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 5 days 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 5 days 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 5 days 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 5 days 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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1 Comment

  1. Ivanna Machitidze 19 hours ago

    While discussing threats to academic freedom in countries as Hungary, Russia and Turkey, another significant development should be addressed as well – government’s 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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