However, after the completion of this process, Commission Chair Merima Čaušević changed her mind and requested that her signature be revoked. She reported the case to the Cantonal Administration for Inspection Affairs. She said that Zećo did not meet the requirements, as none of her papers were classified as scientific, admitting that the categorization of Zećo’s papers was deliberately omitted in the report. Commission member Valida Akšamija told the inspectors she agreed to sign the report in favor of Zećo, even though she did not submit the requested papers in the competition process. The third member, Irma Čehić, said that she had no reason to doubt the positive report made by the Commission Chair.

The inspection then ordered the decision appointing Zećo to the position of assistant professor to be revoked and imposed an infringement fine on Dean Daniel Maleč and the Faculty of Education. Maleč appealed the decision of the inspection to the Ministry and requested that the court should decide on the infringement fine.  During the proceedings at the Sarajevo Municipal Court, he admitted to having breached the provisions of the law relating to the conditions for the election, so he received a reprimand. Maleč did not want to talk to reporters.

The Ministry of Education asked the inspection to repeat the procedure, and the repeated procedure confirmed that Zećo did not qualify for the promotion. However, the Ministry revoked the decision of the inspection and closed the case, while Zećo remained in the position of assistant professor.

The current Sarajevo Canton Minister of Science, Higher Education and Youth Aleksandra Nikolić holds that the election was carried out according to the Law and that Čaušević should have reacted earlier if she thought that the candidate did not meet the requirements: “Only court can decide that this person should lose a job or that the title will be taken away.”

However, for the court to decide on this matter, the University should have initiated an administrative dispute, which did not happen.

Although they broke the law, the members of the commission were not sanctioned. Čaušević and Čehić work at the Faculty of Education, and Akšamija at the Music Academy. None of them wanted to talk to CIN journalists.

Along with academic promotion comes a higher salary. Zećo has been teaching and evaluating students of the Faculty of Education for two years with a salary of BAM 2,500 KM, which is about BAM 1,000 more than the salary of a senior assistant. As an assistant professor, she teaches Music and Music Education Teaching Methods.

Rector Rifat Škrijelj says that nothing would have changed even if Čaušević denied her vote because the candidate had the support of the remaining two members.

The selection of academic staff is made based on a public competition announced by the dean of the faculty or academy. The qualifications for the position of assistant professor include a Ph.D. degree in the relevant field of science, a minimum of three academic papers published in a recognized journal, and demonstrated teaching abilities.  The qualifications for the position of a senior assistant include an MA degree, and a completed election period in the title of an assistant, while in addition to this, qualifications for art teaching positions include also public performances.  In all three cases, candidates are elected for a period of five years with the possibility of one re-election, as specified in the Sarajevo Canton Higher Education Act from 2017.

Ilma Zulum from the Music Academy was also promoted to a higher position in violation of the regulations. In 2020, she was elected a senior assistant for violin, despite the negative assessment of the commission rendered based on the fact that she did not meet the requirements for the position.

In its report, the commission stated that Ilma Zulum’s artistic references were insufficient for her to be promoted or to work with students, and the commission’s decision was upheld by the Council of the Academy, and later by the Arts Group. The Senate members, including the rector, mostly voted against her promotion to senior assistant.

Before the voting ended, the rector changed his mind and invited his colleagues from the Senate to vote again and to elect the candidate. Some members of the Senate obeyed, and some asked for a postponement of the vote. Ultimately, Zulum did not have the support of the majority.

Despite such a vote, not willing to give up the rector called a new session where he again proposed that Zulum be elected. This time, those who were against her election voted in her favor. CIN reporters spoke with the hesitant members of the Senate, but they claim they could not recall what made them change their minds.

The inspection found the decision in favor of Zulum to be unlawful because it had already been voted on.

Ismet Ovčina, director of the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, claims he did not alter his vote, although the minutes say otherwise. Namely, he first voted against the election of Ilma Zulum, and on the second vote, he voted in her favor. “It is misrepresented, trust me”, says Ovčina.

On the other hand, Sedad Bešlija, director of the History Institute, told journalists that voting in the sessions is conducted as instructed by the rector, vice-rector, and the legal department.

Jasmin Velagić, dean of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, voted against the election of Zulum at both sessions, holding that the position of the commission is the only relevant one: “If the commission made an assessment, then that’s it. I cannot go against the commission, as they are experts in the field, I’m not. I do not do art”.

In a conversation with journalists, Škrijelj did not want to comment on the events at the session. He claims that an MA degree and a completed election period in the title of an assistant were sufficient and that public performances were not necessary.

The inspection twice checked the process of electing Ilma Zulum to the position of senior assistant. It requested the University not to elect Zulum, and eventually, the Ministry made the same request.

However, the rector disregarded this request. He said he cannot change the decisions of the Senate, and only the court can do that, provided that someone had initiated a dispute.

All this time, Zulum has been working with students, and she refused to talk to CIN journalists.

The inspectors found at the Faculty of Pharmacy that Belma Pehlivanović was promoted in the 2022 competition from the title of an assistant to the title of assistant professor of Pharmacology I and II. No regulation allows for this, because to be promoted to the title of an assistant professor she would need to have the title of senior assistant first.

Pehlivanović was elected for a period of five years. She did not answer the calls of journalists. Dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy, Fahir Bečić, refused to talk about this topic.

“The inspector imposed two fines, on me one relating to Ilma Zulum, (…) and the other relating to Pehlivanović (…) These decisions will be enforced only when the court says they should be enforced. Before that, I will not be implementing them”, said rector Škrijelj.

Also, in May 2018, inspectors found that at the Faculty of Agriculture and Food in Sarajevo, as many as nine people were working as senior assistants without having met the requirements for these positions.

Senad Murtić, Dženan Hadžić, Sanel Haseljić, Lejla Spiljak, Almir Toroman, Tarik Dizdarević, Alejna Krilić, Mersiha Alkić, and Mirza Tvico were elected to these positions in the period from 2008 to 2013. They were elected for a period of five years, but they were allowed to continue working even after that period. They worked up to five years after the expiry of their election periods.

In 2018, the Faculty of Agriculture complied with the inspection’s order and excluded these nine persons from the scientific-teaching process, while assigning them to the jobs for which they qualified at that time.  In the meantime, they earned their Ph.D. degrees and were elected assistant professors.

None of them wanted to explain to CIN how this happened. Dean Muhamed Brka provided only a short written response.

Iako je Ilmu Zulum sa Muzičke akademije Komisija negativno ocijenila jer nije ispunjavala uslove za višu asistenticu, imenovana je na ovu poziciju (Foto: Facebook)
Despite the negative assessment of Ilma Zulum by the Music Academy Commission  – because she did not meet the requirements for the position – she was appointed a senior assistant (Photo: CIN)

The benefit of an individual comes before the progress of the University

The absence of rules did not stop the elections for academic positions at UNSA. From 2018 to 2021 a total of 1,114 candidates were elected. 2022 data have not yet been published.

Allowing the academic staff to be promoted by publishing articles in journals not recognized in the world, UNSA stays behind not only the world but also regional universities.

Although such practice harms UNSA, Škrijelj holds that the current regulations are sufficient for unhindered election and that commissions, faculty councils, and the Senate have “academic freedom” to decide on the promotion of each individual. Nevertheless, he admits that some want to achieve their goals more easily, with low-quality work, and that is why they resort to corruption: “We have had and still have cases where very high-quality staff are being bypassed in the selection process, while the below-average staff is elected”.

Muhamed Hadžiabdić, a professor at the International University in Sarajevo and a member of the Sarajevo Canton Science Council, believes that the concept of “academic freedom” is being misused and misinterpreted: “Academic freedom is the freedom to create, to be creative, to research within some ethical norms. Academic freedom is not about deciding on the direction in which a university is to go or how the academic election is to be made.”

While UNSA and the Ministry were looking for a common position on promotion rules, universities from the region were moving up on the ranking list.  On Webometrics, a list that ranks the success of universities from all over the world, UNSA is currently in 1713th place out of 31 thousand universities from 200 countries. Ljubljana is far ahead at 334th place, Belgrade at 455th, and Zagreb at 573rd place. UNSA is outranked by smaller universities such as Split, Rijeka, Novi Sad, and Maribor.

Also, unlike some universities in the region, UNSA is not on the Shanghai List of Universities, the most important list in the eyes of the academic community.

“One cannot expect to raise the value or visibility in the scientific area by writing in Bosnian and publishing in local journals only, said Melika Husić-Mehmedović, professor at the Faculty of Economics in Sarajevo and former Minister of Education.

While the 2017 Higher Education Act has not been fully complied with, a new one was adopted in September 2022 but it brought no significant change in terms of promotion to academic positions.

Professor Muhamed Hadžiabdić believes that UNSA will become irrelevant if the system is not changed: “We already have a decline in the number of students. This decline is partly a consequence of demographics, but a significant part of it is due to the way society perceives the University.  The decline in the number of students will continue, and students will choose to study elsewhere, in the country or abroad”.

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