Educación liberal en Rusia autoritaria: no funciona
Septiembre 27, 2023

Russian liberal-arts program, founded with Bard, will end

One of Russia’s most prominent liberal-arts programs is shutting down, two years after its key international partner, Bard College, was blacklisted and barred from working in the country.

Administrators at St. Petersburg State University announced they were replacing the liberal-studies curriculum at Smolny College with a narrower program of study without the same foundation in liberal-arts education. University officials said the changes were made to comply with federal accreditation standards.

But to many, Smolny is the latest casualty in the Russian government’s crackdown on dissent, and of growing anti-Western sentiment in the country, which has extended to higher education.

Bard, St. Petersburg State’s partner in expanding Smolny from a handful of interdisciplinary courses to a full-fledged liberal-arts program, was another target. In June 2021, the Russian government declared the New York college “undesirable,” saying its work “threatens the constitutional order and security of Russia.”

The designation immediately ended Bard’s dual-degree partnership, in which Smolny graduates received both St. Petersburg State and Bard degrees. It also halted the college’s other work in the country, including student exchanges and Russian-language training.

Jonathan Becker, Bard’s executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs, called the dismantling of Smolny’s liberal-arts program “inevitable” after ties with Bard were severed but said it was no less “personally and professionally devastating.” Because of the blacklisting, Bard officials risked endangering their Smolny colleagues, some of whom they had worked with for more than two decades, just by speaking with them.

Even before the recent announcement, Smolny, which had previously enrolled 600 to 650 students at the bachelor’s and master’s levels, had lost about a third of its faculty members, said Becker, who oversaw Bard’s international-education partnerships. Some had left, while others’ contracts were not renewed.

It wasn’t so long ago that liberal-arts education had been embraced in Russia, as a means to reinvigorate its higher-education system and to produce more economically competitive graduates. In fact, Smolny’s former dean had been the country’s finance minister. Other Russian institutions sought to adopt Smolny’s pedagogy.

The changes at Smolny are, in part, a result of worsening U.S.-Russia relations, which have chilled scholarly and research connections. But they also reflect growing hostility to liberal education, Becker, a Russian scholar, said. “It’s an education rooted in critical thinking and engaged citizenship, and none of that is welcome these days in Russia.”

The antagonistic view of the liberal arts isn’t limited to Russia, said Becker, pointing to New College of Florida, where the state’s conservative governor appointed like-minded trustees who then fired the president and have moved to shift the curriculum. (Bard recently announced it is working with former New College students and faculty members to establish an Alt New College.)

Central European University, a liberal-arts institution that, like Bard, gets some funds from George Soros, the financier and civil-society activist, was forced to relocate from Hungary to Austria in 2019 because of political pressure. Two of Bard’s other international partners, the American University of Afghanistan and Parami University, in Myanmar, have been pushed into exile by unfriendly governments.

That Bard’s global work should face such challenges is in many ways unsurprising. In its approach, the college eschewed partnerships in easy places, opting instead to focus on bringing the liberal arts to regions of the world dealing with authoritarianism and political strife. One of its most enduring relationships, for example, is with Al-Quds University, in the Palestinian West Bank.

“The real question” about the college’s global work, Becker said, “is how did it last so long?”

Becker is not waving the white flag on Bard’s international efforts, however. Through the Open Society University Network, a worldwide consortium of colleges supported by Soros’s foundation, students at Parami and American University of Afghanistan are able to take interactive online courses and earn degrees, said Becker, who is a vice chancellor and teaches a course on civic engagement for the consortium.

A nascent project is offering online courses to Smolny students, too. “We’re keeping more than embers alive of the dream,” Becker said.

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