On June 21, 2021, the Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office announced the designation of Bard College, a liberal arts college in New York, as an “undesirable foreign organization.”
Russia’s law on “undesirable” organizations, passed in May 2015, seeks to limit the influence of nonprofit and non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funding, namely from the European Union and the United States.
Bard College collaborated with St. Petersburg State University (SPbU) in 1999 to form Smolny College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, a joint-degree program that enrolled 600-650 students who would receive degrees from both Bard and SPbU. Bard also operates student exchange programs and Russian-language training in Russia.
The Prosecutor-General’s Office listed Bard as “undesirable,” the 35th foreign organization to be added to the list, because it “represents a threat to the constitutional order and security of the Russian Federation.” The designation means that individuals working in Russia on behalf of Bard are subject to fines and imprisonment, effectively banning the school’s activities and operations in the country. Bard is the first international higher education institution to be added to Russia’s “undesirable foreign organizations” list.
On June 22, SPbU annulled its relationship with Bard, informed Bard officials that they would no longer serve on advisory boards in the country, and decided not to award Bard degrees to the most recent class of dual-degree graduates. Bard’s president, Leon Botstein, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that since the announcement, the university was unable to contact colleagues in Russia, as it puts individuals at risk of imprisonment for having any contact with the school. Botstein said he believes that Bard is “collateral damage of international politics.” The Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office has yet to disclose the reasoning behind marking Bard as “undesirable.”
Scholars at Risk is concerned about a decision by national policymakers to exclude a higher education institution, its students and faculty, from engagement within a state, apparently based on political or ideological (rather than academic) considerations. Attempts to limit international academic exchange undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.