The University Record, June 19, 2000

Czech Republic President Václav Havel to be honored

By Mary Jo Frank
Office of Communications

The University plans to award the honorary doctor of laws degree to Czech Republic President Václav Havel Sept. 5. The playwright and statesman also will participate in a program titled “Globalization’s Intellectual Challenge” following the ceremony.

The Regents approved the honorary degree at their June 16 meeting. Details about the honorary degree presentation and program will be announced at a later date.

“Michigan’s historically close ties with the people of Czechoslovakia and, more recently, the Czech Republic have resulted in outstanding scholarly research and publishing in the area of Slavic studies,” noted President Lee C. Bollinger. “The University was privileged to play a role in publishing President Havel’s writings at a time when his country’s communist leaders tried unsuccessfully to silence one of Europe’s most eloquent champions of human rights.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to publicly recognize President Havel and the values at the core of his life and work—integrity, courage and a creative spirit that can not be shattered—and strengthen an already warm relationship that exists between the University and the Czech people, through the William Davidson Institute, the Center for Russian and East European Studies, and the International Institute.”

Jan Svejnar, the Everett E. Berg Professor of Business, professor of economics and executive director of the William Davidson Institute, has served as Havel’s economic adviser since 1995.

Havel was born in Prague on Oct. 5, 1936, into a prominent business family with close ties to Czechoslovakia’s cultural and political life. Because of his family’s previously influential background, Havel’s opportunities for secondary and post-secondary education were limited under the communist dictatorship. He worked as a chemical laboratory technician while attending night school.

Havel studied economics at the Czech Technical University and served two years in the Czechoslovak Army before joining Prague’s Theatre on the Balustrade as a stagehand. He later worked as an assistant director and literary manager and studied dramatic art theory at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. He quickly achieved international success with the production of his first play The Garden Party in 1963.

Prior to and during the brief period of artistic and intellectual freedom in Czechoslovakia known as the Prague Spring, Havel produced other plays, including The Memorandum and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration.

Following the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact members in August 1968, Havel actively opposed oppressive communist policies. He co-founded and was a spokesman for the Charter 77 human rights initiative and co-founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Oppressed in 1979. Jailed for political dissent three times in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Havel spent five years in prison, where he continued to write. His influential Letters to Olga, a compilation of letters to his first wife, who died in 1996, was written while he was in prison. He is now married to Czech actress Dagmar Veskrnova.

Havel’s highly principled opposition to authoritarianism made him an inspirational leader to people throughout Eastern Europe, and when the communist regime began to crumble in 1989, he emerged as the obvious leader of the new Czechoslovakia, explained Brian A. Porter, associate professor of history who specializes in Eastern European history.

Havel’s election as president on Dec. 29 that year was a symbolic culmination of the democratic revolutions that swept throughout the region. He worked strenuously to preserve the unity of his country, and when it became clear that Slovakia and the Czech Republic would split, he resigned rather than preside over the dissolution, Porter added. Havel was elected president of the Czech Republic in 1993 and reelected in 1998.

“Even a decade of holding public office has not diminished Havel’s moral authority, and he remains today one of the world’s most respected statesmen,” Porter said.

Havel is recognized internationally for his literary and dramatic work. His plays include Audience, Private View, The Mountain Hotel, Protest, The Mistake, Largo Desolato, Slum Clearance and Tomorrow! He also wrote Václav Havel, or Living in Truth; Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala; Open Letters: Selected Writings; Summer Meditations; and A Word about Words.

Havel has received numerous awards for his writing, his political and moral leadership, and his contributions to cultural understanding. Honors, among others, include three Obie Awards for playwriting, the Austrian State Prize for European Literature, Eramus Prize (Netherlands), Four Freedoms Award (Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute), UNESCO’s International Simón Bolívar Prize, Charlemagne Prize, Indira Ghandi Prize, Philadelphia Liberty Medal, the Future of Hope Award (Hiroshima), J. William Fulbright Prize, and the Peace and Democracy Award (awarded by Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma).

He is a member of the British Royal Legion and the European Academy for Science and Art.