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The Autocrats Playbook For Subduing Universities — What Can Be Done About It?

John Aubrey Douglass, Senior Research Fellow - Public Policy and Higher Education, Center for Studies in Higher Education | September 13, 2021

CoverageNeo-nationalism is on the rise–a term that describes the emergence, and in some cases revival, of extreme right-wing movements in key areas of the world, often characterized by anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric; economic protectionism; constraints on civil liberties; attacks on critics, including journalists and academics; denial of science related to climate change, the environment, and even vaccines; and the emergence and empowerment of demagogues and autocrats.

In some parts of the globe, these ultra-conservative leanings gain the support of a core constituency that includes conservative religious groups–a marriage one finds in Hungary, Poland, Russia, even the US. The Golden Age myth, of power and prestige lost that must be reclaimed, is also a common theme.

As in past right-wing movements, economic dislocation and status anxiety play an important part in fueling political support for modern-day adoptions of nationalism, although with significant variation. But today’s breed of right-wing populism has the addition of three accelerators: the postmodern pace of globalization and technological change that generates economic uncertainty for many, the pace of immigration and demographic change, and the ubiquitous use of social media and technologies that by-passes traditional forms of media and that allows for increased forms of surveillance and targeting of political opponents.

And it appears that the COVID-19 pandemic has emboldened many nation-states, and their autocratic-leaning leaders, to further expand restrictions on free speech and mobility, and to bolster self-supporting conspiracy theories.

Geopolitical events play a role in this story. The unstable political environment in the Middle East and northern Africa led to a surge of political and economic refugees; the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center raised tensions between nations and generated increased visa restrictions; and the onset of the Great Recession brought increased economic disparity and, in some nations, the pursuit of severe austerity policies that hurt the most economically vulnerable.

In the modern world, universities are institutions that promote both national development and global integration—mutually dependent pursuits, particularly for research universities. Yet in a number of important national examples, the contemporary political environment poses a major challenge to the societal role of universities.

The Playbook

The new book Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats and the Future of Higher Education chronicles this drift to the right, and toward greater control of universities, and finds a pattern in illiberal democracies and revived autocracies: in Hungary, Turkey, Russia, and in Hong Kong, and elsewhere, neo-nationalist leaders have pursued ways to alter the governance of universities with the objective of directly or indirectly choosing rectors or presidents and other key academic administrators, influence or control faculty hiring and advancement, punish dissent, sometimes with jail or permanently losing ones job and imposing travel restrictions, and to more overtly deny funding for research in areas such as climate change or gender studies thought counter to conservative values. Book Cover

This is usually accompanied by increased control and ownership of the judiciary, as well as the media, laws that hinder free-elections and expand the ability of neo-national governments to issue lucrative contracts to supporters in the private sector, limits on internet access to weave state-controlled narratives, and increasingly the use of surveillance technologies–including an invasive social credit score in China to gauge conformity and now something similar is emerging in Russia’s major city centers.

Subduing Universities are one part of the formula for right-wing leaders to solidify their power, fearful of their possible power to encourage sedition.

China’s resurgent nationalism under Xi, for example, had brought measures for greater control not only of Hong Kong’s government but its public universities–changes in governance that mirrored similar reforms on the Mainland. All Hong Kong universities are formally under the direction of the chief executive of Hong Kong, who serves as the official chancellor of all the city’s universities and appoints 15 of the 23 members of the “councils” (or governing boards) for each university. These councils hold the power to block faculty and staff appointments and to steer selection of academic leaders, including university presidents, toward individuals sympathetic or approved by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government. The councils are increasingly populated by those who support Xi’s policy agenda under the watchful eye of party leaders.

Meanwhile, the student unions at various universities that buttressed much of the protest movement are disbanding over fear of being arrested and charged for sedition under China’s July 1, 2020 National Security Law. The crack-downs sanctioned by the law is an on-going story that appears clearly on a trajectory to end the concept of Two Systems One China.

As discussed in the book, Turkey and Russia also provide clear examples of autocratic government leaders reorganizing and gaining greater control of governing and leadership positions in their universities, and providing mechanisms for screening faculty hiring and advancement. Turkey’s playbook, under Tayyip Erdoğan, includes the mass firing of academics and staff thought supporters of rival Fethullah Gülen following the failed coup attempt in 2016.

Neo-Nationalisms Trajectory?

The global trajectory of neo-nationalism is hard to determine. One might surmise, however, that a COVID era downturn in the world’s economy, with recessions or depressions in developed and as well as developing economies, might exacerbate extreme nationalist movements.

Perhaps more certain is that the scars of the most extreme examples of neo-nationalism on the role and operation of universities–such as in China with the jailing of Uyghur academics, and in Turkey with the firing of faculty–will remain for decades. There is the human toll as well as the toll on the culture and behaviors of universities and the degradation of the ideal of independence in teaching and research that is the hallmark of the best universities.China Internet Suppression

Another casualty of the era is the validity of science and expertise, in academia and elsewhere, manifest most importantly in the denial of climate change on ideological grounds and assertions that the COVID virus was a hoax. Neo-nationalist discourse tends to equate academic research–and facts–as hopelessly politically biased and, hence, part of the fake news machine of the opposition.

Today’s factual relativism adds to the degradation of public institutions, creating obstacles to the identification of real societal and environmental challenges, and the search for solutions with likely lasting effects.

What Can Be Done About It?

What can universities do to combat the worse aspects of neo-nationalist movements within their own national contexts?

This relates to the concept of when universities are societal leaders and when they are followers explored in the initial chapters of the book. Student-led protests in Hong Kong are reminiscent of other major periods of student protest, often with complicated and unexpected results. Universities can be conduits for pushing society toward substantial change–like student protests in support of the civil rights movement in the United States–but they can also result in further oppression: the Tiananmen Square uprising led arguably to even more conservative Communist Party leadership in China, paving the road for Xi’s rise to power.

Academic research can lead to breakthroughs that improve human health and well-being in a nation; it can also contribute to the development of a surveillance state or provide basic research that supports what President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex in the United States.

The larger reality is that universities are part and parcel of the national context in which they operate. They are most effective in instituting change when they have the political support to pursue their mission of teaching, research, and public service relatively independently. Under severe autocratic regimes and many illiberal democracies, universities have little room to be a force for progressive change.

A number of the authors of chapters in our book discuss how universities can pursue greater interaction with society. They explain the value of international engagement, including international students and academic staff, with joint research on topics of worldwide value. Universities can show the positive aspects of globalization, including talent mobility and a more diverse society.

Many universities are not doing enough to engage with the national and regional stakeholders that give them life and meaning or to convey the importance of international exchanges or universities’ role as agents of progress. This is a topic I advocated for in The New Flagship University (Palgrave Macmillan 2016).

Arguably, the pursuit of many universities to improve their international rankings, largely based on a narrowly defined band of research productivity, distracted them from their larger purpose and influence within their own national and regional context. Government policies and funding fed into a ranking frenzy that devalues, for example, research and public service activities that improve the life and environment of local communities. There is much room for innovation. Universities should generally pursue strategies to expand their societal impact and their links with key stakeholders. Universities can be agents of change.

But one must recognize the limitations universities and their students and faculty have in shaping national cultures that embrace radical right-wing, nationalist movements or that operate under autocratic governments. They need the help not only of the global academic community and the array of nongovernmental organizations that, for example, monitor and condemn blatant violations of academic freedom. They need the support of government leaders and the political pressure that can come only from major democracies.

In extreme cases, including Afghanistan and Hong Kong, some nations have provided relatively new programs to support academics to escape from autocratic leaning countries to, for example, the EU, the US and Canada–providing visas and promises of relocation assistance, and even perhaps a job in academia. But these are small, brain-drain policies that leave those in universities back home in isolation.

Political leaders in major democracies also need to espouse at home the value of international engagement, generally but also in specific reference to universities; they also need to support through government policies and money the promotion of international research collaborations and exchange programs, as well as champion the importance of science and academic research.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the rapid and successful search for therapies and vaccines, should elevate in the public mind, and the minds of national leaders, the value of shared data  and research findings, scientific expertise, and international academic cooperation. Combating the worst aspects of neo-nationalist rhetoric requires not only an alternative and persuasive narrative, but a collective and international effort.

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Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats and the Future of Higher Education published by Johns Hopkins University Press is an Open Access book accessible via Project Muse.

A version of this article was published in University World News.