Where universities face emerging threats and crises

Where universities face emerging threats and crises



On 23 February 2022 in St Petersburg, as Russian tanks and soldiers poured across Ukraine’s borders and bombs fell on Kyiv, Professor Dmitry Dubrovsky, who had publicly criticised Russia’s ongoing violation of human rights and the invasion and annexation of the Donbas and Crimea in Ukraine in 2014 stood before a video camera, his image appearing on the computers of those who, because of COVID-restrictions, attended the virtual meeting that would decide his fate.

The professor of international relations didn’t fear for his life – such threats to scholars who opposed Russia would come later – but for his 17-year-old son, he said. Dubrovsky didn’t want him to be conscripted into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” to “denazify Ukraine”.

For Dubrovsky’s act of lèse-majesté, the academic council of the Higher School of Economics (HSE Moscow) chose a punishment used by university officials cowed by authoritarian governments in such countries as Brazil, Hungary, the Philippines, Turkey and several Republican-controlled states in the United States: the professor’s contract was abruptly cancelled.

Two weeks later, having fled to Estonia with his family, Dubrovsky learned that he’d been declared a ‘foreign agent’.

“I immediately published this as an event on my Facebook page and said: ‘I am not planning to follow the regulations of the unjust law’,” Dubrovsky said from Prague, where he now teaches Russian studies at Charles University, beyond the reach of Russian authorities who would jail him.

On 9 April 2022 he learned he’d been fined RUB10,000 ($100) for failing to state on his post on VKontakte (Russia’s version of Facebook): “This message (material) was created and (or) distributed by a foreign media outlet acting as a foreign agent and (or) a Russian legal entity acting as a foreign agent.”

According to Robert Quinn, executive director of the New York University-based Scholars at Risk (SAR) network, Dubrovsky’s dismissal from HSE and being declared a ‘foreign agent’ indicates that political pressures resulting from the invasion of Ukraine altered the situation for academics from what, borrowing from public health officials, he characterises as a “chronic” to an “acute” status.

“For years, scholars of human rights or related disciplines had experienced surveillance and pressures” that curtailed academic freedom in Russia, Quinn said. The invasion of Ukraine changed the landscape, not least of all by the passing of laws such as the one forbidding calling the ‘special military operation’ a war.

While the administrators of universities and scientific academies were pressured to support the special military operation, and hundreds of thousands of educated young people fled Russia, professors who spoke out against the war were investigated.

Professor Alexander Kondakov who, before 2018, taught sociology at the European University in St Petersburg, Russia, and who now teaches at the University of Dublin, told University World News that one of the manifestations of this pressure is self-censorship and ‘internal migration’, a term used to describe intellectuals and artists who may have opposed the Nazis but ‘went along to get along’.

According to Jonathan Becker, vice-chancellor of the Open Society University Network (OSUN), which is based at Bard College, New York State, “the sad truth is that authoritarians are targeting higher education around the globe, be it in Russia or Hungary, the Philippines or Afghanistan, or now the United States. Leaders of these countries want a compliant and not an engaged citizenry. They see professors as hostile and students as a potential source of idealistic and, thus, fearless opposition.

“This manifests itself in a few key ways, with particular attacks on the humanities and social sciences, as well as in environmental sciences and biology-public health areas in which students are taught to think critically and challenge orthodoxies,” he explained.

“The authoritarian approach dovetails in particularly toxic ways with the neoliberals, who want to emphasise technical degrees and business education, which they erroneously associate with ‘value’ in terms of some illusory payback to the society.

“Taken together, the authoritarian assault on academic freedom and neoliberal attacks on ‘impractical’ subjects means that much of the academe is under assault, and the link between education and informed citizenship is discarded in the hopes of forming a compliant population,” he said.

Quinn agrees with Becker, noting that “humanists and social scientists, and probably many people in the arts as well, wrap their academic and personal identity in a consciousness that they are pushing back on power structures in ways that engineers, computer scientists and chemists may not as part of their identity. But as a factual matter, I don’t think that means one is more at risk than the other”.

By way of example, he pointed to both doctors Li Wenliang and Anthony Fauci. Wenliang was the doctor in Wuhan Central Hospital who, in late December 2019, began noticing a high number of pneumonia cases. In addition to alerting the authorities, he used WeChat to warn his medical school classmates that a SARS-like virus was in circulation.

After screenshots of his WeChat sessions were shared on the internet, a senior hospital administrator summoned him to his office and accused Wenliang of leaking information. On 3 January officers from the Wuhan Public Security Bureau interrogated him and formally censured him for “publishing untrue statements about seven confirmed SARS cases at the Huanan Seafood Market”. The outbreak was due to a new coronavirus dubbed COVID-19.

At the end of January, after having contracted COVID, Wenliang published on his blog the story of his interrogation and having to sign the letter admonishing him; his post soon went viral.

According to the South China Morning Post, Wenliang’s punishment by the police for ‘rumour mongering’ was shown on China Central Television, the country’s national broadcaster and, hence, a propaganda arm of the Chinese Communist Party. On 4 February, however, he was exonerated by the Supreme People’s Court, just days before he died of COVID contracted in the hospital.

Fauci, who had served presidents of both parties going back to the 1980s as Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and is the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2008) and numerous foreign awards, was ridiculed by President Donald J Trump and excoriated by Republicans for recommending both the wearing of masks and the shut-downs in the early stages of the COVID crisis, as well as for recommending vaccines.

Several Republican politicians called for his arrest while, prior to stepping down from his post at the NIAID in December 2022, several Republican members of Congress, including Marjorie Taylor Greene called for Fauci’s impeachment. In 2021 De Santis toured the state pushing the slogan: “Don’t Fauci My Florida”. Death threats to Fauci and his family resulted in the Secret Service providing 24-hour protection to them.

Such threats were not unique to the United States. In May of 2021, after stealing a number of guns and four rocket launchers, Jürgen Conings, a former Belgian soldier, staked out the house of Marc Van Ranst, Belgium’s chief virologist. In order to protect Van Ranst and his family, police had to move them to a safe house. They returned home after three weeks when the sniper, who had garnered 1,000 supporters on Telegram and 50,000 on Facebook, was found dead in a forest.

Academic freedom in decline worldwide

The Academic Freedom Index: Update 2023 (AFI) released in March this year reported that more than four billion people, half the world’s population, were living in 22 countries where academic freedom had declined over the past decade.

The study, produced by researchers at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Institute of Political Science (FAUIPS, Erlangen-Nuremberg), Germany, and the V-Dem Institute in Gothenburg, Sweden, alarmed Dr Katrin Kinzelbach, one of AFI’s two principal investigators.

“From autocracies like China, and increasingly authoritarian countries like India, to fully-fledged democracies like Britain and the United States, we found measurable decreases in academic freedom. In the UK, for example, we found declines in ‘campus integrity’, the extent to which campuses are free from politically motivated surveillance, and academics’ freedom of expression on political issues,” she said.

Of the 179 countries surveyed, the five that received the highest AFI score are the Czech Republic (0.98), Estonia, Belgium, Italy, Germany and Honduras (0.96). The five countries that scored lowest – North Korea, Myanmar, Eritrea, Turkmenistan and Belarus – scored between 0.01 and 0.03.

The country that saw the largest decline in academic freedom – from 0.57 to 0.14 – is Afghanistan. South Africa’s score fell from 0.84 to 0.79, which continued a decline from 0.93 that started in 2004. Mauritania saw a sharp decline from 0.40 in 2019 to 0.22. In Russia, the decline from 0.79 in 1999 continued down to 0.24 in 2022. For its part China’s decline from 0.24 in 2011 continued to 0.07 in 2022.

However, as Kinzelbach stressed, the declines are not only in China and increasingly authoritarian countries like India (which declined from 0.71 in 2012 to 0.38 in the latest study), but also in advanced industrialised democratic states.

“In fully-fledged democracies like Britain and the United States, we found measurable decreases in academic freedom. In the UK, for example, we found declines in ‘campus integrity’, the extent to which campuses are free from politically motivated surveillance and academics’ freedom of expression on political issues,” said Kinzelbach.

Between 2019 and 2022 the United States declined from 0.91 to 0.79. This puts the US below South Africa, Bosnia and Herzegovina and New Zealand in the “Top 40-50%” cohort worldwide.

Each of the areas used to create the final AFI score – “Freedom to Research and Teach”, “Academic Exchange and Dissemination”, “Institutional Autonomy”, “Campus Integrity” and “Academic and Cultural Expression” – declined. The largest drop, 3.62 to 2.94, was recorded in “Freedom to Research and Teach”, the very foundation of academic freedom.

The AFI dates the decline in academic freedom in the United States to the political ascendency of Trump “who repeatedly made statements highly critical of science and academia”. Higher education in the US is, however, largely controlled by the individual states.

Since 2021 the AFI report states: “[A]t least nine states, all Republican-led, have adopted bills that ban the teaching of concepts related to ‘critical race theory’ in higher education institutions.

“Several states are also targeting tenure in public universities, adding to the already precarious status of academic employment. Some states now also allow students to record class lectures without the professor’s consent.

“Furthermore, influential conservative groups are lobbying state legislatures to withdraw funding from scientific fields such as gender, minority studies and environmental science, and various groups are maintaining public ‘watchlists’ of professors perceived as radical leftists.

“Despite efforts to polarise and intimidate, AFI data on academics’ freedom of expression indicates that scholars in the USA remain able to publicly voice their expertise, even on politically salient issues.”

Mexico, which has declined from 0.93 in 2017 to 0.67 in the latest survey, is another country in the Americas that AFI has flagged. Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has “weakened institutional autonomy through harsh austerity measures” and the political prioritisation of research addressing “national problems”, the report states.

Additionally, “the lack of campus integrity has also contributed to the decline of academic freedom, with attacks on students, especially females, protests against these harassments, and a drug war fought on university campuses”, the report states.

In the year ending 1 September 2023, according to SAR, there have been 196 attacks on higher education, including 82 killings and disappearances, 44 imprisonments, 10 prosecutions, and 18 incidents of professors losing their positions.

On 16 June at the Tehran University of Art police violently broke up a demonstration protesting the university’s policy that female students wear the maghna’eh (the black cloth that covers their head, face and chest).

On 12 May New College in Sarasta, Florida, declined to renew visiting US history professor Eric Wallenberg’s contract, apparently in retaliation for Wallenberg’s criticism of administrators De Santis appointed who were “vocal opponents of diversity, equity and inclusion programs, and curricula that includes critical race theory and gender studies”.

A week earlier, Taylor University (Upland, Indiana) chose not to renew English professor Julie Moore’s contract following a student’s complaint about class readings on racial and social justice issues.

In late March Taliban intelligence agents arrested Sakhidad Sangin, a professor of English literature at Badakhshan University (in Badakhshan Province in the northeast of the country). Sangin was a known opponent of the Taliban’s educational policies concerning women and girls.

Also in late March, 11 students were arrested at the Delhi University’s Faculty of Arts, India, for screening “The Modi Question”, a BBC documentary that examines Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s actions during the 2002 riots in Gujarat when he was the chief minister of the state.

On 27 January María Fernanda Rodríguez, an art professor at the Universidad Metropolitana de Caracas (Venezuela), was temporarily detained after attending a meeting held by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

However, the attacks on academic freedom can be grouped into particular types or those involving particular issues raised by particular groups.

Populist attacks on expertise

Anti-intellectual, rhetorical attacks on professors and their expertise are the staple of right-wing populists such as Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines between 2016 and 2022 and his successor, Bongbong Marcos (son of Ferdinand Marcos, president 1965–1986), as well as Republican governors in the US, such as Florida’s De Santis and Texas’ Gregg Abbot.

According to political science Professor Carl Marc Ramota, the faculty regent at the University of the Philippines (UP, Manila) and former president of the All UP Academic Employees Union (AUPAEU), the purpose of the anti-intellectual rhetoric, which includes branding professors as ‘Communists’ or ‘subversives’, is to “demonise or discredit academics in the name of systematic disinformation controlled by the government”.

Long before the Russian TV channel RU.TV was tasked with creating the impression that Russia was winning the war in Ukraine, the government-controlled media was adept at creating an alternate reality that undercut academic freedom.

According to Kondakov, in the early 2000s, polling showed a slow but steady rise in the acceptance of gays and lesbians among Russians.

After the passage of the law for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating a Denial of Traditional Family Values in 2013 the media rhetorically attacked gays and lesbians, states the author of Violent Affections: Queer sexuality, techniques of power, and the law in Russia (2022, University of California Press).

“The government managed to construct an entirely different narrative based on conservative principles. What they said did not go unnoticed by the populace, which became more conservative year after year. It was not without its impact on Russian society and Putin’s conservative base. So the people voted for him, though he’s not interested in votes. He can construct a new conservative nation with these manipulative strategies,” he said.

Kondakov spent 2017 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC and is conversant with the culture wars that have roiled American education. Hence his rhetorical question: “I wonder if this is what’s going to happen in Florida now?”

On 10 August, 10 days before Kondakov spoke to University World News, Christopher Rufo, one of the conservative ‘anti-woke’ trustees that Republican Governor Ron De Santis appointed to the board of New College, Florida’s only publicly owned liberal arts college, gleefully tweeted: “The New College board of trustees has directed the administration to abolish its Gender Studies program. We are the first public university in America to begin rolling back the encroachment of queer theory and gender pseudoscience into academic life.”

Under President Jair Bolsonaro (2019–2022), Brazil’s colleges and universities were attacked by one minister of education, who said they are “expensive and create a lot of waste” and are more concerned with “politicisation, ideologization and upheaval” than the production of knowledge.

According to Dr Frederico Menino, who hails from Brazil but is a senior project officer with OSUN, Bolsonaro’s administration criticised affirmative action programmes designed to bring more black Brazilians into higher education and programmes for the poor and indigenous peoples because they wasted taxpayer money, giving these people something they shouldn’t have.

One minister of education went so far, Menino told University World News, as saying: “It is a mistake to believe that the university is something for everybody. University is supposed to be for the privileged. It is an elite thing.”

Bolsonaro’s many tools of pressure

Across the world governments have used the fig-leaf of bureaucratic decisions to implement populist authoritarian objectives that strike at the heart of academic freedom. One tactic used by Bolsonaro was to turn the ministry of higher education into what Menino termed “a circus”, by having three unqualified ministers of education in three years.

Bolsonaro also broke with the tradition of appointing rectors to public universities only after they had been recommended by the universities’ faculties; eight of the fourteen rectors Bolsonaro appointed were political loyalists.

Bolsonaro’s firing of Dr Ricardo Galvão, a world-renowned geophysicist, who was the director of the National Institute for Space Research, and whose research showed the extent of the deforestation of the Amazon, was another major blow to academic freedom, despite the constitutional protection of it.

The same is true for efforts to exclude women’s studies, LGBTQIA+ rights, sex and gender, or even reproductive rights from Brazil’s academies, writes Conrado Hübner Mendes, a professor of constitutional law at São Paulo University, in “Academic Freedom in Brazil”, a working paper provided to University World News by Menino.

A further threat to academic freedom, according to Mendes, was the appointment of Benedito Guimarães Aguiar Neto, the former rector of Mackenzie Presbyterian University (São Paulo) to be head of the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel agency.

Neto is “in favour of teaching and studying intelligent design, a line of research that is influenced by creationism and denies Darwinian evolution as a suitable hypothesis for the origins of life. His appointment left scientists concerned ‘about the encroachment of religion on science and education policy’,” he writes.

Bolsonaro also used budget cuts to neuter both environmental research and other programs in which his critics taught. According to Professor Mario Aquino Alvez, who teaches about Civil Society and Nonprofit Organizations at the São Paulo School of Administration, ministers of education justified the cuts with the rhetorical shrug: “It’s not our priority.”

Weaponising the law

In the Philippines, according to Professor Rommel Rodriguez, who teaches Philippine literature and creative writing in Filipino at University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman (suburban Manila), attacks on academic freedom and human rights should be seen “in the context of weaponising the law”.

Instead of defining terrorism precisely, the government created a definition “that can be freely used against anyone, any organisation, even teachers and the academic union can be tagged as a terrorist group,” he said. For his book, Kalatas: Mga Kuwentong Bayan at Kuwentong Buhay (Vignettes: Folktales and Life Stories), which was banned and never published, Rodriguez found himself “accused of being a subversive”.

“I was lucky, I got support from the faculty of arts and literature, who protected my rights. The trend for academics, including our organisation, is under the law that they can easily be suspected or be accused of terrorism or [of] being a subversive,” said Rodriguez.

Thousands of academics and education ministry staff in Turkey were suspended, sacked or detained in prison and 15 universities were closed after an attempted coup in July 2016. Many of the academics were targeted on the basis of being linked to the Gülen movement which supports a network of schools but which the government had declared a ‘terrorist organisation’ and blamed for the coup.

However, Fetullah Gülen, a moderate Muslim preacher and the movement’s US-based leader in exile, has denied any involvement.

Other academics in Turkey were targeted for signing a petition in January 2016 calling for peace talks over the Kurdish problem, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accusing them of making ‘terrorist propaganda’.

Similar tactics have been used elsewhere in the world. In Cameroon in 2020, for instance, Dr Nkongho Felix Agbor Balla, a lecturer in law at the University of Buea in the country’s south-west and a human rights activist, was fired for sedition. His offence was including an exam question about the Anglophone insurgency in the south of Cameroon. Both Francophone and Anglophone professors protested Balla’s firing.

More recently in Turkey, Erdogan has provoked controversy by employing a new tactic undermining academic freedom – neutering the legal provisions of shared governance. On 1 January 2021 he installed Melihu Bulu, a failed candidate for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party as rector of Boaziçi University (Istanbul), one of the country’s major universities. A month later Bulu oversaw the creation of both a law school and a School of Communications that were to be staffed with the regime’s loyalists.

Writing in the South Atlantic Quarterly, Zeynep Gambetti and Saygun Gökariksel (both of whom had, until 2019, been professors of political science and international relations at BU) noted that the decrees establishing these schools “blatantly contraven[ed] legal provisions that stipulate that the National Assembly must vote such units in” and, as such, were an attack on academic freedom by Turkey’s neoliberal authoritarian government.

Gambetti and Gökariksel accuse Erdogan of ‘hollowing out’ Turkey’s universities to the point where rather than being sites of free inquiry they have become “techno-parks . . . collaborating with the industrial-military complex. Any research that defies the ever-changing objectives and networks of the establishment is conveniently labelled subversive and banned by deploying a diversity of ruses.”

Gambetti and Gökariksel use the German word, Gleichschaltung (coordination), the name the Nazis gave their policy of subordinating the organs of the state to the party, to describe Erdogan’s restructuring of Turkish higher education.

Perhaps the most stunning bureaucratic and legal attack on academic freedom occurred in 2017 when the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán passed a bill tailored to undercut the legal basis by which the Central European University (CEU), founded in 1991 by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, operated in Hungary.

The bill required that for a private university from outside Hungary to operate in the country, the Hungarian government had to have an agreement with the government of the other country the university operated in.

The bill also required that the university have a campus in its other country where similar degree programs were offered. Additionally, the law stipulates that the name of the university be different in Hungary and its home country.

As the government knew the CEU met none of these requirements. The CEU had an agreement with the State of New York and the city of Budapest. The Budapest-based university, renowned for supporting democracy, did not have a campus in the United States.

As the Canadian political philosopher Michael Ignatieff, CEU’s president at the time, told a webinar last March that focused on what students could do to resist De Santis’ remaking of New College, Orbán’s attack on the CEU was politically motivated.

“It was a straight attack on us for political purposes. Viktor Orbán had to fight an election campaign in 2018 and he needed an enemy. And his enemy was George Soros, founder of the university [and also founder of the Open Society Foundations]. We were taken hostage in his [Orbán’s] political battle to win an election,” he said.

In early December of 2018 CEU announced that it would be moving to Vienna by September 2019. On 6 October 2020 the European Court of Justice ruled on the case brought by the European Commission against the legislation.

The court found that what had become known as the ‘lex CEU’ contravened the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union relating to academic freedom, the freedom to found higher education institutions and the freedom to conduct a business.”

In July 2021, three years after Orbán forced CEU out of Hungary, Russia’s prosecutor general’s office declared Bard College, which since 1990 had been the driving force behind Smolny College, to be an “undesirable foreign organisation” and “a threat to the foundations of Russian Constitutional Order.”

Smolny College was the result of a partnership between Bard and St Petersburg University (SPU) and operated as a program within SPU’s university’s philology department.

But the decree, which criminalised contact with Bard, dissolved the ties between Bard and SPU.

Though it did not fit in easily into SPU’s structure, Smolny College was supported by grants from the Open Society, Ford, McArthur, Mellon and other foundations concerned with encouraging engaged civil society in Russia.

The college was the only accredited liberal arts and science institution in the country – and was named after the Smolny Institute, which ironically was the first home of Valdimir Ilyich Lenin’s Communist government.

Smolny, which in 2011 became the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences, was embraced by two generations of Russian students. Many of these students spent a semester studying on Bard’s bucolic campus on the Hudson River while many of Bard’s students spent a semester studying at the university on the Neva River.

Smolny offered a unique range of 12 majors, from ‘Film’ and ‘Art History’ to ‘International Relations, Political Science, and Human Rights’, ‘Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence’ and ‘Cognitive Studies.’ Over the three decades of Smolny’s operation, more than a thousand students earned two degrees – from St Petersburg State and from Bard.

“Smolny was important for two reasons,” says Becker. “First, it was the first liberal arts college in Russia and inspired many other institutions there to adopt teaching and curricular practices it pioneered and shared. Second, we were a representation of success in relations between America and Russia. It was the biggest and most successful US-Russian academic collaboration.”

The decision to declare Bard “a threat to the foundations of the Russian Constitutional Order” appears to have come from two directions, said Philip Fedchin, a former lecturer in art history at Smolny and a Technology Strategist for Bard.

A move by Smolny’s faculty to seek to have their faculty transition into an independent college within SPU was strongly opposed by the university’s rector, Nikolai Kropachev, whom Becker called an “authoritarian”.

Outside the university, two toxic currents converged. The first was worsening US-Russia relations. In November 2020, for example, citing Russia’s violations of it, the US withdrew from the Open Skies nuclear verification treaty. The second, according to Fedchin, manifested itself via ultra-nationalistic media regularly excoriating Soros’ OSUN.

Looking back on what led to Bard being declared an “undesirable organisation”, a designation that had already been made for the Open Society Foundation (and other Western foundations), Russia First presented what amounted to a (phantasmagorical) bill of particulars against Bard and OSUN.

Soros’ $100 million donation to Bard in 2020 to “strengthen critical thinking around the world” had as its aim, Konstantin Dvinsky wrote in an article published on 21 July 2021, to instil “destructive left-liberal views aimed at destroying the traditional foundations of the state and society”.

With the RUB150 million that Bard transferred to SPU between 2012 and 2020 “globalists conducted so-called gender and queer research, which is essentially LGBT propaganda”, Dvinsky added.

Dvinksy had special ire for Becker (who, along with Bard President Leon Botstein and Fedchin were also named as “undesirable foreign agents” by Russia). Becker’s act of lèse-majesté was his claim, made in a the article “Russia and the new authoritarians” published in 2014, that “Russia [had] ingloriously entered the top ten countries where journalists are killed and their killers are free.”

As Becker explained, Bard’s expulsion from Russia signified the victory of educational traditionalists and neoliberals: “They are not interested in a new type of education that emphasises individual development and the production of an engaged citizenry.”


Control of the curriculum

Gleichschaltung also describes Putin’s reordering of the university curriculum in line with what matters most to him: Russian history. According to Dubrovsky’s essay, “Russian history has ceased to be a scientific discipline and has become part of the military propaganda machine”, Russia’s 2022 history curriculum is designed to inculcate the idea that “‘our country is always right’ and ‘only enemies slander us’”. Russia’s universities are tasked with “preparing a patriotic civilian base” that avoids “problems and contradictions of national history”.

These phrases, it is worth noting, are all but indistinguishable from those used to describe both recent changes to Florida’s high school history curriculum, which, infamously, asks students to consider “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit”, and criticisms of the American academe as being riddled with Cultural Marxists bent on undermining patriotism.

Russia’s triumphalist narrative praises the Soviet military model: “Priority attention should be paid to the heroic pages dictating Russia’s struggle for freedom and independence against foreign invaders,” Dubrovsky said. The curriculum also calls for professors to emphasise the “positive characteristics of Russia’s imperial foreign policy”, he noted.

“They are currently introducing ideological courses that cover the pillars of Russian statehood that are mandatory for all students in all specialties,” he said, before adding: “My favourite example is that Russia has never had an aggressive war in its history.”

Central to this ideological curriculum is justification for the war against Ukraine. Putin’s essay, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, published in the summer of 2021, gives a thoroughly Russified version of Ukrainian history, but at least uses the words “Ukraine” 76 times and “Ukrainians” 14 times.

The new curriculum simplifies things considerably by referring only to the ‘Rus’, the early-mediaeval Norseman who founded the antecedents of the Russian state. “Ukraine” appears only in the 17th Century in the phrase “Ukrainian lands” – the annexation of which, the curriculum states, freed them from “oppression”.

Similarly, both Western Belarus and Ukraine are depicted as having “miraculously ‘joined’ the USSR in the same way in 1939”, which elides the bloody, imperial history of Soviet Russia.

Crackdowns and physical assaults

In the areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia at the beginning of the full-scale war, academic freedom remains in acute crises (while in Crimea, for instance, the situation is “chronic” because it has been going on for almost a decade).

Under Russian auspices, the Azerbaijan (‘Azov’) State Pedagogical University (ASPU) was established on the campus of what had been Berdyansk State Pedagogical University (BSPU, 60 km southwest of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov). The university regime established their strikes at the very foundation of academic freedom.

According to Anastasiia Popova, head of the Young Scientists Council, under Russian occupation professors “function under Russian standards and are forbidden to speak Ukrainian”.

Yana Suchikova, vice-rector for research at BSPU, said: “We monitor their Telegram [a social media platform] channels. And we know they are distorting Ukrainian literature. They say we are all extremists. They say that all the Ukrainian people are Nazis and that anyone who stands with Ukraine is a Nazi.”

The Russians have also destroyed many rare books in their university’s library about the history of the Zaphorizia region.

Suchikova and Popova spoke derisively of the 5% of their former faculty colleagues who agreed to teach at the ASPU when it was opened and emotionally about the physical abuse the Russians meted out against faculty who refused to teach at the ASPU. Only after six months in prison did many others agree to teach there.

While BSPU, which now operates online, as a ‘university without walls’, the situation professors and students who live in occupied Ukraine cope with makes sustaining academic freedom extremely difficult. Fully 56% of BSPU’s faculty report feeling in either “complete danger” or are “more likely in complete danger” from the Russians, while a similar percent of students do.

Even before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, what Dubrovsky called the “bubbles” in which liberal inquiry occurred and remained isolated were contracting in Russia. At HSE a new rector was tasked with “cleaning up the liberals”. One of his weapons was having students record Dubrovsky’s lectures “for the purpose of recording the dates on which I made non-patriotic statements”.

For a time, Dubrovsky had been protected by an administrator, whose name he kept secret for his/her protection. Dubrovsky has not tried to contact him/her since he left Russia, and he fears the worst.

A few years ago, Kondakov found himself before a state’s attorney in St Petersburg after a complaint that he was spreading gay propaganda. The instance was a female student who challenged a grade she had received.

“They came to the university and started an investigation. But, [luckily] the administrators knew what to do in these cases. But you can imagine today that the situation is much, much more difficult. There are more laws that target different ways of thinking, alternatives to the state party line. There are laws against LGBT and also what can be said about the war in Ukraine,” he said.

“It’s very Stalinist.”

Pressure to self-censor

The various pressures Bolsonaro’s government applied to the higher education sector in Brazil constitute a “chronic” condition in which 58% of scholars reported “suffering limitations or interferences” in relation to their studies, research or classes, said Aquino Alves. Equally insidiously, he said 42% of professors said they had self-limited their academic freedom by deciding not to pursue certain questions or teach certain topics in class.

The level of self-censorship rose steeply during COVID-caused shut downs, a period that saw Bolsonaro ape Trump’s political style and attacks on COVID protocols.

Although there are cases of Brazil’s police trying to create chaos that would justify them entering a university campus, the country’s constitution grants universities autonomy, which, legally, at least, prevents police from arresting faculty or students on campus and from monitoring classes. The online lectures necessitated by COVID, however, allowed the police to monitor professors.

“A lot of people became much more afraid of talking and even delivering some content. I’m talking about things like civil rights lectures. I’m not talking about Gramsci [Antonio Gramsci, the Marxist political philosopher executed by Mussolini’s government in 1937],” said Alves.

In the last months of Duterte’s rule in the Philippines, a lecturer from the UP-Cebu was abducted in broad daylight. In addition, Dr Melania Flores, who teaches in the Department of Filipino and Philippine Literature at UP-Dilman in Quezon City (just outside Manila) and is a former president of the AUPAEU was arrested by police posing as social workers on trumped up charges that were later dismissed by the courts.

Since Marcos’ inauguration in June, incidents of police entering university precincts have increased, Ramota said. On 19 August, two days before Ramota, Rodriguez and three other professors spoke to University World News, Ramota’s regency office issued a press release detailing how, on both 18 and 19 August, police drones hovered over UP Mindanao in Davao City during a General Assembly of Student Councils.

On 11 August police entered the campus of the UP College of Medicine in Manila unannounced to interview Dr Raquel Fortun, chair of the Department of Pathology, who had just released a report critical of the police in the case of the killings of two teenagers in 2017.

“We’re seeing a trend,” said Ramota. “We’re seeing a pattern of state security forces attempting to and even entering our campuses for various reasons, including surveillance. But all of these efforts are really intended to intimidate us, to instil fear in the members of the university community who are known to be vocal critics of the government. They are known to be vocal advocates of human rights and, especially, of academic freedom.

“We’re always at the forefront of questioning policies and programs from the government from Duterte to Marcos junior.”

Emerging threats in the US, UK

Recently there have been significant emerging threats from the right in the United States and to a much lesser extent in the UK (over the past decade Britain’s AFI score has declined to 0.83 from 0.95). Right-wing political parties have tried to stoke the ‘culture war’ and appeal to their political base with attacks on ‘cancel culture’ and claims to be waging a ‘war on woke’.

In the United States the attacks on academic freedom include: the gutting of tenure in Republican-led states such as Florida, Texas, Louisiana and South Dakota; laws in Texas and Florida that have dissolved diversity, equity and inclusion offices; bans on the teaching of courses that deal with “identity politics”, critical race theory, gender and queer theory and, in Florida, surveys of the faculty’s and students’ political leanings; and an attempt to seize control of one leading liberal arts college and upend its mission.

Supporting these measures is an almost constant refrain by politicians and pundits on Fox News and other right-wing media outlets criticising professors whose research and expertise leads them to speak out against racism, gender bias or homophobia.

Quinn expects most of the laws to be overturned (most that have been challenged in court have, in fact, been stayed – or halted – by court injunctions). “But what I worry about is that it [these laws and the politics around them] will be exported around the world to places where they don’t have the ability to go to court and fight”, he said.

“We have, here, the so-called Higher Ed leader, [the US], behaving in a way that will give cover to states that want to do the same thing, without there being any remedies for it.

“Let me use Poland as an example. They were doing some of this stuff before DeSantis. But maybe it’s easier now to pull it off,” he said.

Quinn is also concerned, as is the philosopher Amia Srinivasan, by the conservatives who conflate ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘academic freedom’ to usher in a neo-liberal presence on British and American campuses.

He is referring to those who complain that the likes of right-wing firebrand Nick Fuentes – who after Trump was arrested and booked in Fulton, County, Georgia, announced on his podcast that he, Fuentes, was no longer a believer in the US Constitution and pledged allegiance to Trump – are either not invited to or are dis-invited to a campus and say this amounts to censorship and a failure to uphold academic freedom.

Quinn notes that the two are not the same. Free speech is the right of a person to speak his or her mind in the public sphere, as happens at Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park. “Academic freedom, by contrast, is about process,” he said.

“It is not so much about opinions in the way free speech is. If you spout an academic opinion but you have not gone through the appropriate academic process, that opinion has no more validity than if you said it on the street. And it’s entirely appropriate for us to fully interrogate your expression according to the process and to challenge it.

“But if you are out on the street, and you articulate an opinion, other than the norms of customary polite behaviour, I have no obligation to you over any kind of process whatsoever,” he said.

Srinivasan’s essay, “Cancelled”, in the London Review of Books (29 June 2023) details the Orwellian nature of the Higher Education Act (HEA, also known as the Freedom of Speech) Act that became law last May, including the fact that universities are now liable to fines by the “free speech Tsar” and to civil claims “brought by anyone who feels they have suffered ‘adverse consequences’ because of a university or student union’s ‘action or inaction’”. What this means, Srinivasan said, is far from clear.

American right wingers including Jordan Peterson, as well as British Conservatives such as leading Brexiteers Jacob Rees-Mogg and Priti Patel and the white nationalist political philosopher Eric Kaufmann, have knowingly conflated freedom of speech and academic freedom. This is a conflation enshrined in the law that imposes on universities and student unions the duty to “secure freedom of speech within the law” not only for students, academics and staff but, also, for visiting speakers.

In much the same way as Quinn does Srinivasan notes that the two freedoms are not the same. The whole point of academic freedom is “the freedom to exercise academic expertise in order to discriminate between good and bad ideas, valid and invalid arguments, sound and hare-brained methods”.

Srinivasan then brings the argument down to the quotidian reality overlooked by those who see academic freedom only as something to be stripped away from professors. Academic freedom is what “academics do when we curate syllabuses, make appointments, allocate graduate places and funding, peer-review papers and books and invite speakers”.

Populist attacks on the educated elite, Russia’s rewriting of its history, bureaucratic attempts to silence experts and Florida’s undercutting of New College are all of a piece. Each of these actions is antithetical to academic freedom.

For, as Srinivasan, a professor of philosophy at Oxford, writes, when acting in accordance with the dictates of academic freedom, “we are exercising our professional judgement about the intellectual worth and seriousness of other people’s ideas”.

Worst affected countries

Two of the countries with the worst AFI are Myanmar (0.01) and Afghanistan (0.14). But the attacks on academic freedom in each country are very different.

The coup that overthrew Myanmar’s ten-year-old civilian government on 1 February 2021 set off a wave of student protests that were violently suppressed but also permanently derailed the opening, slated for the following September, of Parami University’s (PU) undergraduate school on its purpose-built campus in Yangon.

The coup forced Kyaw Moe Tun, the founder of what would have been Myanmar’s only institution liberal arts and sciences, underground and then to flee the country.

An indication of how seriously the junta took the threat posed by liberal education – which Tun summarises as “questioning assumption, questioning authority, empowering students to think” – is that when the military released a video to whip up nationalist sentiment it focused on Soros, his OSF, and how Tun was their stooge.

The video accuses Soros of seeking to destabilise Myanmar by backing the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Rakhine State in western Myanmar on the Bay of Bengal, who have suffered two episodes of ethnic cleansing, one between October 2016 and January 2017, and one that began in October 2017. More than a million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh and tens of thousands have been killed by Myanmar’s military.

The video also highlights that Tun was educated at Bard, that Bard is linked to OSUN and that PU was affiliated with Bard and was funded by OSUN. It presents these connections as a sinister secret being revealed when in fact all of this was public. Several Bard officials, including Becker, are members of PU’s Board of Trustees to provide proper academic oversight of majors, courses and the curriculum, while OSUN provided a grant of $500,000 (only 20% which was ever dispersed because of the coup).

“The military and its supporters created this propaganda story against the Open Society Foundations in which they said that all Western powers are conspiring against the sovereignty of Burma (Myanmar), meaning against Burmese military power, and that I am involved in this conspiracy. Somehow, I’m helping the Western powers and that I am brainwashing the young people of Burma,” said Tun, laughing.

He recalled that his own experience at Bard of studying the ideas of Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx “liberated me in a way, to be able to see beyond what I saw from my narrow, Burmese perspective, a singular, Eastern perspective, and to go beyond into other perspectives as well”.

A month after the coup the military raided OSF’s offices in Yangon seizing US$3.7 million and detained the foundations’ finance director for Myanmar, Phyu Pa Pa Thaw. Government-controlled media accused the OSF of funnelling money to deposed leaders, including, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Security officials continue to hound Tun and PU, banging on the door in PU’s shuttered office in Yangon, demanding to see someone and sending letters addressed to Tun ordering him to sign that: “We will not be teaching any Western style democratic values.”

SAR (Scholars at risk) has documented numerous examples of state terror being directed at university students from the earliest days of the coup. On 25 March 2021 SAR wrote to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) to urge it to act against the violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters and the higher education community following the military coup eight weeks earlier (on 1 February).

Among those killed when security forces fired into the protesters at Yadanabon University, Mandalay were May Kyal Sin, a second-year student, and first-year medical student Khant Nyar Hein.

“On March 7 dozens of soldiers fired rubber bullets and tear gas in their efforts to take over the Mandalay Technological University campus. Weeks earlier soldiers raided the campus of the Myanmar Aerospace Engineering University in Tha Phay Wa, after which they reportedly threatened faculty and staff telling them to “behave intelligently” before leaving”, SAR wrote in the letter to the UNHRC.

Weeks earlier soldiers raided the campus of the Myanmar Aerospace Engineering University in Tha Phay Wa, after which they reportedly threatened faculty and staff telling them to “behave intelligently” before leaving”, SAR wrote in the letter to the UNHRC.

On 21 April 2022 four students from Dagon University (Yangon) were reported missing; two more went missing the following day. The students had taken part in anti-coup protests and, according to SAR, are believed to have been taken by the military junta. At the beginning of November 2022 Myanmar’s military fired heavy artillery rounds at Kachin Theological College in Kutkai.

Recently, the authorities have turned their attention to the universities’ curricula, Tun told University World News.

“The regulations for the bodies that inspect schools to ensure that they are not teaching Western civilization, Western culture and Western values are strange. They would use conjoined verbs [such as] ‘Students shall not be taught with, influenced by, and converted through teachings of foreign cultures, values, tradition, and religions’. They sound like they think professors are missionaries of some sort,” said Tun.

Devastating attack on women’s rights

On 15 August 2021 as Kabul, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, Dr Ian Bickford, who had been president of the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) for seven months, led a group of colleagues to the Hamid Karzai International Airport and, after more than eight anxious hours, onto a plane, one of the last to fly out of the airport.

Left behind was the campus that in 2006 admitted 53 students, including one intrepid woman, and in 2020 enrolled more than 1,000 students, nearly half of whom were women.

AUAF’s concept was equal opportunity for men and women to cultivate a leadership cohort for the development of Afghanistan’s business, government and civil society and it was supported when it was being built by a major grant from the United States Agency for International Development.

The increase in the university’s enrolment from 53 to more than 1,000 testifies to the fact that the liberal arts curriculum in such programs as computer science and law was seen by students as forming the “most respected institution of higher education in Afghanistan and the gold standard for Afghan education”, Bickford said.

The fact that half of the students on the campus the Taliban closed down were women, “is a sign of how far Afghan society had travelled in thinking about the equality of women”, he said.

The plight of AUAF is just one example amid a plethora of threats to academic freedom in a country where the economy has all but collapsed. The most impactful attack on academic freedom, particularly the freedom to study and research under the new Taliban regime, is that women are not permitted to attend school or university, but this is by no means the only far-reaching threat.

The Taliban are an ideological regime that enforces strict Sharia law. They have reversed the relatively progressive curriculum installed by previous secular governments.

The aim, a number of Kabul University professors told University World News, is to “pave the way for Islamic culture”. This year alone, approximately 229 professors from the country’s three main universities – Kabul (which lost 112 professors) Herat and Balkh – left the country.

“Those university teachers who are still around and did not or could not leave the country are feeling extremely under pressure to follow the Taliban orders,” one lecturer told the BBC.

In October 2022, Nida Mohammad Nadim, a hardline Taliban leader was appointed Minister of Higher Education. Earlier this year, the ministry issued a directive saying: “Academic staff (in all universities) must support the existing system (of governance) and avoid any actions that cause problems in their work.” The directive contained this stern warning: “Whoever evades these orders would be responsible for the consequences.”

The recent establishment of a department to “review and develop the educational curriculum of the country’s educational institutions in the light of Islamic rules” ends what little academic freedom Afghanistan’s professors had.

Prior to the Taliban’s return to power women comprised approximately 45% of higher education students. Although precise figures are not available there were a number of female professors. As part of its Gleichschaltung the Taliban have removed both female professors and female students’ higher education creating what has been called ‘gender apartheid’.

At the personal level, the banning of female professors means that these women have lost their livelihood while the female students who have been banned from higher education suffer the loss of their hopes for careers.

At the university level the absence of female professors means that what research there is will be hindered by the absence of half of the nation’s intellectual talent; knowledge production will, perforce, be limited to men who, it bears repeating, are under the thumb of the Taliban’s religious orthodoxy.

The loss of their academic freedom and, in some countries, threats to their lives have not prevented both students and professors from resisting the assault on what the UN recognises as a fundamental human right, the freedom to learn and the freedom to research.

Strengthening resilience

This article is the first in a series of six articles that will examine the different ways in which individuals, universities and governments are seeking to strengthen resistance and resilience in the face of threats to academic freedom.

For instance, BSPU in Ukraine is resisting the Russian occupation of Zaphorizia by continuing to run the “university without walls”. But due to the occupation and the Russian efforts to suppress Ukrainian institutions, professors who teach in the university and students who attend face on-going security issues. Accordingly, the virtual university’s website does not contain the usual array of teacher profiles, student lists, teacher’s names and even class schedules.

In Florida, students like Joshua Epstein, working with graduates and the Open Society Universities Network (OSUN), created DEFY (Defending Educational Freedom for Youth) within hours of De Santis appointing new members to the Board of Trustees of New College who pledged to do away with the college’s traditional liberal culture.

In partnership with OSUN and Bard College DEFY offered a number of courses including “Global Freedom of Expression”, “Cultural Politics and Performance in the African Diaspora”, “Introduction to Islamic Finance” and “Race, Health and Inequality”. Transcripts and credit for the courses were provided by Bard College.

DEFY is also part of a nation-wide grass-roots movement seeking to register one million new young voters in time for the 2024 presidential election.

In the Philippines the faculty union’s and parts of the UP administration’s proposal to create a UP Committee on the Promotion and Protection of Academic Freedom and Human Rights received support on 13 September from the University Council of the UP Diliman University. They await the response from the UP’s president.

“The incidents alone this month should prompt the UP’s leadership to act with a sense of urgency. The University must not allow these attacks against our constituents to continue,” stated Ramota in the 19 August press release.

“The creation of the Committee on the Promotion and Protection of Academic Freedom and Human Rights at the level of the UP system, and later on all campuses, will provide the mechanism for monitoring and coordination, and legal and administrative aid to the faculty, staff, and students in distress,” said Ramota.

The election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) means that the resistance to Bolsonaro’s attack on academic freedom and universities has moved into the halls of power.

In contrast to Bolsonaro’s strategy of starving the universities of funds, one of Lula’s first acts was to increase funding for higher education in general and for Affirmative Action programs for Black and indigenous Brazilians, specifically. He also appointed Galvão to head the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, which Menino said is a very helpful sign.

Additionally, Lula – who in speeches often says that he is the only president of Brazil since the military dictatorship ended in 1985 to not have a university degree but he is the president who has spent the most on higher education – has intimated that he will support the creation of a University of the Amazon.

According to Menino, the university will be a partnership of, at least, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.

“It will not be a national university but a university targeted to discussing and researching about the social and scientific topics of sustainable development, which is critical for the Amazon region. It will prioritise the region and act as a key for Lula’s diplomatic agenda as well,” said Menino.

In several contexts liberal arts education is being kept alive by the rapid establishment of virtual versions and foreign campuses of universities forced out of their home country by hostile regimes.

In Afghanistan, after the Taliban seized power, AUAF set up a virtual university in mere weeks, in time for the fall 2021 semester to begin as planned.

Prior to the collapse of the Western-backed government AUAF negotiated a contingency plan with Qatar to allow the university to relocate to Education City in Doha, a hub of international universities, which AUAF did in 2022. In the summer and fall of 2022 AUAF also welcomed 100 students to Education City where they are progressing through their programs, along with a second cohort of 100 who joined in 2023.

Serving students from Myanmar, in August 2022, 57 students, members of the class of 2026, became the first class (2026) at the newly created, virtual, PU. “The class of 2027, which came in just a month ago, has 87 students,” Tun says.

Last November, Smolny Beyond Borders (SBB) was set up by Fedchin and other former Smolny faculty, with funding from the Gagarin Trust. It is directed primarily at people outside Russia and offers online courses but also supplies support, via teaching contracts, for some of the Smolny faculty who have fled Russia.

Afghanistan correspondent Shadi Khan Saif and Myanmar correspondent Padone contributed to this article, which is the first in a series of six on academic freedom and resilience that will appear in University World News over the next 12 months.


This article is published in partnership with the Open Society University Network. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

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