The university and the asylum: Greece’s campus policing dilemma

A glorious history of anti-fascist protest means anarchy is tolerated on Greek campuses, but some are ready for the repeal of academic asylum to finally be enforced

November 2, 2022
Police block the entrance to the central Athens university to illustrate Greeks fed up with anarchy on campuses
Source: Getty

Greece is the ancient birthplace of the academy, but it is a turbulent 20th century that explains the contemporary street battles over campus policing. And while many are tired of anarchic posturing and criminality, the inseparability of national and campus politics makes normality an elusive prospect.

The current state of affairs can be traced back to the early hours of 17 November 1973, when a tank smashed through the gates of the Athens Polytechnic, now the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA), in a crackdown on pro-democracy protests led by students on the campus. Disgust at the deadly attempt to crush the demonstrations helped to end Greece’s seven-year military dictatorship, and the anniversary of the Polytechnic Uprising is still marked with memorials, marches and a day of dedicated classes in many schools.

That unarmed students helped return democracy to Greece might explain why in 1982 the concept of university asylum was enshrined in law, with state authorities forbidden from entering campuses without the invitation or express permission of campus leaders.

Later amendments softened the prohibition while retaining protections for the freedom of research and teaching. Legally, authorities may freely enter campuses to investigate serious crime or minor misdemeanours such as traffic accidents, but the inevitability of confrontation with anti-authoritarian student groups means they are reluctant to do so.

To diffuse the stand-off, in 2021, the centre-right New Democracy government created a specialist university police branch (OPPI) with about 1,000 unarmed officers, responsible for overseeing three Athens campuses and one in Thessaloniki. But with the weight of history looming large, it has yet to make an impact.

Just over 2,400 years separate Plato’s Academy from Vasso Kindi’s office, or about half an hour’s drive, Athens traffic permitting. Rather than a dappled olive grove, autumn sunlight falls on the philosopher of science through barred windows, set high into walls daubed with communist and anti-fascist slogans.

“We had a conference, and we had to spend money as a department to paint the walls outside because there was all this graffiti, and some of it was obscene. I don’t want colleagues from abroad to see this. It’s really embarrassing,” the professor at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (NKUA), the country’s oldest university, told Times Higher Education.

A little graffiti is a misdemeanour next to the unrest of 2013, when Athens streets burned with anti-austerity protests and the rapper Pavlos Fyssas was murdered by the neo-fascist group Golden Dawn. Student strikes caused the NKUA campus to close for three months, but Professor Kindi managed to meet with professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard and Princeton universities at NKUA to form the institution’s board of trustees.

As they were talking, they received a warning that protesters had arrived to break up the meeting, fearful that it was a harbinger of privatisation. The delegates locked themselves in the meeting room as protesters tried to break down a door. “We couldn’t get out to go somewhere else, so we decided to call the police. We called again and again, and at last they appeared,” said Professor Kindi, adding that she and her colleagues had eventually sneaked out a side door.

The next day, while the meeting was reconvened off campus, a group 70 activists gathered outside Professor Kindi’s office and scrawled messages on the door. Their chief complaint? That she had summoned the police on to campus.

It was in September 2022 that the specialist OPPI units made their debut, in an oddly choreographed display at the gates of NKUA. Professor Kindi questioned why they chose the “really provocative” tactic of lining up outside the campus gates, which led to a stand-off with student activists and the subsequent arrival of backup units with riot gear and tear gas.

“After that, they just left and no one has seen them again,” Professor Kindi said, adding that the OPPI had refused to do more than patrol outside the NKUA campus without the support of armed officers. “I think the government is scared of possible incidents that may occur, and we have general elections next spring at the latest. They’re afraid that something ugly may happen.”

Ugly things involving the police do happen sometimes. Politicians and rights groups have raised concerns about a lack of prosecutions after incidents of police brutality, including against students, were captured on video. “Young people don’t feel safe with police. And it makes sense in a way,” said Vassilis Apostolopoulos, founder of the liberal Panhellenic Independent Student Movement (PANKS), which is unusual among student groups in not enjoying the backup of an affiliated parliamentary party.

But ugly things also happen on campus in the absence of the police. “Everything started when we said, as a group, it’s not OK to occupy the university,” said Mr Apostolopoulos, speaking in the reception room of the Centre for Liberal Studies, a thinktank with pop art-style stencils of Margaret Thatcher propped against the walls, waiting to be hung.

PANKS has been attacked three times in the 18 months since that announcement, most recently in June 2022, at a party it hosted on campus. “A group of 20 to 25 thugs with helmets, baseball bats and black clothes, they came into the university,” Mr Apostolopoulos said. “They destroyed the equipment. They hit two girls. Every time you call police, nobody comes. We tried to sue the rector, but the problem was there’s a legal gap, because you cannot sue the rector for violence inside the university.”

He thinks preventing political violence and intimidation should be the sole objective of the OPPI, if they can get on to campuses, with conventional police brought in to deal with more serious crime, a separate but significant concern: in September, police raided the NTUA student halls and found knives, knuckledusters, guns and kilos of cannabis belonging to a single gang.

The police raid, the second in as many years, was at the invitation of NTUA’s frustrated rector, Andreas Boudouvis, whose grand office has splatters of fluorescent paint in the corners of the camel-coloured carpet that betray an intrusion by student protesters. “They don’t need to get the permission from the rector to do their job,” he said of the police.

In May, Professor Boudouvis’ car was set on fire while he was teaching chemical engineering close by. He believes the perpetrators live on campus. “There is a real danger and so certain protective measures are taken,” he said, explaining that he has police protection outside the university, but that it would be unsafe for them to enter the campus.

Syriza Youth, a branch of the left-wing Syriza parliamentary party, did not respond to THE’s questions about how best to resolve the stand-off over campus policing. In an interview with the Ρaraskhnio news site, Meropi Tzoufi, a Syriza member of parliament and an academic, said the creation of the OPPI was “an ultra-conservative choice” that sought to “suppress and discipline” the university community.

Saying that Turkey was the only other European country with such a force, she argued that normal policing was sufficient to deal with “isolated incidents of delinquency” occurring at some campuses, adding that while in power, Syriza had not found it necessary to end university asylum.

“University authorities must and can ensure the safeguarding of their institutions,” she was quoted as saying.

For Professor Boudouvis, the bottom line is that the government must stand behind its repeal of academic asylum. “The state, through appropriate agencies – that is justice and the police – should make clear that the law prevails everywhere, that is inside and outside the campus, that criminal behaviour cannot be tolerated,” he said, although he added that the situation was still “not mature enough” for police to become part of everyday life on campus, nor should they be a permanent presence.

“The rectors and the deans should feel safe and have the backing of the police and the public so they feel confident and not scared to take measures,” said Professor Kindi. “The government should show the political will to enforce the laws that it voted for.”

She said it was all too easy for faculty to fall into the habit of quietly conceding to anti-authoritarian groups, a kind of desensitisation she described as “Mithridatism”, referring to Mithridates VI, the ancient Greek king of Anatolia, who took minute doses of poison to make himself invulnerable to assassination. Referring to academic colleagues, she said: “They just want to be left alone, but that will not improve things. Without support from the faculty, reform will not happen.”

She said the most prominent example of academic acquiescence came in September 2020, when anarchists broke into the office of Dimitrios Bourantonis, rector of the Athens University of Economics and Business, photographing the clearly upset professor posing with sign reading “Solidarity with Squats” hung around his neck, reminiscent of the self-criticism students meted out during China’s Cultural Revolution.

The costs of criminality on campus are varied. Scholars and students alike may be put off study, research or teaching by hostilities. “It is practically impossible to have activities in the university that are not accepted by the prevailing leftist students. It’s inconceivable for the minister of education to come and talk at this university,” said Professor Boudouvis, referring to Niki Kerameus of the centre-right New Democracy party.

He said the exception to that rule was the secretary general of the once-outlawed Communist Party of Greece, Dimitris Koutsoumpas, who was able to mobilise his own student supporters to act as security, Professor Boudouvis said. “They don’t want the police because they themselves are the police,” he said, referring to left-wing activists.

Will there be a time when Greek campuses are like those in the rest of the democratic world? “Yes, I am very optimistic that this will happen, and happen soon, because my community, not only my colleagues but also the majority of my students, they just want like hell to be a regular campus. This will come, I’m sure of it,” Professor Boudouvis said.


Print headline: Greeks fed up with anarchy on campuses

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles