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Attacks on Academics: East Europe, Russia and Turkey

Limiting academic freedom is a threat to democracy itself. EU leaders must unite and stand up to this troubling trend.

May 23, 2017

Limiting academic freedom is a threat to democracy itself. EU leaders must unite and stand up to this troubling trend.

The issue of academic freedom is making international headlines again. Unfortunately, the news is far from positive. Especially surprising is that it has reared its ugly head in several Western and Western-oriented nations. This runs counter to the idea of human progress, if not evolution.

Backward march?

Those who attack academic freedom use a lot of finesse to mask their moves in quasi-objective reasoning. But no matter how hard they try to cover their tracks, the discrepancy between formal constitutional requirements and actual practical realities has become painfully evident.

Fortunately, in one country after another, we see counter-mobilizations to advance the cause of liberal, democratic and open societies. One obvious example is the United Kingdom with its intent to leave the EU.

Global-minded people

In the view of profoundly illiberal actors, rabid nationalists like Marine Le Pen of France, Norbert Hofer of Austria as well as the Alternative for Germany — the scientific community represents and promotes a veritable sin, transnational thinking.

Worse, its patterns of cooperation run across borders. Often, such cross-border cooperation is the key to success and true innovations.

“Academic freedom” is no abstract matter. In a very practical sense, it has a direct bearing on international recruiting and hiring procedures, the broader acceptance of “otherness” and the celebration of openness, critical thinking and diversity.

This is what makes scientists and their institutions anathema to the above-mentioned right-wing or at least illiberal movements and parties.

At the core, populists, right-wing politicians and other undemocratic movements see universities as part of the “leftist” establishment.

This is probably due to the fact that the essence of science is critical and independent thinking. That can shatter long-established structures and assumptions, leading to what reactionaries regard as unwelcome change.

A closer look at current crusades against academics

1. Hungary

In Hungary – a very recent member of the European Union – President Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party have moved not only against democratic thinking, but also against unwelcome educational models.

Orban has been railing against the CEU, the “Soros University,” only a few weeks. His complaints aren’t just frivolous. It stands to reason that Mr. Orbán (ab)uses George Soros and anything associated with him as part of a proclaimed elite capitalist class that puts cosmopolitan values over national interests.

The Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire has long had an interest in promoting the integration of young central and East Europeans in world affairs.

To cover his tracks at least a bit, Orban has created first a discourse about the legitimacy of gender studies. The CEU, one of the very few institutions where this field is represented, became visible in the state-run media.

After a brief media campaign the Hungarian Parliament approved legislation designed to shut down CEU (“Lex CEU,”) officially arguing that the Education Authority had found numerous foreign universities to be violating Hungarian law.

As a result, the European Commission has just announced that it is taking the first step toward launching an infringement proceeding.

2. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus

Not to be left behind, in Russia the senior leadership around President Putin is publicly revoking the license of new or private liberal arts universities such as the private European University in St. Petersburg.

In Crimea, universities in the Russian-occupied territory were displaced. According to Russian sources, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroschenko annulled their licenses.

As a matter of fact, youth in the Donbas essentially live now without any chance of a proper university education.

In Belarus, the European Humanities University in Minsk was closed back in 2004 because Belarus’s President Aljaksandr Lukashenko made it clear that he would not accept an open university in what he very much regards as “his” country.

The university was relocated and newly founded in Vilnius, Lithuania, i.e., in the EU.

3. Turkey

After researchers signed a petition to the Turkish government imploring an end to the violence in southeastern Turkey, prosecutors launched a criminal investigation against them.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a crusade emboldened by his electoral victory back in November 2015. For years now, Erdogan has seen to it that senior positions at universities are filled with political allies.

In the aftermath of the attempted coup in summer 2016, thousands of leading researchers in Turkey were arrested or removed from their positions due to suspected ties to July’s coup attempt.

Travelling and working with other scientists abroad became increasingly impossible. Only a few lucky cosmopolitans still own passports, which allow them to travel freely.

Europe’s scientific community is not standing idly by, but has taken action with regard to these incidents. Scientists have created petitions for the release of Turkish researchers and offered places in the laboratory to refugee scientists from Turkey.

Time to stand up to this troubling trend

Seen from a European perspective, the political backlash described above is not only a threat to academic freedom, but amounts to a political deconstruction of the democracy that we have come to take for granted.

While the moves that have happened and/or are being contemplated may please the short-minded rulers of the countries highlighted above, their countries’ young generation is bound to pay the price.

That is why it is so important to stand up to this troubling trend


"Academic freedom" is no abstract matter. It has a direct bearing on openness, critical thinking and diversity.

Populists, right-wing politicians see universities as part of the "leftist" establishment.

For years, Erdogan has seen to it that senior positions at universities are filled with political allies.