Illiberal practices and autocratic pressure have been targeting higher education as a pivotal place of intellectual, ideological and sociocultural contestation — as liberal democracy’s epistemic foundation and a site of its renewal.
Illiberal and autocratic policies are skillfully manipulating the structural problems of the higher education, privatizing or etatizing universities and research institutions. The emerging soft authoritarianism is marked by parallel structures that undermine self-governance and quality assurance practices of academic communities. Such reforms are easy to defend in an era marked by the commercialization of the higher education, the hierarchical stratification of the faculty, and the growing gap between the activist networks and academic knowledge production. In doing so, they seek to marginalize universities as loci of democratic resilience and anti-authoritarian resistance in national cultural and political spaces. While autocrats avidly learn from each other, academics under siege scramble for self-preservation, caught between prospects of existential threats and surviving in exile. Local anti-intellectualism has been turned into a global salami-tactics, leaving behind intellectual enclaves and fragmented diaspora communities sharing the fate of former allies in a shrinking civic space.
The OSUN Global Visiting Fellowship for “Academics Facing Autocracy” scheme brought together at the Democrcy Institute colleagues from the hotspots of this struggle an opportunity for critical reflection and dialogue, to explore sustainable global strategies that create new links between research, teaching and civic engagement in response to a global challenge. In particular, we seek new insight on recent efforts that offer „hybrid education for students in hybrid regimes” and academic sanctuary.
The program is hosted by the Democracy Institute on the Budapest campus of Central European University, which itself had to move its traditional gradute programs to Austria as a result of the illiberal Hungarian political regime’s pressure manifested in the infamous “Lex CEU” of 2017. CEU remains committed, however, to maintain research and non-degree educational activities in Hungary and thereby also keep its Budapest premises meaningful.
The fellows’ first meeting took place on February 23 where right after a round of introductions, the team set out to establish a framework within which to study the various cases they know of academics resisting authoritarian regimes’ attacks on education by creating alternative ways for it. The program’s fellows have first-hand experiences with such cases and are committed to share their knowledge and help victims of similar attacks by participating in a new initiative to examine how can models be applied in different contexts and thus functional practices transferred transnationally.
Current Fellows (2023)
Noemi Levy Aksu
Noemi Levy Aksu has a first-hand experience of illiberal and autocratic attacks on higher education. In 2017, then an assistant professor in Ottoman and Modern Turkish history at Boğaziçi University (Istanbul), she was dismissed for signing the Declaration for Peace (January 2016, a criticism of state violence against civilians in the Kurdish region). She became involved in the solidarity network of the Academics for Peace and was one of the founders of the Centre for Democracy and Peace Research (CDPR) in London, a registered charity which promotes independent knowledge production in Turkey. In 2019-20, she coordinated a CDPR capacity building project, aiming to support eight solidarity academies in Turkey, which enabled her to work in close collaboration with scholars and activists throughout the country. As a CDPR trustee, she remains involved in two current local initiatives: the Center for the Right to the City of İzmir Solidarity Academy; and the “100years100objects” project, a critical digital encyclopedia of Modern Turkey, developed by Kültürhane in Mersin. In 2020, she joined the Truth, Justice, Memory Center (Hafıza Merkezi) in Istanbul. There, she has developed the original “Memory and Youth” program, which brings together young citizens from different backgrounds and articulates workshops, field visits and mentorship for their projects addressing various aspects of Turkey’s contentious past.
Thiago Amparo – conducted his master and doctoral studies in Hungary – and in both he has focused on how right-wing movements have taken up the law to reinforce discrimination in countries like Brazil, South Africa and the United States. More recently, as a professor at FGV Law School, he has founded a research center on racial justice and the law, in which democracy and race are key areas of research, as well as ha has conducted legal clinics related to discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people. Alongside with his academic work, he has been acting as an advocate and public intellectual in issues related to illiberalism and human rights violations in Brazil, closely collaborating with civil society organizations and writing for Brazil’s main newspaper on weekly basis.
Through her creative film work Nurzhamal Karamoldoeva reinforces the importance of transformative role media plays in rethinking and reshaping social gender norms in a society.
Looking at film as both a social practice and a cultural product provides a framework to her increasing desire of establishing a safe environment for visual arts in Kyrgyzstan. The overall goal of establishing such framework is the creation of a new awareness of film not so much as an entertainment but a cultural and social capital. Using film as an interdisciplinary instrument of a wider field of cultural studies she would also envision including historical revisionism in the approach to study film as part of representation of a certain epoch.
When CEU was forced to cease its operations in Budapest under the pressure of Hungarian government, and later on relocated to Vienna, Almira Ousmanova was struck by the commonality of institutional trajectories of CEU and her home University – European Humanities University (EHU), that became the first University in Exile in the XXIst century’s Europe, since its closure by Belarusian authorities for political reasons in 2004. The history of EHU spans over virtually the entire thirty-year period of postsocialist development ( as in case of CEU) and is full of dramatic twists and turns. EHU succeeded to survive and develop further despite the obstacles, caused by the authoritarian regime of Lukashenko, starting from the beginning of the 1990s. During 17 years of exile the faculty of EHU gained a unique experience of cross-border functioning, of intellectual nomadism and civil activism, while working in between Belarus and Lithuania; creating new educational programs in a foreign country; conducting research on the postsocialist political, cultural and scientific transformations; providing liberal education, based on democratic values and academic freedoms, to the young people from the region, and creating the infrastructures of solidarity and support for both students and scholars (before and after the political crisis in Belarus in 2020 and the war in Ukraine in 2022).
Alexandr Voronovici is writing a book that analyzes memory politics in the secessionist republics in Donbas and Transnistria, putting them also within the larger context of separatism and non-recognition in the post-Soviet space and beyond.
Nikita Bogachev is a graduate of Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg (2018) and the programme “Comparative History: Late Antique, Medieval, and Renaissance Studies” at CEU, his background is in History and Byzantine Studies. In 2020, Nikita has defended master thesis in which he explored how Byzantine monastic literature shaped the penitential behaviour and practices related to body in the medieval male monasticism. Currently, his research interest is in exploring mutual determination of fiction and reality, relation of literature to collective trauma, and the ways literary and historical, especially neo-medieval, narratives are abused to justify and shape politics.