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3/1/2007 Inauguration: Czech academic leader, politician speaks

Linfield College President Thomas Hellie introduced him as "the most charming man in central Europe," and those who met Josef Jařab confirmed the description.

However, Jařab came to Linfield on a mission. Representing one of the oldest universities in the West, Jařab traveled the greatest distance of any foreign delegate to join the celebration surrounding the inauguration of Hellie, his long-time friend, as 19th president of Linfield.

A professor of English and American literature and director of the Center for Comparative Cultural Studies at Palacký University in the Czech Republic, Jařab understands living through change in challenging times. He spoke to Linfield students, faculty and staff about life in Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia, his role in the "velvet revolution" there in 1989, and his efforts to prepare students to participate in the global civic community.

"Life under totalitarianism is easier and less complex than life in freedom and democracy," he said. "But it's not happy and sometimes it's not worth living." After World War II, Jařab "fell in love" with American culture – especially American jazz and literature. Over decades, he acquired a library of American books and records, maneuvering carefully to avoid government censors.

Jařab's family listened to Voice of America radio. "Ironically, the best radios for listening to Voice of America were produced in the Soviet Union," he said At a young age, Jařab learned to speak "two truths," one at home and another at school. As a result, he said, daily life behind the Iron Curtain was psychologically and morally "schizophrenic."

In 1990, following the peaceful "velvet revolution," Czechs elected the country's first non-communist government in over 40 years. During the transition to democratic governance, Jařab was fired as a professor at Palacky University and re-hired the same day as its rector, a position he held for seven years. In 1996 the institution was awarded the Hannah Arendt Prize for reforms carried out under his leadership during the period of transformation.

Jařab offered a cautionary word to his Linfield audience. He observed that Czech students appear to be indifferent toward national and international politics. "Political ignorance has a moral dimension," he said. He believes he and his university colleagues may have contributed to today's political apathy, when they banned politicians from Czech campuses. Their policy was a reaction to political indoctrination in universities during Communist rule, he explained. Now, he urges educators to help students enter the political fray. "Shouldn't higher education help set the agendas for political debate?" he asked.

Having served in the Senate of the Czech Parliament, where he chaired the Committee on International Affairs, Jařab underscored society's need to educate students for citizenship. Politicians, he noted, tend to engage in thinking that is pragmatic and short-term. In contrast, educators pursue systematic long-term visions. "It's unusual to have one who can think like the other," he said. Yet, such people are what society needs most.

Hellie acknowledged the gift of Jařab's journey to Linfield in his inaugural address, and reinforced his Czech colleague's call to action. "It is not enough to live in a democracy, we must engage in it, we must embrace and challenge and fulfill it – or else we will lose our dignity, our self-respect, our hope and our future."