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The Role of Universities in an Era of Authoritarianism

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

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.

In Russia, the European University at St Petersburg, set up again to train the liberal elite, is now in a death spiral because of the pressure coming from St Petersburg’s counter elites. They don’t actually close the university down. They just chip away relentlessly at their capacity to operate at all.

So that’s Russia, here’s the paradox in Russia where we appear to be reverting to a pattern which was discernible in Andrei Sakharov’s time, in Soviet time–where there is a certain amount of academic freedom and openness in the international scientific community for the natural sciences but total control of the social sciences and humanities.

Then there is globalization in China: the degree of ideological regimentation towards the social sciences and humanities in China is a sign of what President Xi Jinping has in mind for the entire society. It seems to me that they have concluded that they cannot afford institutions teaching social sciences and humanities freely in China because it is essentially a regime threat.

The liberal transition story we believed was that we would move from liberalization of the market to inevitable liberalization of thought to inevitable liberalization of politics, with universities as a kind of battering ram in the charge towards liberal democracy.

Xi Jinping’s decision to become emperor for life is a clear signal right down the chain that academic life in China will be very heavily policed. The place where the Chinese community will have open access will be in the natural science domains crucial to economic growth and innovation and they will seek to keep control, with a limited opening in STEM–science, technology, engineering, and mathematics–subjects.

Meanwhile in Turkey anybody who can get out of Turkish social science and humanities is doing so. Whole faculties are being dismissed. Some of my students from Harvard are being arrested as Gulenists and put on trial.

This is one of the biggest academic freedom scandals in the West. And it seems to me it is being sustained by something else that we need to face clearly, which is that Europe is not engaging with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the issue of academic freedom because Erdogan controls the taps of migration flows into Europe.

It is an absolutely diabolic bargain in which the freedom of Turkish institutions is being traded against migration controls. It is one of the basic institutional political reasons why European leaders, European voices that can speak out, are notably silent about the restriction of academic freedom in Turkey.

If you look at the Turkish story, the Chinese story, the Russian story, and the Hungarian story, I think what you see is a very clear emerging picture that single party regimes are everywhere privileging control over academic quality and openness to international academic life because they see academic freedom as a regime threat. If they have to choose between having good universities, or universities they can control, then they choose universities they can control every time.

Fighting Back

A year ago without any consultation or warning the CEU was told that we had to have a campus in America and a new bilateral agreement with the Hungarian government.

Suddenly, we weren’t allowed to have a dual legal American identity, which meant we couldn’t issue American accredited degrees in Hungary because local Hungarian universities were jealous of the fact that we could award United States masters and PhDs. They saw it as our competitive advantage and the national bourgeoisie supported by the state wanted to ‘level the playing field’.

One of the institutional dispositions of universities is to be very quiet, thoughtful, avoid conflict, avoid standing up. We learnt that sometimes you have to fight. So we rallied our network. We had huge networks of alumni and friends at every university in Europe. One student put a Facebook call-out on a Friday afternoon and we had 75,000 people on the streets of Budapest chanting “free universities in a free country.”

So what is the message of that? That universities should not underestimate their public support; that they should not underestimate the power of their networks; that we sometimes have to fight a political battle.

The consequence was that the government then agreed very reluctantly to go into negotiations with the state of New York where we were accredited and at the end of last summer we got a deal which allowed us to stay in Budapest.

In return we would establish educational activities in the United States. It made sense to compromise so we compromised. For nine months we have been sitting waiting for the government of Hungary to sign this agreement. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has just won a huge majority in the recent elections. He now holds all the cards and the future is unclear.

Academic Freedom Matters

Until we got into this jam, I never really thought that hard about academic freedom. It seemed to be one of those little perks that middle-class educated people get to have.

We need to be very clear about how we are seen and we need to turn the language of academic freedom as our privilege into academic freedom as a right that protects us all if we are going to defend universities in the 21st century.

We are not just fighting for a corporate privilege for ourselves; we are defending a counter majoritarian institution whose function is to serve and protect and defend the whole society’s capacity to know anything at all. That’s why academic freedom matters. If we defend it as a corporate privilege, we are done for. And that’s a central message that I have learned.

The second message is that we need to understand the crucial way in which academic freedom is one element of a counter majoritarian fabric that is integral for the health of a democratic society.

As a university president, if you ask yourself what do I need institutionally to make sure that academic freedom in my institution is secure, you will come up with the rule of law and constitutional review, independent accreditation bodies, self-governing professional associations, scientific bodies that are able to do any kind of peer review, a formal right of consultation about impending legislation, parliamentary review of higher education legislation, a free press, university autonomy and, above all, you need to be part of an international structure of independent scientific peer review.

Another point which is relevant to globalization of higher education: visa regimes are now the chief choke point in every Western democratic country restricting the capacity of universities to freely choose who they want to admit to their programs.

One further point: these authoritarian regimes are increasingly creating national universities to teach public administration to control their future bureaucracy. This is another challenge to academic freedom. Why does this strategy have any support? What I’ve learnt is that it has support from local universities who resent international competition.

All of these regimes are trying to create what used to be called a national bourgeoisie, attendant on subsidies, state support, state contracts, state education. So these are regimes that use education to create a national bourgeoisie which will in turn support them to the degree that they depend on elections at all. And this electoral base supports this kind of regime because it supports migration control.

They do not want a multicultural, pluralist future. So control of universities is part of an attempt to re-engineer these societies and to defend them as mono-ethnic societies controlled by their own state-supported national bourgeoisie.

What Are Universities For?

So where do we go from here?

I see academic freedom as a core European value, and it is a core European value because universities need to think of themselves as counter majoritarian institutions, as integral to the survival of free societies as a free press, an independent judiciary, peer review and parliamentary review of legislation.

We are part of an intricate structure of counter majoritarian freedom. And our political challenge is to tell people that their freedom as a people absolutely depends on having institutions that say you may be wrong. It’s the toughest sell of all.

Just as a free press keeps the channels of information open and courts make sure that legislation is consistent with constitutional and rights safeguards, universities winnow the hard facts of knowledge from the chaff of opinion, rumor, fantasy, paranoia, tweets, blogs and the whole deluge of false information which makes it almost impossible for societies to deliberate freely on a basis that we actually know to be true.

Universities have to train students that knowledge is extremely hard, that it’s a discipline you have to follow and once you’ve got it you have access to the most important thing a democratic system needs, which is the capacity to find out what is true.

That’s our job. But it is an unpopular job and it’s a job that people may not want to hear. But it is our job and we have to defend it with courage and without any embarrassment. This is the moment when we really, really have to believe in what we do.

* Michael Ignatieff is president and rector of the Central European University, Hungary. This is an edited version of his Burton R Clark Lecture, “Academic Freedom and the Future of Europe,” delivered at last week’s Centre for Global Higher Education annual conference on the subject of the new geopolitics of higher education. It was originally published on University World News.


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