Russia targets Bard College amid international tensions

by Emma

Dive Brief:

  • The Russian state prosecutor’s office on Monday called Bard College an undesirable foreign nongovernmental organization posing a threat to the country’s constitutional order.
  • The move threatens the U.S. college’s activities in Russia, where it partnered with St. Petersburg State University nearly 25 years ago. The institutions co-founded what Bard describes as Russia’s first liberal arts college, Smolny College. Almost 2,000 students have earned Bard degrees while studying in St. Petersburg, according to Bard officials.
  • College leaders expressed surprise, writing in a statement that they hope Russia will reverse its decision and reinstate Bard’s partnership with Smolny.

Dive Insight:

Russia’s actions come at a time when colleges operating within and outside of the United States face unexpected hurdles because of newly exposed geopolitical tensions. 

U.S. institutions had to grapple with former President Donald Trump’s travel restrictions that prohibited people from several countries, including mostly Muslim nations, from entering the country. More recently, lawmakers pushed to close Confucius Institutes, Chinese cultural centers on campuses that were labeled propaganda engines by the Trump administration. And politicians including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, sought to increase state oversight of colleges’ ties to foreign countries.

Russia’s action on Bard comes after the country’s foreign ministry said earlier this year it would respond to sanctions by stopping activity from U.S. funds and nongovernmental organizations deemed to interfere with Russian internal affairs, Reuters reported. It falls under an “undesirable organization” law dating to 2015 that targets organizations receiving funding from sources in Europe and the U.S., according to RadioFreeEurope.

Bard, a private nonprofit institution based about 100 miles north of New York City, boasts of a large international network. Students can take part in study abroad, dual-degree programs or international coursework with institutional partners whose locations include Austria, Germany, Hungary, Jerusalem, Kyrgyzstan and Lithuania. Bard also has international honors colleges offering dual degrees that are located within local universities.

Last summer, financier George Soros pledged $100 million to Bard over 10 years through the grantmaking group Open Society Foundations. Bard was named as a founding institution of a new Open Society University Network, along with Central European University. The university network was tasked with integrating teaching and research across higher education institutions around the globe, offering courses, joint degree programs and access for students traditionally excluded from education.

In addition to its geopolitical overtones, Russia’s decision Monday could affect Bard students and employees. An expert called it unfortunate for Bard students and those in Russia alike, who benefit from programs that help them better understand each others’ cultures.

The pandemic showed that challenges don’t respect national boundaries and require large-scale collaboration to solve, Melissa Torres, president and CEO of the Forum on Education Abroad, wrote in an email. The forum is a professional association for the study abroad field. Bard is a member.

Higher ed institutions shoulder risk and expense when providing students with international education opportunities, according to Torres. It’s also important that students develop relationships in local communities where they study and that those communities benefit from the presence of students, she wrote.

“In an era when higher education institutions are already facing tremendous financial pressures on so many fronts, it would be tragic should they pull back from their commitment to international education,” Torres wrote. 

A statement from Bard shared via email called Smolny College “an exemplary model” for relations between the U.S. and Russia.

“This has been a consistently positive and successful 25-year partnership, and it is our sincere hope that the Russian Federation will reverse this unwarranted course of action and reinstate Bard’s longstanding and productive partnership with Smolny College,” the statement said.

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