Russia blacklists US liberal arts college

Action against Bard College threatens novel liberal arts degree and widens Putin crackdown on higher education

June 22, 2021
Government of the Russian Federation
Source: iStock

Russian authorities have declared Bard College “undesirable” in the country, apparently because of its ties to George Soros, threatening a pioneering liberal arts collaboration with Saint Petersburg State University.

The Russian decision appears to make illegal any cooperation with Bard just as Smolny College – a two-decade-old creation of Bard and Saint Petersburg State – is establishing its institutional independence.

It also comes as Bard, a private liberal arts university in New York state, is strengthening its long-standing reliance on Mr Soros, a billionaire who has been highly critical of Russian leader Vladimir Putin as part of the Hungarian-born philanthropist’s broad campaign against authoritarian governments.

The General Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation, in its announcement, said it had determined that Bard’s “activities pose a threat to the foundations of the constitutional order and security of the Russian Federation”.

It said the activities of Bard were now considered “undesirable in the territory of the Russian Federation” – a status that generally implies threats of fines and, potentially, jail for any of its partners.

The action is part of a growing crackdown by the Putin government on the free operation of higher education in Russia that has included laws this year restricting cooperation with overseas academics and forbidding any educational activities not expressly approved by the government.

The effective outlawing of Bard in Russia amounts to an “assault on international exchange and academic freedom”, said a leader of the American Association of University Professors, Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay.

It almost certainly means a shutdown of the 550-student Smolny College and any other joint programmes involving Bard, Professor Reichman, chair of the AAUP’s committee on academic freedom and tenure, said in an AAUP blog posting.

Bard has about 2,000 undergraduates on a rural campus some 100 miles (160km) north of New York City. It was founded in 1860 and has struggled financially, although its prospects brightened considerably in April when Mr Soros pledged $500 million (£361 million) – one of US higher education’s largest donations ever – towards its goal of a $1 billion endowment.

Bard is also one of two founding members of the Open Society University Network, a global alliance created by Mr Soros to encourage higher education to boost civic engagement and tackle global challenges.

The other is the Central European University, which was forced out of Budapest in 2018 by Hungary’s own authoritarian government.

Bard began its collaboration with Saint Petersburg State University in 1997, exchanging faculty and students. That led to their creation of the Smolny College within Saint Petersburg State, which offered the first liberal arts bachelor’s degree programme in Russia.

The dean of Smolny, Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister of Russia, moved earlier this year to establish the college as a separate institution, citing ideological and economic differences with the leadership of Saint Petersburg State.

Saint Petersburg State, as part of the investigation that led to Bard being declared undesirable, told Russian authorities earlier this year that it has had a long partnership with the US college and had never regarded it as undesirable.

A US State Department spokeswoman said the US government had no immediate comment on the matter. A spokesman for Bard did not respond to requests for comment.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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