SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: March 20, 2017

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):European University at St. Petersburg

Region & Country:Europe | Russia

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On March 20, 2017, a St. Petersburg court ordered to revoke the license of the European University at St. Petersburg (EUSP), apparently in response to a complaint regarding the university’s gender studies program.

EUSP is a research university known for graduate programs in the social sciences and humanities. The university was founded with the support of US-based foundations, including the Open Society Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. The university is reportedly widely regarded as left-leaning and friendly to western educational values.

In June 2016, Vitaly Milonov, a prominent, conservative Member of Parliament, lodged an official complaint against the university. Mr. Milonov said he received a series of complaints from students at the school, one of which related to the teaching of gender studies (the university reportedly has the largest center for the study of gender in Russia). Mr. Milonov is known for authoring St. Petersburg’s “gay propaganda law,” which inspired a 2013 federal law that limits public discussions about homosexuality, including by banning “the promoting of nontraditional sexual relationships among minors” and “creating a distorted image of the social equivalence of traditional and nontraditional sexual relationships.” According to one source, Mr. Milonov commented, “I can’t remember most of [the complaints against the university], but one was the teaching of gender studies at the school. I personally find that disgusting, it’s fake studies, and it may well be illegal. But I’m not qualified to judge, so I handed it on to the proper authorities.”

In response to Mr. Milonov’s complaints, Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision in Education and Science (Rosobrnadzor), along with other government agencies, conducted investigations into the university over the summer and fall of 2016. Most alleged violations were reportedly for minor infractions, including the absence of a faculty gym or failure to display anti-alcohol leaflets. In November 2016, the university appealed to President Vladimir Putin to intervene. On December 12, 2016 the school’s license was suspended. President Putin reportedly intervened following the ruling, resulting in a temporary reprieve for the university. Although EUSP reportedly cured all but one of its alleged violations, the court revoked the university’s license on March 20, 2017. Following unsuccessful appeals, EUSP has applied for a new license.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the potential closure of a university in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of academic freedom — conduct that is expressly protected under international law, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Russia is a party. State authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with the peaceful exercise of the right to academic freedom so long as those activities are undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Actions aimed at limiting research and learning harm academic freedom and undermine society generally.

Update: In late December 2017, EUSP was forced to relinquish ownership of its main campus building. The university is nevertheless continuing to seek to renew its license.

Update: In August 2018, EUSP officials announced that Rosobrnadzor restored the university’s license after it filed a fourth license application. As of this update, EUSP is planning to welcome new students as well as students who were forced to leave the university in 2017.