Over the last week I received a number of emails asking my opinion on the events in Egypt. Inevitably, some asked me about how I liked working Nazarbayev University and/or living in Kazakhstan. Then I have this forwarded to me (yet again): http://truth-out.org/news/item/15691.
While going through the merit (or lack of) of this offering simply isn’t worth the time, I will make a quick note on an important topic the authors bring up: academic freedom. The authors write:
“Implicit is a clear message that faculty and staff must take care not to speak beyond the confines of their respective disciplines - or else.”
To get directly to the point: I have never had any reason to fear speaking beyond any “confines” either in my research or my teaching and I know of no one at Nazarbayev University that has. This is an important subject to me since I study a potentially sensitive topic: military coups.
To illustrate, I have (with a colleague) recently had a paper accepted for publication that investigates how coups can actually promote democratization in authoritarian regimes and even presented an expanded version of the analysis in an on-campus talk that was open to the public. Not only did I not fear or experience any repercussions of broaching a potentially sensitive political topic, I was and continue to be perfectly willing to acknowledge the implications of the analysis for Kazakhstan. Below I report our results for the influence of coups on the probability of democratization, conditioned on polity score and leader tenure.
You know what? Cue the KNB…at first glance coup doesn’t look so bad: Kazakhstan's likelihood of democratization is expected to more than double following a coup. But shouldn't the "or else" scenario should have deterred me from making such a proclamation? Perhaps...if it existed.
To be clear, I do not advocate a coup attempt against President Nazarbayev. This is not because of fears of the NU administration or the Kazakh government, rather it is because of other practical implications of a coup. Aside from my own conclusion that such efforts in places like Kazakhstan are extremely unlikely to play out and are extremely likely to fail, fallout surrounding coups can be disastrous and is simply not worth the consequences.
I have also experienced no constraints in the classroom. The authors use Kazakhstan's Freedom House rating to level criticisms against the government, my university, and--perhaps most unfairly--against the University of Wisconsin. The use of this presumably damning piece of evidence caught my eye since I actually use Freedom House as a learning tool in my research methods class. I walk the students through its survey questions, discussing validity of the questionnaire and methodology, amongst other things. Question by question, the students are willing to actively offer criticisms of the government when merited. If I am limited in my own critique it is more to do with ignorance of local politics than a fear of it.
All of this is to say in my experience the "or else" suggestion is complete fiction. It is a fanciful idea that the authors of this piece fabricated to make their story seem more provocative. I could ramble on about other (probably deliberate) misrepresentations and factual inaccuracies, but it is not worth my time and would likely bore readers even more than this post.
If the authors are legitimately interested in promoting democratization in Kazakhstan they should realize that places like NU are an important part of this process. Democracy is not spread by isolating authoritarian regimes. To the contrary, the West should make an effort to increase economic, political, organizational, social, and communication ties with places like Kazakhstan. The authors of the truthout piece don't see what goes on inside of NU. They do not see students tell the faculty after a lecture or a semester that we changed their worldview. They do not see our students tell us that they have never been pushed to think as critically and independently. They have never seen our students tell us that we changed their attitude toward the West, what democracy really is, and even the importance of striving for better gender equality, human rights, etc. My guess is the authors do not care. They certainly didn't ask us.