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The financier George Soros recently announced a $1 billion donation to endow a new international network of universities with a stated aim of promoting “critical thinking, open intellectual inquiry, and fact-based research to strengthen foundations of open society amid authoritarian resurgence.”
The Open Society University Network will also focus on expanding educational access to “neglected and minority populations, such as incarcerated persons, the Roma, and refugees.” The group further plans to start what Soros described as “a massive ‘scholars at risk’ program, connecting a large number of academically excellent but politically endangered scholars with this new global network and each other.”
The network will be co-led by Bard College, in New York, and Central European University, a graduate institution founded by Soros that moved its main campus from Budapest to Vienna last year after essentially being forced out of an increasingly illiberal Hungary.
In a speech last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, announcing the initiative, Soros raised alarms about climate change and rising forces of authoritarianism around the world, including in the United States under President Trump.
“I believe that as a long-term strategy our best hope lies in access to quality education, specifically an education that reinforces the autonomy of the individual by cultivating critical thinking and emphasizing academic freedom,” Soros said.
“Thirty years ago I set up an educational institution that does exactly that. It is called the Central European University, and its mission is to advance the values of the open society … Yet CEU is not strong enough by itself to become the educational institution the world needs. That requires a new kind of global educational network.” Soros said the network will build on an existing system of institutions already developed by CEU and Bard.
Jonathan Becker, executive vice president of Bard and now the vice chancellor of OSUN, said the network will work in areas including critical literacy and the liberal arts, sustainability, inequality, human rights, transnational politics, and arts and open society. It will also be involved in teacher education programs that focus on student-centered learning, early college and micro-college programs that help prepare disadvantaged students for university, programs to help refugees and other displaced people enter or resume college, and civic engagement programs.
Becker, who is also vice president for academic affairs at Bard, said the educational initiatives will include the development of dual and multiple university degree and certificate programs, networked and virtual courses, collaborative research projects, and co-curricular activities including debate, mock United Nations, and mock trial and student newspapers. The network will encourage faculty, staff and student mobility throughout the network.
Becker said many of the network’s activities will adapt and expand on work already underway by Bard and CEU. Bard runs a degree-granting prison education program as well as a network of early college high school programs in urban areas. It also has developed dual degree programs with international partners including Al-Quds University in the West Bank, Central Asia University in Kyrgyzstan, and Smolny College in Russia. CEU, meanwhile, has a Global Teaching Fellows Program that places doctoral students and recent doctoral graduates in international partner institutions; Becker said that program will be expanded across OSUN member institutions.
“We’re continuing a number of programs, we’re expanding on some of them and we’re launching and developing new programs all at once,” Becker said. "Right now, we are still planning many of the projects. We are bringing faculty from member institutions together to discuss and develop projects.”
The initial members of the network include a dozen other higher education institutions, including one other American university, Arizona State University, and institutions in Bangladesh, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Ghana, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, the United Kingdom and Vietnam. The network also includes a number of educational and research organizations such as the Talloires Network, an international association of institutions headquartered at Tufts University in Massachusetts and focused on promoting civic education.
“There are lots of networks out there, lots of higher educational networks,” said Leonard Benardo, the vice president of the Open Society Foundations, the nonprofit organization founded and chaired by Soros. “What makes this distinctive if not unique is that it is imbued with what we think of as an open society ethos, the focus on the open society as it pertains to rights and justice, democracy, inequality, climate.”
Gennady Shkliarevsky, an emeritus professor of history at Bard, criticized the college’s involvement in the network, which he described as promoting a political agenda under the guise of education.
“The only importance Soros sees in education is in advancing the values of open society -- that is, in promoting the political agenda that has been the backbone of the political organization (OSF) that Soros has created for political purposes,” Shkliarevsky said in an open letter addressed to Bard faculty. “When education starts serving political goals, it becomes indoctrination. That’s what lies ahead in Bard’s future if it becomes part of the OSF network.”
Benardo, the OSF vice president, said the notion of the university network being politicized is "wrong-headed."
“If promoting higher education in the service of critical thinking, pluralism and a general democratic ethos is commensurate with politics of any sort, then call it politics, but I will say definitively and unequivocally that it’s the universities themselves that are being supported through this initiative that will have 100 percent control as to the kinds of efforts they would like to advance in the context of this global network,” Bernardo said.
“If Arizona State University or BRAC University [in Bangladesh] or SOAS [part of the University of London] want to use the resources from this initiative as part of the network for faculty mobility, for student mobility, for developing new curricula in specific liberal arts disciplines, if they want to use it for real-time implementation of courses across educational institutions, the Open Society Foundations makes no judgment as to how the resources from this initiative will be deployed,” he said.
Two faculty leaders at Bard said there generally seems to be enthusiasm for the project among professors.
“I could say I think there’s goodwill and there's enthusiasm for the possibilities this brings, and I think that’s true for many of us,” said Éric Trudel, an associate professor of French and chair of the Faculty Senate. “In the Faculty Senate, I can tell you there's only been interest in this; I haven't heard opposition.”
Swapan Jain, the president of Bard's American Association of University Professors chapter and chair of the chemistry and biochemistry department, said although faculty members have questions about some of the financial details about the network, they generally seem to be supportive of the plans. He described the mission of the network as well aligned with that of Bard's.
"Bard takes part in the Bard Prison Initiative. There are lots of different areas in which Bard has campuses which are in difficult parts of the world and also in parts of the United States: the Bard High School Early Colleges are in urban areas where good-quality education is often missing. Bard has a history of social justice and providing quality education to a lot of times forgotten sects of the society. I personally as a faculty member feel like it’s an excellent opportunity to collaborate," Jain said.