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Do Academic Boycotts Work?

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine raises the question to the globally interconnected world of academe.

March 10, 2022
 

The sheer brutality of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has presented a challenge to the interconnected global academic community that it has arguably never faced on such a scale.

Ukrainian academics within and outside the country—as well as many other scholars horrified at the terror inflicted by Russian forces—have often been vociferously clear: there are no circumstances under which academic ties between Western academics and those in Russian institutions can continue while such an onslaught is being maintained.

Such pleas have come at every level, from institutions such as the National Research Foundation of Ukraine asking academics around the world for the “immediate severance of all your ties with Russian scientific structures” to individual scholars urging action as they shelter in Kyiv from the bombardment.

Add to these calls the images of the destruction and human suffering coming from Ukraine—including Ukrainian university buildings themselves decimated by shelling—and it is easy to understand why some universities, funders, governments and academics are immediately breaking off ties with their counterparts in Russia.

The reach and the speed of the decisions to sever ties are exceptional compared with previous political actions in the academic sphere, such as the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict or refusals to work with South African academe during apartheid.

As well as mounting examples of blanket freezes on academic ties by countries and the ending of specific research partnerships by institutions, the situation is even prompting questions about how to treat Russian universities in performance measures such as university rankings, with Times Higher Education taking “steps to ensure that Russian universities are given less prominence” in its World University Rankings tables.

Fundamental Questions

Although all these actions have broad support, they are also raising fundamental questions about international research collaboration, academic freedom and the flow of knowledge that always come alongside the prospect of scientific sanctions, although perhaps never against the backdrop of a war of this scale and type.

A microcosm of this debate can be seen at the Australian National University, which became the first Antipodean institution to break off all ties with Russian institutions in the wake of the invasion.

Sally Wheeler, ANU’s deputy vice chancellor for international strategy, stressed that the move was about “institution-to-institution” links and not individual cooperation, adding that the “basic tenets of academic freedom” meant that academics were still free to co-publish with Russia-based colleagues.

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But this did not prevent a critical backlash from some, with one ANU economist tweeting that “universities do not boycott universities” and an open letter to ANU’s leadership warning that such action “will only help the Russian state’s propaganda of aggression and isolation.”

Robert Quinn, founding executive director of Scholars at Risk, said that although the charity did not have a formal policy on the breaking of academic ties for political reasons, it was “fair to say it is among the most extreme actions that can be taken and, therefore, should only be [done] with the utmost of care and really narrowest of circumstances.”

Quinn highlighted two core “valid” reasons where such action could be warranted, with the “clearest” one being where it seeks to cut off “complicity” with the violations taking place and the other where, for a limited period, halting ties aids the education of colleagues, in this case in Russia, about what is really happening.

But boycotts or sanctions can also sometimes be initiated for what he believes are two “invalid” reasons: to “punish people who are not involved in the violations or aggression” or to deliberately cause “collateral damage” to research or institutions in the country involved.

The challenges come, Quinn explained, when these valid and invalid reasons overlap in ways that it might be hard to discern, and in particular when there is a gray area around what he calls the “super-elastic application of the concept of complicity.”

Sometimes, he said, those in favor of a boycott might try to “justify it by saying any contact with anyone, in any institution” in a particular place or country “is by definition complicity.”

“I think that, from my perspective, is such an elastic application of complicity that it risks swallowing up all academic freedom, and I think we just have to be very, very careful about that,” he said.

In that light, Quinn argued, actions such as those taken by Germany—which has frozen ties with Russia so it can take time to examine institutions’ complicity with the actions in Ukraine—would seem “appropriate” on academic freedom principles. He also pointed out that Russia’s higher education institutions were “arms of the state,” which therefore opened a debate on complicity, although in other cases, such as Iranian sanctions, this did not necessarily mean a ban on academic ties.

He also stressed that individual academics could also invoke personal grounds for not working with colleagues in Russia.

“No academic is obligated to work with a particular other academic. There is no threat to academic freedom for one [person] making their ethical choice that ‘I’m not comfortable with this partner,’” he said.

Does Individual Academic Autonomy Exist in Russia?

The degree to which there is any individual academic autonomy in Russia anymore might also be key to the debate.

In the view of Anatoly Oleksiyenko, associate professor in higher education at the University of Hong Kong and an expert on post-Soviet higher education, there were “no scholars in Russia who have academic freedom,” given how they are monitored by the country’s security services.

“Foreign scholars can be in deep trouble if they don’t understand what that really means for their partnerships with Russian counterparts,” he said.

Such concerns are only likely to be bolstered by statements such as one issued by the Russian Union of Rectors, which supported Putin’s action in Ukraine and said it was “important not to forget about our main duty—to conduct a continuous educational process” and to “instill patriotism in young people” and inculcate a “desire to help the motherland.”

Another statement issued by the rectors’ union stressed that it would again battle international isolation with “a clear action plan that will help Russian universities to steadfastly overcome all difficulties, including those related to the implementation of international projects, the development of scientific infrastructure, and the publication of articles in foreign scientific journals.”

However, it is hard to see how such difficulties might be overcome if—regardless of institutional ties being maintained—many thousands of individual academics were to decide to end collaboration with Russian scholars as a personal protest.

Maia Chankseliani, associate professor of comparative and international education at the University of Oxford, said this could have the biggest collective effect anyway because it was individual scholars and researchers who “drive collaborations,” while “academics are also gatekeepers of academic journals and conferences. Hence, individual academics’ collective decisions can have wide-ranging impact.”

Some individual action to refuse journal submissions from academics at Russian institutions has already been seen in the case of Ukraine, even though there has been no sign of publishers endorsing any blanket policy to take such steps. And it is not difficult to imagine that some individual conference organizers might also be struggling with the decision of whether to invite Russia-based scientists.

However, Chankseliani, who has co-authored research on academics facing exclusion from research networks because of the BDS movement, also said there could be factors pushing in the other direction when it comes to individual ties with Russia-based scholars.

“Ruptures are less likely to impact long-standing ties,” she pointed out, while those academics around the world who study in Russia-specific fields, especially in the social sciences or the humanities, “will have to continue forging links … otherwise they will lose touch with the reality on the ground and/or access to data sources they require.”

On the other hand, she noted that international collaboration involving Russia was already at a relatively low level. Data from well before the invasion suggested that it was even falling as political tensions with the West grew.

Leonid Petrov, a visiting fellow in international relations at ANU, observed that such an uncoupling of links in the humanities and sciences had already undermined the “competitiveness of Russian scholarship,” but it did give “less exposure to the world of what Russian scientists might be working on” and Russian scientists less exposure to the world and so was a “lose-lose solution.”

Quinn added this increasing constriction on the flow of knowledge between Russia and the outside world should also be a key consideration when contemplating sanctions and boycotts.

For instance, a block on information could also limit the possibility of helping academics there to understand the truth about what might be happening beyond Russia’s borders, as well as stopping information about Russian society reaching academics abroad.

He also said he would “hesitate a little bit on the suggestion, which is perfectly understandable, that somehow social sciences or humanities are more useful for flow of information,” adding that in the last 20 years of the Soviet Union, “it was actually the hard scientists that were the main conduits for current knowledge on what was going on, because they were the ones who could travel.”

The potential for a major crackdown on academics in Russia who openly oppose the war in Ukraine might also be another reason “why you don’t want to do a full-blanket, no-contact … break-off,” Quinn said, although he stressed that this concern could not be equated with the fears for “Ukrainian colleagues and for the entire [Ukrainian] population” about “physical safety” and “their lives, literally.”

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