Conference report by our interns: Academics Facing Autocracy: Alternative Modalities and Transnational Resilience in Higher Education

The event took place at CEU Vienna:

Autocratic and illiberal practices are present at many levels in numerous societies, even outside their countries of origin. Academic circles across the globe have been victims of a sustained autocratic effort to suppress their freedom in order to consolidate power and eliminate the seeds of opposition and alternate thought.

This is why CEU Democracy Institute’s “Democracy in History” workgroup organized the “Academics Facing Autocracy” program and a workshop to discuss possibilities of resistance.  The OSUN Global Visiting Fellowship for the ‘’Academics Facing Autocracy’’ scheme has brought together academics with a variety of experience in the struggle against autocratic oppression in order to discuss strategies to oppose authoritarian regimes, particularly through alternative modes of education. The programme is hosted by the Democracy Institute at the CEU Budapest campus, which had to transfer its graduate programmes to Vienna as a result of illiberal Hungarian policies. As a global trend of autocratic suppression of academic freedom emerges, it is imperative that alternative and viable strategies are discussed in order to preserve and perpetuate intellectual integrity all over the world. The workshop was carried out in three different parts, starting with the transformative movement of autocracy including the different modes of autocracy in academic institutions. Then it proceeded to a discussion about the implementation of alternative pedagogies as a strategy to combat autocratic interests. Finally, autocracy and academic alternatives were considered regarding the diverse contexts, to which our strategies must be tailored to, across the world.

On the 17th of April, the following academics convened for a workshop at the CEU Vienna campus to discuss how to make academic initiatives that provide alternative education to universities occupied by autocratic regimes resilient as well as transnational. The following academics were in attendance both in-person and online and contributed to a nuanced discussion:

·   Almira Ousmanova (European Humanities University, Vilnius) 

·   Renata Uitz (Central European University, Vienna & CEU Democracy Institute, Budapest) 

·   Alexandr Voronovici (CEU Democracy Institute, Budapest) 

·   Lourdes Peroni (Paraguayan Institute of Constitutional Law, Asunción) 

·   Noémi Lévy-Aksu (Hafiza Merkezi/Truth, Justice, Memory Center, Istanbul) 

·   Balázs Trencsényi (Central European University, Vienna & CEU Democracy Institute, Budapest) 

·   Daniel Palm (University for Continuing Education, Krems & CEU Democracy Institute, Budapest) 

·   Nurzhamal Karamoldoeva (American University of Central Asia, Bishkek) 

·   Thiago Amparo (FGV School of International Relations, Sao Paolo) 

·   Milica Popović (Global Observatory for Academic Freedom) 

·   Alexander Etkind (Central European University, Vienna) 

·   Michael Kozakowski (CEU Yehuda Elkana Center for Teaching, Learning, and Higher Education Research, CEU) 

·   Rafael Labanino (University of Konstanz) 

·   Orli Fridman (Center for Comparative Conflict Studies, Belgrade) 

·   Vladimir Petrovic (University of Belgrade & Boston University) 

·   Tena Prelec (London School of Economics & University of Ljubljana) 

·   Ligia Fabris (FGV Faculty of Law, Rio de Janeiro & Humboldt University, Berlin) 

·   Aysuda Kolemen (Bard College Berlin & Threatened Scholars Integration Initiative) 

·   Ostap Sereda (Central European University, Vienna & Imre Kertesz Kolleg, Jena)

·   Oleksandr Shtokvych (Open Society University Network)

The first panel discussed the “Autocratic transformative moments and Anti-authoritarian resilience”. In the initial stages of the workshop, Alexandr Voronovici provided a highly effective framework through which the stages of academics facing autocracy can be defined and categorized in order to more effectively identify the precursors of autocratic practices before they occur. The ‘softball, hardball and wrecking ball’ modes of autocracy presented by him serve as an effective lens through which the dynamics between academia and autocracy can be observed in order to identify patterns.

Considering the precedent set by the dynamics between the Hungarian government and CEU, a potential framework for a solution was suggested by Daniel Palm in the form of a multi-legged organization. This locational diversity would allow an organization’s weight to be shifted in response to autocratic pressures from certain regimes. The trans-national paradigm of academic reform brought about many colorful and insightful perspectives from the various participants regarding the nature and consequences of alternative pedagogy.

The second panel discussed “Pedagogical innovations in alternative educational projects”. A noticeable perspective was introduced which pressed upon the nature and form of alternative educational spaces, with convincing arguments made for both the traditional classroom and contemporary online learning environments. In a progression of nuance, alternative education was also discussed as a tool to combat inequality and as a vehicle for more progressive trauma-informed pedagogy. The role of legal infrastructure in empowering both autocracies and academics, as well as the global nature of autocratic legal influences highlighted the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to empowering academics worldwide.

Throughout the third panel the “Transnational synergies and (In)compatibilities”, from Russia to Brazil, to Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan, this workshop illustrated a global and interconnected network of autocratic influences threatening academic agency in every part of the world. From the great number of opinions, insights and perspectives presented, it was made clear that a trans-national strategy to combat autocracy and illiberal policies is essential to preserve academic and intellectual freedom.

Personal takes by interns of the Democracy in History workgroup


Even the university is part of liberal democracy’s epistemic foundation where students can be critical, but it did not happen in Laos where pedagogies are formed by the government, bythe  Ministry of Education in particular. Students are made to follow the pedagogy chosen by the government with the cultural and mental mind-sets ingrained therein. The problem is not only present in higher education but in the entire ingrained education structure starting with primary education. Lao education pedagogy does not encourage critical thinking. The education system affects the students with non-opinion regime.

University professors cannot teach or write about politically sensitive topics, not even foreign teachers invited from abroad to teach in Laos. Similarly to Russia and Turkey, universities do not protect students, especially not with regard to political topics. Laos is a country where every freedom is restricted, especially freedom of speech and academic freedom both offline and online. Moreover, university lecturers and administrators are perceived as civil servants who are subservient to government rules and regulation. It is very difficult to shift the control of higher education to the private sector and/or nongovernmental board.


One aspect which is highly relevant to the current and historical sociopolitical climate of Pakistan which I noticed was the need to identify autocratic influences prior to their oppression taking hold. There is currently a vast amount of ongoing political turmoil in Pakistan which are focused around the unconstitutional authoritarian interference of the military in the affairs of the civilian government. As is my own experience, academic material which is used in schools presents a highly biased and historically inaccurate narrative of Pakistan’s military which largely overlooks its role in perpetuating the pattern of political instability and incompetence in Pakistan, as well as actively hiding human rights abuses that institutions have committed against citizens. This control over academic material has allowed the military to maintain the favor of the masses for many years, which is a spell which is only just being broken at a large scale due to a former Prime Minister’s actions.

The “ball” model provides a good framework to help recognize the initial stages of interference in academia before it is too late, and the general discussion also provoked thoughts about how different the country may have been now if the populace had collectively come to its current conclusion much farther in the past. Early interception of such illiberal forces is necessary and so is alternative pedagogy which deviates from the traditional educational systems, which are tied to larger compromised political institutions. It is crucial to intellectually liberate the masses so that they are allowed to make well-informed political decisions.

However, much of alternative pedagogy is tied to technological advances and a country such as Pakistan is sorely lacking in both the infrastructure and technological literacy required to engage with such practices. In a country in which alternative pedagogy which deviates from the accepted political and religious narrative is extremely dangerous and technological systems which provide much-needed anonymity are inaccessible, how can illiberal influences be viably fought in the short term?

Leave a Reply