Interview with John Aubrey Douglass on ‘Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats, and the Future of Higher Education’ | Inside Higher Ed

Appearing four years after the similarly titled international conference at the University of California, Berkeley, Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats, and the Future of Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press) documents and analyzes an international wave of social and political developments that remain very much in play. While varying in form from country to country, the movements here called “neo-nationalism” share (to quote the preface) “anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric; economic protectionism; constraints on civil liberties; attacks on critics, including journalists and academics; denial of science related to climate change and the environment; and the emergence and empowerment of demagogues and autocrats.”

Edited by John Aubrey Douglass, a professor of public policy and higher education at UC Berkeley, the volume collects 11 papers by a dozen authors, covering Brazil, China, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Singapore, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. In two opening essays limning the general features of neo-nationalism, Douglass emphasizes the almost umbilical connection between higher education and the modern nation-state. Two developments stand as prototypical: Wilhelm von Humboldt’s proposals for the University of Berlin as a center for research and education alike (made in the early 19th century) and the American system of land-grant colleges (taking shape a few decades later).

Among the functions the university plays that Douglass identifies are its role as “a vehicle for socioeconomic mobility, which is vital in countries with moderate to very high levels of income inequality — in other words, nearly all nations,” while also fostering “technological innovation and economic development.” The university helps sustain public institutions, in part by training the professionals who run them, e.g., hospitals, primary and secondary schools, and various levels of the government. It also conducts research on regional, national and global problems — activity closely related to that of cultivating a critically engaged citizenry. (This is an abbreviated list.)

The variety of roles equals an array of vulnerabilities to criticism, especially during periods of political volatility. No demagogue can resist taking a whack at so-called experts, and the sight of foreign students on visas is no more welcome to xenophobes than undocumented workers. I interviewed Douglass by email about his and his contributors’ work. A transcript follows, slightly edited for length.

Q: The term “neo-nationalism” covers a range of phenomena over the last decade or so, from various forms of nativist and populist movements in liberal democracies to invigorated claims of national destiny and political legitimacy by authoritarian governments. Are there common features in how these developments have affected universities across the board, such as hostility to international students?

A: One sees certain commonalities in how, for example, illiberal democracies and authoritarian governments foster policies of isolation from global influences, as well as seek to control the activities of universities and their communities. Universities are specifically targeted as potential threats to state-led forms of neo-nationalism, even with stringent social controls enhanced by new technologies, as in China with its Social Index Score. Restriction on civil liberties, which extends throughout the societies on this end of the spectrum, focuses on tempering or eliminating criticism of government authority and societal problems and punishing state-defined sedition.

The consequence for universities is increasing government control of university governance and management, often after a period of relaxation and claims of granting greater institutional autonomy. This extends to restrictions on state funding of faculty sponsored research to assure conformance with the conservative agenda of the government, as in Hungary, to the firing of faculty viewed as disloyal, as in the Turkey following the 2016 coup attempt of Erdogan. It also includes recruiting students to monitor and report the behaviors of faculty, as in China.

On the other end of the spectrum, political movements and neo-national-leaning governments tend to be nativist, anti-immigrant (therefore anti-international students) and doubtful of science. They view globalism as a negative force for their nation and therefore generally seek isolationist policies. Followers are attracted to calls for greater sovereignty, resurrecting a mythical era of power and glory, and racial homogeneity. These are traits one sees in illiberal democracies and many autocratic governments, which generate increasingly restrictive visa policies, with a significant impact on talent mobility and, often, a growing sense of isolation for academics and students.

But there are nuances that illustrate a major finding in the book: political geography still matters. While Hungary and Poland are strongly anti-immigrant, Russia, China and Turkey are selectively engaged in recruiting international students — although not so much faculty, and almost exclusively from their traditional sphere of influence. Here is a contradiction that we do not yet know the full outcome: China has pursued a tempered, nationalist form of globalization that includes universities as vehicles for generating talent and international engagement, but increasingly in a restrictive form that fits President Xi’s China Dream agenda — a world power that increasingly is self-reliant. In that world, the promise of One China, Two Systems for Hong Kong seems doomed, with large consequences for the city-state’s universities.

Q: Turkey under Erdogan and China under Xi show systematic, high-intensity attacks on professors and students organized from on high. By contrast, the Trump administration and Jair Bolsonaro (in Brazil) seem to have been more inclined to demagogic rhetoric against academics, which can have a chilling effect but maybe not as much as prison would. And while Brexit has had an impact on universities, the chapter on the United Kingdom suggests that this was more of a side effect than an intentional consequence. Why are some neo-nationalists more aggressive toward higher education than others?

A: In the case of the Trump era in the United States, we have the example of a neo-national-leaning government within an established democracy. Trump viewed the higher education community as part of his political opposition. But he faced significant limits in his ability to impose, for example, large proposed budget cuts to the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health or plans to eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities. The United States has no ministry of education, as in almost all other parts of the world, with significant powers over its universities’ operating budgets and often management; research funding from the federal government is largely peer reviewed and autonomous from the influence of the executive branch; financial aid is guided by federal legislation and budgets, and it is also relatively independent from presidential predilections.

With his popularity plummeting, Bolsonaro is using another page in the Trump playbook: claiming the pending election is fixed if he does not beat his likely challenger, former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and making threats of a possible coup. Bolsonaro makes all the noise of a politician that would like Brazil to become an illiberal democracy, but he faces significant roadblocks.

What also unites Trump and Bolsonaro, and what is most consequential, is the anti-science rhetoric and policies: denial of climate change, initial calls that the COVID pandemic was a hoax, tragic messaging to supporters not to get vaccinated or wear masks, claims that scientific research is inherently biased, erosion of environmental regulations and laws. These have the potential for long-term and significant impacts. The lack of trust in public institutions, including universities, has been a seeming mainstream campaign of populists and wannabe autocrats.

Q: Much of neo-nationalism emerged as a reaction against globalization, understood as the high-volume, high-speed flow of commodities, currencies, technology and the like across borders. There are a few references in the book to the idea that universities have made themselves vulnerable to criticism through their own forms of international competitiveness — vying for the most Nobel laureates, pushing for research with the highest impact-factor scores and so on. Would you say more on this?

A: The pursuit by many universities to improve their international rankings and sense of global prestige, largely based on a narrowly defined band of research productivity, distracted them from their larger purpose and influence within their own national and regional contexts. Government policies and funding fed into a ranking frenzy that devalues, for example, research and public service activities that improve the life and environment of local communities.

Those writing about the hopeful role of universities in promoting democracy and global engagement tend to focus on the civic engagement side of the equation: service learning and volunteer opportunities for students in local communities; faculty-led research and expertise that engages directly with local governments, organizations and businesses; and valuing these activities in faculty promotion criteria and in the curriculum for undergraduates.

A number of contributors discuss how universities can pursue greater and meaningful interaction with society (and improved communication skills of academics) to mitigate neo-nationalist movements. They note the value of international engagement, including the diverse talents and added benefits of having international students and academic staff, and the importance of joint research with international colleagues on topics of worldwide value. The idea is that universities can show the positive aspects of globalization, including talent mobility and a more diverse society.

Q: The COVID-19 pandemic has put nation-states, populations and institutions everywhere under great stress for almost two years now — reinforcing and amplifying neo-nationalist messaging on a variety of fronts. Even the unexpectedly early availability of vaccines has been converted into fodder for campaigns against scientific and medical expertise, not to mention reality-based news reporting. Is this just a recurrence of old-fashioned anti-intellectualism or evidence of a new and more virulent strain?

A: I think there are significant new aspects of nationalism today, hence the neo-nationalist moniker. As in past right-wing movements, economic dislocation and status anxiety play an important part in fueling political support for modern-day adoptions of nationalism, although, as noted, with significant variations. And doubt about expertise, or anti-intellectualism, has a long association with many nationalist and populist movements, including in the United States.

But today’s breed of right-wing populism has the addition of three accelerators: the postmodern pace of globalization and technological change that generates economic uncertainty for many people, the pace of immigration and demographic change, and the ubiquitous use of social media and technologies that bypass traditional forms of media and allow for increased forms of surveillance and targeting of political opponents. As President Biden observed recently in his speech before the United Nations, autocratic governments are on the rise, posing a test for established democracies.

And it appears that the COVID-19 pandemic has emboldened many nation-states, and their autocratic-leaning leaders, to further expand restrictions on free speech and mobility and to bolster self-supporting conspiracy theories. My co-author for the chapter on Hong Kong and Singapore, Bryan Penbrase, and I speculate that COVID provided additional momentum to a path already chosen by China’s President Xi to erode civil liberties in Hong Kong, including the passages of the sweeping National Security Law that expands the definition of sedition and is already leading to the jailing of academics and others, as well as inducing further self-censorship.

I think we can also speculate that neo-nationalism may gain further momentum as global warming induces societal and economic disruptions, and migration from, for example, drought-stricken regions of the world, or the flooding of coastal areas. One of many ironies is that most right-wing nationalists have denied the reality of climate change, as well as questioned and portrayed the science as a hoax and the scientists as deep state co-conspirators. Yet the consequences will feed into a pattern of global diaspora.

Q: Is there a light at the end of the tunnel in all this? Are there resources or moorings that put a limit on efforts to delegitimize the university as an institution?

A: I think there was a sense of hope in many parts of the world that the rapid development of various COVID vaccines, largely based on research that emerged from university and government-funded labs, and via international cooperation between scientists and global organizations, would erode the populist rhetoric and attacks on universities. In places such as the state of São Paulo, in Brazil, university medical centers have been the ground zero for testing the efficacy of various vaccines and getting them out into the public — in direct contradiction to the messaging from Bolsonaro, who long argued that vaccines were not necessary.

Such public displays of the centrality of university research and international engagement, however, may have only a marginal impact on public opinion, again depending on the nation-state. At the outset of the book, I offer what I call a political determinist view: that the national political environment, past and present, is perhaps the most powerful influence on the mission, role and effectiveness of universities, and the higher education system to which they belong — more than internally derived academic cultures, labor market demands or the desires of students.

Political leaders in major democracies need to espouse at home the value of international engagement, generally but also in specific reference to universities; they also need to support through government policies and money the promotion of international research collaborations and exchange programs, as well as champion the importance of science and academic research.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the rapid and successful search for therapies and vaccines, should elevate in the public mind, and the minds of national leaders, the value of shared data and research findings, scientific expertise, and international academic cooperation. Combating the worst aspects of neo-nationalist rhetoric requires not only an alternative and persuasive narrative, but also a collective and international effort.

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