How U.S. higher ed is reacting to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is reverberating in U.S. higher education and highlighting the sector’s global ties.

Colleges’ actions show the different roles institutions large and small fill during moments of global conflict. Higher ed institutions shape international relations, even as they are affected by them. Their faculty members attempt to help the public understand crises, and their leaders have a unique bully pulpit that allows them to discuss current events and values that are bigger than any one organization.

Here are a few of the notable ways colleges have reacted to the unfolding conflict.

MIT cuts ties with institute it helped start in Russia

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Friday told the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, or Skoltech, that it is ending a long-standing relationship between the two research institutions. The step is a result of unacceptable military actions by Russia, MIT said in a statement posted to its Skoltech program website.

“We take it with deep regret because of our great respect for the Russian people and our profound appreciation for the contributions of the many extraordinary Russian colleagues we have worked with,” the statement said.

MIT played a major role in Skoltech’s founding in October 2011. The private nonprofit institution started working with the Skolkovo Foundation — which was backed by the Russian government under then-President Dmitry Medvedev — in 2010, according to a news release from the time. MIT has said it consulted with the U.S. Department of State on the effort.

The partnership sought to build Skoltech as a private graduate research university focusing on technology and entrepreneurship.

MIT helped develop the institute outside of Moscow, which graduated its first class of master’s students in 2015. Skoltech’s founding president, Edward Crawley, is an engineering professor at MIT who went on leave from the Massachusetts institution while he led the Russian startup for several years. Skoltech’s first course on innovation operated remotely from MIT’s campus, and an MIT campus advising team worked on the institute, among other connections. 

MIT has also said the partnership presented opportunities for those based in the U.S., such as helping MIT reintroduce Russian language instruction after a nearly two-decade absence and giving MIT students the chance to travel to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

But the partnership has come with its difficulties. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Education cited MIT’s relationship with Skoltech when it asked MIT for more information about its relationship with foreign governments and groups. The Ed Department’s inquiry came amid a larger effort looking into university funding from foreign sources that often drew attention for its scrutiny of ties to China.

Still, MIT renewed its partnership with Skoltech that year. MIT had reviewed “the broader U.S.-Russia relationship,” its associate provost for international activities, Richard Lester, said in a statement at the time. Working with others around the world committed to scientific inquiry and free exchange of ideas are MIT core values, Lester said. 

Crawley told WGBH in 2020 that Skoltech was part of MIT’s international policy.

“We won’t build MIT campuses around the world, but we will help other universities develop along the lines of MIT,” Crawley said, according to WGBH. “This is a manifestation of the foreign policy of MIT — to create like-minded institutions around the world.”

MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, wrote Sunday that severing the connection “comes with considerable sadness.” MIT is working with its researchers who have been involved with Skoltech to transition postdocs to other projects and ensure students can complete their academic work.

It’s not the first time Russia’s actions have directly affected a U.S. college. Russia labeled Bard College an undesirable foreign nongovernmental organization last year, essentially banning it from the country. Bard had partnered with St. Petersburg State University to found a liberal arts college, Smolny College, about 25 years earlier.

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