On April 11 Allen Ruff published an earlier attack in which he belittled academic freedom at Nazarbayev University. Ruff went so far as to claim that “faculty and staff must take care not to speak beyond the confines of their respective disciplines - or else.” This claim is demonstrably false. Of all people, I should be concerned with academic freedom. I study regime change. I argue that coups, for example, can promote democratization in places rather similar to Kazakhstan. Not only have I done this writing, but I actually conducted a public lecture arguing this point. I never worried about an “or else” scenario and have never received any indication that I need to take care in regards to the material in either my research or teaching. I would be interested to see Ruff offer evidence supporting his original “or else” claim. My guess is that it simply doesn’t exist.
Ruff has switched his tune regarding academic freedom, now claiming “the regime certainly would not want to generate some cause celeb and international press by possibly manhandling and bouncing out some well-intentioned Mid Western academic who happened to speak a bit too much truth to power.” In response to Howard Schweber’s more accurate depiction of academic freedom Ruff retorted “[Schweber] was afforded that luxury, clearly an example of "repressive tolerance" in extremis.”
In just 5 short months the Nazarbayev University faculty have, according to Ruff’s own words, moved from having to “take care not to speak beyond the confines of their respective disciplines - or else” to being afforded the “luxury” of academic freedom lest the regime fall prey to “some cause celeb and international press.” What wonderful progress!!
Aside from the changing nature of Ruff’s narrative, this quote illustrates a very important dynamic. While he can note the lack of press (and other) freedoms in Kazakhstan, he has pointed to NU as a critical source of information and potential criticism of the regime, potential criticism that—to listen to Ruff—the regime will be forced to tolerate.
Ruff’s preference, strangely, is to condemn those that attempt to create such a voice, namely the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He downplays this voice by claiming Kazakhstan is “not about to become the center of some Central Asian version of the "Arab Spring." He misses the mark on a variety of fronts. First, aside from not justifying his stance, I cannot imagine that any of us are hoping for an Arab spring scenario. We don’t want to see mass protests, we don’t want to see civil war, and we certainly do not want to see our students wounded or dead in the streets.
Second, political or social changes are almost exclusively far less obvious and incredibly more mundane than the Arab spring. These alternatives, in the world of Ruff, apparently do not exist. Scholars, meanwhile, have argued that education, including ties to the West, are important contributors to democratization, especially in the context of the former Soviet Union. In contrast, Ruff believes that the best approach for dealing with a “well-ensconced and fortified kleptocracy, its state-run development plans, and its current trajectory as a rising star in the constellation of energy-rich capitalist dictatorships,” is to isolate it. Perhaps we should also keep Kazakhstan’s future “technocrats” from studying in Western institutions?
Third, an Arab spring, or even democratization more generally, is not a goal of any of us. Ruff mentions wanting to spread “America’s liberal ‘democratizing’ gospel” and its “Mid Western” faculty. We are an incredibly diverse group with rather few individuals from the Midwest. In political science we have faculty from Washington, Kentucky, Virginia, Russia, Belgium, Japan, South Korea, and Kenya. Our acting dean is from Kansas, our vice-provost is Australian, our provost is Welsh, and our president Japanese. So when he speaks of “America’s” gospel, I haven’t a clue what he is talking about. In my classes I promote critical thinking and ask my students respect each others’ views. If that is furthering the American agenda I suppose I am guilty.
Ruff’s latest attack piece leaves us with little more than 1) Kazakhstan is a bad, bad, bad place, 2) the illuminati, errr, former employees of the World Bank, helped launch the university, and 3) the US has strategic interests in Kazakhstan. These points are noted a few times, and five paragraphs are dedicated to the World Bank, but conspicuously absent is any discussion of the actual partnership between NU and Ruff’s title villain, UW. My guess is simply that Ruff has little to go on.
Responses to his prior attack pieces invited him to contact the faculty. His latest effort shows this has not occurred. I’ll now encourage Ruff to write directly to the future “technocrats” of which he speaks and explain to them 1) why Wisconsin is “by association” guilty of the atrocities of the government, and 2) that they, as citizens of a kleptocracy, should not have the opportunity to study in a more free academic environment.
Stylin’ in Astana,