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Academics Facing Autocracy

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.

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