Denise Pires de Carvalho on meddling in Brazilian politics

In Brazil, when a university needs a new rector, the academies of the institution vote for a candidate. However, they have no last say. Their chosen candidate and two others will be placed before the president, who will make the final decision. It is common for Jair Bolsonaro to choose one of the candidates not favored by the university.

This is the “worst” example of political interference in higher education, said Denise Pires de Carvalho, rector of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Carvalho himself was nominated by his colleagues for the position of rector in 2019; while awaiting the president’s decision, he told a national newspaper that he had no reason not to nominate him, a direct statement the publication printed on its front page.

“People say,‘ You shouldn’t have said that, ’” he said with a laugh. The move didn’t backfire, though: Bolsonaro approved of his choice.

In other universities, the president has for political reasons chosen someone without institutional support, he said. The government also intervenes if an academic is a politician for an opposition party.

“I am asked if they are not from the same government party. Our freedom is really being challenged at this time, ”Carvalho said.

Women running for leadership positions also seem to have difficulty with the president, who has denied female academics the support of their teachers. There used to be 20 female rectors in Brazil, now there are 14.

“He’s biased towards women – he said that!” Carvalho added. Bolsonaro, he said, described his one daughter as a punishment for his wrongdoing.

For the love of research

One reason Carvalho felt confident that Bolsonaro would not reject him was because he was a true researcher. He started studying medicine when he was 17 years old but fell in love with lab work. Specializing in endocrinology, he became a full -fledged professor at the age of 25. He was dragged away from his beloved lab as colleagues appointed him to represent them on committees: “People chose me, [but] I want to be in my lab. “

He organized a graduate course in biological sciences/physiology at UFRJ for five years. “Every time a new director comes in, I say, ‘I’m going back to my lab,’ [and] they said, ‘No, no, no.’ ”It was later decided that he should take the top job. “People want me to be the rector. This is not something I have decided; it’s not like that. There is a group of people who have decided now is your turn. ”

That turn comes at a particularly difficult time for universities, which are feeling the effects of Bolsonaro’s anti-science agenda as well as the impact of the pandemic.

According to the Academic Freedom Index, which assesses the level of respect for academic freedom in 175 countries and territories based on surveys of more than 2,000 country experts around the world, Brazil is one of four countries (including Hong Kong , India and Turkey) who “saw the largest decline in academic freedom between 2011 and 2021”.

Although there is no walk in the park to meddle in politics, the financial squeeze of his institution keeps Carvalho up at night. The university budget has been cut by 50 percent since 2015, in tandem with an increase in the number of students. “Imagine that!” he said, with more than a hint of indignation.

Public trust

However, it is not all mischief and darkness. The pandemic boosted the status of universities in the eyes of the general public.

In the past, universities were viewed with little distrust; as public universities became more inclusive and awarded more places to unrepresented groups, they felt the anger of parents that children were being missed in places, according to Carvalho.

“Society has asked,‘ Why are these universities important? ’” He said. Meanwhile, people also thought that academics have “more or less good salaries while the public does not earn much”.

But the pandemic changed hearts and minds. It started when the country ran out of ethanol, which is used as an antiviral agent, and universities were able to provide it, he said. Then, academies began to appear on television to explain the pandemic. When there was no lateral flow test, universities entered. “We made the diagnosis for society every day for over 24 months of that,” he said.

“We don’t want the pandemic to happen, but [because of it] we have reached society in a way we never did before, ”Carvalho added.

Did this newly discovered respect for academia continue, even though the pandemic was no longer so much novel? Yes, he believes. Epidemiologists and other experts still conduct regular television appearances to update Brazilians about the pandemic, unlike the government, which “acts as if the pandemic has stopped”.

Today, universities have proven their value to the extent that “when we say we don’t [enough] budget, we are with the society ”, she says.


The other bright side is that the pandemic is a rocket booster for interdisciplinary working, something Carvalho enjoys.

“If society has a question, it has to be answered by multidisciplinary teams,” he said.

Strengthening interdisciplinary working will require a change in approach to local universities, he thinks.

“There are people working on the same topic all over Brazil. And they don’t talk to each other,” he said. “Sometimes we talk to people who are in France, in Portugal, in the United States-but not in our own country, or in the countries here. [in Latin America]”We compete with each other instead of working together.”

Despite this, he thinks interdisciplinary working will be the future: “The 21st century is a century of greater collaboration, across networks, and we need to work together to solve problems.”

In October, Brazilians will go to the polls again, and Bolsonaro could be ousted by former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. What does Carvalho expect for the outcome?

“I hope Brazil chooses the best politician who can continue a project for our country [to become] a developed country. This means we need to support politicians who are defending science, technology, universities and the adequate budget for these public institutions that produce knowledge, ”he said.

Whatever happens, he is positive about the future of higher education. “Governments, they pass; and we [universities] will continue because we are important to society. ”

It’s part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with people who run the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

The Times Higher Education The Latin America University Rankings will be released at 18:00 BST on 14 July.