Cutting ties: The West, Ukraine and the Russian academy

March 8, 2022
Wars do not merely make truth a casualty, but kill off intellectual inquiry too. Photo: Australian National University

After discovering his course on Fyodor Dostoevsky would be cancelled in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine, writer and lecturer Paolo Nori of Milano-Bicocca University stated: “Not only is it a fault to be a living Russian in Italy today, but also to be a dead Russian”.

(Dostoevsky has since been reprieved; the course will now run.)

Throughout history, academic cooperation between universities and academic institutions, despite the political differences of states, has taken place. Even at the height of the Cold War, there were regular exchanges across several intellectual fields. The cynic could see these as culture wars in the service of propaganda, but work was still done, projects started and completed.

The times have tilted and now universities, notably in the West, find themselves rushing with virtuous glee to divest and ban contacts and links with the Russian academy. Russian President Vladimir Putin is deemed a monster of unsurpassed dimension; the Russian attack on Ukraine is being emptied of historical rationale or basis. There is simply no room for academic debate, in of itself a risible irony.

In Freedom’s Land, some United States institutions have snipped and severed cooperation. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has ended its long-standing association with the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, Skoltech. The reasoning is odd: “We take it with deep regret,” MIT explained, “because of our great respect for the Russian people and our profound appreciation for the contributions of the many extraordinary Russian colleagues we have worked with.”

The university also made it clear that the “step is a rejection of the actions of the Russian government in Ukraine”. It is good to reject those actions, but how logical is it to make Russian colleagues suffer exclusion?

Behind every virtuous condemnation is the encumbrance of self-interest. MIT may have severed ties with Skoltech, but that did not mean that MIT principal investigators (PIs), or students, would be affected. “The Institute is in close communication with the PIs to offer guidance and to make sure that the students involved can complete their research and academic work without interruption.”

Russian students have also been singled out for special mistreatment, notably by Californian Democrat Eric Swalwell. “I think closing [the Russian] embassy in the United States, kicking every Russian student out of the United States, those should all be on the table, and Putin needs to know that every day that he is in Ukraine, there are more severe options that could come.”

But Michigan State University’s president Samuel Stanley has sought to distinguish between individual and political decisions made by governments. The distinction is trite, but the Ukraine war has made it exceptional.

“In times of crises and conflict,” Stanley wrote, “it is important that we decouple individuals from adverse actions of their home countries and governments”. Emphasis should instead be placed on unity in “supporting one another with dignity, empathy and mutual respect”.

In Australia, a country with few ties to Russian or Ukrainian institutions, universities have been issuing statements of condemnation against, not merely the Russian state but Russian institutions and figures. The last thing on the minds of these bureaucrats is to adopt Stanley’s positioning.

The Australian National University (ANU) has gone one step further, announcing the suspension of all ties and activities with Russian institutions on March 3. “We identify with those brave Russian academics and students who oppose President Putin’s unprovoked aggression.” Curiously enough, the decision was made as the Russian attack “threatens the peace, freedom and democracy on which freedom of inquiry and academic collaboration is based”.

Showing no inclination to follow the principles of free inquiry, the authors explicitly note that only those Russian academics and students who opposed Putin’s “unprovoked aggression” would be taken seriously.

For Ukraine, the support was unqualified. “We stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people in their defence of sovereignty and freedom and offer our support for the universities of Ukraine.”

The ANU statement has little time for ethnic Russians, preferring to acknowledge “that this is a very difficult time for our Ukrainian staff and students and for those who have family members, friends and colleagues in Ukraine”.

The statement from La Trobe University is not much more nuanced, although it promotes the work of one academic, Robert Horvath, who is given the task of demystifying Russian aggression and chewing over Putin’s numbered days. (Horvath’s referenced opinion, it should be said, distinguishes between Putin the ruler and Russia itself, something his university is less inclined to do.)

Having been approached by “a number of staff” as to whether La Trobe had “any active connections with Russian institutions”, management expressed a deep sigh of relief. “We can confirm that La Trobe does not have any formal education partnerships or partnerships with Russian research institutions.”

The university’s investment portfolio was also fairly liberated of Russian investment, a mere $20,000 in value. “We are liaising with our Investment Fund about divestment options for this exposure.”

Australian universities’ singling out of Russia has a note of self-indulgence to it. The outrage expressed against Russia seems at odds with the relationships with Chinese institutions. The reasons, in the end, are financial rather than principled: excoriating the Russian Bear only harms intellectual merit, not the budget. The same cannot be said about students and academics from the Middle Kingdom.

To that end Vice Chancellors and members of academic boards have been less forthright in their condemnation of Chinese foreign policy and the country’s human rights record. Money often wins out in the moral dilemma, a point that activist Drew Pavlou found to his cost at the University of Queensland.

In discriminating on the political and ideological standing of academics and students, a slippery slope presents itself. Putting all your institution’s eggs into one basket and cause is never a good thing, however popular it might be at the time. But the Academy and the modern university work in contradictory, self-defeating ways.

Wars do not merely make truth a casualty, but kill off intellectual inquiry too.

[Dr Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University.]

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