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Academic Freedom Under Attack: Authoritarian Regimes and the Battle for Knowledge

Date & Time

Mar. 18, 2022
9:00am – 10:15am ET


When discussions turn to the rise of authoritarianism, crackdowns on the press or the judiciary are usually front and center. Equally under threat though, is academic freedom. In a healthy democracy, academics have the freedom to research, teach, and act as a corrective to societies, governments, and institutions, which are supposed to protect them.

Across the world, authoritarian leaders are targeting universities and professors to silence critical thinking and crush academic freedom. In Hungary, Turkey, Nicaragua and Mexico universities, academics and scientists, have come under attack from the authorities as governments try to restrict freedom of expression. 

In this conversation, experts discussed the effects academic repression has on universities and society, and how academics are pushing back.

Selected Quotes

Andrea Peto

“We also coined a new term, which is the polypore states. Before you start googling, this polypore, is this mushroom which lives on the trunk of the tree and produced is nothing else than the polypore. And, with my colleague, Veronica Chabaska, we were arguing that this is a new form of governance, which is producing parallel institutions—just think about the tree and the mushroom—and it privileges the familial, not family policy. But certain families—not all families are equal. And, it works with the security narrative where everything becomes a threat. Instead of policies, there are always threats: real and imaginary threats. So what did we learn from this?”

“Who is paying for this? Is always curtaining the academic freedom… so academic freedom is a Utopian concept we should all strive for. But, definitely something which should be implemented in different models of universities and this illiberal turn in academic science policy has not come from nowhere. There were always different models of these illiberal forms of university and if you think about Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, I mean there were universities there as well. And, also the different religious universities, they are called universities, but they are operating on a very different model. So, again, let me be the person with the glass half full, and suggest that we should look for the different new models, which are developing and against this kind of illiberal takeover of the university structure, which in some countries are led by states.” 

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Aslihan Aykac

“Another extension is that since 2006, for the last 15 years, there have been 77 universities—new universities—established in Turkey. We have more than 8 million university students and this is just amazing. It’s a huge number and if you think infrastructure wise, if you think about the faculty and the staff that is required, to work in these 77 universities, you could understand that it’s a big task to take over in such short notice. And the thing is, of course, this a way of granting, basically, free diplomas to your voters. So, there is an interesting deal there.” 

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Catherine Andrews

“We are back to Lopez Obrador. He interprets the Mexican democratic transition—as it used to be called of the 80s and the 90s—as a perversion of these revolutionary ideas. A close reading of his speeches since he became President shows he often underscores the role that academics played in this transition with considerable rancor. For him, we are the principal architects and beneficiaries of the neoliberal economic reforms that were enacted by governments after 1982. As a result, he argues that academic life is one of undeserved privileges huge financial rewards and little service to the public good. As is a politician, also, who dislikes criticism, he also rejects academic research, which does not support his policies or his political statements. And, from his point of view, all criticism of his actions come from privileged minorities who are defending their own selfish interests, such as myself.” 

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Ernesto Medina Sandino

“The university also plays a role in the sense that after the historian regime—whether they like it or not—everyday, they lose support of different sectors of society that do not accept the way that things are going. And, universities so far have been… so easily controlled by Ortega and transformed through giving positions to people sympathetic to them through scholarships and things that were already mentioned that are destroying the university.” 

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Hosted By

Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting the European continent, US-European relations, and Europe’s ties with the rest of the world. We investigate European approaches to critical global issues: digital transformation, climate, migration, global governance. We also examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our program activities cover a wide range of topics, from the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE to European energy security, trade disputes, challenges to democracy, and counter-terrorism. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more

Latin America Program

The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin America Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan policy forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action.  Read more

Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more

Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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