Are there cases of neo-nationalism around the globe you’d point to as either indicative of broader trends or particularly disturbing?
There is a spectrum of neo-national movements, ranging from nationalist movements and parties in largely democratic societies to nationalist-leaning leaders, illiberal democracies, and autocratic regimes. The most egregious and worrisome shifts, often after a period of seemingly greater civil liberties, include China, Russia, and increasingly Hong Kong under the long shadow of Xi and the Chinese Communist Party. Turkey also provides an important example of a dramatic shift that began in earnest after the 2016 coup attempt. In each, we see the role of demagogic leaders: Xi, Putin, and Erdoğan. Hungary under Victor Orbán, a self-described illiberal democracy, also offers an example of increased suppression of civil liberties.
One sees a pattern of behavior, what I call the Autocrats Playbook: Neo-nationalist leaders pursue ways to alter the governance of universities with the objective of directly or indirectly choosing rectors or presidents and other key academic administrators; to influence or control faculty hiring and advancement; to punish dissent, sometimes with jail or permanently losing one’s job and imposing travel restrictions; and to more overtly deny funding for research in areas such as climate change or gender studies that are thought counter to conservative values.
In Turkey, for example, university rectors worked with the intelligence services to identify and fire over 8,500 faculty and 1,350 staff members as part of a purge for allegedly supporting the political rival of Erdoğan, exiled Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen. Some universities have simply been closed. Those fired have had their passports revoked and find it difficult to find any form of employment.
We tend to think of nationalism as contradictory to the global nature of universities, but in fact, higher education has often played a role in nation building. How have universities helped shape national cultures and even modern nationalism itself?
It is important to understand that nationalism is not, unto itself, a negative term. Nationalism — essentially, a sense of belonging to a nation-state formed around a shared sense of values, history, cultural identity, and often language — can be relatively benign or enlightened. Beginning in earnest in the early 1800s, the modern university emerged as part and parcel of the modern nation-state and, in the case of the U.S., played a critical role in pursuing the ideal, if not the reality, of a pluralistic society. Creating a more educated citizenry has emerged in many fledgling and real democracies as a key component for seeking social and economic progress, but under political terms largely decided by the state.
Hence, there are significant different national stories, depending on the national and regional context and history. In the book I provide brief histories of the essential role of universities in nation-building in France, Germany, the U.S., and colonial and post-colonial nation-states, Russia and China — the good and the bad. I also ask the question of when universities are leaders or followers, as agents of progressive change in a society or reinforcing a political elite.
In short, even in the face of globalization, political and cultural geography still matters!