Newly elected Anglo-American University President Petr Jan Pajas, age 79, is a man with hope. He lived through the most tumultuous periods of the Cold War: revolution, political repression, the consequences of dissent, and rebirth of his country and the direction of his career.
“I knew what was going to happen if they could not find the solution,” explains Pajas, referring to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Pajas studied at the Czech Technical University in Prague, receiving his diploma in nuclear and theoretical physics in 1959. At the height of the Cold War in 1962, he was studying at Moscow State University and finishing his Masters degree in Mathematics and Physics. He discovered his passion for physics by chance, when he noticed an open book in a shop window. “On the first page of it, somewhere between the text in Russian, there was a formula written: E = mc2… so I started to study Nuclear Physics – and immediately in a foreign language for me – in Russian.”
Pajas was inspired, and devoted himself to pursuing physics. “Those first 16 years of my adult life were fully devoted to physics,” he says. “I still feel extreme pleasure whenever I have a chance to see such precise formulas, which we are using to describe the basics of existence and relations of entities forming the world in which we got the chance to live a few decades.”
“When I crossed the frontier into the Soviet Union, I realized I was in a completely different part of the world,” says Pajas, recalling the bad conditions of student dormitories, and travel restrictions beyond Moscow, compared to a less restrictive Czechoslovakia. Soon after his graduation from Moscow State University in 1963, Pajas traveled back to his home, to begin his work at the Institute for Nuclear Research in Řež, 17km north of Prague.
Pajas happily worked as Deputy Head of Department of Theoretical Physics, with research and development freedom, and started to collaborate with scientists from Italy. He notes that the Soviets were deeply afraid of such western-orientated research developments.
When the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968, life abruptly changed. Pajas was living near Prague’s airport, and during the night heard the sound of Russian aircraft invading his country, a new airplane landing “every other minute.” After the successful invasion, a quarter-million people were expelled from their professions, including Pajas.
“Can you imagine it, a young strong man, working hard in your beloved field of physics, and [be forced to] abruptly stop?” Pajas’ expulsion came after his refusal to sign documents that confirmed he was happy with the invasion. “I was de-facto expelled, on political grounds,” he says. “We were young and tried to oppose the invasion… but it was a long time ago,” he adds with a laugh.
Not allowed to continue with any of his nuclear research activities under Soviet leadership, Pajas was forced to work in Prague’s public transport system from 1972, where he stayed until 1989. Nevertheless, Pajas doesn’t feel that his work in the transport system went to waste. “To some extent I feel expertise in transport running, and I can proudly say the development of the Prague transport system was pre-calculated by my team and me.”
In November 1989, the Velvet revolution changed Pajas’ life.
“It was at the end of October; I was at an international conference in Russia, somewhere south of Moscow,” recalls Pajas. “We had a TV, where we could follow the situation.” One day later the Berlin Wall fell, and there was an expectation that the regime in Czechoslovakia would fall quickly.
“There was a need to say stop, enough,” Pajas confidently says. Pajas attended the massive demonstration at Letná park, near Prague Castle. “I remember I was standing with my kids 200 meters from the stadium, it was beautiful.” He also started to get involved in the street movements in Wenceslas Square against the Soviet government.
“We suspected they were afraid they were going to be overthrown violently,” he recalls. “Every other corner there were military personnel. Ready to fight if given the order. But nothing happened.” During the revolution, Pajas got a call from his former manager and fellow nuclear physicist, Frantisek Janouch. Janouch was living in political exile in Sweden, where he founded the Charter 77 foundation, and suggested Pajas help set up the foundation in Czechoslovakia.
After the success of the peaceful revolution, the new democracy gave Pajas the chance to be a leader in the establishment of Czechoslovak civil society. As a signer of Charter 77, Pajas began his self-acknowledged “third life” as a guru of nonprofit and civil society development, becoming the first director of the Charter 77 foundation in 1990. “I was working all the time – all the time. Meeting people, organizing… it was really a tremendous time.” Pajas recalls meeting Vaclav Havel – the first president of the newly established Czech Republic – as one of the highlights of his post-revolution career.
In 2005, Pajas became policy manager for the Policy Association for an Open Society, a think tank dedicated to assisting post-soviet countries transition to an open civil society and an open economy. For Pajas, the development of strong, an ethical civil society is crucial to the development of democracy “The societies before, everything was defined… everything was fully under control.” The Open Society Foundation works to create thriving democracies everywhere, but especially in countries that didn’t previously have the intellectual leadership to create an environment where citizens can influence public policy making and keep politicians accountable.
Pajas placed his focus on supporting an ethical civil society, a vision that’s reflected in “Thinking Ethically” a guidebook he wrote for the Open Society foundation in 2011. In the guidebook, he advises think tanks to avoid conflicts of interest, advocate honesty, and support civic engagement to influence public policy.
President Pajas expects to hold his position at AAU for the next 14 to 16 months. During his time, he expects changes to the upper-management structure, the preparing of new accreditations and improvement in teaching strategies.
Pajas also worked to establish the Central European University in Prague, an international University now located in Budapest, so he is no stranger to fostering a valuable multicultural environment. “To stand in front of a conference on Open Society, in Dubrovnik in October 1990, listening to the applause when I announced the decision of the Czech Government, supported by President Havel, about providing the building to host the Central European University in Prague,” he recalls. “Well, now we have again to do what we can to protect this special enterprise from unfortunate attacks of those who hate excellence.”
During his time at AAU Pajas has lofty goals for the non-profit university. “We are interested in cultivating people across the cultures and across regions, and across political opinions,” says Pajas, “I need support, understanding and trust, that not only we are going to make this university good, but prepare students for future leaders of the world.”
After his tenure at AAU, Pajas would like to write about his generation, and their stories and struggles. “I would like to spend several more years in good health and write more about so many interesting people and their stories, forming the life of my generation… even if it was sometimes nearly unbearably difficult to live on.”