The Russian government abruptly designated Bard College an “undesirable” organization, halting its activity in the country and putting anyone who works with the institution at risk of fines or imprisonment.
“I’m heartbroken,” Bard’s longtime president Leon Botstein said
when I reached him by phone last Tuesday, the day after the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office made its announcement. “It’s shocking, and it’s wildly wrongheaded.”
Bard has worked in Russia for more than two decades, collaborating with St. Petersburg State University to open a liberal-arts college, where it offered a joint degree. It was part of Bard’s unusual mission to spread liberal-arts education around the globe, focusing on difficult places like Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and the Palestinian territories.
As it happens, Bard’s expulsion coincided with the publication of another piece
I wrote, a look at how political tensions and nationalism increasingly complicate American universities’ global engagement. If navigating the current geopolitics requires the deftness of a diplomat, I asked, do colleges need a foreign policy?
The conclusion: Perhaps, but it’s tough and complex work. In the end, former NYU President John Sexton told me, what colleges may need most is a set of principles to guide them — know yourself and know your partner.
That sparked a thoughtful email from Robert Quinn, the executive director of Scholars at Risk, who wrote me, in part:
That’s good advice, but missing the main point of tension. It implies bilateral relations, but the places where these issues come up are almost always trilateral (self, partner, STATE) or multilateral (self, partner, state, and nonstate). The tension rarely comes from the partner, almost always from the state or nonstate, and the partner has little direct authority. I think the “foreign policy” metaphor is most apt when we don’t think of the universities as nation-states, but rather as cities within states. Cities may have their own “foreign policies” of a sort, and mayors of two cities — Shanghai and NYC, for example — can make partnerships and plans. These can sometimes be quite effective — think Bloomberg and climate — but they are always at the mercy of the state-level forces. The “foreign policy” of the city/university must take this into account if it is to successfully protect academic freedom and other core values, not to mention the institution’s investment and reputation.
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