After 36 years at the helm of Intercollege and the University of Nicosia, one intellectual tells THEO PANAYIDES how he has moved on from being a change-the-world idealist
Max Weber and Albert Camus are coming soon – but first I need to ask about the facial hair. This is something of a frivolous question, I admit, trying to prepare Dr Nicos Peristianis for a dip in our highbrow conversation, but you do have quite a distinctive look – and so he does, a kind of vestigial goatee (really just a tuft of hair below his bottom lip) and a sliver of beard. It’s like this, he replies with a patient smile: when he first co-founded Intercollege he was worried that he might look too young, so he grew a full moustache and beard to project an air of wisdom and experience. Later on, however, the facial hair went prematurely grey (an inherited trait; his father went grey in his mid-30s) – and now he looked too old so he decided to revert, ending up with this Goldilocks solution: neither clean-shaven nor exactly bearded, but somewhere in the middle.
He was indeed very young when he co-founded Intercollege, way back in 1981 (he was born in 1954) – though he didn’t technically found it, a mainland Greek married to a Cypriot having established the name a year earlier. Nicos came on as a sociology teacher – but the Greek soon got frustrated and handed him the reins, a big job for a 20-something with no training as a teacher, let alone an administrator (all he had was a Sociology with Economics degree from the University of Kent). Then again, the college was small at the time. When he started, it was offering evening classes to a few dozen students. Nowadays – known, since 2007, as the University of Nicosia – it has over 10,000 (though only about half of those are based in the Nicosia campus), making it the largest university in Cyprus.
That’s where I call to arrange our interview, at the university with which Nicos has become synonymous – only to be told, to my surprise, that “he’s not here anymore”, having actually left a year ago. His term as President of the Council (CEO, basically) came to an end, he explains, and he decided not to stand again; he hasn’t broken off all contact, staying on as non-executive chairman of the board – but the air-conditioned office where we meet is a long way from the main campus, in a two-storey building which also houses a career-guidance service and his own Universitas Foundation. There are books all around (he’s currently writing a book on federations, and the volumes on the shelves are for research) and a pile of papers on the desk between us, heavily marked with corrections in ink. The office is almost bare, the only decoration being a Kandinsky print on the wall behind him.
Why did he leave the former Intercollege, after 36 years at the helm? Various reasons, he replies – and is open enough to admit that one reason was that “some tension” had developed among the faculty, mostly due to pay cuts imposed after the crisis (“I was trying to convince them that we had to be rational and understand that, since fees had dropped considerably, it was very difficult to bring back the old salaries”). It’s worth pausing here to note that openness is a central tenet for Nicos; one of his aims at the university, he asserts with emphasis, was to foster an open climate where anyone could feel free to criticise (not abuse, but criticise) anyone else, including the president. Still, there were other reasons why he decided to retire. For one, he’d been working 12-hour days, with almost no vacation time, for 36 years. For another, as the college expanded, his main job became to “sustain the growth”, snuffing out the academic work he’s always loved and forcing him to become just a manager. For yet another, he wanted to write, “and writing takes time”. Finally, he says, it had always been his plan to make the institution more impersonal as it grew, moving away from the founder and “pushing a more kind of rational, bureaucratic path”.
‘Rational’ and ‘bureaucratic’ don’t seem to belong in the same sentence, I joke.
Well, he shrugs, “that’s Weber’s typology”.
‘Weber’ is Max Weber, the German sociologist (1864-1920) whose ideas have profoundly affected Nicos Peristianis.
It’s worth pausing again to note that he’s one of those people who are very susceptible to ideas: he likes reading them, he likes talking about them, and – above all – he tries to live his life by them. Before Weber, there was Francis Schaeffer, a 20th-century Christian philosopher whose ideas were a big influence on the teenage Nicos. This wasn’t “churchy” Christianity but a kind of compassionate socialism, striving to be fair in one’s relationships and viewing people as “end-values” in themselves – a set of ideas that blended easily with Marxist thought when he went to the UK and became more politicised. (He defines himself as a Leftist but has never had much truck with political parties here, beyond a brief flirtation with Adisok in the 90s.) As a young man – and even a not-so-young man – he was fiercely, change-the-world idealistic. In his teens, he had “a severe clash” with his very conservative parents (his dad was a high-ranking police officer) over his heretical beliefs.
In his 20s he became a union organiser, making himself unpopular with his bosses at the Higher College of Technology (now Frederick University) – a big reason why he moved from there to Intercollege. In between, he spent the summer after his first year of university hitch-hiking from England to L’Abri, the retreat in Switzerland founded by Schaeffer, annoying his parents in Cyprus who hadn’t seen him in a year – then annoyed the folks even further by renting a flat when he came back after his studies, instead of moving in with them like a good Cypriot.
Was he an angry young person, or just stubborn?
“I don’t think I was either,” he replies with a shrug. “I just believed very much in changing and improving the world, so I wasn’t going to sit idle and just do the common things. I wanted to improve them.”
His personal life was equally principled. Nicos met his wife Maria soon after he took over at Intercollege, but they went out for seven years before getting married. He didn’t believe in getting married, didn’t believe in having children (like Sartre, he considered parenthood a bourgeois affectation; he wanted to adopt, which would at least be “a social contribution”), didn’t believe in private property.
That said, he now has three kids – Andrea, Myrto and Ioannis, all in their 20s, the experience of actually becoming a parent having banished all thoughts of Sartre (though it would’ve been nice to adopt as well, he adds wistfully) – and presumably a big house too. “I’ve made money in my life,” he admits, almost with a note of apology. “But I wasn’t trying to make it.”
Some will say it’s the usual story, youthful idealist turned successful businessman and pillar of the Establishment (Nicos is involved in various worthy projects, including an NGO called Politeia and a bicommunal forum called CAD, Cyprus Academic Dialogue). Others may view it more along the lines of the story behind his goatee – a case of always being a little bit awkward (looking now too young, now too old…) before finally finding an in-between style that’s unusual, but at least it’s his own.
‘Awkward’ seems a pretty good word to describe Nicos Peristianis, just as it describes many intellectuals. “One of the difficult things about me is that I’m relatively closed,” is how he puts it. “When people talk to me, I’m open – when they talk to me – but I always find it difficult for myself to open up to others, I’m kind of slow in that. I’m not very good at talking about small things, I like talking about big ideas”. He calls himself “a worldly ascetic” (once again quoting Weber), meaning someone who lives in society, unlike the old Christian ascetics who escaped into the desert to become hermits, but dedicates himself to hard work in pursuit of his beliefs. Nicos’ default mode is debate, not idle chit-chat. He’s not, by his own admission, a spontaneous character – he has to “decide something in my head before I go out and do it” – and is liable to wallow in anxiety (a frequent by-product of over-thinking) if he allows himself to do so, which he doesn’t.
“I used to be an introvert – more of an introvert – in the past, it’s through conscious effort that I’m trying to fight it. I’ve realised that, if I stay with sorrow, I become very sorrowful, so the way I face it is by doing things”. For years, he had a crippling fear of flying (another by-product of over-thinking), but cured it by keeping his mind otherwise occupied: “Now I go in the plane, I start reading frantically! I take books with me, and as soon as I sit, I start reading”. In a way, all the various successful initiatives carried out by the University of Nicosia – attracting students, organising conferences, starting its own excellent radio station – could also be viewed as little tricks being played (on himself) by its introspective president, to prevent himself from falling too far into introspection.
Nicos’ success as an entrepreneur is deceptive in another way as well – because starting a college in the early 80s was as much an act of idealism as a business venture. The idea of a Cypriot university (especially state-run, but private too) is bound up with the idea of a Cypriot identity, which is why it took so long to come to fruition: “The two communities adopted the idea that they shouldn’t create a university of their own, because they wanted their children to go to Greece or Turkey”. We don’t really dwell on this, but it’s clear from various clues (the book he’s writing on federations, his involvement with CAD, a reference to our nationalistic education system) that Nicos has strong views on the Cyprus problem – which may also tie in with something else, the fact that he fought, and nearly died, in 1974.
“The war changed my thinking,” he admits. It was the war that turned his mind to doing social work, and thence sociology. It was the war that complicated his Christian philosophy, so that “I started seeing more [of] the social issues”. It may even have been the war, indirectly, that led him to marry, insofar as Maria was a refugee from a poor family (it’s hard to argue bourgeois affectations with someone who’s lost her home).
His own experiences of the invasion – and here he switches from English to Greek, the memories too messy and fragmented to be expressed in the lofty language of books – are primarily of a chaotic day, when his column of armoured vehicles was destroyed by Turkish planes at Kontemenos, and an even more chaotic night attack he compares to Apocalypse Now.
“It was hell. When I think of Hell, I think of that night” – not least because everything around him was burning, as in Hell. Soldiers dispersed, even their officers not entirely sure where the Turks were (“I doubt they’d had more than one meeting,” he notes caustically). Bombs falling, people dying, the burning fields matching the fires on the Pentadaktylos. It took half the night to travel four miles, from the main road to the beach at Ayios Georgios – and meanwhile, he recalls the soldier next to him listening to popular Greek songs on his transistor radio, even as they attacked! “This is why wars are terrible things, because they’re not rational,” concludes Nicos grimly. “Anything else but rational.”
He himself is rational, of course, maybe even too rational; the ‘worldly ascetic’ tag doesn’t seem to go very well with hedonistic pleasure, for one thing. “If there is pleasure, it’s not your main aim,” he confirms with a chuckle. “You may enjoy life, but that is not your central goal”. He’s not the type to hang out in pubs and cafés, his main relaxation being to “close myself [in a room] to read my books”. I can see how he might’ve been a challenge for colleagues or faculty members – or even loved ones – who weren’t as devoted or serious-minded.
Yet the life of the mind is irrational too – because you focus on ideas so intently, so single-mindedly, and where does it lead at the end of the day? It’s unclear if Nicos Peristianis feels fulfilled, after 36 years; “One of my great disappointments, when I left the university, was how few of the values I tried to instill stayed behind,” he notes rather cryptically. In the end, his favourite philosopher may be Albert Camus on the myth of Sisyphus, the man who was punished by the gods and forced to roll a boulder to the top of a hill only for the boulder to roll down again, over and over. “He knows that it’s in vain,” explains Nicos, yet “he’s not yielding… He knows that it’s his duty, and he’s doing it because it’s his duty. Not because he likes it, not because he’s by nature an optimist – but because he knows this is his calling, this is his destiny”. Life has no meaning, yet it calls to us anyway. He walks me to the door and we part, each to his own meaningless destiny.