Risky collaborations ‘must come with an exit strategy’

Universities should have awkward conversations early and ‘be ready to write off costs’ when tie-ups are soured by conflict

April 29, 2022
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Universities partnering with illiberal or authoritarian regimes must be ready to have awkward conversations about red lines, and plot escape routes should the worst happen, experts have said.

The scramble to cut ties to Russian institutions has shown the importance of planning for the worst, according to panellists at the European University Association’s conference.

“For institutional cooperation with universities following different value systems we must have an exit strategy ready in the moment when we start it,” said Peter-André Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference.

“These are risky investments that might carry enormous scientific and teaching and learning results for a certain period, but we must be ready to write off such investments when the political tides change.”

Deteriorating political relations with China have sharpened many rectors’ awareness of international risks, but the sudden severing of Russian relationships after the invasion of Ukraine seems to have strengthened the case for shrewd preparation.

“My strong advice would be not to wait and see until conflict arises, but start right from the onset when you do design a collaboration with mapping that field of risks and positioning yourselves and your partners as clearly as you can,” said Sijbolt Noorda, president emeritus of the University of Amsterdam and former president of the Academic Cooperation Association.

“When you are well prepared, you’ve had an open discussion with most of the issues at the onset of the collaboration, it is easier, though not always very easy, to deal with the consequences once a conflict arises.”

Dr Noorda said university presidents should keep abreast of the riskiest relations to prepare for problems rather than to veto them, giving the example of a discrete postgraduate exchange programme between Iranian and Dutch universities when he helped lead the University of Amsterdam.

Professor Alt said the “most important problem[s]” from collaborations came from non-academic issues, like information management and technologies with malign potential. University boards should inform open-hearted academics of such risks, although balancing this with the freedom to collaborate was “always a very problematic issue”.

“Academic principles cannot completely regulate or stipulate the culture of collaboration and cannot exclude [the] many kinds of risks they should be aware of and should be informed about,” he said.

Dr Noorda, who also serves on the international board of ITMO University in St Petersburg, said its 12 members found themselves in “intense email contact” the day after the invasion of Ukraine, with some resigning immediately.

He said that while universities and governments’ decision to cut economic ties was right, others must remain. “In times of conflict, culture should be among the last bridges to be blown up,” he said.

National boycotts narrow perspectives, he said, like the black students from South Africa who had to attend what was then Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow due to the Western academic boycott against apartheid. “They had one perspective on the world, that was the Lumumba University perspective,” he said.

Closing the conference, EUA president Michael Murphy referenced the association’s decision to suspend its Russian members.

“I wish that this session had taken place several months ago before we had to grapple with the Russian question,” he said. “I do hope that the conclusions that we reached passed the tests that Sijbolt shared.”


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