The Role of Universities in an Era of Authoritarianism

Updated: Apr 26, 2019

Globalization of higher education is an extraordinary social achievement and has turned universities into the most diverse, multicultural, and plural of all global communities. However, it has involved a certain kind of pact with authoritarian governments.

Photo Credit: CEU Website

For example, the international Schwarzman Scholars in China operate in a curious bubble in which they have free internet access, but the Chinese students in the same classes do not have equal internet access.

The Central European University or CEU is another example. Founded in 1991 by a bunch of Eastern European academics in Budapest and Prague, the idea was to implant world-class social science and humanities teaching in university systems that had only known communist ideology, to spread the virtues of Western academic freedom to the whole of the post-communist world and to play a crucial role during the transition process from communism to liberal democracy.

It was not about propaganda; it was about open minds, open thinking, free minds, free institutions and free politics. And from 1991 until around 2010 that mission seemed to be working. There were some unexpected results, including a brain drain when Eastern European countries were admitted to the European Union. That brain drain may be triggering some resentment about the impact of university education on Eastern Europe.

Counter Elites

What we did not see coming at CEU is that we trained the liberal democratic transition elite, but we trained the elites that lost. In Hungary the post-1989 liberal democratic elite were pulverized in the elections. We are now facing all the consequences of having trained the elite that lost.

If we look at the authoritarian turn in higher education–in Russia, China, Turkey, Hungary–you begin to see a new pattern that we need to understand.