Bard College, known for its bucolic campus along the Hudson River in New York, its creative and freethinking spirit and its emphasis on the performing arts, now finds itself in a strange position: defending itself against the Russian government.
The liberal arts college of about 2,500 students is fighting Russia’s decision this summer to place Bard on a list of “undesirable” organizations, effectively banishing the college from its affiliation with St. Petersburg State University, where Bard has successfully operated a degree-granting partnership since the late 1990s. The surprise designation makes any association with Bard’s program a potential crime.
Bard’s president, Leon Botstein, who formed the program nearly 25 years ago during the era of glasnost and perestroika in Russia, said he was working through both the State Department and Congress, contacting everyone from Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on down in an effort to save the program.
“If it doesn’t get reversed — because it’s a mistake — it will have a corrosive effect on any kind of scientific, cultural or educational cooperation,” Dr. Botstein said, adding that Bard pleads innocent to any claim it is undesirable, which he described as a harsh decision reached without due process.
“You’ve got the wrong person,” he said. “There’s no crime.”
The government-forced dissolution of the partnership comes at one of the lowest points in United States-Russia relations since the Cold War, and at a time when international educational programs around the world have been buffeted by a variety of political crosscurrents.
Bard, whose campus is in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., is the first educational institution placed on Russia’s list of undesirable nongovernmental organizations. One possible factor may be Bard’s longstanding and deep affiliation with George Soros, the billionaire financier and philanthropist.
Mr. Soros, who this year pledged what Bard described as a “transformational” gift of $500 million to the college, is a controversial figure in Russia, where he is regarded as a progressive counterweight to growing nationalist right-wing sentiment. Similar opposition to Mr. Soros led to the 2019 relocation of the Soros-funded Central European University from Budapest to Vienna.
Jonathan Becker, Bard’s vice president for academic affairs, said the affiliation with Mr. Soros and his foundation — which was already on the Russian undesirable list — was one possible factor in the Russian Federation’s move, but not the major one.
Instead Dr. Becker blamed frayed relations between Russia and the United States, as well as the West generally.
“There’s no coincidence that the announcement of Bard becoming an undesirable organization comes just after the Biden-Putin summit and new U.S. sanctions on Russia,” Dr. Becker said.
In a statement, Mr. Soros’s Open Society Foundations attributed the Russian Federation’s move to “an internal power struggle in Russia” and said it was most likely unrelated to Mr. Soros.
Bard may have also increased tensions by trying to transform its St. Petersburg program into a stand-alone public university. Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest, a Washington think tank known for its Russian connections, called the plan “a bridge too far” for Russian security forces, particularly given Bard’s connection to Mr. Soros.
Dr. Becker, however, said the proposal to expand and spin off the program was not Bard’s, but rather driven by the program’s Russian faculty and administration.
The State Department urged the Russian government to reconsider its action against Bard, and, in a statement, called it “regrettable that a purely educational program would suddenly be labeled ‘undesirable’ after benefiting so many Russians and Americans and contributing to mutual understanding for a quarter century.”
The agency did not say what, if any, official efforts it had undertaken to reverse the decision. The Russian prosecutor general’s office, which made its announcement on June 21, did not respond to requests for comment.
Michael C. Kimmage, a former State Department policy official specializing in U.S.-Russian relations, said the Bard action sent a chilling message to academics.
“I can’t imagine any responsible administrator at an American college or exchange program who wouldn’t take this seriously and be worried,” said Dr. Kimmage, now a professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington.
Russia has made several moves that diminish educational exchanges between the two countries, even as it attempts to build educational partnerships elsewhere and improve the quality of its domestic public universities.
In 2014, the Russian government withdrew from the Future Leaders Exchange program, a State Department-funded effort to promote U.S. study by foreign high school students, after a Russian teenager studying in Michigan sought political asylum. More recently, reduced services at consulates have made it more difficult for Russian students to obtain visas for studying in the United States.
Suspicion in the United States has also been heightened. In 2019, a program at American University in Washington was criticized as too soft on Russia, and the Russian ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, accused the U.S. news media of Russophobia, while also calling for increased cultural exchange between the countries.
Several American universities created programs in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but in recent years, some of them have closed. In 2018, Stanford University announced it was suspending its undergraduate Russian study abroad programs, citing security issues. That same year, Clark University in Worcester, Mass., began phasing out its program at Astrakhan State University, in Astrakhan, Russia, citing costs and the difficulty of managing its program from the United States as reasons.
The decline may be largely symbolic, a gauge of deteriorating relations between the countries. Russia has never been a major partner in international study programs with the United States, ranking low on the list of countries whose students come to the United States. And according to the Institute of International Education, the number of Americans studying abroad in Russia declined to 1,305 in 2019, the last year data is available, from 1,827 in 2011.
In an online discussion last week sponsored by the Carnegie Moscow Center, Aleh Tsyvinski, an economics professor at Yale, said a new law in Russia that placed all educational activity under government control — including international university collaborations — would create further barriers to international education programs in the country.
“If you’re saying that everybody who goes on an exchange program or summer program in Russia has to go to the Russian embassy in Washington and have a chat with somebody there, I would say that 99 percent of the students will just say, ‘I’d rather go to Kazakhstan, which is more or less as interesting, perhaps, for them,’” Dr. Tsyvinski said.
The Bard program in St. Petersburg, known as Smolny College, was an unusual model in international education.
Unlike many programs abroad, in which American students take classes in a bubble while enjoying local cultural events, students in the program included many Russians who obtained dual degrees from Bard College and St. Petersburg State.
Instruction was in Russian, not English. About 550 students were enrolled this year.
Alina Putilovskaya, 23, was among the Russian graduates of the program who questioned the government move on social media.
In a Facebook message to The New York Times, Ms. Putilovskaya, 23, who works for a human rights organization in St. Petersburg, characterized the decision as “one more act of stupidity” and called Bard’s removal “a considerable loss, not only in terms of education but also in terms of the cultural exchange.”
Since the program enrolled its first students in 1999, Bard College had embraced its Russian connection, hosting Russian students at its New York campus. Two years ago, St. Petersburg State opened a representative office on Bard’s campus.
Despite the program’s successes, Dr. Botstein said, he was always aware of criticism.
“There’s no doubt there was some suspicion that this was a kind of corruption of a great Russian tradition,” he said, but he still hopes to salvage the program, which he called “very dear to me.”
“They didn’t intend this, therefore, I think it can be undone — I hope it can,” Dr. Botstein said.
Andrew E. Kramer and Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting from Moscow.
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