Using pandemic as excuse, Bolsonaro to intervene in universities

Using pandemic as excuse, Bolsonaro to intervene in universities
Education Minister Abraham Weintraub speaks to the Brazilian lower house in 2019. Photo: Lula Marques/AGPT

President Jair Bolsonaro issued a provisional decree granting Education Minister Abraham Weintraub powers to appoint temporary deans to Brazil’s federally-run universities and high schools. The move bypasses previous requirements of consulting with universities’ student and faculty bodies, or holding direct elections, prior to appointing new deans.

Traditionally, federal universities and high schools in Brazil elect their own heads and other administrative officers from within their faculty, using a combination of student and teacher votes. This process allows federal schools more independence from the government du jour and safeguards educational institutions from outside political influence.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s scraps that independence “during the emergency period caused by the Covid-19 pandemic” and an ensuing transition period. The decree should not affect recently elected administrators, only those whose term ends during the pandemic. It will be effective immediately and can last up to 120 days until Congress votes to ratify it.  

Student and faculty unions across the country see the decree as a clear violation of democratic principles and the constitutional autonomy granted to federal schools.

“[We] will take all necessary action in coordination with Congress, the Judiciary, and other entities, to contest a decree that absurdly assaults our country’s democracy and the constitutional autonomy of our universities,” João Carlos Salles Pires da Silva, dean of the Federal University of Bahia and a union representative, told news website G1.

Past interventions

During Mr. Weintraub’s tenure at the head of the Education Ministry, the institution has intervened in six of 12 federal universities’ presidential elections and three presidential appointments to federal high schools, with the two latest instances coming in the states of Rio Grande do Norte and Santa Catarina.

In Rio Grande do Norte, the ministry tried to alter the general election results by appointing a faculty that was not even originally in the running for the position. In Santa Catarina, the ministry appointed the runner up candidate instead of the rightful winner of the election.

Weintraub’s antics

With a little more than a year as Education Minister, Mr. Weintraub has often been in the spotlight due to his controversial statements and missteps administering Brazil’s public education system. In February, he faced an impeachment request over his mismanagement of the National University Entrance Exam (Enem) and massive cuts on university budgets. The request was ultimately dismissed.Now, during the pandemic, there are once again calls for Mr. Weintraub’s removal. This time due to inflammatory comments he made during a cabinet meeting, calling for the arrest of Supreme Court justices.

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