While the German and Danish governments demand their colleges disable any link to Russia, most US colleges are resisting calls to cut academic and financial ties. College leaders argue it may not be the best move right now and some presidents are reluctant to use their voices to speak out because politics has become so toxic.
Instead, they ensure everyone associated with the university community is safe, identify formal relationships and financial relationships they may have with people in the Russian Federation, and issue statements celebrating the value of liberal arts education in the fight against authoritarianism.
Nearly a week after Russia invaded Ukraine, the American Association of Colleges and Universities issued a carefully worded statement condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine.
“We are both saddened and outraged by the resulting loss of life,” Lynn Pasquerella, the former president of Mount Holyoke College who now leads the national association, told GBH News.
Pasquerella said association members want to use this crisis to highlight the value of education in the face of authoritarianism. “This moment calls for a reaffirmation of liberal education and the democratic goals of higher education,” she said.
Pasquerella said she understands why some schools like MIT are cutting ties around research initiatives — GBH News reported last week that MIT had dropped its longstanding partnership with a Russian high-tech campus called Skoltech — but the association stops short of advocating a complete end to relations with Russian institutions. “Russian academics play a central role in protests, conflict recovery and peacebuilding,” she said.
And some colleges are moving cautiously.
At the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, administrators brought home its only student who was studying in Moscow this semester, but they made no decision to change his long-term relationship with his partner for the intensive language program. , Russian State University of Humanities.
“Institutions are going to respond in their own way, on their own timeline,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, an umbrella organization that represents hundreds of colleges on Capitol Hill.
Earlier this month, the Danish and German governments called on educational institutions to suspend relations with their Russian neighbors and counterparts. Hartle points out that in the United States, unlike in Europe, colleges are not arms of the federal government.
“Higher education associations in the United States never tell colleges what to do because they exist in separate political environments,” he said.
“It’s such a tough place for presidents,” said Erin Hennessy, vice president of TVP Communications, a national public relations firm that works exclusively with colleges.
Hennessy said she was surprised how long it took associations and universities to issue statements on Europe’s biggest ground war since World War II, demonstrating the limited tools they had in a global crisis.
Nine days after the invasion, Northeast President Joseph Aoun said the university actedbut this action was limited to organizing and raising funds for students and teachers.
“We express our deepest sympathy and all means of support to our friends, colleagues and classmates who are directly affected by this tragic crisis or facing uncertainty,” Aoun said in the statement emailed to the campus community.
Hennessy says she advises university presidents to only comment if they feel compelled that the global event has a direct impact on their mission “and to really tie it to something that is specific to the institution so may it not just become “thoughts and prayers”.
Pasquerella, with the American Association of Colleges and Universities, understands the reluctance of university leaders to speak out. She says there is a widespread fear among presidents of being perceived as political or partisan.
“It weakened the voice and the real purpose of higher education as a place where people develop critical and moral reasoning skills,” Pasquerella said. “I think now more than ever we need to play the role of public intellectuals and speak out against injustice.”