BREAKING: Fletcher School severs relationship with two Russian universities in response to war against Ukraine

The Ukrainian flag is captured on display in The Fletcher School at Tufts on March 15. Natalie Brownsell / The Tufts Daily

The Fletcher School at Tufts University announced it will break off its academic relationship with the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), an elite research university under the umbrella of the Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the wake of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Fletcher also cut ties with the National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE), another Russian institution, earlier this month.

“Fletcher has had an eight year relationship with MGIMO,” Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School, wrote in an email to Fletcher students and faculty on Feb. 15. “It was established at a time of declining relations between the West and Russia as a means to strengthen understanding through open dialogue. Today we have made the decision to end that relationship because the University cannot in good conscience continue to have a formal relationship with an institution whose leadership has come out in favor of the war against Ukraine.”

Patrick Collins, executive director of media relations, echoed Kyte’s sentiment that continuing the Fletcher-MGIMO partnership runs contrary to Tufts’ morals.

Stephanie Schwartz, director of communications at Fletcher, further explained the decision to end the Fletcher-MGIMO partnership in a written statement to the Daily.

Recently, the Rector of MGIMO endorsed the war against Ukraine,” Schwartz wrote. “Fletcher leadership indicated to the Rector its strong disagreement with his and other Rectors’ support for the war, and expressed support for the brave alumni, faculty and students of MGIMO who have called for meaningful peace negotiations and an immediate end to the war.”

The MGIMO Press Office did not respond to the Daily’s request for comment.

In addition to being a highly ranked university, MGIMO is a think tank and feeder to the upper echelons of the Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s minister of foreign affairs, is the chairman of MGIMO’s Board of Trustees.

Tufts is not the first university in the Greater Boston area to join in the chorus of voices denouncing Russia’s aggression and the institutions complicit in it. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced on Feb. 25 that it would end its partnership with the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology. The member page of MGIMO on the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs website has also been taken down, suggesting that the association has also severed its relationship with the Russian university.

Before Fletcher cut ties with MGIMO, Tufts Professor of Political Science Oxana Shevel spoke to the Daily about why the partnership with the Russian university needed to be terminated. Shevel, who is the president of the American Association for Ukrainian Studies, a country expert on Ukraine for Global Citizenship Observatory and an associate of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, said it was a straightforward question of morality whether to continue the relationship in light of the MGIMO administration’s public support of Putin’s war.

MGIMO — its administration, its deans — are justifying this invasion of Ukraine,” Shevel said. “They’re parroting Russian propaganda, their deans have been on BBC talking about it, justifying the war … the president of the whole university signed an open letter in support of the war. … As far as I look at it, it’s completely morally unacceptable for Tufts to be affiliated with an institution like this.”

She qualified her condemnation of the Fletcher-MGIMO academic partnership with an acknowledgement that many students at MGIMO have spoken out against the war in an open letter, defying the university’s public position.

“That’s not to say that [Fletcher] cannot cooperate in different ways and give a platform to, say, students or occasional faculty in MGIMO who may speak against [the war],” Shevel said.

Before Tuesday, MGIMO students were enrolled jointly with Fletcher students in a course on U.S.-Russia relations taught by Fletcher professor and Co-Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program Chris Miller. The MGIMO students met virtually with their Fletcher counterparts and collaborated on academic projects. In previous semesters, students enrolled in the joint course have traveled to meet each other in-person as well. In her Tuesday email, Kyte wrote that — effective immediately — MGIMO students would no longer participate in the course.

Sam Bonelli, a second-year Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate at Fletcher enrolled in the U.S.-Russia Relations course, said the decision to sever the Fletcher-MGIMO relationship stifles dialogue between Russia and the U.S. at a critical juncture in global politics.

While I agree that we cannot in good faith have a relationship with any entity that endorses the war and adamantly denies the harms happening, this decision only supports the Kremlin’s agenda, reinforcing the narrative that the West is trying to strangle Russia,Bonelli wrote in an email to the Daily. “This course was created in response to deteriorating relations between the West and Russia to foster open dialogue – we cannot end it when dialogue is needed most.”

Bonelli said that Kyte’s announcement email came as a surprise to Fletcher students enrolled in the U.S.-Russia Relations course.

We had no idea this was happening and we learned at the same time as everyone else,” she wrote. “We had group presentations (groups made up of Fletcher and MGIMO students) scheduled for tomorrow and were completely caught off guard.”

Bonelli believes that the MGIMO students in the course have yet to receive the news in an official capacity, which she thinks reflects poorly on Fletcher and on U.S. dialogue with Russia more generally.

“As far as I know, MGIMO students have not found out about [the end of the Fletcher-MGIMO partnership] in an official capacity,” she wrote. “I can’t help but think about how they are feeling and reacting to our abrupt absence.”

Taylor, another Fletcher student enrolled in the U.S.-Russia Relations course who requested that their name be omitted to protect their privacy, echoed Bonelli’s sentiment that ending its collaboration with MGIMO is counterproductive to Fletcher’s mission as a school of law and diplomacy.

“There’s no one that’s going to be affected by this except for everyone in the class,” Taylor said. “It’s not going to do anything other than potentially prevent criticism of [Fletcher], which is my perception of the move.

Taylor said the joint Fletcher-MGIMO course was valuable for helping Fletcher students gain insights into both the Russian diplomatic perspective and the Russian media landscape as Putin wages war on Ukraine. They stressed that their disappointment that the class will not move forward jointly with MGIMO students does not equate to an endorsement of Russian aggression.

“No Fletcher students are supportive of Russia’s invasion and none of us were convinced by the narrative of a special military operation in Donbass as they were claiming, which is the Kremlin’s official narrative,” Taylor wrote in an email to the Daily.

The course will move forward with only Fletcher students, but Taylor and Bonelli expect the absence of their MGIMO classmates to significantly weaken the course’s impact.

“What is a U.S.-Russia relations course with only U.S. perspectives? Bonelli said.

Fletcher also terminated its academic partnership with HSE University. The partnership previously consisted of a joint course titled International Environmental Law, co-taught by Visiting Fletcher Professor David Wirth and HSE University Professor Daria Boklan and available to both Fletcher and HSE University students.

Fletcher’s relationship with the Higher School of Economics has ended this month and we have given notice to them that we are not renewing the agreement at this time,” Schwartz wrote.

Kyte did not mention the end of Fletcher’s relationship with HSE University in her March 15 email to Fletcher students and faculty.

Ty Blitstein contributed reporting to this article.


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