Feature

Under Pressure

Academic freedom and internationalization are at the heart of higher ed. But in the face of growing global threats, the relationship between the two is becoming more complex.
Internationalization has become entangled in broader questions about academic freedom, particularly when institutions enter partnerships in countries where it is under attack. Illustration: Shutterstock
 

It started with suggestions to focus on other topics, followed by a request from a government official to publish research in his name. But after being arrested by state intelligence services and having his home searched multiple times, Valentin Migabo, a political scientist from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), faced a difficult decision.

“My research on victims of the massacres in eastern DRC made me a target and required me to make a choice between abandoning my study and submitting to censorship, or disappearing,” Migabo says. In 2019, he was invited by Scholars at Risk (SAR) to come to Canada and continue his work at the University of Quebec at Montreal and McGill University.

Migabo’s experience is an example of the global threats to academic freedom that have endured for decades. In 2021, SAR received more than 1,000 new applications for scholars seeking assistance; the organization has aided more than 1,600 scholars and worked with more than 560 host campuses across the world since its inception in 2000.

“There are good things that can come from dealing with countries that may or may not share our democratic principles or protect the free exchange of knowledge as we would in the United States,” says Kiki Caruson, PhD, who leads international engagement at the University of South Florida. “Public institutions are here to serve the greater good—not just in our backyards, but around the world. But we cannot deny there is risk that we must take into account.”

“Public institutions are here to serve the greater good—not just in our backyards, but around the world. But we cannot deny there is risk that we must take into account.” —Kiki Caruson

Systemic—and more subtle—threats are growing. The rising wave of global authoritarianism has led to new, often less visible, tactics. At the same time, internationalization, which with its emphasis on the free exchange of scholars and ideas is often seen as an antidote, has become entangled in broader questions about academic freedom, particularly when institutions enter partnerships in countries where it is under attack.  

A Changing Climate

Academic freedom represents a range of complex issues that extend beyond international education. In the United States, it also increasingly involves domestic politics. But academic freedom also is at the heart of both international and institutional missions.

“If universities’ core values are undermined, it will affect the quality and pace of scientific inquiry, economic thought, political dissent and development and the progress of other disciplines,” says Suzanne Nossel, chief executive officer of PEN America, a nonprofit focused on free expression and human rights.

The threats are growing. According to Scholars at Risk, more than 2,150 attacks on higher education communities have taken place in 113 countries and territories over the last decade. In 2021 alone, there were 332 attacks across 65 countries and territories.

Some countries in which academic freedom are under threat are familiar, including Afghanistan, Belarus, China, and Turkey. Others have taken on new, or renewed, prominence: for instance, Russia has attacked Ukrainian institutions and scholars during its invasion of that country and expelled hundreds of students critical of the war in its own. (Before the invasion, the Russian government also put a U.S. institution, Bard College, on a list of “undesirable” organizations in 2021, ending Bard’s longstanding partnership with St. Petersburg State University.)  Others are closer to home, including Mexico, whose government has accused researchers of money laundering, embezzlement, and other crimes.

“If universities’ core values are undermined, it will affect the quality and pace of scientific inquiry, economic thought, political dissent and development and the progress of other disciplines.” —Suzanne Nossel

Along with outright threats, such as violence, expulsion, and censorship, authoritarian countries are employing more subtle tactics, both against individual scholars (including termination from research roles and pressure from peers or supervisors) and institutions (including budget cuts, the monitoring of research or campus speakers, the theft of intellectual property, and the closure of entire institutions).

“With the threat to democracy around the globe, the threat to academic freedom has never been greater,” Robert S. Litwak, senior vice president of the Wilson Center, said during a spring webinar.

COVID-19 upped the ante, with some governments barring institutions from reporting the virus as a cause of death and retaliating against efforts to bring issues to light. In Nicaragua, for example, medical staff at universities were fired when they demanded better personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic, according to Ernesto Medina Sandino, former rector of the Universidad Americana. 

In similar fashion, debates about cultural and gender identity that have roiled the political landscape throughout the West have provided ammunition for repression. In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s government expelled Central European University (CEU)—founded by George Soros and home to faculty and students from more than 50 countries—and put other institutions and high schools under closer control as part of a broader embrace of what Orban calls “illiberal democracy” and cultural identity.

“The fight for gender studies [is] the fight for academic freedom,” Andrea Petro, a CEU professor who was forced out of Hungary, said during the Wilson Center webinar. “But there is another day, and there are other fights to wage.”

The U7+ Alliance of World Universities, representing 45 research institutions—including four U.S. universities—issued a statement in June stressing that academic freedom “faces limitations around the world.”

“We call on the G7 member countries to act to ensure that university faculty are able to conduct their work free from domestic and international political interference, and that they receive sufficient protection in their role,” the statement says.

The Internationalization Dilemma

Against this backdrop, the ongoing growth of internationalization has made higher education more global—and much more interdependent. The percentage of papers published by U.S. researchers with at least one co-author from another country doubled between 2009 and 2019, according to a 2021 study by Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.  Though often a positive sign of international collaboration, the combination of global partnerships and declining funding in many places may represent a potential threat to free expression, according to the authors of a 2020 study of internationalization and academic freedom published in the United Kingdom.

“The increasing quantity and quality of international partnerships and transnational ties in research, education, and associated activities is a broadly positive force,” they write. “But these partnerships often link places where academics suffer direct and severe threats to places where universities are increasingly reliant on income from foreign sources.”

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) cautions universities to be aware of “reputation laundering” by authoritarian regimes. “The rapid internationalization of the higher education sector, as well as the swelling demand worldwide for Western education, makes academic institutions particularly vulnerable to this form of transnational kleptocratic activity,” state the authors of a 2021 working paper.

“The rapid internationalization of the higher education sector, as well as the swelling demand worldwide for Western education, makes academic institutions particularly vulnerable to this form of transnational kleptocratic activity.”

Along with the large numbers of international students at U.S. institutions, colleges reported more than $10 billion in foreign grants, contracts, and donations to the U.S. Department of Education over the last 7 years. Nossel points to the influence of major Chinese donors—who contribute more than $1 billion annually to U.S. institutions, in addition to the tuition paid by the more than 317,000 Chinese students studying in the United States during the 2020–21 academic year.

“The combination of philanthropic resources and tuition channeled from China into U.S. universities constitutes a powerful form of influence,” she says.  At the same time, U.S. institutions must balance these concerns with “a firm commitment to civil liberties, open intellectual and scientific inquiry, international exchange and cooperation, non-discrimination, and a rejection of anti-Asian bias and bigotry,” Nossel adds.

It Can Happen Here

As U.S. institutions evaluate threats to academic freedom abroad, many are facing similar challenges at home.

“We work on threats to free expression worldwide and have a dedicated program that focuses on free speech and education here in the United States,” Nossel says.  “Increasingly, we see these elements of our mission converging through a number of worrying trends.”

In its 2021 report, SAR identified a wide range of escalating trends within the United States, including “targeted harassment and disruption of online university events; pressures on individual scholars from political actors outside universities and from universities themselves; political and legislative attacks that seek to ban the teaching of particular scholarly doctrines; and travel restrictions, investigations, and prosecutions that undermine academic freedom for U.S.-based and international scholars and students.”

Numerous state legislatures have passed bills involving the teaching of divisive concepts, U.S. history, and race, racism, or gender. Since January 2021, 70 bills intended to impose restrictions on teaching and learning in colleges and universities have been introduced in 28 states, according to the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU).

“Any legislative effort to circumscribe freedom of inquiry and expression in order to hew to political directives and agendas denies students essential opportunities for intellectual growth and development. In doing so, such an effort undermines our society’s democratic future,” says a June statement by AACU and PEN America.

“If leading Western universities succumb to the threats to academic freedom, they will begin to resemble institutions in the authoritarian world, coming under the thumb of the government and losing their potency as engines of innovation and progress.” —Suzanne Nossel

Other bills address international partnerships more directly, including Florida legislation that requires institutions to report grants or gifts worth $50,000 or more from seven “foreign countries of concern”—China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela. (The CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, which at press time was about to be signed into law, will also include stronger disclosure requirements for all institutions receiving National Science Foundation funding.) The Florida law also requires institutions to more extensively screen foreign applicants seeking research positions.

It’s imperative that institutions address challenges to academic freedom at home if they are to continue their mission, Nossel says. “Academic freedom also constitutes a primary differentiator and strength of Western societies,” she says. “If leading Western universities succumb to the threats to academic freedom, they will begin to resemble institutions in the authoritarian world, coming under the thumb of the government and losing their potency as engines of innovation and progress.”

A ‘Foreign Policy’ For Institutions?

Along with continuing to support individual scholars and condemn attacks on academic freedom across the globe, institutional leaders must defend it within the walls of their own campuses.

“University leaders can put the prestige of their institutions behind reinforcement of the global value of academic freedom,” Nossel says.

One approach, she says, is to “carry out self-examinations to ascertain the degree to which their principles are upheld in practice on campus.”  Doing so could involve anonymous surveys, independent research, and examining best practices issued by academic associations.

“Too often, we don’t have a playbook. We have a mission that’s woven into our ethos of serving our community. That can add complexity to how we engage with the world.” —Kiki Caruson

One such example is the model code of conduct proposed by the United Kingdom’s Academic Freedom and Internationalization Working Group, which, among other things, calls on institutions to evaluate proposed transnational agreements and put into place measures to protect academic freedom “commensurate to the risks involved in the transnational collaboration.”

At the same time, the working group also urges institutions to avoid “new and onerous auditing requirements for staff” by institutions and governments. Otherwise, “academic freedom will be weakened, not strengthened,” the authors caution.

In similar fashion, NED urges institutions to conduct due diligence on donations and maintain a comprehensive and searchable list of donors and publicize their guidelines on accepting donations to promote transparency. Such strategies are more in keeping with the institutional mission than making blanket decisions at a country level, according to Caruson, who likens doing so to “taking a hammer to an issue where you need a chisel.”

But institutional leaders may ultimately have to think more broadly. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education asked whether colleges and universities need to develop a “foreign policy” of their own—in other words, clear policies and principles that can guide decisions around their international relationships and responses to geopolitical events.

“Too often, we don’t have a playbook,” says Caruson. “We have a mission that’s woven into our ethos of serving our community. That can add complexity to how we engage with the world.”  •

About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.

About NAFSA

NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA serves the needs of more than 10,000 members and international educators worldwide at more than 3,500 institutions, in over 150 countries.

NAFSA membership provides you with unmatched access to best-in-class programs, critical updates, and resources to professionalize your practice. Members gain unrivaled opportunities to partner with experienced international education leaders.