The invasion of Ukraine raises a question: do academic boycotts work?
The sheer brutality of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine presented the interconnected global academic community with a challenge it has arguably never faced on such a scale.
Ukrainian scholars inside and outside the country – as well as many other scholars horrified by the terror inflicted by Russian forces – have often been very clear: there are no circumstances in which academic ties between Western academics and those at Russian institutions can continue while such an onslaught is maintained.
Such calls have come at all levels, from institutions such as the National Research Foundation of Ukraine asking academics around the world to “immediately sever all your ties with Russian scientific structures” to individual academics urging the action as they take shelter in Kyiv from the bombardment. .
Add to these calls the images of destruction and human suffering coming out of Ukraine – including Ukrainian university buildings themselves decimated by bombing – and it is easy to see why some universities, funders, governments and academics are breaking immediately the links with their counterparts in Russia. .
The scope and speed of the decisions to sever ties are exceptional compared to previous political actions in the academic sphere, such as the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the refusals to work with the South African Academy during Apartheid.
Besides the growing examples of widespread freezing of academic ties by countries and the ending of specific research partnerships by institutions, the situation even raises questions about how to treat Russian universities in performance measures such as university rankings, with Times Higher Education take “steps to ensure that Russian universities are given less prominence” in its World University Rankings tables.
While all of these actions have broad support, they also raise fundamental questions about international research collaboration, academic freedom and the flow of knowledge that always come with the prospect of scientific sanctions, but perhaps ever be in the context of a war of this magnitude and type. .
A microcosm of this debate can be seen at the Australian National University, which became the first Antipodean institution to sever all ties with Russian institutions following the invasion.
Sally Wheeler, ANU Deputy Vice-Chancellor for International Strategy, stressed that the decision was about “institution-to-institution” links and not individual cooperation, adding that the “fundamental principles of academic freedom” meant that scholars were always free to co-publish. with colleagues based in Russia.
But that hasn’t stopped a critical backlash from some, with an ANU economist tweeting that “universities aren’t boycotting universities” and an open letter to ANU leadership warning that such action “doesn’t will only aid the propaganda of aggression and isolation of the Russian state”.
Robert Quinn, founding executive director of Scholars at Risk, said that while the charity has no official policy on severing academic ties for political reasons, it was “fair to say that this is the one of the most extreme actions that can be taken and, therefore, should only be [done] with the greatest care and the narrowest circumstances.
Quinn pointed to two main “valid” reasons why such action could be justified, the “clearest” being where she seeks to end “complicity” with ongoing violations and the other where, for a limited period, the termination of ties helps the education of colleagues, in this case in Russia, about what is really going on.
But boycotts or sanctions can also sometimes be initiated for what he considers two “invalid” reasons: to “punish people who are not involved in the violations or aggression” or to deliberately cause “collateral damage ” to research or institutions in the country concerned. .
The challenges arise, Quinn explained, when these valid and invalid reasons overlap in ways that can be difficult to discern, and particularly when there is a gray area around what he calls “the super-elastic application of the concept of complicity”.
Sometimes, he said, supporters of a boycott might try to “justify it by saying that any contact with anyone, in any institution ‘in a particular place or country’ is by definition complicity”.
“I think, from my perspective, it’s such an elastic application of complicity that it risks engulfing all academic freedom, and I think we just have to be very, very careful about that,” he said. he declared.
In this light, argued Quinn, actions such as those taken by Germany – which has frozen its ties with Russia, so it may take time to examine the complicity of institutions with the actions in Ukraine – would seem “appropriate to the principles of academic freedom. He also pointed out that Russian higher education institutions were “arms of the state”, which therefore opened up a debate about complicity, even if in other cases, such as the Iranian sanctions, this did not mean necessarily a ban on academic ties.
He also pointed out that individual scholars could also cite personal reasons for not working with colleagues in Russia.
“No academic is obligated to work with any other academic in particular. There is no threat to academic freedom for a [person] making their ethical choice that ‘I’m not comfortable with this partner,'” he said.
Does individual academic autonomy exist in Russia?
The degree of individual academic autonomy in Russia could also be key to the debate.
In the opinion of Anatoly Oleksiyenko, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Hong Kong and an expert on post-Soviet higher education, there were “no academics in Russia who enjoy freedom academic”, given the way they are monitored by the country’s security. services.
“Foreign researchers can be in big trouble if they don’t understand what this really means for their partnerships with their Russian counterparts,” he said.
These concerns are only likely to be reinforced by statements such as the one issued by the Russian Union of Rectors, which backed Putin’s action in Ukraine and said it was “important not to forget our duty main – to conduct a continuous educational process” and to “instill patriotism in young people” and instill a “desire to help the fatherland”.
Another statement released by the rectors’ union stressed that it would again fight against international isolation with “a clear plan of action that will help Russian universities to resolutely overcome all difficulties, including those related to the implementation implementation of international projects, the development of scientific infrastructures and the publication of articles in foreign scientific journals.
However, it is difficult to see how such difficulties could be overcome if, regardless of maintaining institutional ties, several thousand individual scholars decided to end collaboration with Russian scholars as a personal protest.
Maia Chankseliani, associate professor of comparative and international education at the University of Oxford, said it could have the greatest collective effect anyway, as it is academics and individual researchers who “drive the collaborations”, while “academics are also the guardians of academic journals and conferences. Therefore, the collective decisions of individual scholars can have a far-reaching impact.
Some individual actions to refuse journal submissions by scholars from Russian institutions have already been observed in the case of Ukraine, although there has been no sign of publishers endorsing a general policy to take such measures. And it’s not hard to imagine that some conference organizers might also struggle to decide whether or not to invite Russian-based scientists.
However, Chankseliani, who has co-authored research on scholars facing exclusion from research networks due to the BDS movement, also said there may be factors pushing the other way when it comes to individual links with scholars based in Russia.
“Ruptures are less likely to impact long-standing ties,” she stressed, while scholars around the world who study in Russia-specific fields, particularly in the social sciences or the humanities, “will have to continue to forge links…otherwise they will lose contact with the reality on the ground and/or access to the data sources they need.
On the other hand, she noted that international collaboration involving Russia was already at a relatively low level. Data well before the invasion even suggested that it was declining as political tensions with the West grew.
Leonid Petrov, a visiting scholar in international relations at the ANU, observed that such a decoupling of ties in the humanities and sciences had already undermined the “competitiveness of Russian research”, but it gave “less exposure to the world of what Russian scientists could work on” and Russian scientists less exposed to the world and was therefore a “lose-lose solution”.
Quinn added that this increasing restriction of the flow of knowledge between Russia and the outside world should also be a key consideration when considering sanctions and boycotts.
For example, an information blockage could also limit the possibility of helping scholars there understand the truth about what might be happening beyond Russia’s borders, as well as preventing information about the Russian society to reach scholars abroad.
He also said he would “be a bit hesitant about the suggestion, which is perfectly understandable, that the social sciences or humanities are somehow more useful for the flow of information”, adding that over the past 20 years of the Soviet Union, “it was actually the hard scientists who were the main carriers of today’s knowledge of what was going on, because they were the ones who could travel.
The potential for a major crackdown on academics in Russia who openly oppose the war in Ukraine could also be another reason “why you don’t want to do a total, no-contact…break,” Quinn said, although he stressed that this concern could not be equated with fears for “the Ukrainian colleagues and for the whole [Ukrainian] population” on “physical safety” and “their lives, literally”.