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Polish universities: back under the thumb of the regime

Polish universities are to reopen Feb. 8 after an eight-week closure ordered by martial-law authorities.

During that time the government has reasserted its old, strong grip on the universities and scrapped most of the privileges students won a year ago.

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Then student leaders called off a month of sit-ins and campus protest after education authorities made some remarkable concessions. These included a statute on university autonomy, student participation in academic affairs, and legalization of an independent student union.

Now most of these concessions have fallen victim to a challenge mounted last November at some 70 of Poland's 90 institutions of higher education. That was one of the most sensitive ''law and order'' factors behind the imposition of martial law a few weeks later.

The classrooms are reopening under a strong government hand to prevent campuses again becoming a hotbed of oppositionist, reformist demands.

The November clash centered on student distrust of government efforts to amend a draft bill on academic autonomy. The students were backed by Solidarity and the Roman Catholic Church, and the amendments were shelved pending a parliamentary debate.

But martial law was brought in Dec. 13, and the new military authorities dissolved a compromise ''conference of rectors'' set up to protect student interests. The students' union was suspended, some of its leaders interned, and all universities and other institutions of higher education shut down.

Last month postgraduate and final-year students were allowed back. Meanwhile the military authorities were preparing the ''guidelines'' to be applied when all classes resume.

Under the February 1981 Lodz agreement (so named because the University of Lodz was the focal point of demands for the new university charter) Polish students had won privileges they had never had before.

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These ranged from a considerable voice in curriculum matters and university government to the end of censorship of student publications of fewer than 1,000 copies. Students were given options on courses on Marxism and the Russian language. Passports no longer were tied to good grades.

None of these remain. Both staff and student voices in university life have been greatly diminished.

Broadly speaking, the universities are to be governed by legislation dating back to the late 1950s that gives broad powers to rectors and department heads, who must be government-approved nominees. (They will no longer be elected by staff and students as in the Lodz agreement.) Elected senates and department councils are reduced to advisory roles.

The universities will reopen each semester only after the rectors and the local military councils are satisfied of continued strict observance of the new martial law conditions.

Union activity of any kind remains prohibited. The students' union has been dissolved. Students will be allowed on campus only during lecture and library hours; attendance at lectures is mandatory, as is study of the Russian language. All courses are again subject to the approval of the Education Ministry.

The rectors will control of university printing equipment, for preliminary censorship of academic and teaching publications, and for dealing with any infringements of martial-law discipline in their schools.

Still, no clear picture emerges of the reactions of academics and teachers to the return of old restrictions. At least one rector (at Wroclaw Technical Institute) objected and was dismissed. Others have objected to ''ideological'' verification (i.e., a loyalty oath) before being confirmed in a post.

Most notable among protesting academics is the respected rector of Warsaw University, Prof. Henryk Samson-owicz. Last year he made a strong plea for more open teaching of Poland's history, particularly in relation to its Soviet neighbor. He has been expelled from the Communist Party, but he is still in his post as rector -- at least in part because of difficulties in finding someone ready to take his place.

Students are subject to severe new individual discipline. They can be expelled not only for any ''illegal'' activity like putting up antigovernment posters or slogans, but also for missing classes without a bona fide medical certificate.

They will have to work harder. If they don't, they will lose the previous automatic exemption from or deferment of military service. They will be allowed only two repeats of a flunked exam instead of four. And after finishing, only a limited time to find a job. Otherwise they will be directed to one.

Last year many older Poles viewed the more extreme student political activity and disruption of classes with concern. They probably welcome conditions requiring their sons and daughters to get back to their studies.

Professor Samsonowicz is said to have accepted the political ban at his university but to have stood up for academic independence and against the ''verification'' process.

''Law and order'' at Poland's universities seems certain to depend on how responsive the martial law authorities -- and after them civilian government -- are to efforts by academics like Professor Samsonowicz to preserve some meaningful autonomy despite the new ideological pressures.

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