Academic Freedom Under Threat – Where do we go from here?

What actions can and need to be taken to safeguard universities as bastions of free thought and sources of innovation?

Not surprisingly, the growth of populism has been accompanied by shrinking spaces for intellectual life, especially regarding (but not limited to) educational activities in at least in some cases.

In Eastern Europe, the Hungarian government is actively involved in closing the Central European University, funded by the U.S. billionaire George Soros. Prime Minister Viktor Orban does not hide his aversion to Soros’s activities in Hungary. In St. Petersburg, the European University is, once more, threatened with closure, due to inspections by the state agency Rozobrnadzor, which has allegedly uncovered some formal rule violations. The School for Political Science at the second most important Russian University, the MGIMO in Moscow, will be closed due to ‘administrative reorganizations’ as of July 1st.

So what can we, more or less concerned observers and colleagues, do about this? We could accept it as a sign of changing global landscapes. Or we could send or sign protest lists online. Or we could give more or less critical interviews. But when there is a pattern in our observation of increasing harassment of certain, mostly liberal, schools and departments, this trend could sooner or later turn against ourselves.

This week’s question is simple (to ask): What can and should we do about these illiberal incidents?

– Klaus Segbers

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  1. Barbara Dietz 2 years ago

    Attacks against academic freedom and liberal democratic values that are often fueled by a growing populism might well be a sign of changing global landscapes. If this is the case, it is even more important for concerned observers and academics, not to accept outside threats against the freedom of educational activities and the autonomy of universities. The protest against restrictive governmental interferences with academic institutions is essential to support openness, independence and diversity in education and to defend evidence based research. When academic institutions are threatened with closure and the freedom of teaching is at stake on university campus, democratic values will most certainly be threatened elsewhere in society. Because there might be a pattern of spreading harassment, academic freedom is not negotiable.

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  2. Alexei Voskressenski 2 years ago

    All states are in search for a new balance between political order and economic development. It is a mistake that the answer at present is a rise of political populism, economic nationalism and simple decisions. That may lead to further mistakes. However, the situation in these three countries is different: Hungary is trying to reformulate rules for a foreign university, Turkey is creating a new political system without an army as a political guarantor. In Russia a prevalient view is that the management efficacy may help to solve all problems at the expence of the political sphere. I have explained it in my "Non-Western IR" and "Is a Non-Western Democracy Possible? " So, do not read my leeps, do read my books. People should be enlightened on the price of each failure because of populist or incompetent politics. And in the sphere of education it must be explained that the failed or mediocre student even being technically equipped will be a failed or mediocre specialist if a meritocratic system is not introduced. And meritocracy presupposes a high quality of education which is impossible without a tense intellectual life and a free exchange of views.

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  3. Justas Paleckis 2 years ago

    In Russia, Turkey and Hungary, academic freedom is restricted, no doubts - as well as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. That means that fields of democracy and fields of diversity of opinions are decreasing. Unfortunately, similar tendencies can be observed in some other EU states and countries seeking to join the EU. "Fake news" culture is spreading along with one dominant official view which is not so often confronted. The discussion with it becomes financially unprofitable and sometimes even dangerous. This also applies to universities, academic institutions and intellectual life. The increase of academic discussions and the amplitude of opinions in media comments could be the best reproach and an example for the three above-mentioned and similar countries. Primarily, this could be more persuasively demonstrated by the old EU countries.

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  4. Sergei Medvedev 2 years ago

    True, this is certainly a recent trend, very much in line with the right wing populist turn, calls for budget cuts, and a growing suspicion of the universities as agents of liberal globalization within increasingly hostile and nationalistic domestic political systems. I guess we need more inter-university and international solidarity, more publicity and civil awareness (this has worked quite well in Hungary). Meanwhile, universities need to reach out to domestic institutional sponsors, major businesses and foundations, in order to create an endowment system like in the US, providing for true independence of the universities. This, however, entails a systemic change – all across Europe, universities are critically dependent on the state, legally, financially and politically, and the current crisis calls into question this dubious dependency.

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  5. Anastasia Wischnewskaja 2 years ago

    The growth of populism is surely one of the major challenges to the independence of the academia. People like Donald Trump, who use the vocabulary like “bad guys” and “good guys”, certainly have a difficulty comprehending academic writing and findings. Their supporters neither can nor want to do so either. I guess that one way – among several mentioned above – to secure the independence and public support of the universities, is to open up the academic ivory tower. The more professors are at the same time public intellectuals frequently coming into talk shows, writing columns in the papers and giving public lectures, the broader support will be for the respective professor or university in times of turbulence. Populists and people who vote for them claim that liberals are arrogant and are distancing themselves from “the people”. It is up to the academics in their everyday lives and in their work to try to close this gap between themselves and “the people”. No success guaranteed, though.

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  6. Ivanna Machitidze 2 years ago

    While discussing threats to academic freedom in countries as Hungary, Russia and Turkey, another significant development should be addressed as well – governments' attacks at educational institutions abroad, as it is currently taking place in the case of Turkey. Academic freedom is based on the freedom of speech and beliefs, implying diversity throughout the educational process. In particular, unbiased, objective approach towards studying social sciences poses a special threat for undemocratic governments, raising up educated nation with developed political culture, knowledge of its rights and duties, and critical stance towards the actions of the government. Precisely why undemocratic reforms carried out in Hungary, Turkey and Russia will never be complete without the educational institutions being silent. The pressure on the governments in Caucasus, Central Asia, Africa to close the educational networks labelled as those “spreading terrorism” on the grounds of their unbiased approach to studies, should not be left to the governments of the countries under attack to resolve alone. Especially, that some of these countries are the members of the Eastern Partnership and stand out as spectacular examples of belief into those values that set the foundation of EU – the core promoter of democratic values in the region and the world. Pressure on academic freedom in these cases is being achieved through other means – curbing trade relations, using ethnic minorities as a tool of destabilizing situation from inside etc. In this situation, the solution to this issue is uncompromised and supportive stance of the EU and other international institutions in terms of penalizing such actions in order to prevent the fragile democratization process in these countries from backsliding.

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  7. Andrei Melville 2 years ago

    I largely agree with the description of some symptoms of the current widespread malaise, while we may need to develop a more elaborated anamnesis morbi. However, a micro-level approach may also be appropriate, i.e. to look at what we, academics, can and should do in such deplorable situations. In the first place, we should not pretend that we have not heard about such incidents, as the offensives against the European University and the Central European University. And we should openly express our protest, singning petitions, etc. For example, as an expert I was asked to present my opinion about the new accusions vis-a-vis the European university – which I did publicly. We may also want to think not only about new censorship but also about self-censorship which is extremely dangerous for academic integrity. Sometimes I feel like experiencing an amazing flash back…

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  8. Nikoloz Tokhvadze 2 years ago

    No surprise that retreat of neo-liberalism and surge of right-wing populism prepared a fruitful soil for long-time autocrats and ‘them-alikes’ to further justify shunning the free speech, be it in media or - more recently - in academia.

    Academics and scholars, fortunate enough to be working and researching in relatively free parts of the world, have moral responsibility and limited number of tools to stand in solidarity with their colleagues for defending the academic freedom.

    Acting only for sake of acting is not a solution here. Instead, gradually politicizing the issue at national governments and international institutions (through interviews, petitions and public speeches) with an intent to increase political pressure on illiberal perpetrators might have some (albeit limited) effect especially in Hungary that has boasted remarkable economic success in recent years largely thanks to the EU funds – not necessarily Orban’s reforms.

    Simultaneously, offering alternative academic outlets and podiums to persecuted intellectuals from respective counties has a primal significance. Such measures should be exercise with caution not to upset intellectual balance of illiberal countries and further stimulate brain-drain.

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  9. Thilo Bodenstein 2 years ago

    The attack on academic freedom most often comes under the guise of technocratic reform. The loss of academic freedom is justified as a measure to balance government budgets and modernise management. Universities are brought under the control of central governments. Chancellors with wide-ranging powers are installed. Academics lose their contracts as part of ‘university reform’. Many are unaware that ‘reforms’ serve the purpose of political control, but they start behaving cautiously to keep their jobs. Public opinion in these countries does not realise what is happening. Western donors and partner universities have to stop doing business as usual. They should point a finger to the loss of academic freedom by setting up special exchange programmes for students and young researchers from universities under threat. Naming and shaming helps. More importantly, dealing with attacks on academic freedom cannot be left to area specialists alone. Free academics should become part of the struggle and take an interest in countries that seem to be far away. Why not organising the next workshop meeting in Debrecen instead of Düsseldorf?

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  10. Irina Busygina 2 years ago

    With regard to European University in SPb, for me the question is not that much about what should we do in the future, but why we did not do anything till now. I mean that support for the European University in Russia's academic circles was (and is) extremely low. And, in my opinion, not because the people are afraid to be punished by their universities administrations if they openly show support to the European, but because they - sincerely - feel no solidarity with the university. The main reason for this is that no professional comunity exists in social siences in Russia. Sure, many factors explain (and excuse) such a situation - Soviet heritage, dependency culture, low horizontal mobility and poor academic networks - in any case the fact is that current situation makes academic institutions an easy victim of authorities outrages.

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1 Comment

  1. Chen Qi 2 years ago

    This topic becomes more relevant to China lately. On 21th August, the Chinese government ordered China Quarterly to block three hundred articles from Chinese readers. Most of these articles discussed about the Tiananmen Protest, Cultural Revolution and human right issues in Tibet. Having considered this order may receive immediate protest from the website and the Cambridge Press, officials in China threatened the press if they refuse to block these essays, the whole website may be blocked from China—just like what Google had experienced many years ago.

    While the censorship request is an absolute warning light and a tragedy which has shocked many scholars, it is not so surprising when it happened in China. After Apple agreed to remove VPNs from Chinese APP shop and a long list of forbidden words of literatures, Internet and movies were publicly announced by the government last month, the tightening attitude of the government started to influence academic research. There are, however, something unexpected happened: Cambridge University Press decided to restate the 300 articles and especially open them for Chinese people without any charges.

    Clearly, we should not come to a one-sided answer to deal with such illiberal incidents. In academia perspective, academic freedom and integrity are the cornerstones of all the developments and Innovations. Publishers, scholars and universities should set CUP’s reaction as an example. While for people who live in authoritarian countries, like China and Russia, I would argue that the main purpose behind the censorship is political reason instead of spiritual control. That is to say, there may have ill-judged actions in critical periods, but the censorship will not last permanently because it only symbolizes the party’s willing. However, as long as the party exist, civilians would not have approaches to protect the right to speak, let along academic freedom. The truth might be pessimistic, yet we still have hopes to hold.

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