The Attack on Independent Universities

World class universities require autonomy. It is hard to talk about autonomy in countries where even private, nonprofit universities are subjected to state pressure.

April 2, 2017

Autocrats dislike independent, internationally-oriented, autonomous universities free of corruption and hence, they attack them. In order to add the appearance of legitimacy to purely political actions, autocratic regimes use the law to advance their goals. That is why their favorite strategy is to work through the legislature and courts. This seems to be the case with the European University at St. Petersburg and the Central European University in Budapest, both currently being harassed by the ruling political regimes.

The European University at St. Petersburg is a private university, founded in 1994 by the Committee for Real Estate Management of St. Petersburg City Government, St. Petersburg Institute for Economics and Mathematics at the Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg branch of Sociology Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, and St. Petersburg Association of Scholars with support from the MacArthur, Ford and Soros Foundations. Organizations funded by George Soros, through the Open Society Foundation, were expelled from Russia in 2015. This is no surprise, since authoritarian regimes fear democratic initiatives and do not share the idea of civil society that is promoted by George Soros.

Russia’s Federal Agency for Supervision in Education and Science says that the university’s political science and sociology departments do not have a sufficient number of full-time faculty who do applied research, and that faculty on fixed-term employment contracts are not properly certified. Quite a few other minor violations, including missing  a fitness center, are cited as well. While the university administration works on addressing these issues, the state agency continues its offensive. The European University at St. Petersburg has lost its state license and accreditation and may well lose its historic building, the Small Marble Palace. It turns out that the university installed new plastic windows in parts of the old building, and it goes against the city’s historical preservation ordinance. Russian President Vladimir Putin was informed about the situation, but his position on the matter remains unclear.

As the pressure on the European University at St. Petersburg continues, there is now another, much louder offensive taking shape in Budapest. The Central European University, located in the Hungarian capital, faces uncertain future. Endowed and funded generously by George Soros, the university boosts some of the top doctoral programs in humanities and social sciences found in Eastern Europe and beyond. Often regarded as one of George Soros’s most advanced outposts in the East, the CEU guarantees intellectual freedom and high standards of academic integrity to its faculty and students. These are the ingredients of a successful research university that irritate the autocrats and their corrupt supporters.

In late March of 2017, Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, ethnocentric politician who regards Vladimir Putin as a role model, introduced a draft bill targeting foreign-funded universities, and allegedly aimed specifically at the CEU. The bill tightens regulations on non-EU universities operating in Hungary, forcing them to close if there is no bilateral agreement with the home country. The CEU is accredited in both the state of New York and in Hungary but does not have such an agreement. The bill would require the CEU to have a campus in the US. The President of the CEU, Michael Ignatieff, regards the bill as a direct threat to the university’s continued existence in Hungary and asserted that “This is an institution that doesn’t bow to intimidation or force.”

Aside from sharing the dislike of autocrats, the European University at St. Petersburg and the Central European University share another connection. Rector Ignatieff's grandfather was Count Pavel Ignatieff, the Russian Minister of Education during the First World War in the (then) capital of the Russian Empire, St. Petersburg. Rector Ignatieff is the author of Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, a book focused on the dangers of ethnic nationalism.

The CEU was founded in 1991, three years before the European University. Apparently, there was more democracy in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet empire than now. The strengthening of autocratic regimes in the former communist states is in line with the rise of nationalistic and ethnocentric movements in much of Europe. This autocratic revanchism comes at a cost, including for higher education. Universities that operate in former communist regimes rarely appear in international rankings, and even less so at the top of the leagues tables. Russia has yet to achieve its ambitious goal of placing five of its national universities in the top one hundred spots. World class universities require autonomy. It is hard to talk about true autonomy in countries where even private non-profit universities that receive no state funding are subjected to direct state pressure. Autocratic regimes are indeed allergic to these universities. No doubt, there will be more attempts by autocratic rulers to attack independent, corruption-free universities in different corners of the world.

It would be naive to think that Viktor Orban introduced proposals for legislative changes without anticipating a swift negative reaction. In fact, Orban has already received a fair share of negative coverage in the world media. He might actually be seeking a confrontation with Soros and liberal Western countries to scapegoat the CEU to his political advantage. There is no doubt that there will be a response from George Soros and US authorities to unfriendly moves against the CEU. But there should be a broader response too, primarily from the international academic community. Students and faculty have a lot at stake.

Ararat L. Osipian holds a Ph.D. in Education and Human Development from Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University. He is a Pontica Magna Fellow at New Europe Foundation, Bucharest and spent over three years conducting fieldwork on corruption, hybrid war, and the failed state in Ukraine.


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