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It Takes a Higher Ed Network

We need a mosaic of efforts to support students around the world in areas of crisis

By Jonathan Becker

April 13, 2022

Rising authoritarianism, particularly in recent years, has posed a serious and sustained threat to democracies worldwide and is increasingly waging a broad assault on liberal education and institutions that represent the liberal arts tradition. In places such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, Russia, Singapore, and now Ukraine, we have seen dynamic and growing institutions come under siege due to ideological crackdowns, military coups, and foreign aggression. Institutions face closure or redefinition beyond recognition. Their leaders are threatened, faculty and courses are scrutinized, and, most important, their students lose access to meaningful higher education opportunities.

What does this mean for liberal arts institutions in the United States? A. Bartlett Giamatti, former president of Yale, wrote, “How we choose to believe and speak and treat others, how we choose a civic role for ourselves, is the deepest purpose of a liberal education and of the act of teaching.” If we view academic institutions as important civic actors on both local and global stages, as so many university leaders say, then we too can find purpose in supporting students and institutions in their time of need.

Bard College’s twenty-five-year global engagement with liberal arts and sciences has taught us lessons in resilience and lasting impact that informed the January 2020 establishment of the Open Society University Network (OSUN), of which Bard is a founding member. One of the most illuminating of these lessons, and a fundamental design principle of OSUN, is that transnational networks, built on horizontal linkages and shared values, can provide substantive support and resilience to educational institutions in times of disruption and crisis. Moreover, in times of crisis it is important to develop a mosaic of responses and include, in the great liberal education tradition, a relentless focus on students’ well-being and safe access to educational opportunities.

Bard’s history of helping refugees dates back to its support of scholars and artists escaping Nazi Germany. In 1956, Bard welcomed more than three hundred Hungarian students fleeing their country after the Soviet invasion. As Bard established a global network of liberal arts institutions, with the support of the Higher Education Support Program of the Open Society Foundations (OSF) in the 1990s and 2000s—including partners in Germany, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Palestine, and Russia—we began utilizing this network to help students from institutions under stress.

One such case was in 2004, when the authoritarian government in Belarus closed the European Humanities University (EHU). The next academic year, in an act that is unimaginable given current geopolitics, Smolny College, a liberal arts partnership between Bard and Russia’s St Petersburg State University, took in around fifty displaced students while EHU sought a more permanent refuge in Lithuania. Other EHU students went to the American University of Bulgaria (AUBG), which was also supported by OSF. Similarly in 2012, Smolny, with Bard’s help, enrolled more than fifty Turkmen students from the American University of Central Asia (AUCA), who were barred from entering Kyrgyzstan due to political tensions in the region.

Lessons from these experiences helped define the mission of OSUN, of which AUCA, AUBG, and EHU, are members. OSUN’s approach was also informed by the experience of the Central European University (CEU), OSUN’s other founding member and Bard’s long-term partner, which was forced to move from Budapest to Vienna in 2019 due to a politically targeted attack on liberal education and academic freedom in Hungary. Since OSUN’s founding, just before COVID-19 swept the globe, it has tackled a cascading series of challenges to educational institutions.

Parami Institute students in the writing and thinking workshop facilitated by workshop leader Ian Bickford, President of American University of Afghanistan. Image courtesy of Parami Insitute.
Parami Institute students in a writing and thinking workshop facilitated by workshop leader Ian Bickford, president of the American University of Afghanistan. (Courtesy Parami Institute)

In 2021, a military coup in Myanmar forced the cessation of in-country activities of OSUN partner Parami Institute, a post-baccalaureate liberal arts program that was set to become a four-year university, and endangered the institute’s president, Kyaw Moe Tun. In response, OSUN, through its Threatened Scholars Integration Initiative, helped resettle Kyaw Moe Tun at Bard and also opened up hundreds of online courses to Parami students. OSUN is now working with Parami to create new pathways for students in Myanmar to complete a rigorous liberal arts education using digital platforms. “At a time when the Burmese military regime wishes to isolate our students in the dark, OSUN has served as a platform for our students to be globally engaged with students and faculty from across the world!” Kyaw Moe Tun writes by email. “The ability of Parami to keep on providing educational programs to Burmese students amidst significant challenges on the ground is a testament to the emergent ‘buffering’ potential conferred by such a collaborative network of institutions as OSUN.”

The cleansing of Myanmar’s higher education system of any liberal university spaces foreshadowed the challenges to higher education in Afghanistan. When the United States announced its pending withdrawal in 2021, intensive planning was launched, with the support of OSF Deputy Board Chair Alexander Soros, for what began as a plan to help Afghan alumni of AUCA return to Kyrgyzstan to pursue graduate studies. When the government fell to the Taliban shortly thereafter, disrupting educational opportunities for students, particularly for women, and forcing the in-country closure of the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF), an OSUN partner, this plan for an orderly departure of students became a multi-institutional effort to extract and relocate hundreds of Afghan students and academics.

As this effort ramped up, the resilience of network cooperation was again in evidence with a team consisting of staff from multiple OSUN institutions, anchored by AUCA, Bard New York, and OSF preparing alternative plans to help Afghan students depart amid rapidly changing and chaotic conditions. The team engaged diverse partners, ranging from a Finnish security firm to Pakistani government officials, in order to navigate a harrowing path for 177 students from Kabul to Islamabad, with the majority traveling over land via car and mini-bus during a two-week period in September following the US departure. The team then helped the evacuees, and several other students who had filtered out of Afghanistan on their own, navigate their way to OSUN institutions. In all, OSUN helped more than two hundred students continue their studies, a majority of whom were women. With the support of Kyrgyz authorities, the majority of these students ended up at AUCA in Bishkek, including more than a hundred students from AUAF, with others going to the American University of Beirut, Bard’s campuses in New York and Berlin, and CEU. Since then, OSUN has also provided opportunities for students who have remained in Afghanistan or who are stranded in other countries by opening up online courses offered synchronously across the network.

Afghan students at the unveiling of the photo story-book, A Journey from Kabul to Bishkek (Bishkek, March 30, 2022). Image courtesy of AUCA.
Afghan students at the unveiling of the photo storybook, A Journey from Kabul to Bishkek (Bishkek, March 30, 2022). (Courtesy American University of Central Asia)

Networks such as ours are not just resilient but dynamic in operation. For example, the Yalda Hakim Foundation and Schmidt Futures extracted more than one hundred AUAF students from Kabul and transferred them to the American University of Iraq at Sulaimani. Now, under the leadership of the Afghan Future Fund, the Yalda Hakim Foundation and OSUN are working with other organizations to bring hundreds of students to study in the United States. Many of these students and alumni are threatened because they received US government scholarships or because they or their families worked for the Afghan government or Western nongovernmental organizations. The brutal murder of AUCA alumna Natasha Khalil while she was working for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in 2020 is a vivid reminder of what can befall empowered students in societies under repression.

Bard College has already opened up its campuses in New York, Massachusetts, and Berlin to one hundred Afghan refugees, with forty-five already enrolled. OSUN members are also working with groups like the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration to shape policies that will make colleges and universities part of the broader solution to the challenge of integrating refugees into American society. With their support, Leon Botstein, president of Bard, and Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, another OSUN partner which itself took in sixty Afghan students from the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh, wrote an editorial in the wake of events in Ukraine calling for the Biden administration to expand opportunities to incorporate higher education institutions more robustly into the refugee resettlement process.

The events in Ukraine are still unfolding, but OSUN partners have already swung into action. Several OSUN partners, especially those near Ukraine, are opening their doors and programs to Ukrainian students, alumni, and scholars whose studies and academic work have been disrupted by the Russian invasion. CEU offers free residential spaces in Budapest and Vienna to its alumni and refugee academics from Ukraine and has dramatically increased scholarship allocations for incoming Ukrainian students. Many OSUN institutions offer language courses and other facilities to ease Ukrainian students’ transition to new academic environments and allow their talents to shine. Close to fifty emergency support fellowships are being offered to Ukrainian scholars from across the OSUN network. Several OSUN partners are also welcoming Russian and Belarusian students and academics being persecuted for their condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While our emergency response can help save students and faculty from imminent danger, we are preparing for a broader effort to support Ukrainians in rebuilding their higher education system and serve Ukraine’s postwar renaissance in meaningful ways.

A Parami Institute student teaching young students in a rural village, as part of Parami's service to communities. Image courtesy of Parami Insitute.
A Parami Institute student teaching young students in a rural village, as part of Parami's service to communities. Image courtesy of Parami Insitute.

We like to refer to OSUN’s response to crises in Myanmar, Afghanistan, and now Ukraine as a mosaic, taking into account the specific and ever-changing circumstances and needs—from evacuation and emergency support to online learning, resettlement, and assistance—in shaping the future of institutions. While this mosaic has included support for faculty and administrators, it has a special focus on students. Whether in person or online, we are trying to, as Bard’s mission statement puts it, “extend liberal arts and sciences education to communities in which it has been underdeveloped, inaccessible, or absent.”

What are the lessons we take from our experience? First, higher education institutions can act as effective civic actors, particularly in issues central to their mission—the education of students. Still, there is too much complacency. Colleges and universities need to match their actions to their rhetoric and act globally as well as locally.

Second, establishing and sustaining a strong international network of higher education institutions that share values, as we have done at Bard and OSUN, can provide tremendous resilience. United both by the conviction that colleges and universities should play a role as civic actors and an abiding belief in the student-centered approach to liberal education, we have helped many students across the globe maintain access to a liberal arts education during periods of immense social, economic, and political instability. We have helped resettle faculty and administrators through OSUN’s Threatened Scholars Integration Initiative, but the student-first mentality of liberal arts education has played a central role in defining our efforts.

Third, out of such networks emerge amazing learning opportunities. In summer 2021, I cotaught an OSUN online class on civic engagement that had students from Myanmar and Afghanistan, as well as Haiti, Kyrgyzstan, South Africa, and the United States. Students learned with and from each other as they shared their challenges. We also brought in amazing speakers, such as former Haitian Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis, who provided hope and inspiration at a time when students might be on the verge of giving up.

Fourth, networks need not only be constituted by academic institutions. Our partnerships with the OSF and the Yalda Hakim Foundation, the Presidents’ Alliance, and groups like the Institute for International Education have helped navigate these crises.

Networks such as these have proved invaluable in uncertain times, while also helping students and scholars to thrive in times of relative calm. We encourage US colleges and universities to engage with established networks or create their own to help stabilize and strengthen the connection between education and civic participation. Such networks can not only assist students who believe in the values of liberal education across the globe; they can help shield institutions, faculty, and students who may feel the pressures of rising authoritarian attacks on democratic values and liberal education within the United States.

Lead photo: Parami Institute's main mode of learning is through discussion and writing. (Courtesy Parami Institute)


  • Becker Jonathan

    Jonathan Becker

    Jonathan Becker is vice chancellor of the Open Society University Network, interim president of the American University of Central Asia, and vice president for academic affairs at Bard College.