“You cannot continue working with a university that openly supported the war”

Another week, and the news out of Ukraine continues to be grim. Hundreds of international students trapped without food or water under shelling in the Ukrainian city of Sumy were finally able to return home after a harrowing evacuation. In Russia, students who protested their government’s invasion of Ukraine were expelled.

In the United States, higher education mobilized to help. The Johns Hopkins University pledged to deliver $4 million in medical supplies to Ukraine, while a pair of Harvard undergraduates developed a website to help match Ukrainian refugees with people who wanted to take them in. And in a development related to the subject of last week’s newsletter, the politicalization of international students, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, suggested that sanctions against Russian oligarchs were partly intended to block access to American colleges. “What we’re talking about here is seizing their assets, seizing their yachts, and making it harder for them to send their children to colleges and universities in the West,” Psaki said during a briefing.

For The Chronicle, I dug into the question of whether colleges ought to “decouple,” to sever ties with Russian universities or researchers. College leaders want to condemn Russian aggression, yet calls to academically isolate a country run counter to the principles of global science and inquiry. Within higher education, “there is this very longstanding value of scientific openness,” Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, a professor and coordinator for information-literacy services and instruction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told me.

For my reporting, I spoke with Igor Chirikov, a senior researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California at Berkeley. Before Chirikov came to Berkeley, he was a senior research fellow and a vice rector at HSE University Moscow, long seen as one of the most internationalized and selective institutions in Russia. He also has family in Ukraine. Here is our conversation, edited for space and clarity.

People have compared colleges with multinational companies, like McDonald’s or Apple, that have stopped doing business in Russia. Is that a fair comparison, or is academic collaboration different?

What we do at universities is different than what McDonald’s does. There is an inherent value in international collaborations that goes beyond generating profits and a global mission regardless of the actions of governments.

Are there principles that colleges and researchers should consider when deciding whether to maintain ties with Russia?

It’s not an easy question. But there are scholars in Russia who are openly against this war. They signed letters at a high risk to themselves. Maybe it’s small, but if the goal is to end this war, there needs to be internal pressure within the country. The problem is there are almost no institutional statements against this war. On the contrary, there are institutional statements in support of this war. That actually makes the decision on institutional collaboration easy, because you cannot continue working with a university that openly supported the war. It’s just not consistent with university values.

You used to work for a university that signed the statement that supported the war.

I was ashamed that my former university rector signed the statement. I had an affiliate position, and I resigned the next day. I still hope to maintain connections with people, most of whom do not support the war. They are shocked, and they’re devastated as well, because they understand that this will hurt Russia. It makes it difficult for those who try to contribute to the development of the country that is open to the world. Maintaining global connections was hard in the previous political climate. Now it’s more challenging for them.

Academic freedom in Russia has become more constrained under President Vladimir Putin. What should American readers understand about how that affects scholars in Russia?

In the past 10 years, things were getting worse in this in this area. Depending on the university, the protections of academic freedom were generally pretty low. Now it looks like Russia will put more pressure on those who are opposing this war. They can face firing from their university or fines or even jail time. Russia has adopted lots of restrictive laws recently, but at the same time, they have been selectively applied. That’s probably a strategy for the Russian government to scare people so that they self-censor without applying the harsh measures. That’s an uncertainty Russian academics live in.

What could the invasion mean for Ukrainian higher education?

A lot depends on the dynamic of this war. If it expands through the whole country, then a serious question is whether universities need to be evacuated to other countries. If there should be universities in exile, I hope that the European Union and other countries can support them. There are very good universities in Ukraine, some internationally competitive. And obviously there’s an important humanitarian component: Universities are being bombed, professors and students are dying, people have fled to other countries.

What is it like for you watching this from the outside with ties to both Russia and Ukraine?

It’s heartbreaking. The first couple of weeks I was waking up, and I was hoping that this was just a dream, a very bad dream. I’m really scared about my friends and relatives in Ukraine. I admire what they do right now and how they resist, knowing that they have limited resources and limited military supplies. I’m trying to help as much as I can, but it’s hard from Berkeley.

My perspective is that if you can do anything, however small, that you think could stop this war, you have to do it. Maybe I’m naïve, but at least doing something is better than not doing anything at all.

How has your campus been weighing whether to cut off academic collaboration with Russia? Where do you come down as an individual researcher? I’m interested in your thoughts — email me at karin.fischer@chronicle.com.

When it comes to science, China is on top

A new report suggests that China may have been more competitive in global research than previously understood.

The analysis, conducted by researchers in the United States, China, and the Netherlands, found that China caught up with the U.S. in 2019 in its share of the world’s top 1 percent most-cited articles, a key metric of national research success.

The paper, published in the journal Scientometrics, contradicts a previous narrative — that while Chinese research output had sharply increased in recent years, the United States still had the edge in research quality. The trio’s conclusion differs from other national and international analyses because rather than weigh citations from the Web of Science database differently by fields and then aggregate all citations by nation, they simply combined papers in all fields and then calculated how nations compared using the raw citation data.

Weighting citations makes sense when comparing between specific fields — top virology papers are cited more frequently than those in sociology, for example — but the approach is complicated and can introduce error when comparing between nations, said Caroline S. Wagner, an expert on global science policy at Ohio State University and one of the paper’s authors.

“The argument has been that China is imitating the West in all things science, that it is borrowing from existing scientific knowledge,” Wagner, an associate professor of public policy, said. “But are they creative enough to do their own research? The answer is yes.”

Science isn’t a zero-sum game, Wagner said, but it’s important for the United States to continue to be at the forefront of research and innovation. She said elected officials need to invest more in research and development and to reform its visa system to make it easier for talented international graduates of American colleges to stay here. “We can’t deny that the frontiers of knowledge have expanded,” she said, “and we have to understand that those frontiers have expanded to other countries.”

Fulbright Program to resume in Afghanistan

The U.S. Department of State is working toward the “safe resumption” of the Fulbright Program for Afghanistan, months after it was suspended amid a deteriorating security situation following the Taliban takeover.

Plans are underway to conduct virtual interviews with semifinalists for the flagship U.S. government exchange program later this spring, a State Department official said. Selected students won’t begin their studies until summer or fall of 2023.

And the start date is contingent on an improved security situation, the official said, noting that there were still “significant safety and logistical barriers that must be overcome to again support Fulbright opportunities for Afghan students.”

No new applications will be accepted for this round. Instead, only students who had already been selected as semifinalists for fall of 2022 will be considered. The suspension of the program had left the candidates stuck in limbo — for many, winning the scholarship was their one hope to continue their education. “Feeling optimistic and excited,” one student, Farhat Zia Alizoy, posted on Twitter.

Around the globe

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California has signed legislation that averts an enrollment freeze at the University of California at Berkeley, which could have led to strict limits on new international and out-of-state students.

A judge rejected the appeal of a former Ohio State researcher who said ineffective legal counsel had led him to plead guilty and accept a 37-month prison sentence for not disclosing his affliations with China when applying for federal research grants.

The New Yorker covers the case of another researcher charged as part of a controversial U.S. government investigation of research ties to China. “More than anything, the China Initiative reminds me of the Cultural Revolution,” Franklin Feng Tao, an associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Kansas, told the magazine.

Students who contracted Covid-19 at one Chinese university are said to have been forced to quarantine in libraries and academic buildings after a new pandemic outbreak in the country.

Israel and the United Arab Emirates signed their first academic cooperation agreement to exchange researchers, allow mutual access to library archives, and host joint events and conferences.

Although more women go to college, they are still outnumbered by men in senior academic-leadership positions, according to a British Council report on gender equity in higher education.

New research concludes that the “quality gap” between universities in the Global South and those in the Global North is widening, in part because a rapid rise in college-going in developing countries.

When gifts come with strings attached: Lila Corwin Berman writes in The Review about the efforts by pro-Israel donors to “exert hard power on university campuses.”

And finally …

I used to be the kind of person who filled out her March Madness bracket in a smart-alecky way, based on my rating of campus mascots, for example, which I’m now learning is a thing. But thanks to a basketball-mad freshman from China, I learned to love — well, at least appreciate — college hoops. Here’s my story from a few years back.

Thanks for reading. I always welcome your feedback and ideas for future reporting, so drop me a line. If you like this newsletter, please share it with colleagues and friends. They can sign up here.