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 07, 2024

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):Institute of International Education

Region & Country:Europe | Russia

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On March 7, 2024, Russia’s Foreign Ministry designated the Institute of International Education (IIE)–a nonprofit that facilitates international educational exchange, including the US government-funded Fulbright program–an “undesirable organization,” for allegedly implementing “anti-Russian programs and projects aimed at recruiting ‘agents of influence’ under the guise of educational and cultural exchanges.”

Fulbright is a cross cultural educational and research program aimed at providing individuals experience living and working aboard. For non-American citizens, Fulbright offers the scholarship recipients teaching or research placements within the United States. Historically in Russia, Fulbright has been seen as a highly prestigious scholarship; during the Cold War, the program helped facilitate academic exchanges between the Soviet Union and the United States. However, recently top Russian officials have claimed that participants in US-sponsored exchange programs–particularly alumni of the Fulbright program, who have returned to Russia—are potential spies. For example, the head of Russia’s intelligence service, accused the United States of interfering in elections by “activating” former Fulbrighters and other Russian citizens who have participated in educational exchanges in the US to “replace the non-systemic opposition that fled en masse to the west and become the core element of the fifth column.”

In designating IIE as undesirable, Russian citizens risk persecution and up to six years of prison time if found to be in “collaboration” with the organization, including as participants in the Fulbright program. According to the United States’ State Department, around 100 Russian Fulbright scholars, including graduate students and foreign-language teaching assistants, were studying in the United States at the time of IIE’s undesirable designation.

IIE’s designation comes amidst a larger crackdown on universities and research organizations, including the designation of the Moscow-based Free University and Bard College as undesirable organizations (see report and report). Passed in May 2015, the “undesirable organization” law (Article 20.33 of Russia’s Code of Administrative Offences) provides Russia’s Prosecutor General and Foreign Ministry with the power to register foreign or international institutions as undesirable organizations if they present a “threat to the defensive capabilities or security of the state, to the public order, or to the health of the population.” Entities registered as undesirable organizations are banned from operating in Russia. Non-governmental organizations in Russia that work with or are supported by organizations classified as undesirable can be charged with violating the law. Since the law was passed, a growing number of foreign organizations that have been publicly critical of human rights conditions in Russia have been registered under this title. Those affiliated with an undesirable organization could face fines, restrictions on activities, travel bans, or jail sentences of up to four years.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about apparent retaliation against an independent university in response to its political or ideological affiliations. State authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with the peaceful exercise of the rights to academic freedom and freedom of association, so long as those activities are undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Actions aimed at limiting research and collaboration harm academic freedom and undermine society generally.