Anniversary Wishes: Josef Zieleniec

12 November, 2021

CERGE-EI celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. How successful has it been in reaching its long term goals according to its co-founder Josef Zieleniec?

"For me, the beginning of CERGE and the beginning of newly acquired freedom merged. Just a few days after the tumultuous events of the Velvet Revolution in November 1989, Jan Švejnar and I began discussing the prospect of a new research and educational economics institution.

It was clear to us that reforming the economic research and education that existed at the time, which was based on a Marxist political economy, would be a task that would require years (and indeed it proved to be a task for many, many years!) On the other hand, the radical political and economic reforms that were just beginning required immediate research and personnel support. The only solution was to build a new institution from the ground up, which, by focusing and functioning in English, would be able to integrate immediately into the international research community.

And this was how the first Proposal was conceived, which Jan and I began to take around to the new, emerging leadership entities of state institutions and universities.

It was harder than we had originally imagined it would be. Universities are generally very conservative institutions, and the radically new concept of a department that we came up with provoked a lot of resistance. The very idea of a school operating in English within a Czech university was indigestible to many.

It was only thanks to the first post-revolutionary (or rather, revolutionary!) rector of Charles University, Radim Palouš, that we were able to set up and start our activities at all.

The first years of CERGE were marked by uncertainty arising from the great differences between CERGE and the rest of the university, and the resulting tense atmosphere around our new institution. Staffing was a major challenge. Because CERGE operated in English, the teaching staff could be largely composed of foreign professors. Many top economists from foreign universities wanted to support the development of real economic science in the former Soviet bloc countries after the fall of the Iron Curtain. CERGE was a project that met this aspiration. With students, paradoxically, it was a bigger problem. The economics that was taught under communism was largely an ideological discipline with almost no connection to empirical research. This was accompanied by little to no knowledge of mathematics among economics graduates. Ignorance of "economics" was therefore rather an advantage for doctoral studies at CERGE, which taught mainstream economics from the very beginning, the same as economics is taught in Western, mainly American, universities.

For these reasons, when recruiting our first PhD students, we looked primarily among graduates of mathematics, physics, and engineering. It was a difficult task to not only find such people, but also to convince them that the study of economics offered a future for them, that there would be a demand for their new qualifications, that their perspectives would open up not only in local, but also in international dimensions. The first graduates and their successful establishment on domestic and international labor markets was a significant event for CERGE, and contributed greatly to the final stabilization of the school in the Czech university environment and to its prestige in the international academic community.

Today, 30 years after its foundation, the school enjoys an international position comparable to the best institutions in the world. Its graduates have always and continue to belong among the top echelons, whether in academia, central banks, or financial institutions.

Our original vision, which Jan Švejnar and I talked about so much when we started writing the first Proposal, has come to fruition.

If I were to wish CERGE something for its 30th birthday, it would be that the school will succeed in expanding to cover all the basic fields of modern economics through research and teaching. The presence of experts from all key areas in one department would certainly add to the creative atmosphere and give CERGE a new dynamic in both research and teaching in the decades to come," said Josef Zieleniec, CERGE-EI co-founder. 

Doc. Ing. Josef Zieleniec, CSc. (*1946) is a Czech politician, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, and former Member of the European Parliament, where he served on the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs. He currently lectures at the University of New York in Prague.

Read more about CERGE-EI's history, achievements, and wishes on its 30th anniversary website.