As formal relations between the American and Russian governments are at a near-historic low point – at least as far as post-Soviet history is concerned – administrators of educational exchange partnerships say business is largely continuing as usual.
“University partnerships with Russia, educational exchange programs, they existed during the Cold War, and we ultimately believe that we’re in this for the long run,” said Jonathan Becker, the vice president for international affairs at Bard College, which helped to found Smolny College, a liberal arts college within St. Petersburg State University that offers dual Bard and St. Petersburg degrees.
“We’ve experienced difficulties over the last 17 or 18 years when there have been foreign policy challenges,” such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq or Russia’s of Georgia. Through that, Becker said, “we have maintained a very positive relationship. Although we’re concerned, we don’t believe there’s any reason why the program should be altered substantially.”
“We’ve been at this for 40 years; there has been no shortages of crises over that period,” said Dan E. Davidson, executive director of the American Councils for International Education, which operates extensive exchange programs in Eurasia. “I think back to 1979-80 when we had the combined impact of the invasion of Afghanistan, the boycott of the Moscow Olympics, and the arrest of Andrei Sakharov,” the late Soviet nuclear physicist, dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
"Over the past two decades there have been some ups and downs but never anything quite this confrontational, and I do worry that individuals or officials on either side might decide to make an example of educational and academic programs that are of high mutual benefit to both sides," said Davidson.
He hopes that doesn't end up happening, and so far, at least it hasn't. Just this past week Davidson attended a signing ceremony marking a new partnership between Pennsylvania State University and Russia's Kazan Federal University (an agreement that the American Councils helped broker) and he traveled to Minnesota, where several Russian university delegations were in attendance for the U.S. Russia Innovation Conference.
“That notion that we have to punish them – I don’t know any time when that’s ever been a helpful strategy at least where academic dialogue is concerned," Davidson said. "Nobody wins, least of all us, from that.”
Even governmental-level educational collaborations are continuing amid the current tensions over Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s contractual relationship with the Skolkovo Foundation, a Russian federal agency, to build a science and technology-oriented graduate university , the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), is continuing without disruptions, according to Bruce Tidor, a professor of biological engineering and computer science and the faculty lead of the MIT Skoltech initiative. MIT officials declined a phone interview on the Skoltech collaboration, but in an email, Tidor addressed a question about the appropriateness of helping to advance Russia’s scientific agenda in light of increased tensions between the two countries. “MIT believes in fostering active engagement with international academic institutions and in promoting open dialogue among people from around the world. When diplomatic and political dialogue becomes difficult, the importance of educational and academic research collaborations becomes even greater,” Tidor said.
The firing of a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO)  who wrote an op-ed criticizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea as analogous to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria attracted headlines worldwide last week. Several experts on Russia said that while the incident is unfortunate, it is also unrepresentative, in that MGIMO is affiliated with the foreign ministry and thus under governmental control to a greater degree than a typical Russian university. There is, however, good reason to monitor academic freedom issues in light of increasing trends toward authoritarianism in Russia, Becker, of Bard, acknowledged, but as yet he hasn’t seen evidence of a more restrictive atmosphere at Bard's partner institution, St. Petersburg State.
“We obviously remain in all of our international programs concerned about academic freedom,” Becker said. “We think though that education is a long-term investment and we think that even in countries in which there is creeping authoritarianism, it’s even more important there to try to promote quality education.”
Becker added that any violations of academic freedom could undermine Russia’s goals of increasing the international standing of its higher education institutions and getting five universities in the top 100 of the world rankings. That goal, Becker said, is ubiquitous at Russian higher education conferences.
Russian universities are arguably more outwardly focused than ever before. The University of Maryland University College offers dual degree programs with Russia’s Far Eastern Federal and Irkutsk Universities. “What’s interesting about Far Eastern Federal University is it’s a federal university – a federal university is under the control of the federal government – and the big push is to increase and strengthen international exchanges and cooperation. That’s one of the things they’re going after,” said Muriel Joffe, the executive director of international programs at UMUC.
Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies, said the concerns he has about educational exchanges between the U.S. and Russia have nothing to do with geopolitical tensions, but rather about the issue of funding on the U.S. side. The Russian government increasingly has funding available for international exchanges, he said, at the same time that the U.S. has slashed funding for Russian studies. Congress cut the Title VI program , which funds area studies programs, including Russian studies programs, by 47 percent in 2011, and last fall the U.S. Department of State announced that it was not appropriating any funds for the Title VIII program , which funds language training and research in Eastern European and Eurasian studies specifically.
“If you want to look at this scientifically, I actually think the bigger problems are almost more mechanistic and operational than they are political,” Rojansky said. “As we’ve proved with the Lacy-Zarubin agreement onward” – Lacy-Zarubin was a landmark cultural, technical and educational exchange agreement signed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1958 -- “you can do exchanges no matter how inimically opposed your political views are. But you can’t do exchanges if you can’t pay for them.”
Another variable that could have a dramatic impact on the viability of exchanges is the issue of safety. Some study abroad programs in Ukraine evacuated  after the State Department issued a travel warning urging U.S. citizens to defer all non-essential travel to the country. There’s currently no State Department warning against travel to Russia -- there is a lower-level alert -- but, in light of Russia’s reported troop build-up along the Ukrainian border, security issues are a concern.
John Frederick Bailyn, director of the State University of New York’s systemwide Russian Programs Network and an associate professor of linguistics at the Stony Brook campus, said he’s seen a slight decrease in interest among American students for a summer institute on linguistics, cognition and culture that he co-directs at St. Petersburg State. Applications are still open, but he thinks the numbers are down because of a perception among American students and their parents that Russia is a dangerous destination.
Bailyn is hopeful, however, that in the long term the crisis might have just the opposite effect on the study of Russian language, culture and politics. “I hope that maybe it’ll get more people interested in Russia, more people thinking maybe things aren’t so black and white," he said.