ANU’s Russian boycott sparks debate in Australian universities

University’s internal debate about the pros and cons mirrors live discussions elsewhere

March 6, 2022
Government of the Russian Federation
Source: iStock

When an Australian National University (ANU) economist tweeted his opposition to his employer’s decision to suspend links with Russia, he was retweeted by vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt, who had announced the boycott hours earlier.

While nobody in ANU supports Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine, the economist said, many also oppose cutting ties with their Russian counterparts. “Universities do not boycott universities,” he tweeted. “Write to academic board with your views,” Professor Schmidt replied.

Academic board had already spent four days agonising over the decision, according to deputy vice-chancellor Sally Wheeler. “It went through all of our internal processes, to council, to the chancellor. It was a large conversation.”

Other universities and other academics might conduct similar deliberations and arrive at a different conclusion, she acknowledged. “That is absolutely their right. They’re completely entitled to their view.”

Professors and researchers from ANU and elsewhere, many of Russian descent, expressed their view in an open letter to the university leadership. “This policy primarily affects…research and educational institutions in Russia, and ultimately Russian scholars who may be the last remaining voice of reason in the country.

“Suspending ongoing activities with Russian research institutions will have a devastating effect on those academics in Russia who strive for international collaboration, and thus slow down the country’s descent into the dark ages. [It] will only help the Russian state’s propaganda of aggression and isolation [and] will likely be interpreted as yet another case of western Russophobia.”

Professor Wheeler stressed that the boycott would apply at the institutional rather than the individual level. “Staff have [asked]: can I co-publish [with Russian colleagues]? Of course they can. The basic tenets of academic freedom dictate that they can have those ties. It is institution-to-institution arrangements that we are suspending.”

She also acknowledged inevitable questions about why ANU had not taken similar action against other warlike states. “We’re in this situation at the moment, and the situation is that Putin’s regime has torn up international law and invaded a sovereign country of 40 million people – a country bigger than France and Germany combined.

“There have been other annexations, but the invasion by a member of the United Nations Security Council of the sovereign territory of another country – it’s really unprecedented since World War Two. It’s a huge threat to global peace and stability. We can’t just stand by and let this occur.”

Government mandates might force other universities to follow suit, she said. “There are already economic sanctions, and they are obviously going to hit grant arrangements around the world.”

Australia’s new foreign relations legislation could also be used to prevent research collaborations and student exchanges with Russia, she added.

Professor Wheeler said the hundreds of Russian students in Australia were among the millions of people affected by the conflict. “[Their] stipends are going to be caught by economic sanctions, and already are caught by huge currency devaluations.

“They’re here on student visas, just like any international student, and there’s no suggestion that that situation is going to change. Every student will have a slightly different issue and we will work through those individually. We’re opening up hardship funds for students from Ukraine and from Russia.”

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