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ISA Statement on Institutional Autonomy in Turkey, Sudan, Hungary, Russia and Venezuela

The Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) of the International Studies Association (ISA) recognizes institutional autonomy, the right of academics to establish institutions of higher learning and to govern themselves without undue external interference, as a central pillar in the safeguarding of academic freedom. The right is recognized by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and has recently been reiterated by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.1  The AFC has observed a pattern of systematic encroachment on institutional autonomy in several countries recently that is cause for grave concern and that we believe warrants a general statement in defense of this right. In this statement we illustrate the geographic breadth of these attacks by drawing attention to recent developments in Turkey, Sudan, Hungary, Russia, and Venezuela. These countries do not constitute an exhaustive list of attacks on institutional autonomy. They are instead part of a broader pattern and reflect concerns expressed in reports that systematically monitor academic freedom.2  They add to concerns for institutional autonomy that we have previously expressed in relation to Mexico (2021), Singapore (2019), and the United States (2017). While other threats persist beyond those cited here, these cases exemplify a particular type of assault on academic freedom – the erosion of institutional autonomy – that we must resist.

In Turkey, on January 1, 2021, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unilaterally appointed new rectors to five universities. We view the appointment of university leaders by Executive decree as an infringement of institutional autonomy. It marks a troubling departure from established procedures for such appointments in Turkey, which require that rectors be appointed only upon their election by academic faculty. We note with concern the appointment of Melih Bulu, a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as the new rector of Boğaziçi University, a prominent public university, and the government’s heavy-handed response to the academic staff and students who protested the decision. It also bears noting that these developments occur in the context of an ongoing process of erosion of academic freedom in Turkey in the wake of the coup attempt of July 2016. Citing the coup, President Erdoğan issued Emergency Decree No. 676, which removed university faculty from the rector appointment process, placing it in the hands of the presidency and the Turkish Higher Education Council (YÖK). We view this decree as a significant limitation on university autonomy.

In Sudan, on April 1st 2022, the country’s military leader, Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, replaced 30 university presidents and dismissed their universities’ councils. The decision is the latest in a series of troubling actions taken since the military coup of October 25th, 2021 which are widely-seen as part of an effort to silence criticism of the military takeover. Students and university professors were key actors in the revolution that ultimately toppled Omar El-Bashir’s regime in April 2019. Immediately following the coup, soldiers raided the University of Khartoum, using force against students to deter activism against the military regime. By November 2021, many universities, including the University of Khartoum, had suspended academic activities.3 

In Hungary in 2020 legislation was passed that transferred the ownership of several prominent academic institutions to private enterprises with close ties to the president Orbán’s administration. These included the transfer in September 2020 of the University of Theater and Film Arts in Budapest, and in April 2020, the transfer of 11 other universities to private foundations.4  These moves effectively stripped these institutions of financial and administrative independence and placed them under the indirect control of president Orbán and his allies.5  They led to a series of protests on campuses in the country, as well as to numerous resignations by staff and faculty. It merits noting that these developments followed the amendment to the Higher Education Law, passed in 2017, that led Central European University to relocate most of its operations from Budapest to Vienna, Austria.6 
In Russia, the Committee would like to draw attention to the labelling of higher education institutions as “undesirable foreign organizations” and the designation of individuals as “foreign agents”. Citing a law passed in May of 2015 the government has sought to constrain the functioning of non-profit and nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding, especially from the European Union and the United States. In 2020, for example, the Prosecutor-General’s Office designated Bard College, a US-based institution as such an “undesirable organization”.7  The committee worries that similar actions have occurred and will intensify in light of tensions between Russia and Europe following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. More recently, in March 2022 new legislation broadened the foreign agent category to include individuals „considered to be engaged in political activities in the interests of a foreign state”. The expanded definition has been used to silence critics of the government, even those without a connection to a foreign government.8  The Committee worries for the chilling effect it may have on critical scholarly expression within Russia. 

In Venezuela, the Committee would like to highlight several developments affecting university autonomy. Under the Organic Law of Education (LOE, amended in 2009) the government established the “Teaching State” and arrogated powers for itself in respect of universities’ governance, income, and training.9  In 2010, the National Council of Universities (CNU), a state organ, citing the LOE, began to replace univerity rectors who left or died in office. In 2017, it appointed Luis Holder, a military officer, as vice-rector of Simon Bolivar University, for example; and in 2019, it appointed Clotilde Navarro, another close ally of president Maduro, as administrative vice-rector of Zulia University.10  According to the Scholars-at-Risk's most recent submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council,“the larger question of the constitutionality of the LOE remains unsettled”.11  In addition, since 2010 the judiciary has issued more than 50 rulings suspending elections, or disregarding elections, for representative bodies of the student community. The deteriorating situation has led the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to express concern over the erosion of university autonomy in the country.12 

ISA is the largest and most respected scholarly association in the field, counting over 6,500 members across some 100 countries. The countries highlighted in this statement have seen significant attacks on the institutional autonomy of their higher education institutions, but they are not alone. Using these as illustrations, we stand in solidarity with our academic colleagues in all countries experiencing an erosion of academic freedom and institutional autonomy. On behalf of the ISA membership, we call upon the governments of these countries to end their interference and respect the institutional autonomy of their universities.


Deborah Avant, President, ISA
Mark A. Boyer, Executive Director, ISA
Omar McDoom, Chair, ISA Academic Freedom Committee 

1 See the UNESCO Recommendation concerning the status of higher-education teaching personnel (1997) at See also General Comment on article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights at
2 Scholars at Risk annual Free to Think report (2021) highlights Hungary, Turkey, and Russia in its list of examples of attacks on institutional autonomy. In addition, Sudan, Russia, and Venezuela are evaluated by the Academic Freedom Index (2020) as among the worst-scoring countries globally ranking 151st, 138th, and 135th respectively out of 175 countries. 
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4 Source: https://www.scholarsatrisk. org/report/2020-09-01-university-of-theatre-and-film-arts/
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