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Ivanka Popović, Professor At The Faculty Of Technology And Metallurgy Of The University Of Belgrade

Fear Of ‘The Other’ Is At The Root Of All Conflict

She served as rector of the University of Belgrade in her last term and displayed the required decisiveness and strength to preserve this institution’s dignity and clear position as a public asset that should serve society, and not be used as a tool in some political or social clashes. It could be said that she inherited some of her political thinking from her grandfather, David ‘Daka’ Popović (1886-1967), who was a senator, the first noble ban of the province of Danube Banovina and served as minister of Agrarian Reform, while some of her calmness was instilled by her father, renowned Yugoslav diplomat Gavra Popović

She served as rector of the University of Belgrade in her last term and displayed the required decisiveness and strength to preserve this institution’s dignity and clear position as a public asset that should serve society, and not be used as a tool in some political or social clashes. It could be said that she inherited some of her political thinking from her grandfather, David ‘Daka’ Popović (1886-1967), who was a senator, the first noble ban of the province of Danube Banovina and served as minister of Agrarian Reform, while some of her calmness was instilled by her father, renowned Yugoslav diplomat Gavra Popović When someone’s ID card states that their birthplace was Rio de Janeiro, a journalist naturally latches onto that information. And immediately receives the answer that in 1959, when she was born, Ivanka’s father, Gavra Popović, was serving as a diplomat in Brazil. That’s how it came to be that his only daughter spoke her first words in Portuguese, but by the time she was two and a half her father had completed his term in that country. Her father later served twice in Washington, which would mark the years of Ivanka’s schooling.

“With the changing of schools, I had to learn to adapt. You’re always the newcomer in class and have to be communicative and find common topics with your new acquaintances. Back when I was a child, ideological divisions were huge. While living in America, we represented a socialist country, so on occasion everyone would look at us with a sense of wonder. On the other hand, life brings with it the same temptations wherever you are, and the most important thing for me was to handle the new environment and adapt to it. The experiences I gained as a very young person proved useful later in life.”

The upbringing that she received at home determined the way she would behave in life. That was a hard-working family unit where a lot was placed on doing something properly if you’re going to do it at all, dedicating yourself completely to that job. Whatever you undertake, you should do your best, standing behind and taking responsibility for what you did.

“My parents engaged particularly in developing my work ethic, because – given that I’m an only child – they didn’t want me to be a stereotypical spoilt brat. They supported everything in which I expressed an interest and taught me what freedom is, but also that freedom comes with responsibility. You might not be too fond of that responsibility when you’re a child, but it helped me later in life. Everything I took from the family, where good relations reigned supreme, formed foundations that gave me a sense of certainty and self-confidence to believe that I could try my hand at anything I wanted. And that wouldn’t mean defeat even if I failed, but rather that I needed to find a different way to approach the situation. It’s important not to quit.”

You represent your country in a foreign environment, which puts everything in a different context. Or rather, it is never said that so and so did something by name, but rather ‘that little one from Yugoslavia’ did it

Her childhood didn’t lack anything, but nor was it one of overabundance. They acted as a good household with what they had, not wasting anything. Diplomatic service may seem glamorous and be presented as a life of privilege, but for Ivanka it was about getting acquainted with a serious job, a serious profession that her father mastered during the years of a career that demanded great dedication, because a diplomat has a 24-hour-a-day job.

“You represent your country in a foreign environment, which puts everything in a different context. Or rather, it is never said that so and so did something by name, but rather ‘that little one from Yugoslavia’ did it. My parents reminded me of that constantly when we were living abroad. Just as receptions weren’t places for having a good time, but rather opportunities for direct exchanges of information and conversations about business. My father was very busy, so I was happy whenever he was able to spend time with his family. Given that we were travelling constantly, it wasn’t really possible for my mother to have her own career, so she dedicated herself to us. She was a strong pillar of support for both me and my father. I had a beautiful and tranquil childhood. That was a time when it was possible to make longterm plans, because people lived under stable conditions. That’s almost impossible today.”

Although both her parents are from Vojvodina, Ivanka has never lived in the province, so when we ask her what’s Vojvodinan about her, she smiles and says that home felt like Vojvodina.

“Due to historical circumstances, the fact they weren’t part of their homeland for a long time because the territory belonged to another state, the people of Vojvodina are very dedicated to their country, so the Popović family had a tradition of public engagements in social life. Perhaps the Vojvodina in me is that which I inherited from my father, and that’s peaceability and patience. Of course, that doesn’t apply to all Vojvodina folk. Srem folk are said to be temperamental, while us Bačva folk are mild-mannered. I have strong ties to Vojvodina, which I love due to its multiculturalism.”

She lived in America during a time when there was a very strong movement for black rights against racial discrimination, and protests against the war in Vietnam, and for her that was an inspirational kind of citizen engagement.

“You can’t be left feeling indifferent when observing the people who led these movements; that inspires you to believe that it’s worth fighting for ideals. You see people who’ve invested massively in their struggle. That’s why it saddens me when I see what’s happening today and how the positive results of all those difficult struggles are being undone; struggles in which people really sacrificed themselves, and some even gave their lives. We are today once again confronted by vast differences and huge divisions among different social categories in society, which is very discouraging, particularly at a time when such great technological advances mean that the world should be progressing.”

Rich experience and vast knowledge have shaped Ivanka’s views on the differences in society that are today the cause of many major conflicts.

“It seems that at the root of everything lies a fear of that which is different or, to be more specific, as a rule people avoid that which is different, that with which they’re not familiar. That’s why it’s important to insist, always and in every situation, that people are able to communicate despite all their differences. And we are a society that’s deeply divided. It’s essential to overcome that division; it’s important to talk, to be patient and tolerant, to find ways to overcome differences so that we can live in peace and harmony.”

The culture of dialogue is vanishing, with the model of conflict being offered as a solution, which is a truly unbelievable regression for human society

The current models on the public scene don’t inspire confidence that the culture of dialogue is a strong point among Serbs.

“The culture of dialogue is vanishing, with the model of conflict being offered as a solution, which is a truly unbelievable regression for human society.”

It is noted in Ivanka’s biography that she “hails from a famous Novi Sad family”. This also acknowledges the fact that her ancestors had various social and political engagements, but also the fact that many members of that family participated in World War II, among the ranks of anti-fascists. Nonetheless, the most interesting figure in the Popović line was Ivanka’s grandfather David ‘Daka’ Popović (1886-1967), a civil engineer responsible for the constructions of several important buildings in Novi Sad and Vojvodina, a senator, the first ban of the province of Danube Banovina and minister of Agrarian Reform. He also dealt with the history of Serbs in Vojvodina and was a versatile figure with broad interests.

“What my grandfather did and dealt with professionally, the tribulations he faced, were things that I only started to address in my more mature years, by following the course of his career and looking at where he halted his public engagements and why. I found that very interesting and considered that, in some way, I was continuing the family tradition of public action that had been important in our family.

Political engagement requires that you be willing to compromise. Compromise doesn’t also mean that you’re ready to set aside some of your principles. When he was expected to ignore his own, he resigned from the positions he held, and I think that’s worthy of respect. I remember him only vaguely, but I feel some connection with him. He sent his own sketches in every letter he wrote to us when we were abroad, as a little gift for me. He died while we were in America, with my grandmother passing away soon after. My mother’s parents had died during World War II, so it was always the three of us as a family unit. And we often relocated, which functioned well, but our time spent residing abroad meant that we missed out on having a wider network of family and friends.”

Ivanka had known as far back as primary school that her choice of vocation would be some kind of combination of natural and technical sciences. She initially leaned towards pure natural sciences, but her final decision was to enrol in studies at the Faculty of Technology and Metallurgy, where she earned her doctorate and stayed on as a professor. Or, more precisely, she completed the first two years of her studies in America, then underwent a slightly complicated transition to the Belgrade Faculty of Technology and Metallurgy, but that didn’t have a negative impact on her very successful studies. Today, as a professor, she’s happiest when she recognises a good student, i.e., a good future expert.

“The standout students are always those that you feel aren’t only closely connected to the subject, but also take a broader overview of aspects of their future profession, have broad interests, ask you questions and want to know as much as possible. That’s always been the key difference compared to the others. The average grade is a measure, but it isn’t the most important one. My opinion is that the breadth of observing things is very important in the case of a chemical engineer or chemical technologist. The fact is that this is a very progressive profession that’s highly sought-after around the world. In our country it’s a profession on which the functioning of our economy is directly dependent. It was in high demand during Yugoslavia’s period of rapid economic development, as were other technical professions. When we entered the period of sanctions and wars, we experienced the total collapse of individual areas, particularly in the chemicals industry. It is now developing once again, but is doing so in accordance with completely different principles and criteria that are shaped by the need for sustainable development and with a view to all possible environmental aspects that enable technological development that doesn’t imperil the future. That’s something I’m very keen on instilling in my students: to always see the bigger picture and not focus too closely on their own area of expertise.”

While I was rector of the University of Belgrade, we did as much as we could, as much as the circumstances allowed. It was an honour for me to perform that duty and I hope that our performance will leave a lasting mark

As a professor, Ivanka is loved by her students, because they can communicate with her easily and value her expertise. She is very interested in their problems and knows that life isn’t easy for them and that it’s today much harder to secure the finances needed for their studies. She is aware that, despite platitudes about free schooling, everything else costs a lot and it’s difficult for students to secure a job that they’d like to do.

“Today’s professor must encourage students to not only concentrate on their academic studies, but also to work on their broader personal development, to master various other essential skills, from knowledge of foreign languages to a driving license, which can empower them on the job market. That’s because companies aren’t only seeking experts, but also individuals who are resourceful, dynamic and proactive.”

When she was appointed rector of the University of Belgrade in 2018, Ivanka found herself at the centre of public attention like few other Belgrade University leaders before her. She wasn’t affiliated with a political party and was led exclusively by her own knowledge and principled attitudes, which she used to defend the autonomy of the university. She’d previously served as vice rector for a long time, so she largely understood how the university functions. She knew what awaited her and expected certain types of complications.

“I’d prefer to say that I expected various types of challenges. Of course, this isn’t just about me, but rather is also about my team, without the support of which I wouldn’t be able to do much. I carefully selected my vice rectors and am extremely proud that we worked together harmoniously as a collegium, really functioning as a team, which meant that we could better handle all challenges. We expected some things, but at times we weren’t even sure that we’d make it through the entire term. That was a turbulent three-year period, with much more challenges than there’d perhaps been during some other terms. And then there was the addition of a pandemic. We did as much as we could, as much as the circumstances allowed. It was an honour for me to perform that duty and I hope that our performance will leave a lasting mark.”

When it comes to what makes her most proud and the positive traces that she and her team left behind following their mandate, this former rector is clear.

“That good trace is the effort to maintain the dignity of Belgrade University, to clearly position it as a public asset that should serve society, and not be used as a tool in some political or social clashes. A university serves everyone and I think it’s terrible if it’s abused for some other purposes. The task of all universities in Serbia, including Belgrade’s, is to take care of the education of young people, which is why there must be broad social support for universities. We don’t know what awaits us, and it is only with educated people that we can survive and respond positively to all the challenges of modern life.”

Halting the departures of young people isn’t possible without profound systemic changes, and I believe deeply that finances aren’t the main reason people are leaving Serbia. We could retain most of them if we demonstrate that the system and institutions work properly and that these educated young people can believe in them

Many people are ready to suggest that the flood of private colleges offering dubious qualifications has lowered the level of higher education in Serbia. However, professor Popović believes it’s normal for different sources of capital to invest in education today and that all accredited private universities have formally satisfied the various standards that the state expects of educational institutions:

“Their appearance is encouraging for stateowned faculties, preventing them from being able to relax. In this demographic situation, we fight for every student, and that student can choose what course to study. And they can choose what they want from their education: whether they want a profession that’s selected or perhaps want to more easily secure a qualification that would create a job opportunity for them. All countries have universities that are competing against one another and have different priorities, and competition leads to improving the quality of the entire education system, but that’s a lengthy process.

“To the extent that state-owned faculties are somewhat slaves to tradition, private colleges can be more flexible. Students have the possibility to choose, but employers also choose, and they choose those students from a college that provides knowledge that they need.”

Apart from the president of Serbia and a few government ministers who graduated from state-owned faculties, a large number of ministers in the Government of Serbia are graduates of private colleges that can’t be found at their own addresses. This gives the public the right to ask what system of values is being promoted by the people in power? And that’s without even mentioning individuals buying fake diplomas.

“Whether it’s the state or the private sector, the employer has to decide who it will employ. If we agree to compromises in hiring personnel who aren’t competent, such a state cannot have a bright future. It is, of course, up to those in power to decide. If the correct political decision for the development of society is made, that might be difficult, but it will bring long-term benefits – just not necessarily in time for the next election cycle. These are long-term investments, and politicians are reluctant to make such decisions, preferring to opt for those with an immediate impact.

“That’s why it’s important to return to personal responsibility, and thus to the responsibility of voters regarding how they vote. If you vote, of your own free will, for people who received their degrees in a dubious way, it’s clear where that leads.”

The most important question for me is what kind of example we’re setting, as an academic community, for our students

Ivanka has often highlighted one of the problems evident both at the university and in the wider society, and that’s the policy of turning a blind eye, which brings trifling benefits to individuals while causing damage universally. That’s why the system functions in some segments and not in others.

“The most important question for me is what kind of example we’re setting, as an academic community, for our students. Students watch what we do and say very carefully, and whether what we say is aligned with what we do. If that message isn’t aligned, we can’t expect our students to believe in the possibility of surviving in another way. An exit from that vicious cycle must be found somewhere, and I wouldn’t like abandoning the country to be the solution. Halting the departures of young people isn’t possible without profound systemic changes, and I believe deeply that finances aren’t the main reason people are leaving Serbia. We could retain most of them if we demonstrate that the system and institutions work properly and that these educated young people can believe in them.”

Alongside her teaching obligations, which are her greatest commitment, Ivanka also has significant obligations in international organisations: the European University Association, the Danube Rectors’ Conference and Circle U – the international project to develop the European University Alliance, of which the University of Belgrade is a member. When all this is combined, her day is packed and doesn’t leave her with much free time. Her scientific obligations have led to her sacrificing many things, and she’s only today returning to books that she’s regularly bought at the Book Fair but didn’t find time to read. She most enjoys spending time outside the city. And she says that Serbia is beautiful and has many beautiful places that are worth exploring and visiting.