If you happen to be interested in ancient art, you may have come across the Thinker of Hamangia and The Seated Woman. These figures, dating back to the Hamangia culture of around 5200 BC in the territory of modern day Romania, are thought to be some of the most unsettling pieces of miniature art.  Or, if yours is not one of numerous languages into which Zaharia Stancu’s Barefoot has been translated, you might know Mihai Eminescu, the Romanian poet. If not him, you must have read some of the works of Eugène Ionesco, perhaps even without realizing that he was born and raised in Romania.
What is communicated to an outsider in these different art works (notwithstanding the time gap and sometimes significantly different approaches) is a desire for a better human life , a life based on freedom of speech and thought..
Though, one would be astonished to discover how an act so simple deviated from the idealized views emitted by the aforementioned works.
On March 21, a documentary named “Blockada”—about the massive students protests in April and May of 2009 in Croatia—was supposed to be screened at the Babes Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, the second-largest public university in Romania. The screening was organized by students with the approval of the university administration. However, members of the public and even some students who came for the screening were stopped at the doors and were prevented from entering. The police were called to defend the university against the citizens and its own students. There was no reason given for denying entry except for the mention of an order from an authority figure; an order that was valid for only that day and time. Given the student complaints, the university replied publicly the next day and acknowledged that it had approved the screening, but that it could not allow it to proceed. Not only was no clear reason stated, but the university also endorsed the abusive behavior of the ushers who did not even allow the students to enter.
On March 26, a group of students occupied a room in the main building of the university. Again, the response of the administration was quick and aggressive: police were called to remove the students from the premises. Probably fearing an even bigger uproar, the police did not act against the students, but merely took note of who they were—perhaps for future reference. The students were allowed to remain in the building for the night.
A bigger surprise, however, came the next morning when the vice-director of the university candidly presented a letter in which the prefect of the county (the local representative of the Romanian government)—upon information from the “authorized institutions”—informed the university about students planning anarchist actions such as watching movies and occupying the university. In the letter, the prefect requested that the university take “adequate measures”. Even more outrageously, the vice-director insinuated that the information in the letter had been gathered by spying on the anarchist students, claiming that they were being paid. Neither of these pieces of information were presented in the letter from the prefect, and were vigorously denied by the government in the following days, though the words of the vice-director were nonetheless caught on tape. The reference to students being paid is a trope of the political discourse in Romania given that such claims were used to instigate bloody violence against peaceful student protesters in Bucharest in the early 90s.
The Babes-Bolyai University administration acted in an unforgivable manner not only by showing its political subordination to the state, but also in its disregard for the role of student movements, and the larger societal role of universities. In Romanian society, plagued by shortcomings of equality and freedom, students ought to be a sensitive antenna. Thinking and acting beyond university borders should be an indispensable part of any student’s role. It was so in the May 1968 protests; it was so during the struggles of Iranian students leading to the Iranian revolution in 1979; and most recently in the carré rouge struggle of students in Quebec, Canada. By interfering with the desire of students and citizens to understand their political situation, the university has failed not only in its basic duty of providing free access to information, but also in that of serving its community.
It is difficult to follow from afar the exact development of the events in Romania. The students of Babes Bolyai University are still occupying the room; a space they have claimed for free debates. The administration seems to have accepted the occupation, but has not yet issued a letter of apology for its previous actions. Meanwhile, a group of students has already occupied the University of Bucharest, whose administration quickly welcomed their action. While these events are taking place, the Romanian media remains strangely silent. Those interested in the students’ efforts can check their website.
The students have high ambitions. They are trying to systematically debate the problems plaguing the Romanian education system, a system that has been crippled not only by the many recent European and Romanian educational experiments, but also by its increased commodification. The efforts of these students, despite a certain air of Quixotism, should be welcomed. Maybe this is the beginning of a Romanian spring:
“Around the earth a lurid glow
Poured like a torrent race,
Till out of its chaotic flow
There grew a human face.” (Mihai Eminescu, Luceafarul)