Here and Abroad, Universities Face an Autocratic Playbook

Attacks on higher education are a global threat.
By John Aubrey Douglass

Higher education institutions often operate in charged national and regional political environments. The worldwide movement toward autocracy has magnified these pressures as right-wing nationalists have sought political advantage by targeting individual faculty members, entire fields of study, and higher education as a whole. While alarming similarities exist between the tactics of right-wing politicians in the United States and those of autocratic regimes abroad, there are also major differences. The larger picture, however, shows a clear, global pattern of growing neonationalist populism and increasing attacks on academic communities. In what follows, I discuss the common threads connecting these attacks as well as the varying political contexts in nation-states that are now fully autocratic, in illiberal democracies, and in countries like the United States that have relatively open societies with substantial or nascent right-wing parties and leaders.

Extremism on the Rise

A few examples illustrate the severe threats confronting universities in some countries.

In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pursued a campaign that resulted in more than six thousand academics being dismissed or losing tenure for allegedly participating in or supporting a failed coup attempt in 2016—and, more specifically, for allegedly supporting Erdoğan’s exiled rival Fethullah Gülen. Erdoğan clearly used the event to expunge critics of his government and send a warning to those who opposed his increasingly autocratic rule. Many of the dismissed faculty members have been placed on blacklists, cannot find new employment, and have had their passports revoked. Erdoğan’s recent reelection, aided by the decision to make the popular mayor of Istanbul ineligible to run, is already leading to more restrictions on academic freedom. Erdoğan also leveraged Turkey’s veto power over Sweden’s admission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to demand the extradition of dissidents, whom he has labeled terrorists, including academics who fled Turkey over the past decade.

In China, after a period of allowing more open debate, President Xi Jinping has increasingly sought to use artificial intelligence and facial-recognition technology to build a security state that tracks the behaviors of all its citizens. As in the past, students act as spies in classrooms. For Xi and the People’s Republic of China, the lesson of Tiananmen Square and the movement led by students and academics for a more democratic China is clear: leave little to no room for dissent. This policy has led to the jailing of academics, often under the old Maoist pretext of reeducation, in camps that include a large number of Uighur faculty members and students. At the same time, Hong Kong is now undergoing a transition to mainland China’s model of suppression, accelerated by the dramatic, yet now subdued, student-led protests. In response to those protests, Beijing passed a new national security law in 2022 outlawing any questioning of China’s rule, not only in Hong Kong but also internationally, providing a path to extradite Chinese nationals living abroad who protest too much.

Meanwhile, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to a dramatic reevaluation of the world’s relationship with Russia and its universities. President Vladimir Putin’s war has accelerated the Kremlin’s efforts to smother criticism of the government, its autocratic leader, and his oligarchical enablers. Demonstrations against Putin’s war flared up shortly after the invasion began, leading to the arrest of more than seventeen thousand protesters, many of them students and faculty members. But a new law that expanded the definition of sedition to Soviet-era standards has, it appears, also effectively quelled open protests and criticism—even calling the invasion a “war” is punishable by up to fifteen years in prison. All semblances of a free press are now gone, replaced with a flood of disinformation.

These are some of the more extreme versions of the attacks on universities in countries witnessing the rise or revival of ultraconservative, neonationalist governments. In particular, illiberal democracies that retain only the semblance of free elections, such as those in Turkey, Hungary, and Egypt, have been increasing in number. At the same time, starkly conservative, often anti-immigrant parties and their political leaders have grown in strength.

Assessing Global Trends

Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), a project housed at the University of Gothenburg and cofunded by the European Union, offers an annual assessment of the state of democracy in most parts of the world. V-Dem’s 2022 report examines a “democracy recession” characterized by an intensifying wave of autocratization—defined as a substantial decline of democratic regime traits—around the world that “highlights the need for new initiatives to defend democracy.” The 2022 report notes that 36 percent of the world’s population lived in “autocratizing” nations in 2021, up from 5 percent in 2011, and that a “record of 35 countries suffered significant deteriorations in freedom of expression at the hands of governments—an increase from only 5 countries 10 years ago.”

V-Dem also offers an assessment of the presence of academic freedom, or lack thereof, throughout the world using five metrics: the freedom to research and teach in a country’s universities, the freedom of academic exchange and dissemination, the institutional autonomy of higher education institutions, campus integrity, and the freedom of academic and cultural expression. V-Dem reports that academic freedom is in retreat for more than half of the world’s population, including in twenty-two countries and territories where universities and scholars enjoy significantly less freedom today than they did ten years ago. This decline includes not only autocratic and illiberal democracies and nation-states but also India, the United States, and nations in Europe. In the United States, the report observes, “After a long period of relatively high academic freedom levels, four out of five indicators visibly declined in 2021—the year after President Donald Trump, who repeatedly made statements highly critical of science and academia, was voted out of office.” As the latest V-Dem report recognizes, this decline is largely occurring at the state level, where most authority over the organization and funding of US higher education institutions resides.

Causes and Consequences

As in past right-wing movements, economic dislocation and status anxiety play an important part in fueling political support for nationalism. However, right-wing populism today is accelerated by the rapid pace of globalization and technological change that creates economic uncertainty, the pace of immigration and demographic change that is being accelerated by war and climate change, and the ubiquitous use of social media and technologies that bypass traditional media and allow for increased surveillance and widespread disinformation. In many parts of the globe, ultraconservative movements have the support of conservative religious groups—a marriage one finds in Hungary, Poland, Russia, and even the United States. The myth of a golden age, of lost power and prestige that must be reclaimed, is a common theme.

Geopolitical events play a role as well. The unstable political environment in the Middle East and northern Africa and more recently the war in Ukraine have led to a surge of political and economic refugees; the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks raised tensions between nations and led to increased visa restrictions; and the onset of the Great Recession brought increased economic disparity and, in some nations, the pursuit of severe austerity policies that hurt the most economically vulnerable. The COVID-19 pandemic also emboldened many nation-states and their autocratic-leaning leaders to further expand restrictions on free speech and mobility and to bolster self-sustaining conspiracy theories. China is an extreme example, with Xi’s policy of almost completely shutting down the nation’s economy accompanied by big brother–style conspiracy statements that blamed the “West” for the pandemic. In Brazil and the United States, former presidents Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump at times portrayed the pandemic as not simply a hoax but a deliberate deception by the scientific community.

There is also the reality of collusion and mimicking among global right-wing actors, with consequences for academic communities. In his 2014 call to arms, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán infamously declared the end of liberal democracy in Hungary and announced his intention to build “an illiberal new state based on national values.” He cited China, Russia, and Turkey as his inspiration and encouraged others to follow. Indeed, autocratic-leaning states and their leaders are supporting each other, sometimes to mitigate international sanctions, other times militarily—witness Putin’s support of Belarus’s autocratic government and vice versa. In the midst of Orbán’s crackdown on civil liberties, including efforts to punish criticism by academics, right-wing pundits and politicians in the United States have praised the state of Hungarian politics.

In the modern world, universities are institutions that promote both national development and global integration—mutually dependent pursuits, particularly for research universities. Yet in a number of important national instances, the contemporary political environment poses a major challenge to the societal role of universities.

The Far Right sees universities as real or potentially potent environments for sedition and questioning of political leadership. Universities also have a reputation as elitist institutions, segregated from the economic and social woes and complaints of more conservative citizens, and are viewed by some as part of the so-called deep state. In the United States, culture wars feed into the concept (mostly among Republican voters) that universities and colleges are intolerant environments and that science produced by academics is politically biased.

While much of this is unjustified criticism, universities share some of the blame for how the public perceives them. Growing concern over rising tuition and student debt have compounded higher education’s image problem. It does not matter much that tuition increases in public institutions resulted in large part from long-term disinvestment by state governments or that high student debt levels are concentrated among those who enrolled at for-profit institutions and in professional degree programs like medicine—the public still perceives the higher education sector as out of touch with the real world.

Adding to the perception that academic institutions exist in a social and political liberal bubble, many universities have built internal cultures focused on overly expansive notions of hate speech. Students have heckled legitimate conservative speakers. Diversity, equity, and inclusion policies have sometimes become litmus tests in faculty hiring and have become a target of criticism. These and other issues, particularly around gender identity, have added to skepticism among conservatives and even moderates, complicating the public role and perception of universities and colleges.

To make such observations is not to justify or condone the increasing hostility of right-wing politicians, whether in Hungary or in Florida and Texas, but only to acknowledge the nuances of an increasingly polarized political environment at home and abroad. In the more extreme cases cited above, like China, Russia, and Turkey, attacks on higher education have led to “brain drain” as academics have fled their countries to avoid repressive regimes. To a lesser degree, US students and academics are seeking to leave or avoid colleges and universities in deep red states that have, for example, pursued draconian laws on abortion, attempted to reshape the curriculum of public universities, and eroded or even eliminated tenure.

Internationally, the number of academics in exile is growing, fueled not only by wars, climate change, and failed states but also by hostility and persecution by governments that demand fealty. Faculty members left behind are faced with growing isolation that is mutating into what might be called a neoacademic cold war. The European Union, for example, has restricted research funding for Hungary, has ended all cooperation with Russian universities, and has acted to limit collaborative research and exchanges of talent with Chinese universities. The United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, and Australia have taken similar, not always prudent, action. The ties of globalization—and the importance of international research collaboration around topics such as climate change and pandemics—remain strong but are increasingly compromised by geopolitical events.

The Autocrat’s Playbook

The drift to the right, and toward greater control of universities, follows a pattern in illiberal democracies and revived autocracies: in Hungary, Turkey, Russia, Hong Kong, and elsewhere, neonationalist leaders have pursued strategies to alter the governance of universities with the objective of directly or indirectly selecting rectors or presidents and other key academic administrators; influencing or controlling faculty hiring and advancement; punishing dissent, sometimes with imprisonment or through permanent termination of faculty appointments and imposition of travel restrictions; and denying funding for research in areas viewed as opposed to conservative values, such as climate change or gender studies. Such measures are usually accompanied by increased control of the judiciary and the media, laws that hinder free elections and expand the ability of neonationalist governments to issue lucrative contracts to supporters in the private sector, limits on internet access, and the use of surveillance technologies to gauge conformity.

Subduing universities is one part of the strategy right-wing leaders use to solidify their power. China’s resurgent nationalism under Xi, for example, had brought measures for greater control of not only Hong Kong’s government but also its public universities— changes in governance that mirrored similar reforms on the mainland. All Hong Kong universities are formally under the direction of the chief executive of Hong Kong, who serves as the official chancellor of the city’s universities and appoints fifteen of the twenty-three members of the “councils” (or governing boards) for each university. These councils hold the power to block faculty and staff appointments and to steer selection of academic leaders, including university presidents. The councils are increasingly populated by those who support Xi’s policy agenda. Meanwhile, the student unions at various universities that buttressed much of the protest movement are disbanding over students’ fears of being arrested for and charged with sedition under China’s July 1, 2020, national security law. The crackdowns sanctioned by the law are part of a broader pattern of developments that seems set to end the concept of “one country, two systems” in China.

Turkey and Russia also provide clear examples of autocratic leaders that are moving to assert greater control over the governance and leadership of their universities. As noted above, Erdoğan has presided over the mass firing of academic and nonacademic staff and the closure of some universities, and he is gaining greater control over Turkey’s higher education council and vetting presidents and deans for their loyalty. In Russia, even before the tragic war on Ukraine, Putin pursued reforms that restored old Soviet controls on the governance and management of universities, purging a large number of university presidents and rectors. Shortly after the invasion, he demanded and received a joint statement of support from the majority of university leaders. In part as a consequence, Russia was barred from cooperation with EU universities, including the Horizon program, which funds international collaborative research.

Such efforts to control higher education, often linked with the rise of a high-tech security state, have been effective. On the more extreme side, in states such as China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran, the leadership and governance structure of universities have largely become surrogates for the ruling political elite. If a university’s leadership is functionally a captive of an extensive security state, then the room for debate regarding essential civil liberties and academic freedom is extremely compromised.

Whether in Hong Kong or Turkey, faculty members have been only marginal players in recent events that frequently led to student protests over civil liberties—although there have been important individual exceptions, often involving faculty members in the social sciences or law. Faculty members have, however, prepared and circulated statements related to specific events: for example, many Turkish faculty members signed the Academics for Peace petition over the mistreatment of Kurds in Turkey, and in Russia academics have signed petitions opposing the invasion of Ukraine. These overt efforts to protest government policies have prompted blacklisting and other forms of official state punishment.

Similarly, and unfortunately, the impact of expressing support for women’s rights in Iran, say, or the values of free speech in China is not clear. But few of the leaders of Hong Kong’s universities, and few even among the faculty, condemned a crackdown on student-led protests that included the removal of a statue commemorating the 1989 events at Tiananmen Square. In fact, autocratic or illiberal democracies use such occasions of protest to exert further control over universities by eliminating real or perceived enemies. And indeed, as noted above, populating university boards and councils with supporters and installing politically loyal university presidents, provosts, and deans are hallmarks of autocratic governments.

Behind the recent protests in China over the severe COVID-19 restrictions is the undertow of a protest over Xi’s autocracy and indicators of a latent desire for democracy. Will protests bring about change in Iran, in China, in Hong Kong? In the past, students and faculty members have played important roles in bringing about social and political change, whether in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa or in protests against dictatorial rule in Brazil. But the tools of autocratic governments and leaders, and the modern pressures of immigration and Cold War–era realignments that fuel nationalism, create new challenges. The effectiveness of legitimate protest and calls for change, even if ill-defined, are now being tested.

In autocratic and illiberal democracies, university leaders who desire political change must engage in a cost-benefit analysis. This may lead to the conclusion that it is better to attempt to protect students and faculty members by remaining as an intermediator between the government and university constituents.

Political Interference at Home

The higher education community in the United States today faces a similar pattern of attacks on academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Efforts to stack university governing boards with loyalists (and, in turn, influence the selection of presidents and other senior administrators) are becoming more common, as is criticism of the agencies that accredit colleges and universities, which have long been relatively free of government interference. As chronicled in other contributions to this issue of Academe, a growing number of states have passed bills that banned the teaching of “critical race theory,” defunded diversity initiatives, and weakened or eliminated tenure in public higher education.

In a manner reminiscent of Xi’s surveillance tactics, some states now also allow students to record class lectures without the professor’s consent, and conservative groups have established “watchlists” of faculty members who are perceived as too radical. Similarly, state-level legislation to end funding for gender and minority studies and research focused on climate change and the environment follows the pattern of Orbán’s attacks on certain fields of study in Hungarian universities.

Florida and Texas are leading this movement, with Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis using culture-war issues in an effort to bolster his campaign for the Republican nomination for president in 2024. Apparent fear of political retribution led Kent Fuchs, the president of the University of Florida, the flagship state university, to initially ban faculty members from testifying against a DeSantis-backed effort to pass legislation widely believed to limit the voting rights of minority groups who are more likely to vote Democratic. Fuchs subsequently resigned in the midst of contentious relations with the faculty over academic freedom and his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. DeSantis then appointed a former Republican senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse, as president of the University of Florida, despite significant protests from the faculty.

As in Hong Kong and Turkey, politicians are exerting severe pressure to intimidate academic leaders, who in the US tradition should be nonpartisan. A preliminary report from the AAUP’s Special Committee on Academic Freedom in Florida published in May 2023 noted, “Academic administrators throughout Florida’s public university and college systems, from the highest to the lowest levels—without exception—not only have failed to contest these attacks but have too frequently been complicit in and, in some cases, explicitly supported them. . . .While some individuals are leaving as a matter of conscience, those who remain face the prospect of serving as pawns in DeSantis’s corrupt patronage system.”

Florida is an important battleground for higher education, but legislatures in Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, and other states have passed or introduced similar bills. In Texas, the lieutenant governor voiced a common critique among conservatives regarding the flagship University of Texas campus in Austin: “Tenured professors must not be able to hide behind the phrase ‘academic freedom’ and then proceed to poison the minds of our next generation.”

In the simplest terms, such moves are driven by a political divide over the role and importance of public institutions, including universities. While Democrats picked up two additional governorships in the 2022 midterm elections, the power dynamics between and among the states remained mostly unchanged: Republicans hold twenty-six out of fifty governorships and retain majorities in a similar number of state legislatures. Most red states are rural and more homogeneous in population, with conservative values focused on limited government and low taxes. Blue states, and the Democratic party, are characterized by the concentration of their populations in more liberal and diverse urban centers and increasingly liberal suburban areas. These states tend to have higher rates of educational attainment, including the share of residents holding bachelor’s degrees. With some exceptions, they are also the hubs for technology and other economic growth sectors. Blue-state lawmakers and their constituents usually grasp the value of public universities and colleges and are seeking to reinvest in them after the severe ebb of state funding before and during the Great Recession and at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In contrast, a Pew Research Center survey found that some 59 percent of Republicans believe that colleges and universities have a negative effect on American society, and they often express low esteem for professors viewed as political leftists. Trump, DeSantis, and other Republican leaders thus see continued advantage in attacking American higher education and the scientific community it supports.

Long-Term Scars

The damage from the most extreme neonationalist attacks on the role and operation of universities will remain for decades. In the United States, we see echoes of the global neonationalist movement, although the damage is mitigated by a strong (though weakened) conception of civil liberties and academic freedom and by the decentralized organization and governance of our higher education institutions and systems. Unlike virtually every other country, we have no federal ministry of education that can issue edicts and demands that would, for example, have greatly empowered Trump’s attempts to eviscerate the funding of academic science.

In all of the national cases discussed here, political attacks on higher education have exacted a human toll as well as a toll on institutional culture, degrading the ideal of independence in teaching and research that is the hallmark of the best universities and colleges. But perhaps the greatest casualty of our era is faith in the validity of science and expertise, in academia and elsewhere, manifested most importantly in the denial of climate change on ideological grounds and in assertions that the COVID-19 virus was a hoax. Neonationalist discourse tends to equate academic research—and facts—with the “fake news” of the opposition. Today’s factual relativism adds to the degradation of academic institutions, creating obstacles to the identification of real societal and environmental challenges and the search for solutions.

John Aubrey Douglass is senior research fellow and research professor at the Center for Studies in Higher Education in the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. This article is adapted from his recent book Neo-nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats, and the Future of American Higher Education (available as an open-access publication through Project Muse) and a forthcoming publication on the role of universities in promoting democracy. His email address is [email protected].