Conference reports Authoritarian regimes stifle academic freedom

On the 6th of May this year, Baltic Worlds arranged a seminar at CBEES on the topic of the shrinking space for academic freedom. Updated reports from Poland and Hungary was followed by a presentation of the autocratic learning process in Eurasia. Finally there were suggestions on how protect academic freedom and work for international scholarly solidarity.

Published on on May 9, 2019

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On the 6th of May this year, Baltic Worlds arranged a seminar at CBEES on the topic of the shrinking space for academic freedom. The seminar was based on Baltic Worlds’ recently published Special Issue on “Academic Freedom under threat”.

The Special Issue stresses that academic freedom is under attack throughout the whole region covered by Baltic Worlds. The methods of controlling, limiting, and influencing research and education may vary – still, however varied the methods used to limit academic freedom might be, one obvious outcome of the restrictions is that fear is spreading. Even if actual alterations and “corrections” in scholarly research do not take place everywhere, fear of repression may in itself give rise to self-imposed restrictions and self-censorship among academics. Thus, restrictions on academic freedom make it difficult for individual researchers, as well as certain disciplines, and even entire universities to conduct their activities in a meaningful way. Yet, there is at the same time resistance to such of attempts to limit academic freedom.

At the seminar, the audience took part of updated reports on the shrinking space of academic freedom in Poland and Hungary. Elżbieta Korolczuk (Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw and Södertörn University) discussed the growing anti-gender tendencies in Poland, and the related fact that Gender Studies is presently targeted as an academic discipline. As a consequence, fewer students chose to go on with their studies in Gender Studies. Péter Balogh (Hungarian Academy of Sciences) described how governmental decisions and imposed legislation endanger the academic freedom in Hungary, not only for institutions as the Central European University (CEU), but also the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Balogh also stressed the growing feeling of insecurity among scholars and students, as well as the emotional stress this causes. (Péter Balogh’s presentation is to be found here>>)

The two presentations were followed by a general discussion on how to understand and define academic freedom, and how to make sense of the recent attacks on it. The speed of restrictions and illiberal developments in Poland and Hungary was brought up during the discussion. Also, it was noted that the attacks as such tend to create a negative normalization process, as it were. Researchers become accustomed to being questioned or controlled, even if it means lack of access to, for example, library resources and archives. What is probably worse is the isolation that follows, most notably experienced by scholars from Gender Studies in Turkey. Due to political pressure, they face the absence of a critical open dialogues with academic colleagues and the loss of an international network to collaborate with.

Oleg Antonov and Joakim Ekman did a joint presentation, based on the essay by Oleg Antonov and his co-author Artem Galushko in the special issue of Baltic Worlds (The common space of neo-authoritarianism in post-Soviet Eurasia, link here>>). Antonov presented an on-going study, suggesting that Russia and the Central Asian republics of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan synchronically introduced similar anti-democratic measures to restrict freedom of academia, civil society, political rights and civil liberties. Ekman demonstrated that such parallel developments – here referred to as authoritarian learning – are detectable in international quantitative measures designed to tap for example press freedom obstacles and non-democratic practices all around the globe.

Attacks on academic freedom don’t go unchallenged. There is resistance. Jenny Gunnarsson Payne did an engaged and informed presentation and shared her ideas about the importance of fighting back, and on how to support colleagues. She stressed that scholarly solidarity is not only about providing help to scholars in other countries; also, it is a matter of us learning from them. We need each other’s knowledge and perspectives. Deputy Vice-Chancellor Ulla Manns, who represents Södertörn University in the international Scholars at Risk (SAR) network, briefed the audience about the ongoing work to provide scholars living under threat a new career abroad. One of the main obstacles is not seldom to overcome the university bureaucracy, rather than getting funding for hosting scholars at risk.

The seminar closed with a wider discussion on how to protect academic freedom and work for international scholarly solidarity. Although academic freedom is threatened in the Baltic Sea area, in Eastern Europe, and in the post-Soviet sphere, this is in fact not unique to the post-communist region, but rather a global trend that presently happens to find a particularly strong manifestation in the region. Vice-Chancellor Gustaf Amberg suggested at the seminar that the work to defend academic freedom and take further steps to promote international solidarity for scholars at risk will be a priority for Södertörn University in the years to come.