Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats and the Future of Higher Education

Neo-Nationalism and Universities book cover

John Aubrey Douglass

Available through Johns Hopkins University Press and Project Muse.

With chapter contributions by

Brendan O'Malley
Wilhelm Krull and Thomas Brunotte
Marijk van der Wende
Igor Chirikov and Igor Fedyukin
Karin Fischer
Bryan Penprase
Elizabeth Balbachevsky and José Augusto Guilhon Albuquerque


The rise of neo-nationalism is having a profound and troubling impact on leading national universities and the societies they serve. This is the first comparative study of how today’s right-wing populist movements and authoritarian governments are threatening higher education.

Universities have long been at the forefront of both national development and global integration. But the political and policy world in which they operate is undergoing a transition, one that is reflective of a significant change in domestic politics and international relations: a populist turn inward among a key group of nation-states often led by demagogues that includes China and Hong Kong, Turkey, Hungary, Russia, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In many parts of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity for populists and autocrats to further consolidate their power. Within right-wing political ecosystems, universities, in effect, offer the proverbial canary in the coal mine—a window into the extent of civil liberties and the political environment and trajectory of nation-states.

In Neo-Nationalism and Universities, John Aubrey Douglass provides the first significant examination of the rise of neo-nationalism and its impact on the missions, activities, behaviors, and productivity of leading national universities. Douglass presents a major comparative exploration of the role of national politics and norms in shaping the role of universities in nation-states—and vice versa. He also explores when universities are societal leaders or followers: When they are agents of social and economic change, or simply agents reinforcing and supporting an existing social and political order.

In a series of case studies, Douglass and contributors examine troubling trends that threaten the societal role of universities, including attacks on civil liberties and free speech, despairing the validity of science, the firing and jailing of academics, and anti-immigrant rhetoric and restrictions on visas with consequences for the mobility of academic talent. Neo-Nationalism and Universities is written for a broad public readership interested and concerned about the rise of nationalist movements, illiberal democracies, and autocratic leaders.


“An engaging and important read. As Douglass and his collaborators make clear - ‘something’s going on’. This something, the rise of neonationalism and its consequences for universities in many countries around the globe, is a thorough and compelling account of the challenges facing universities. The authors point to the paradoxes at play, of the rise of anti-global sentiments and what this means for an historically global institution.” — Susan L. Robertson, Professor, University of Cambridge, UK

"While Neo-Nationalism and Universities does not provide all the answers, it is a must read for thinking about the very dangerous post-pandemic period we are now entering and the respective role of universities." — Nico Cloete, Research Professor of Higher Education Studies, DSI/NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

“This illuminating book explores the return and strengthening of authoritarian regimes that is threatening knowledge, as well as the academics who produce and diffuse it. Far from treating the neo-nationalism wave as a monolithic wave, the contributors to this necessary book reveal its alerting and growing influence, and provides a subtle and thorough analysis of the variety of its form and consequences.” — Christine Musselin, Sciences Po and CNRS, author of The Market for Academics and The Long March of French Universities

"The rise of neo-nationalism presents new questions about the relationships between higher education, governments and society. It also reopens the debate on older themes, including topics (e.g. academic freedom) we hoped had been largely resolved. The contributors to this volume carefully and eloquently analyze developments in a variety of countries, with a keen eye for the various guises of neo-nationalism, the particular national contexts in which it emerged, and the important ramifications for higher education." — Jeroen Huisman, Director - Centre for Higher Education Governance Ghent (CHEGG), Editor Higher Education Policy.

“Attempts to silence academics and control universities places democracy, development, and social well-being at risk. This book is an important warning for academics worldwide that democracy is fragile, and that Universities must be the frontline in the battle for its protection.” — Marcelo Knobel, Professor of Physics and former Rector at the University of Campinas, Brazil

“The historically complex interrelationship between universities and the societies of which they are a part has been thrown into even sharper relief in recent years by the growth of populism and neo-nationalism. This brilliantly insightful, well evidenced book by John Douglass and his international collaborators offers a unique and comprehensive analysis of contemporary tensions from a global perspective. It is not only timely and essential reading for today’s researchers, policy makers, educational leaders and engaged members of the wider public, it will stand for decades as the pivotal text on the topic.” — Maria Slowey, Professor and Director, Higher Education Research Centre (HERC), Dublin City University, Ireland

“The historically complex interrelationship between universities and the societies of which they are a part has been thrown into even sharper relief in recent years by the growth of populism and neo-nationalism. This brilliantly insightful, well evidenced book by John Douglass and his international collaborators offers a unique and comprehensive analysis of contemporary tensions from a global perspective. It is not only timely and essential reading for today’s researchers, policy makers, educational leaders and engaged members of the wider public, but it is set to stand for decades to come as the pivotal text on the topic.” — Maria Slowey, Professor and Director, Higher Education Research Centre (HERC) Dublin City University, Ireland.

“During the past two decades, we have witnessed the rise of nationalism and populism around the world. Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats and the Future of Higher Education is timely and welcome study of the impact of these movements on higher education, especially in the realm of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Of special value is the book’s exploration on the role universities play in accommodating and providing ideological cover for authoritarian and totalitarian rule.” —Vartan Gregorian, President Carnegie Corporation of New York

“In this illuminating and especially timely analysis, John Aubrey Douglass and his colleagues examine the political and cultural influences on what appears to be a rising trend toward neonationalism in universities in different parts of the world. Well informed, carefully grounded in astute research, and revelatory in its findings and implications, this book is also clearly written and easily understood – a stimulating set of insights for any reader who cares about universities and their future.”—Daniel Fallon, Professor Emeritus of Public Policy, University of Maryland at College Park, author of The German University: A Heroic Ideal in Conflict with the Modern World

“The leading higher education scholar John Aubrey Douglass has brought together an outstanding group of collaborators to examine one of the most disturbing trends of our time, the impact of illiberal nationalist movements on intellectual life. Under the new nationalists, the universities’ role as critic has declined precipitously, as has its role as impartial arbiter of truth-claims. The book makes necessary distinctions in the impact of the varieties of neo-nationalism, ranging from the limited constraints of nationalist-leaning governments through the more severe consequences for dissent, by employing a dispassionate analysis of authoritarian regimes.”—
Steven Brint, University of California–Riverside, author of Two Cheers for Higher Education

"Neo-Nationalism and Universities captures the breadth of the threat that right-wing populists, demagogues, and autocrats pose to both universities and their community of students and faculty and to civil society and international cooperation. In an analysis of the rise neo-nationalism based on case studies, Douglass and his colleagues outline how universities can be both responsive and influential." David Ward - former President of ACE and Chancellor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin-Madison

"A superb and very timely book, scholarly, original, and easy to read. I know of no other book that covers these issues in the same level of detail."—Nick Hillman, Director, Higher Education Policy Institute

"This volume makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the politics and policies of neo-nationalism in universities around the world. It will be useful to scholars of higher education, comparative education, and comparative politics, as well as higher education leaders and policymakers. Anyone concerned about the future of universities in liberal democracies should read this book."—Adam Nelson, University of Wisconsin–Madison, coauthor of The Global University Past, Present, and Future Perspectives


PREFACE: Something is Going On

John Aubrey Douglass (Research Professor UC Berkeley)

Chapter 1: Neo Nationalism and Universities in Historical Perspective

John Aubrey Douglass (Research Professor UC Berkeley)

Chapter 2: Neo-Nationalism and Universities: A Conceptual Model

John Aubrey Douglass (Research Professor UC Berkeley)

Chapter 3: The Mystery of Brexit: Tumult and Fatigue in British Higher Education

Brendan O’Malley (Editor University World News)

Chapter 4: Trumpian Nationalism and American Universities

John Aubrey Douglass (Research Professor UC Berkeley)

Chapter 5: Turbulent Times: Intellectual and Institutional Challenges for Universities in Germany, Hungary and Poland

Wilhelm Krull (Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation) and Thomas Brunotte (Executive Officer Volkswagen Foundation)

Chapter 6: Neo-Nationalism and Universities in Europe

Marjik van der Wende (Professor Higher Education Utrecht University)

Chapter 7: Turkish Academics in the Era of Erdoğan

Brendan O’Malley (Editor University World News)

Chapter 8: Nationalism Revived: China’s Universities Under President Xi

Karin Fischer (Chronicle of Higher Education and Research Associate Center for Studies in Higher Education UC Berkeley)

Chapter 9: Balancing Nationalism and Globalism - Higher Education in Singapore and Hong Kong

Bryan E. Penprase (Dean of Faculty Soka University) and John Aubrey Douglass (Research Professor UC Berkeley)

Chapter 10: The Role of Universities in Putin’s Russia: Reinforcing the State

Igor Chirikov (Senior Researcher Center for Studies in Higher Education UC Berkeley) and Igor Fedyukin (Higher School of Economic Moscow)

Chapter 11: Bolsonaro’s Brazilian Neo-Nationalism and Universities

Elizabeth Balbachevsky and José Augusto Guilhon Albuquerque

Contributors Biographies 

José Augusto Guilhon Albuquerque holds a doctorate in Sociology (Université Catholique de Louvain), a Habilitation in Political Science (University of São Paulo, Brazil), where he is Professor of Political Science - retired. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow with the USP’s Research Center for International Relations. He held visiting professorships at Georgetown University, Université Catholique de Louvain, Universidad Central de Venezuela and the Rio Branco Chair at Chatham House. His researches focus on Brazilian Domestic and Foreign Politics. At the University of São Paulo, he founded the Department of Political Science and served as Chief of Staff of the Rector. He also served as Chief of Staff of the State of São Paulo Department of Planning, and as Special Advisor to the Federal Minister of Planning, to the Speaker of the State of São Paulo Assembly, and to the Governor of the State of São Paulo. He published and edited numerous books and several dozens of scholarly articles in English, Spanish, French, German and Portuguese. He has been awarded the "Marcus Garvey Research Award" (Organization of American States), the "National Order of Scientific Honor"(Brazilian Government), “National Order of Defense” (Brazilian Government), the "Order of Ipiranga" (State of São Paulo), and the “Order of Rio Branco” (Brazilian Foreign Ministry).

Elizabeth Balbachevsky is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil, and Director, Center for Public Policy Research at the Institute for the Advanced of Studies (NUPPs/IEA-USP). Since 2013, she is also an invited lecturer at the Erasmus Mundus Master’s in Research and Innovation in Higher Education (MARIHE) at the Tampere University (TUNI), Finland. She was the Brazilian Ministry of Education´s General Coordinator for policies supporting HE internationalization between 2016 and 2017, a Fullbright New Century Scholar for 2005-2006, an Erasmus Mundus Scholar at the European Master’s in Higher Education Programme (2009). She is also the editor for Latin America in the new Springer’s Encyclopedia of International Higher Education Systems and Institutions

Thomas Brunotte is CEO of the “Hochschullehrerbund” (German association of professors of applied sciences). Until December 2020 he served as an Executive Assistant to the Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation and from 2008 – 2015 as a Program Manager for various funding initiatives. After finishing a “Studium generale” at the Leibniz Kolleg in Tübingen, Thomas Brunotte studied philosophy in Munich, Oxford, Paris, and Göttingen. He finished his doctoral thesis on Aristotle's metaphysics and philosophy of nature in 2009. In 2018 he completed an extra-occupational MBA program in “Education and Science Management” at the University of Oldenburg with a thesis on the autonomy of universities which are governed by independent foundations (Maecenata Institut, Berlin, Opusculum 110).

Igor Chirikov is Senior Researcher and the Director of the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium at the Center for Studies in Higher Education, UC Berkeley. His research involves student experience and learning outcomes, international comparative higher education (focusing on Russia and China), and organizational change in higher education. His papers were published in Studies in Higher Education, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, Higher Education Research and Development, Post-Soviet Affairs and other journals. His most recent co-edited book “International Status Anxiety and Higher Education: Soviet Legacy in China and Russia” (Springer, 2018) he explores how Soviet model of higher education and global competition impacts higher education systems in China and Russia.

John Aubrey Douglass is Senior Research Fellow and Research Professor - Public Policy and Higher Education at the Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) at the University of California - Berkeley. His research focuses on globalization and higher education, the role of universities in economic development and socioeconomic mobility, and the history of higher education. He is the author of The New Flagship University: Changing the Paradigm from Global Ranking to National Relevancy (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) and the follow-up book Envisioning the Asian New Flagship University (Berkeley Public Policy Press, 2017), The Conditions for Admissions (Stanford Press 2007), The California Idea and American Higher Education (Stanford University Press, 2000, and with Jud King and Irwin Feller (ed.) Globalization’s Muse: Universities and Higher Education Systems in a Changing World (Public Policy Press, 2009). Among the research projects he founded is the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium – a group of major research universities in the US and internationally that conduct survey research on undergraduates and graduate students and with member universities in China, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, the Netherlands, Germany, the UK and Russia. He is also the founding editor of the Center's Research and Occasional Paper Series (ROPS).

Igor Fedyukin is Director of the Center for Russian Imperial History at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow. He received his PhD in history from the University North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and was a Diderot Fellow and a Directeur d’Études Associésat Fondation Maison de Science de l’Hommein Paris, a visiting fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Washington, DC), and a Prokhorov Foundation fellow at the University of Sheffield. His works appeared in Theory and Society, Slavic Review, Russian Review, Kritika, Journal of Social History, and Journal of Interdisciplinary History, among others, and his monograph The Enterprisers: The Politics of School in Early Modern Russia is forthcoming with Oxford University Press in 2019. In 2012-2013 he was the Vice-Minister of Education and Science of the Russian Federation.

Karin Fischer is a journalist who focuses on higher education and a research associate with the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California at Berkeley. Her primary area of focus is international education, including American colleges' activities overseas, study abroad, the globalization of the college experience, and international-student recruitment, acculturation, and employability. She also writes about higher-education public policy in the states and about the relationship between colleges and the economy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Washington Monthly, and University World News. A graduate of Smith College, she received the East-West Center's Jefferson Fellowship for reporting in Asia and the International Reporting Project fellowship for work on education and gender, also in Asia. Her work has been honored by the Education Writers Association, the National Press Foundation, and the Poynter Institute.

Wilhelm Krull has been Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation since 1996. After studies in German, philosophy, education, and political science, he held an appointment as a DAAD lecturer at the University of Oxford as well as leading positions at the Wissenschaftsrat (German Council of Science and Humanities) and at the headquarters of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (Max Planck Society). Besides his professional activities in science policy as well as in the promotion and funding of research, he was and still is a member of numerous national, foreign, and international committees. At present he is the Chairman of the Board of the Foundation Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, a member of the Scientific Advisory Commission of the State of Lower Saxony and of the Board of Regents of several Max Planck Institutes. His latest book, Die vermessene Universität (Vienna: Passagen, 2017), deals with the impact of ratings and rankings in the development of European universities.

Brendan O'Malley is Chairman of Higher Education Web Publishing, publisher of University World News, and Managing Editor of the same global higher education publication. As a consultant for international organisations including UNESCO he has specialised for many years in research into political and military violence against education students, staff and institutions. He was author of the first two global studies on this issue, Education under Attack (UNESCO, 2007) and Education under Attack 2010 (UNESCO) and lead author of the third such study, Education under Attack 2014 (GCPEA). He has addressed many international conferences on both this issue and international relations related to the UK and US foreign policy and the Eastern Mediterranean. He is author of The Cyprus Conspiracy: America, Espionage and the Turkish Invasion (IB Taurus, 1999), which was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize and was a Guardian Book of the Year. He is a member of the non-partisan all-party Parliamentary Group Friends of Cyprus, which seeks a peaceful settlement of the Cyprus problem.

Bryan Penprase is Dean of Faculty at Soka University America, where he is developing new initiatives in Global Liberal Arts, as well as a new interdisciplinary Life Science concentration, and has been working on a variety of topics in global higher education and STEM education both as an academic leader and as a researcher in astrophysics. Prior to coming to Soka University of America, he was a founding faculty member of the Yale-NUS College in Singapore, where he served as the inaugural director of the Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching and Learning. In 2012-13 he served at Yale University as an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellow, where he was one of the authors of the blueprint for the Yale-NUS College Curriculum, and advised Yale’s President Salovey and the Yale Provost on topics ranging from online learning, Math education at Yale, and Teaching and Learning Centers. Dr. Penprase was a professor for 20 years at Pomona College, where he served as Chair of Physics and Astronomy, and worked on several projects related online learning and international liberal arts. Dr. Penprase received his BS in Physics and an MS in Applied Physics from Stanford University and a PhD from the University of Chicago in Astronomy and Astrophysics, with a postdoctoral fellowship at Caltech, before beginning his career as a professor and academic leader.

Marijk van der Wende is Distinguished Faculty Professor of Higher Education at Utrecht University’s Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance. Her research focuses on the impact of globalization and internationalization on higher education systems, institutions, curricula, and teaching and learning arrangements. She is also an affiliate faculty and research associate at the Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) at the University of California Berkeley, Guest Professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and member of the International Advisory Board of its Graduate School of Education. She is a member of the Academy of Europe and has been a chair and member of numerous national and international advisory committees and editorial boards. Previously she held full professorial positions at CHEPS, University of Twente, VU University Amsterdam, and was a visiting scholar at Harvard University (Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and Graduate School of Education), Shanghai Jiao Tong University (Center for World-Class Universities and Graduate School of Education), UC Berkeley (CSHE), and Boston College (Centre for International Higher Education). She served as Dean of Graduate Studies at Utrecht University, Founding Dean of Amsterdam University College, President of the programme on Institutional Management in Higher Education (IMHE) of the OECD, member of the Higher Education Authority Ireland, the Scientific Board of the Dutch Military Academy, and a range of other boards and advisory bodies.

Publication type: 



Blogs and News

Neo-Nationalism and University Talks