Universities in repressive states ‘hollow copies’

Education institutions are being undermined from within, everywhere from Turkey to Brazil, online conference hears

April 2, 2021
Solarana, Burgos, Spain - November 28, 2015 old bee hive construction in a holm oak forest in rural Castile for apiculture. The derelict hives held the honeycomb to be harvested for honey and wax.
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Many universities are becoming “hollow” copies of academic institutions under restrictive and authoritarian regimes, an event has heard.

Speakers from Brazil, Greece, Hungary and Serbia as well as Turkey came together at Universities at Risk, an online conference organised by Academy Unchained. The initiative was created by students of political science and international relations when a rector linked to the ruling AKP party was imposed on Boğaziçi University in Istanbul and – amid widespread protests and detentions – seeks to explore the picture and build networks of solidarity.

That very week, reported Zeynep Gambetti, professor of political theory at Boğaziçi, “a group of students carrying LGBTI+ flags was taken into custody on the grounds that they were ‘suspicious elements’…Fifty-two more were detained for wanting to make a statement outside the courthouse.”

In imposing a rector at Boğaziçi, Professor Gambetti went on, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government had used rhetoric that combined homophobia with claims that the university was “a pro-Western institution whose loyalties are with ‘Turkey’s enemies’”. Yet the country was hardly alone in wanting to “hollow out not only universities but also the judiciary and all other institutions in the political, economic and social spheres”, since we were witnessing “similar attacks on [national] institutions by would-be strongmen all over the world”.

Today, as in the past, claimed Athena Athanasiou, professor of social anthropology and gender theory at the Panteion University School of Social and Political Sciences in Athens, academics in many countries now faced “criminalisation, harassment, censorship, blacklisting and even exile”. In Greece, the “university asylum law [of 1982] forbade police from entering campus without permission from university authorities…The abolition of [such] campus immunity…was one of the first actions that the ruling conservative party took when it came to power in 2019.” This had been accompanied by “a campaign of defaming public universities, presenting them as sites of criminality and disorder”.

Fernanda Martins, a researcher at the Laboratoria feminist research institute, described similar developments in Brazil.

It had proved “a turning point” in President Jair Bolsonaro’s rise to power when he started attacking something called “gender ideology” as a focus for “the many fears, anxieties and obsessions of cultural conservatism”. This had since taken concrete form in “a lawsuit against a history professor by a student who claimed to have been persecuted for position[ing] herself as an ‘anti-feminist’”. Along with its funding cuts and attacks on university autonomy, Mr Bolsonaro’s government remained “deeply allied with the silencing of professors and activists”.

In offering a broader comparative analysis, Andrea Pető, a professor in the department of gender studies at the Central European University, used the image of “the illiberal polypore state” – named after a parasitic fungus “that lives on wood and produces nothing else but more polypore”. While past authoritarian regimes in Nazi Germany and communist eastern Europe had taken over “existing scientific institutions and transform[ed] them into explicitly ideological institutions” devoted to racial hygiene or party history, “polypore institutions” were far harder to spot and regulate. But though they were often adept at using “the neoliberal language of excellence, competitiveness, impact, social outreach and indices”, they were in reality “just a hollow copy of academic institutions”.

It was an encouraging sign, added Professor Pető, that “new academies and alternative universities are being established from Turkey through Russia to Hungary in order create alternative public spaces for knowledge production and academic authorisation”.

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Strange, academic freedom is an imperialist, Eurocentric, colonial viewpoint. Who is to say that Turkey is doing wrong. It is all relative. No system is better than another and Turkey is representative of their people and culture. Why is what western nations do superior? Sounds racist.

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