Conference reports Roundtable. Threats to academic freedom

Academic freedom is under attack. One example of mobilizing in order to protect academic freedom is the roundtable that was organized in connection with 2017 CBEES Annual conference Competing Futures: From Rupture to Re-articulation, at Södertörn University November 30 to December 1.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 4:2017, p 124
Published on balticworlds.com on mars 8, 2018

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Academic freedom is under attack. One example of mobilizing in order to protect academic freedom is the roundtable that was organized in connection with 2017 CBEES Annual conference Competing Futures: From Rupture to Re-articulation, at Södertörn University November 30 to December 1.

Teresa Kulawik of Södertörn University moderated the session, and began by stressing that, although academic freedom is threatened in the Baltic Sea area, Eastern Europe, and the post-socialist countries, this is not peculiar to the region, but rather a general trend that happens to find expression in the region. Attending the panel were Alexander Kondakov, European University, St. Petersburg; Balazs Trencsenyi, Central European University Budapest; and Elzbieta Korolczuk, Södertörn University and the University of Warsaw.

The contributions of the panelists made it clear that the methods of controlling, limiting, and influencing research and education can change. An indirect and thus perhaps less noticed approach is to use bureaucratic rules to indirectly close university programs and make activity more difficult when it does not square with what particular decision-makers or regimes want. For example, requirements about how the premises are maintained can, if repeated and insisted upon regularly, diminish or destroy an entire sphere of university work. It is precisely this which Alexander Kondakov depicted in his talk, explaining how authorities repeatedly came up with new involving bureaucratic rules — cases where a swimming pool was obligatory in a house designated for cultural activities, yet the house could not be rebuilt; where a door was one centimeter too narrow; where there was no room for evacuation in the event of fire.

Kondakov expressed his resignation: “Due to such constant complaints, European University has not been able to obtain its certification for several semesters now and, if nothing happens, will be forced to close.” He added that, in 2008, universities were subjected to restrictions when it was decided they would be classified as foreign agents if they continued to receive EU support for the organization of courses on subjects such as queer theory. The law on foreign agency had profound effects, and was similar to what CEU now faces, Kondakov said.

Balazs Trencsenyi of Central European University, Budapest, sees the efforts of the Hungarian leadership to control CEU and restrict academic activities as a warning to the whole region. Introducing new legislation is an obvious, aggressive attack, even if it is done under the pretext of protecting national interests, taking security concerns into account, and so on. In practice, such amended legislation means that funds are restricted to designated universities and colleges.

He pointed out that the radical right-wing forces headed by Orbán saw themselves as trendsetters and exemplars rather than as marginalized by the European community, which of course is founded on the ideals of freedom and rights: “Before, populism was antisystematic, but now what we see is a systematic populism that works within the system. I would call it neoconservative rather than neoliberal. It is for this reason that what is happening in Hungary concerns not just Hungary, but the whole region”, Trencsensi stressed.

Restrictions on academic freedom make it difficult for individual academics, as well as certain disciplines, and even the entire university to conduct their activities. Elzbieta Korolczuk described the situation in Poland, where gender studies in particular are under attack and the entire discipline, as well as individual academics in the field, are now being watched. (See the interview with Korolczuk and Agnieszka Graff, page 4.)

During the panel discussion, other types of threats to academic freedom were also cited: neoliberal values ​​permit monitoring and control, the flipside of which is that the researcher not only has to spend a disproportionate amount of time making reports but also is directed to spend more time on activities that generate prestige and funds for the university. The effect is once again a violation of academic freedom. A discussion was also conducted about the financial incentives to take over knowledge production, much like a totalitarian regime’s attacks on research and education, for precisely the reason that it contributes to critical thinking.

Teresa Kulawik emphasized that, however varied the methods used to limit academic freedom might be, and however unclear the ultimate goal is, one obvious result of the restrictions is that fear is spreading: a fear that can give rise to self-imposed restrictions among academics and universities, as well as to actual alterations and “corrections” in the work produced. Yet, there is, as the panel debate proved, a powerful resistance to all forms of attempts to limit academic freedom.≈