Under attack: universities and neo-nationalist movements

Over the past two decades, a wave of nationalism has gripped much of the world. Donald J Trump’s surprising 2016 election as president and calls for ‘America First’ policies; Brexit with its elongated uncertainties; nationalist movements in France, Italy, Germany, Brazil and India; and the rise of illiberal democracies in Hungary, Poland and Turkey.

Neo-nationalist movements in these and other nations are characterised by some combination of anti-immigrant, nativist, anti-science, anti-globalist and protectionist sentiments. A return to an imaginary golden era of power and cultural norms also often fits into the lexicon of neo-nationalism.

Like right-wing populist movements in the past, neo-nationalist supporters are often reacting to their own sense of waning political power and perceived declines in social status and economic opportunity. Under autocratic regimes, like China and Russia, nationalism is a tool for a revival of older as well as new forms of control and suppression, enabled by new technologies – a form of nationalism redux.

To varying degrees, universities are feeling the brunt of this rise in neo-nationalist movements and governments, usually led by powerful political demagogues.

For the purpose of generating populist support and solidifying authority, we have entered an era in which universities are often attacked as hubs of dissent, symbols of global elitism and generators of biased research, and where academic freedom is being more overtly suppressed, faculty and administrators fired and jailed, and university governance and management altered to ensure greater control by autocratic-leaning politicians.

Universities are at the forefront of both national development and global integration. They undoubtedly will continue to play this dual role. But the political and policy world in which they operate is undergoing a transition.

This has an impact not just on universities within autocratic-leaning nations, but on global talent mobility and the evolving global ecosystem of universities, where collaboration and exchange are key components in their success and productivity.

A spectrum of neo-nationalism

Neo-nationalism is primarily a right-wing political movement with, as noted, varying consequences for universities and national systems of higher education. In my new book, Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, autocrats and the future of higher education, I offer a contemporary view on this movement by providing a framework for understanding the spectrum of neo-nationalist environments in which universities operate.

This ranges from various forms of populism as political movements, to the formation of illiberal democracies, and finally nationalism as a vehicle for retaining and enhancing authoritarian power – or what could be termed state-led nationalism. Universities have different roles in their societies, depending on where a country stands on this spectrum.

For example, some illiberal democracies border on being authoritarian regimes, characterised by securing nearly indefinite presidential terms, repressing or controlling media outlets, eroding the independence of the judiciary, pawning off state resources to an oligarchy and persecuting opponents while keeping the semblance of open elections.

The distance between each point on the spectrum is simply an attempt to indicate the significant political separation between, for example, nationalist-leaning governments and illiberal democracies.

Where nationalism is driven by populism it tends to be a grassroots movement, often fed by demagogues, to preserve or reclaim a seemingly lost national cultural and political identity. The golden age myth remains a powerful political tool.

In this spirit, neo-nationalist movements are found in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands as well as in emerging illiberal democracies, such as Hungary and Poland, that tear at the European Union.

What are some of the examples of neo-nationalist movements and their impact on universities?

Neo-national examples

In the United States, Trumpian populism led to a nationalist-leaning federal government that seemed, at times, to be on the road to an illiberal democracy. Trump attempted to delegitimise the 2020 presidential election of Joseph Biden, giving up power reluctantly and showing that his cult of personality built around nationalist themes will likely remain a potent political force.

Even in America, the concept of democratically elected president seemed to teeter on the edge of a significant redefinition.

During his presidency, Trump and many in the Republican Party never voiced a coherent policy agenda for higher education besides deregulating for-profit institutions. The ‘Make America Great Again’ mantra was the larger agenda, with serious implications for universities.

At the outset of his presidency, Trump gained media attention by claiming that the University of California, Berkeley campus was intolerant of conservative speakers and views after a clash of pro- and anti-Trump demonstrators. Trump tweeted: “If UC Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – no federal funds?”

As part of a larger anti-immigrant set of policies, the Trump administration pursued restrictions on visas for academics, students and professors alike, and reversed former president Barack Obama’s policies that allowed undocumented youth to enrol in college. The political environment created by Trump eroded the interest of global talent to come to America’s universities and private sector.

And Trump pursued anti-science policies, repeatedly proposing dramatic funding cuts for the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, denying the existence of climate change and initially claiming COVID was a hoax.

A similar example of a nationalist-leaning government is Brazil. In his successful populist campaign for the presidency, the former military officer Jair Bolsonaro promised to crack down on academic freedom and to curtail the ‘leftist proselytising’ at universities.

He also vowed to abolish the affirmative action policies of the former government and to cut funding for Brazil’s universities in favour of vocational education – all evidently attractive policies for a significant percentage of the voting public.

Since his election, a decided pall has settled over the nation’s federal and state universities that conjures memories of Brazil’s harsh dictatorships. One example: with Bolsonaro’s blessing and early in his presidency, police forced the cancellation of a talk entitled “Fighting Fascism” at the Federal University of Grande Dourados and undertook office raids of leftist academics.

“There is a climate of tension and of fear,” said Adriana D’Agostini, an education professor at the Federal University of Santa Catarina.

In most cases, nationalism is a tool of the power elite, a way to leverage and shape popular sentiment, and often to limit or control any form of opposition. In Turkey, the solidification of national power by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan following the July 2016 coup attempt is having a profound impact on civil society and on Turkish academics.

Since the failed coup, and under the rubric of their alleged ties with cleric-in-exile Fethullah Gülen, some 8,500 faculty members and 1,350 staff members at universities in Turkey were fired. At least 553 university employees and students were taken into custody or named in warrants on suspicion of using an encrypted messaging technique to organise anti-government protests and branded as ‘terrorists’ and ‘coup plotters’.

Dismissal bars faculty from future government employment and requires them to apply for a new passport. “A climate of fear now prevails in universities, where academics fear making any kind of comment in the classroom about government or politics,” noted one Turkish academic who fled the country.

Attempts at suppression reach across Turkish borders. Erdogan’s government announced plans to charge Turkish academics living in Germany who signed a petition against military operations against Kurdish militants, with cooperating with terrorists.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his government sought the abolition of the Central European University (CEU) as part of a nationalist impulse to expunge foreign influences, including CEU founder and American philanthropist George Soros. With a supermajority in the parliament, Orbán’s Fidesz party asserted control over the media, religious groups and the courts and targeted critics, including academics.

In Russia, Putin-style nationalism led to partial reversals of programmes once intended to bring academics from outside of the old Soviet bloc back to the Russian Federation and included arbitrary crackdowns on dissidents, leading some important scholars to leave the country.

For academics in Russia, there is an increasing awareness of instability, all in the name of sustaining the current order in the Kremlin – a revival of the Soviet era with new and modern characteristics.

In China, one of President Xi Jinping’s early policy statements was an edict to avoid Western values in the nation’s universities, ordering them to “adhere to the correct political orientation” and accept firm party leadership.

Prior to this statement, Xi’s central government issued Document No 9 in 2012 outlining a campaign against “seven unmentionables” in Chinese society, including “Western constitutional democracy”, human rights, media independence, promoting “universal values” in an attempt to weaken the theoretical foundations of the Communist Party’s leadership, judicial independence, pro-market liberalism and “nihilist” criticism of the party’s past.

In these and other policy directives, Xi sent a clear warning to Chinese academics that the rules had changed after a period of greater civil liberties. Any criticism of the party or national policies is now suspect.

“What you are seeing,” stated one observer of China at the time, “is a reassertion of ideological control because they feel that colleges and schools are the hotbeds for ideas that potentially could be problematic; ideas of constitutionalism, ideas of liberalism.”

Academics always posed a possible challenge to the Communist Party’s desire for conformity and loyalty. Mao decimated China’s relatively small network of universities by forcing a whole generation of faculty and students into collective farms, in part because of this fear of non-conformist academics.

When China did begin to open up its economy and sought greater interaction with the world, universities in the capital did become a home to a nascent democracy movement. In 1989, student protests in Tiananmen Square focused on demands for greater civil liberties and they were brutally crushed by government soldiers.

Fast forward to 2020: student protests in Hong Kong are a reminder of universities being a possible threat to party control. As noted, the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to provide a reason for Beijing to legally restrict pro-democracy protests and then to pass a law that provides almost unlimited authority to jail perceived and real dissidents, seemingly marking the near end of the ‘one country, two systems’ promise.

At the same time, the growth in enrolment and academic standing of many of China’s leading national universities is a major national goal for Beijing. But this now includes increased party control of universities via their governing boards and administrative leadership, renewed pressure for conformity among academics and increased efforts to control the voice of anyone who dares to speak out, in or out of China.

Xi’s government wishes to suppress dissent and criticism of his regime throughout the world. Chinese students are the single largest cohort of international students studying in the United States, Australia, Canada and elsewhere.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, one in three international students in the United States was from China. In both Australia and the US, government-sponsored Chinese student associations have exerted pressure on academics criticising China’s political order.

An ebbing?

For a period leading into 2020, nationalist momentum in Western nations appeared to have ebbed, or at least become more muted. European elections resulted not in Marine Le Pen but Emmanuel Macron in France and Angela Merkel remained Germany’s chancellor, although with a larger contingent of anti-immigrant nationalists in the Bundestag.

The US Congress repeatedly denied the Trump administration’s budget plans to severely cut funding for academic research and student financial aid. And Trump lost the 2020 presidential election.

Perhaps the current wave of neo-nationalism is only a passing phase – a temporary halt and, in some countries and regions, regression from the inevitable march of globalisation and a once powerful movement toward democratic forms of government.

Perhaps Xi’s warning to universities is simply an example of two steps forward, one step back: exerting political control to expunge enemies and limit talk of sedition before again moving toward a more open society.

Similarly, Erdogan’s crackdown may be an effort at political stabilisation that could set the stage later for re-opening Turkish society and perhaps even then restart the country’s bid to enter the EU.

Unfortunately, this more optimistic scenario seems doubtful, in part because nationalism in its more extreme forms has found more strength during the pandemic, not less.

Right-wing populists and autocrats retain popular support and are increasingly effective in controlling the media and social networks, monitoring and suppressing criticism and shaping a nationalist narrative.

In many cases, technology is abetting the ability of authoritarian-leaning leaders and governments to identify and track their potential and real opposition.

John Aubrey Douglass is a senior research fellow and research professor of public policy and higher education at the Center for Studies in Higher Education, Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, United States. He is the author of The California Idea and American Higher Education (Stanford), The Conditions for Admission (Stanford), The New Flagship University (Palgrave Macmillan) and Envisioning the Asian New Flagship University (Berkeley Public Policy Press), and is the founding principal investigator of the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium based at Berkeley. This article is the first in a series of excerpts from his new book Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, autocrats and the future of higher education, which will be officially published by Johns Hopkins University Press on 7 September as a paperback and as an open access book accessible via Project Muse. An online book launch event co-sponsored by University World News will be held on 14 September at 10am to 11am PDT.