Why so quiet? It is imperative to oppose the politicization of higher education

by MMC
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Perhaps not since the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s and the Soviet era in Russia and its satellites have we seen the kind of political pressures on universities that are evident today.

In today’s politicized world, governments intervene in academic life for their own political purposes, viewing academic institutions as useful tools without regard to academic standards, or fearing that an independent, critical university threatens academic trends authoritarian.

Contemporary politicization is different from traditional reasons for government involvement in higher education and focuses on fiscal issues, policies to expand access, or a variety of academic goals. Of course, politics has always influenced university-state relations, with governments “steering” policies to reflect political leanings and state priorities, but generally with respect for autonomy and of academic freedom.

Even in past periods of fiscal crisis or when political parties proposed reforms opposed by the academic community, the core values ​​of universities have not been violated, with the exception of some isolated authoritarian regimes.

Contemporary politicization of higher education is directed against these key values ​​of higher education – not only by isolated regimes like North Korea and Myanmar, but also in the United States and Europe and by other actors. key countries such as China, Mexico, Russia and India.

Government politicization of universities generally occurs in right-wing populist and so-called communist, authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes. The goals of politicization vary. In some cases, states view universities as a convenient tool for generating populist support.

Others want to stifle anti-regime views, control professors, students, and administrators, or dictate what can be taught or researched. Generally, these regimes view, with great precision, the academic community as a source of independent or oppositional thought or action.

Illustrative examples

In the US state of Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis, who is seeking the Republican nomination for president, has used higher education as a weapon, with the support of the Republican legislature.

He interfered with the curriculum of public universities by banning the teaching of critical race theory and related subjects. He replaced the board of trustees of New College of Florida, a liberal arts institution with a liberal reputation, with conservatives, fired the president and is reshaping the program.

More recently, upset by the actions of the regional accrediting body, he ordered all public colleges and universities in the state to find another accrediting agency — a perhaps impossible task.

Unsurprisingly, the situation in Russia is much more serious. It should be remembered that, during the Soviet period, universities were state instruments with little autonomy. Tightly controlled scientific research flourished in some STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, but in general, higher education was insular and separate from the rest of the world.

After the end of the Soviet Union, universities gained more autonomy, while remaining closely linked to the state. Academic freedom has expanded. The war in Ukraine has exacerbated restrictive trends already evident in Russian higher education. At the start of the war, it was suggested that Russian rectors sign a public letter of support for Russian actions – almost all did so. There was little dissent.

New courses focusing on nationalism have been introduced and security services closely monitor university life. Many teachers fled abroad and some were fired. Russian higher education has returned to the isolation of Soviet times.

Hungary is another example. Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian and mild-mannered regime has changed the legal status, governance models and leadership of the country’s universities so that they are loyal to the regime. The innovative and independent Central European University (CEU) was kicked out of the country and is now in Vienna, Austria.

China, under the current government, is also actively imposing its ideology in governance and higher education programs on the mainland and in Hong Kong. In India, universities are under political pressure from the government to limit the academic freedom of professors who criticize the Modi regime.

Mexico’s populist president has abolished the country’s top research body, interfered in formally autonomous public universities and regularly criticized higher education as elitist.

In Nicaragua, the government confiscated the assets of the Jesuit-run Central American University and closed its campus, only to reopen it under a new name and leadership loyal to the regime. Other restrictive measures have been imposed on other universities.

Mute responses

Standing up against authoritarianism is never easy and, depending on the country, it can sometimes have serious consequences for individuals and institutions. But it is fair to say that the academic response to these serious crises has been muted, to say the least.

In Florida, none of the presidents of the state’s 40 public colleges and universities resigned or even raised objections (except for the president of New College, who was quickly fired). Some university groups have spoken out, but no major demonstrations (yet authorized) have been observed.

To a large extent, the Hungarian academic community silently accepted its fate, expressing little solidarity with the CEU.

At Ashoka University in India, in response to pressure from the Modi regime to punish a professor for publishing an article critical of the government, a student leader said: “While criticism and debate are an essential part of academia, the stifling of research is not. Time and time again, the university has failed to defend its professors.

Fundamental values ​​under threat

History shows that higher education can be politically transformed in a short period of time – with implications for the entire university environment. The Nazis fundamentally changed German universities, which never regained their world-leading status. The Soviet imprint remained strong in Russian universities after 1992 and is now reimposed.

General Augusto Pinochet’s restrictions on Chilean universities during his 17-year dictatorship were less dramatic but nonetheless serious. Other cases could be mentioned – in Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere.

In other words, politicization is not new, but it is rapidly moving from the margins to the center of global higher education, and as a result core values ​​are being undermined or destroyed.

Clearly, the academic community must challenge and vigorously oppose politicization. So far, as noted, with few exceptions, opposition has been weak to non-existent.

Public opposition, of course, carries risks. For university leaders, this could well result in the loss of positions or, in truly repressive regimes, even worse. Teachers can be punished or fired and students imprisoned.

These sanctions still remain exceptions, but are part of the academic reality in a growing number of countries. But if universities and university systems are to retain their academic freedom and autonomy, it is imperative to recognize and oppose the deep problems posed by politicization.

Philip G Altbach and Hans de Wit are Professors Emeritus and Distinguished Fellows and former Directors of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, USA.

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