Breaking Academic Ties with Russian Universities: an Ineludible Debate

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Carlo Tognato

Carlo Tognato | University of Minnesota

Since the beginning of the war university communities around the world have debated what position they should take, if any, on the invasion, and whether they should alter or break their relations with Russian universities.

Economy Department building of Kharkiv National University in flames after being hit by Russian shelling on March 2, 2022. Image: Boston Review, Sergey Bobok/AFP

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the atrocities perpetrated by Russian troops on Ukrainian soil have triggered widespread outrage within an increasingly large segment of the international community. As a result of that, Russia was recently suspended from the UN Human Rights Council with the favorable vote of 93 countries, the abstention from 58 countries, and the opposition of 24.

Since the beginning of the war university communities around the world have debated what position they should take, if any, on the invasion, and whether they should alter or break their relations with Russian universities.

In Russia hundreds of scientists have signed open letters against the war and thousands more of university students and alumni have joined them.[i] On the other hand, at an institutional level already at the beginning of March, 185 presidents of Russian colleges and graduate schools issued a statement in support of the war.

In the meantime, research institutions throughout the West have taken a variety of positions with regard to maintaining their institutional relations Russian academic institutions. Some have selectively cut their ties with specific Russian partners. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology quit its high/tech research partnership with the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (or “Skoltech”). Others have cut ties with all Russian universities, such as the Australian National Universities (Putnins, 2022) or the University of Trento in Italy. 

In some cases, national associations of universities, such as Universities UK, which gathers all UK vice chancellors, have urged their members to “review collaborations with Russia on a case-by-case basis” while coming short of supporting “a blanket boycott”. In Germany, on the other hand, funding has been cut to partner scientists in Russia, but the president of the German Rectors’ Conference urged German scholars to maintain informal channels open with them (Stone, 2022). In France, the association of French university presidents cut ties with its Russian counterpart (Walsh 2022). Italian universities have opened their doors to dissident Russian academics.[ii] In the US, the American Association of Colleges and Universities has condemned the Russian invasion but has not urged its members to cut their ties with Russian universities (Carapezza, 2022). And in Japan, the presidents and representatives of 50 universities and academic societies have officially denounced the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a “groundbreaking” departure from traditional practice in Japanese universities, but have not called for an interruption of academic relations with Russian academic institutions.[iii] Finally, at CERN, which did not expel Russian scientists when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 or Afghanistan in 1979, the governing council’s “representatives from the lab’s 23 member states voted to suspend Russia’s ‘observer’ status and barred its representatives from auditing the council’s deliberations. But it did not expel the more than 1000 Russian scientists who make up roughly 8% of CERN’s international users.” (Stone, 2022)

Advocates of the urgency of cutting ties with Russian universities have stressed that university authorities in Russia are closely tied to the Russian government and therefore are complicit with the invasion in Ukraine to the extent that they do not distance themselves explicitly from it, or even more so when they come out to support it. At the same time, they have stressed that calling for a cut of all institutional ties with Russian universities does not entail breaking academic relations with scholars in Russia, particularly if they are not supportive of the invasion of Ukraine. In other words, one may still maintain the latter while cutting the former.

Critics on the other side have insisted that cutting relations with Russian universities may end up isolating those within them who oppose the invasion. It may empower those who are aligned with Russian authorities, and it may ultimately radicalize those university communities. They have also noted that differentiating between cutting ties with those institutions and with the scholars that work in them is easier said than done. In fact, the latter might be increasingly regarded with suspicion by other members of their own communities, if they were to continue cooperating with foreign academic institutions that cut institutional ties with their own. And they might be stigmatized as traitors and exposed to retaliations as a result of it. In the end, cutting institutional ties would thus translate into practically cutting relations with Russian scholars. And this, in turn, would possibly interrupt a critical flow of information between Russian scholars and foreign scholars.

Other observers may note, at this point, that the dilemma as to whether academic relations with Russian universities should be cut raises an even broader issue, that is, how and to what extent universities can or should separate science from politics and exclusively focus on the former. In other words, in the light of the principle of university autonomy some might consider that universities should not be drawn into controversies that are not strictly scientific. And to support their point, they might warn that cutting academic ties because of a criminal war might only open the door to cutting ties for many other political reasons, which in the end might negatively impact scientific progress. And yet, one may still wonder whether the advancement of science is morally justifiable even if it happens, for example, against the backdrop of genocide or apartheid.

Invoking the principle of university autonomy as a principle of caution against bending academic norms for political reasons also faces scholars with an additional challenge. Should such caution apply only between universities that abide to that principle? And thus, would it be legitimate to consider bending those norms vis à vis university institutions the internal functioning of which is colonized by a government to the point of transforming them into the long hand of government authorities and squeezing as a result the autonomy of the scientific sphere? And supposing that such bending was actually in order, where should one draw the red line? And above all, when should some academic institutions get to the point of cutting their institutional ties with others?

Some might also add at this point that, whatever one might decide, one should avoid applying double standards and might thus recall, for example, that the war in Iraq was predicated on false premises and was illegal and yet, in spite of that, there was no uproar gearing to cut academic ties with the universities of the countries that invaded Iraq. For the sake of fairness, though, others might counterargue that in those countries the autonomy of universities from political leaders in government has translated into the fact, for example, that no declarations were ever issued from the authorities of those universities in support of the war, unlike within the Russian context. And important national anthropological associations officially distanced themselves from the use of their scholars to aid the deployment of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However university communities around the world might decide to address and resolve such complex issues, it is of paramount importance for them to explicitly engage in a collective process of deliberation on this matter and to decide how to deal with it. What seems less acceptable on both moral and intellectual grounds at this point is to sit on the fences and avoid taking a stance. In fact, indifference, opportunism, or worse cowardice would hardly protect academia from the polluting stain of complicity.


[i] “War in Ukraine: Russian students against war,” International Viewpoint, March 15, 2022, and Jamie Durrani, “More than 600 scientists sign open letter,” Chemistry World, February 25, 2022,

[ii] “Italian universities will welcome Russian dissident academics: ‘we must not waste their knowledge’,” Breaking Latest News, April 4, 2022,

[iii] “50 academic bodies in Japan issue statements protesting Russian invasion of Ukraine,” The Mainichi, March 5, 2022,


Carapezza, K. (2022). US colleges move cautiously in cutting ties to Russia. GBH News, March 6,

Putnins, T. (2022). Why universities need to open lines of communication with Russians, not close them. The Conversation, March 10,

Stone, R. (2022). Western nations cut ties with Russian science, even as some projects try to remain neutral. Science, March 8,

Walsh, J. (2022). French university chiefs cut ties with Russian peers, ResearchProfessional News, March 16,

Carlo Tognato

Carlo Tognato is a research fellow at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota and a faculty fellow at Yale University's Center for Cultural Sociology. He has been a senior policy fellow at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government. For a decade he was an associate professor at the Department of Sociology of the National University of Colombia and for four years director of the Center for Social Studies at the same university. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of California at Los Angeles-UCLA, an MPhil in International Relations from the University of Oxford and a BA in Economics from Bocconi University, Milan. /// Carlo Tognato es actualmente investigador asociado del Centro para los Estudios sobre el Holocausto y el Genocidio de la Universidad de Minnesota y faculty fellow del Centro de Sociología Cultural de la Universidad de Yale. Ha sido senior policy fellow de la Escuela de Gobierno y Política de la Universidad George Mason. Durante una década fue profesor asociado del Departamento de Sociología de la Universidad Nacional de Colombia y durante cuatro años director del Centro de Estudio Sociales de la misma universidad. Tiene un doctorado en Ciencia Política de la Universidad de California en Los Ángeles -UCLA, una maestría en Relaciones Internacionales de la Universidad de Oxford y es economista de la Universidad Bocconi, Milán.