Winners of Fundamental Academic Values Prize Discuss Academic Freedom Research

CEU alumna Elizaveta Potapova and recent CEU Research Fellow Milica Popović were recently honored with 'Fundamental Academic Values’ Awards from the German Academic Exchange Service’s (DAAD) for their outstanding research on academic freedom, conducted at CEU. They received their awards at a ceremony in Berlin this summer, hosted by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

Potapova holds a PhD in Political Science from CEU’s Doctoral School in Political Science, Public Policy and International Relations. She received the award for her article “Speaking Up at Work: Narrative Analysis of Academic Freedom in Russia”. The research analyzed how academics and researchers in Russia make sense of their work and professional freedom while experiencing the pressures of the authoritarian regime. Potapova is currently a senior researcher at the Public Policy and Management Institute (PPMI) in Lithuania and is involved in the Erasmus+ project "New building blocks of the Bologna Process: fundamental values", which is working to develop a system of monitoring for academic fundamental values.

Popović, a Postdoctoral Fellow from 2021-23 at CEU, led the Global Observatory on Academic Freedom and was awarded for her work published in June 2022 and which was also the first global report of the observatory: “Changing Understandings of Academic Freedom in the World at the Time of Pandemic”, co-authored with Liviu Matei and Danièle Joly. The report provided an overview of the existing international level regulatory frameworks regarding academic freedom, as well as the latest developments in research and reporting on academic freedom. It also offered a systematic insight into new, sometimes contentious, conceptions of academic freedom and attempted to redefine the term. Popović is a political scientist, currently working as an independent researcher and consultant.  She continues to work on fundamental values as Representative of the Republic of Austria in the Bologna Follow-up Group. She is currently also working on a book based on her PhD research topic of Yugonostalgia, and is preparing a new research project on ‘memory narratives of desertion’, which will start with a visiting fellowship at the Institute of Contemporary History in Ljubljana in October 2023.

CEU spoke with Potapova and Popović about their award-winning work on academic freedom and why research on this topic is particularly important in today’s world.

CEU: What does the Fundamental Academic Values Award recognition mean to you?

Milica Popović: Whenever a scholar receives recognition, they have the feeling of being seen by a wider audience; seeing our research reach wider society beyond the academic community. What has been especially important for me is to see the work I have done on academic freedom be internationally recognized and honored at the European level. And of course, recognition is always a good motivator to continue the good work, especially for early career scholars. Last and not least is the significance of a financial award, given the precarious conditions of early career scholars. It is very important for the academic community, as another reminder that financial means are required for science to continue to exist.

Elizaveta Potapova: As an early career professional, this award was an important indication of the value of my academic work. It offered validation and reassurance that there are ways to continue the work in this area regardless of my affiliations. The topic that I research, academic freedom in Russia, is important to discuss, not just for area studies scholars, but for people outside of Russian studies as well. This project, among others, opens a discussion of what people in states with non-democratic regimes can do in terms of fighting for academic freedom while living in restricted conditions.

CEU: How did the environment at CEU foster your research on academic freedom?

Elizaveta Potapova: I can see two very helpful aspects: One was the environment of CEU’s Doctoral School in Political Science, Public Policy and International Relations, which creates an interdisciplinary platform for discussion and working on one’s research, while continuously getting feedback from peers over the years. My colleagues definitely contributed to the research I was making by questioning the assumptions and bringing their perspectives. The other important aspect was being involved in the higher education research group made up of CEU’s Elkana Center and PhD students working on higher education policy. Having these regular meetings with a small group of topic enthusiasts was a fantastic way to receive feedback and proceed with the overall intellectual endeavor.

Milica Popović: I led the Global Observatory on Academic Freedom at CEU, which was founded by Professor Liviu Matei. It was funded and supported by the Open Society University Network as part of the Elkana Center. The Observatory fostered relationships through individual connections with some brilliant academics working in the field, like Maria Kronfeldner, a professor from the Department of Philosophy, and students such as Vladislav Siiutkin, a CEU MA graduate who won our prize for the student essay contest.

CEU: Elizaveta, what were your most important insights related to your research on declining academic freedom in Russia?

Elizaveta Potapova: An important finding ended up being not necessarily the discussion about the decline of academic freedom, per se, but observing the strategies that people within an authoritarian regime use to perform as academic professionals. People are finding pockets of freedom to sustain their research integrity, even though sometimes it might be seen as a limiting experience. Understanding ways to preserve one's academic identity and self-respect under harsh conditions was something very important for me to include and explore.

CEU: Milica, what were some of the findings from your first report on the Global Observatory on Academic Freedom?

Milica Popović: The report aimed to understand where the protection of academic freedom currently stands in terms of international regulations, and to understand why at this specific time there is a need to pay closer attention to the way in which we understand academic freedom. It is particularly important when certain terms become buzzwords in political and policy areas. Academic freedom today is at the center of various policy efforts within the European Commission and the European Parliament, therefore many diverse initiatives are happening at the same time and in parallel.

Providing a truly scholarly view on the question, it was important to underline that research on academic freedom requires a global and multi-level approach. It is critical to understand who defines academic freedom and for whom; and to make sure that the definition of academic freedom is not being produced top-down, but rather by the scholarly community itself.

Another important takeaway from the research was to avoid the trap of looking at the usual suspects. Academic freedom is not endangered only in authoritarian environments. We are, unfortunately, witnessing endangerment of academic freedom also in Western so-called democratic countries. Furthermore, the infringements on academic freedom are not happening only once someone's direct word or voice is being silenced. There are many ways that infringements occur, and that's why it's important to look into the economy of academic freedom and the working conditions of academic staff and scholarly communities, which may influence contractual scholars or students.

CEU: Why is scientific research on academic freedom critical to establishing effective protections?  

Elizaveta Potapova: There is a need to strengthen the discussion on academic freedom with evidence and scholarly support. We need a common vocabulary and tools for assessment of health of academic freedom to efficiently protect it.

Milica Popović: It’s really important to explore the hidden threats that prevent science from flourishing. Without flourishing science, we cannot establish democratic societies. I would also add that, unfortunately, we are witnessing, in many places, infringements on academic freedom in the name of academic freedom. For example, in the United Kingdom there's a law on freedom of speech currently in the parliamentary process of adoption against which a large number of people in the academic community have voiced their concerns. We also see, for example, in the United States, far right groups claiming that their academic freedom has been endangered by “cancel culture” ostracizing them throughout the academic community. This all shows us that there is a conundrum about the understanding of academic freedom in the public space. It is important to return the ownership and the agency of the definition of academic freedom back to the academic community.