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American universities face the Russian dilemma

Some institutions cut ties while scholars warn against blanket boycotts


Demonstrators display placards in support of Ukraine during a rally at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., on Feb. 28. Associated Press/Photo by Charles Krupa

American universities face the Russian dilemma

Iaroslava Strikha doesn’t know if she still has a career in Kyiv. The translator for Ukrainian publishers has translated works such as Maus by Art Spiegelman and Walden by Henry David Thoreau. In January, Strikha returned to Harvard University, where she earned her doctorate in Ukrainian literature in 2017, as a visiting lecturer. On Feb. 24, Russians invaded her homeland.

With Russia’s invasion, she says, it will be years before the Ukrainian publishing market recovers.

Strikha plans to go back to Kyiv in May, but if the situation worsens, she may go to western Ukraine instead. If she has to look for work outside of Ukraine, Strikha said she will leave the field of higher education because of her disappointment with how non-Ukrainian academic leaders have responded to Putin’s aggression. Simply making statements supporting Ukrainians is not enough, in her view.

“Condemning war crimes is the lowest bar,” she said. “It goes without saying that any normal person would condemn an invasion of a sovereign state.”

American academic institutions, like much of the world, are grappling with how to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While many scholars stress that higher education can’t ignore Russian aggression, some caution against cutting off all Russian connections.

The day after the Ukrainian invasion began, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced it was ending its more than 10-year partnership with Skoltech, a Russian research group that MIT helped found in 2011. Online course providers like edX and Coursera said they would suspend access to Russian content. Public universities in Arizona and the University of Colorado have pledged to divest funds from Russia. Middlebury College canceled its study abroad program for students studying in Russia.

At Harvard University, the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies published a statement in support of Ukraine on Feb. 25. Less than two weeks later, the Davis Center published another statement saying it would cut off partnerships with any Russian institutions whose leadership had expressed support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

George Grabowicz, a retired Harvard professor of Ukrainian literature, serves as editor-in-chief of the Ukrainian intellectual journal Krytyka. He said that many responses in academia fall into one of two camps: a call to boycott all Russian academic institutions, or a call to boycott only those that have signified support for the war. Some organizations have expressed opposition to broad bans, worrying that a blanket approach would vilify individual Russian scholars.

Grabowicz pushes for a third position, calling for breaking off Russian relationships with any who haven’t expressed disagreement with the war. “Having been silent doesn’t mean that they have not been complicit,” he said. He pointed to a resolution he signed from the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Ukraine, calling for worldwide discontinuation of partnerships with any Kremlin-connected people or groups.

He realizes that many Russian academics can’t speak out against Russian military aggression without facing arrest. Grabowicz suggests that universities simply pause connections with Russian partners for now. “The war has not even stopped yet, let alone a kind of an accounting of what has happened and who was where, who was doing what, has not been done yet,” he said. “But simply to do business, as usual, now, I think would be immoral.”

Scholars at Risk, an organization that assists persecuted scholars, has seen an increase in requests for help from both Ukraine and Russia in recent weeks, according to co-founder and executive director Robert Quinn. While Quinn understands the calls for pausing all Russian connections, he said he hoped any such moves would be temporary. “Even a temporary cutoff can be very harmful to people who are themselves trapped under this regime,” he said.

Mark McCarthy, a professor of history at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa, argued against a one-size-fits-all approach. If the research in question could be used against U.S. interests — for example, in the field of infectious diseases — then McCarthy agreed it would be best not to involve Russia in that research. But in more interpersonal social fields that focus on building communication, he said, U.S institutions could lose out by cutting ties. He worried that keeping Russian students out of American universities would prevent them from hearing ideas that counter Russian state propaganda.

“You may be denying people access to the very ideas that help them take a stand, help them resist what the state is telling them to do,” he said.

Meanwhile, Strikha continues to check on friends and family in Ukraine through group chats, and she said some of her colleagues and publishers have joined Ukraine’s fighting forces. “They’re now defending our country with guns in hand, when a month ago they were churning out books and representing the country at book fairs,” she said. “Right now Ukraine cannot speak for itself at international events of that kind because of what Russia is doing.”


Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute. She lives with her family in Wichita, Kan.

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