What might the Ukraine crisis mean for academia?

As I write this the Ukraine crisis is deepening.

Russian president Putin recognized two separatist, self-declared statelets in eastern Ukraine, then sent armed forces into them.  In response the European Union and Great Britain announced sanctions, followed by the United States. The German government halted its approval of Russia’s Nordstream-2 pipeline.  According to US president Biden, Putin will use this step as a launching point for invading other Ukrainian territories.

Ukraine Donetsk and Luhask regions_NYT 2022 Feb 22

I have many thoughts about the situation, but wanted today to start a discussion about one particular aspect. What might these events mean for colleges and universities?

I’m inspired by Alex Usher’s post this morning (and everyone should subscribe to his newsletter/blog) which raised several points.

A hit to international research – “in this more dangerous world, top-level science is going to be a lot less open and less free.”  We’ve seen early signs of this in the United States with regards to China, which Alex also mentions. I’m not sure how far this will go, however, as Russia only produces about 3% of global scholarship, according to the NSF.

Ukrainian refugees rising – how might higher education respond?  Usher raises three ways: teaching, research, and housing.

It would be helpful to think through what it is Canada might be able to do for them, and more specifically, what Canadian universities and colleges might do to assist not just individual refugees who wish to continue their studies or continue teaching, but also what help we can provide Ukrainian academia as a whole as it resists physical assault.

That sentence concerns Canadian academia, but also applies to higher education in many other nations.

There is also the possibility of inter-institutional collaboration on this score: “If there is one agenda around which Canadian universities could usefully co-ordinate action in the days ahead, it is this.”

Curricular offerings – Which fields might expand in enrollments and offerings as a result of this crisis, especially if it persists and/or expands?  Usher mentions “[p]eace and security studies” are likely to do well, which makes sense.  I’d add classes and programs in war, geopolitical strategy, and so on.  I would hope we’d see more interest in Russian studies and language, but I suspect not, given the past general of active disinterest.

Cyberwar on campus – Russia and NATO have a lot of cyberwar capacity, and may well start using it on each other.  We should not be surprised if academic computing gets caught up or openly targeted.  Usher:

there is a reasonable chance of Russian counter-retaliation. This could take a couple of forms, the nastiest of which could involve widespread cyber-attacks on key cyber-infrastructure.  Now may be a good time to back up all your files on some kind of hard drive.  And if you’re a CIO – well, I imagine most of them are working very hard this week to prepare for a lot more denial-of-service for ransomware attacks.

Note that these attacks could hit at multiple levels, from individual to enterprise.

Economic problems – the crisis could stir all kinds of economic woe. NATO sanctions are designed to damage the Russian economy, which can strike Russian universities. If energy prices take off, as they seem likely to do, that imposes immediate if small costs to campus operations for heating and transportation. If the crisis ratchets up still further and economic problems escalate (think, for example, of cyberwar’s potential economic impacts) then inflation and supply chain issues visit colleges and universities.  Stock market fluctuations, which we’re already seeing, could chew up some endowment investments.

Students, staff, and faculty at war – there are hundreds of academic institutions in Ukraine, with more than a million students, according to Wikipedia.  How many academics – students, faculty, staff – will head into combat, either voluntarily or through impressment?  How many campuses are near or in the combat zones?  Think, for example, of the University of Luhansk, Luhansk National Agrarian University, Donetsk National Medical University, or Donetsk National Technical University.

This is all short term.  What happens if the crisis persists and deepens?  For example, if Russian forces enter other Ukrainian lands, or if fighting breaks out with NATO member states?  On a less dramatic level, what if the heightened situation we’re experiencing today persists for months?

It could play hob with the global economy, or at least parts of it.  We could see problems grow into unemployment in some areas.  This, among other things, could (not necessarily) drive more people to post-secondary study.  Nations and regions economically close to Russia, such as parts of Europe, may suffer as sanctions and their followup effects degrade the Russian economy, as Naked Capitalism points out. This can, in turn, drive more extreme politics.

If the fighting spreads to other nations, more academics may be involved, either as fighters or as collateral damage.  The burden of wounds, psychological trauma, and deaths will accumulate.

If the crisis appears intractable, we can anticipate political actions which might target campuses, depending on the nation and its politics.  We could see increased funding for Russian studies, stronger controls on international collaboration, or incentives for study abroad in certain nations.

Yet this is all happening now, very quickly. The situation will surely offer more demands and complexities.  Think of this post as notes jotted in haste, designed to stir conversation. How do you see the Ukrainian crisis impacting academia?

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4 Responses to What might the Ukraine crisis mean for academia?

  1. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan,

    Almost everything points to the US moving ever closer to fascism. “Big Bank” Biden looks weak, and the Trumpian Republicans are even worse–as allies of fascist Russia–something I could not have imagined when I served the US military in the 1980s. Experts predict a Republican victory in the House and possibly in the Senate in the November mid-terms, further advancing the move toward fascism. Gary Roth suggests that this move toward fascism is just capitalism returning to its normal state–and that’s horrible to fathom–but understandable to political economists and historians.

    https://www.highereducationinquirer.org/2022/02/one-fascism-or-two-reemergence-of.html

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Dahn, that’s an interesting path to follow.
      On the one hand, I could see more pro-Russian politicians following Trump and his caudillo style.
      On the other, political figures who think Biden is too soft on Putin, who push for intervention and militarization.

  2. Jeremy Stanton says:

    Higher energy prices triggered by the crisis might have more serious effects than usual, particularly indirect effects. Our economies are essentially energy systems, as any good or service of economic value requires energy to produce, deliver, use, recycle, etc. Higher energy costs mean that just about everything in the economy will either cost more or result in less profit (if not bankruptcy) for organizations, particularly those in energy-intensive domains. The effects could range from higher operating costs for HE institutions across materials, energy, and personnel (as faculty/staff seek pay rises to offset the increased cost of living, which we’re already seeing due to current levels of inflation), to potential students putting off the decision to go to school (particularly at the graduate/professional level) to some potentially more stable / less inflationary future. Thus we could be seeing simultaneous increases in costs and depressed demand, just as many institutions were regaining their footing coming out of the pandemic. Worst case, prolonged / repeated oil price shocks could trigger the unwinding of the gargantuan levels of debt accumulated since the GFC, resulting in significant disruption to the global economy, exacerbating enrollment declines and input costs. Check out Tim Morgan’s blog Surplus Energy Economics for more on the energy-economy relationship and the precarity of the current situation: https://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com/

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