American Universities Impose Sanctions Against Russia

Higher education's response sends a strong message of opposition to Russian aggression. However, these measures punish individuals not responsible for the incursion and likely won't influence political decisions.

March 18, 2022 · Updated on March 18, 2022

Edited by Darlene Earnest
American Universities Impose Sanctions Against Russia
Global EDU Opinion & Analysis
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  • In response to the invasion of Ukraine, U.S. universities imposed sanctions against Russia.
  • These include barring Russian students, canceling study abroad programs, and severing ties.
  • Higher education has been a sanctioning tool numerous times in history.
  • These measures against Russia are largely symbolic, affecting relatively few people.

Russia's military invasion of Ukraine has prompted a worldwide response. The U.S. has joined with other G-7 countries and the European Union to institute economic sanctions designed to isolate Russia from the global financial system.

What has been the response among American colleges and universities? Have they put their own sanctions in place? And to what end?

Unplugging Russia From the Global Economy

Worldwide reaction to Russia's invasion of Ukraine is unprecedented, says a Harvard scholar.

"We've never seen anything like it," said Alexandra Vacroux, executive director of Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. "Russia is the 11th-largest economy in the world. The other countries that have been sanctioned like this — and no one has been sanctioned to this extent — have been tiny compared to Russia."

Vacroux noted Russia could see a decline in its gross domestic product at a Great Depression level. Sanctions are preventing Russians from importing consumer goods, as well as oil and gas, and have effectively frozen assets at Russian banks. Nearly 400 companies — including Apple, Netflix, McDonald's, and General Motors — are pulling out of the country.

At the same time, these measures threaten to disrupt global energy and stock markets, along with the agricultural supply because Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of wheat and fertilizer.

"The U.S. has done practically everything it can to sanction all parts of the Russian economy, which will have a devastating effect as time goes on," Angela Stent, a former national intelligence officer for Russia at the National Intelligence Council, told CNN.

Higher Education Implements Its Own Sanctions

Colleges nationwide are individually and collectively implementing their own forms of sanctions. These moves are largely symbolic and impact relatively few people. In 2020-21, fewer than 5,000 Russian students were enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities, representing less than 1% of all international students.

Still, these sanctions do affect international scholarly exchanges and research collaborations. And they prevent wealthy Russian families from accessing American higher education for their children.

Here's a roundup of what measures have been suggested and taken thus far.

Barring Russian students from U.S. colleges. In February, U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) said the U.S. should consider "kicking every Russian student out of the United States." U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) echoed the sentiment, tweeting, "These Russian students are the sons and daughters of the richest Russians. A strong message can be sent by sending them home."

That hasn't happened, though the notion of preventing the children of wealthy Russian oligarchs from attending American colleges has gained traction.

"What we're talking about here is seizing their assets, seizing their yachts, and making it harder for them to send their children to colleges and universities in the West," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

Not everyone agrees with this tactic.

Writing in "Reason," Fiona Harrigan calls it "a misguided proposal that will drive a wedge between the U.S. and people who would be well-served by American values."

Barbara Snyder, president of the Association of American Universities, agrees.

"In our country, we do not punish children for the crimes of their parents," she told NPR. "You have to think carefully about the consequences of targeting people because of their country of origin."

Harrigan also notes that not all Russians studying in the U.S. come from wealthy families and that blocking access to American colleges likely would do nothing to quell the violence.

"[I]f massive, debilitating sanctions meant to cut Russia off from the global economy haven't yet convinced [Russian President Vladimir]Putin to stop his assault on Ukraine," she writes, "it's hard to see how expelling Russian students would."

Suspending study abroad programs. Some colleges have canceled programs in Russia and Ukraine and have removed students currently studying there. Here again, the numbers are relatively small. In 2018, roughly 1,400 American students were studying abroad in those countries.

Citing safety concerns, Middlebury College suspended its Russia program for spring 2022, and the 12 students in the program — including three from Middlebury and nine from other schools — are returning home. Dartmouth College's Russian language program in St. Petersburg also will not run this spring.

And the Council on International Educational Exchange announced it is suspending spring 2022 programs in St. Petersburg, moving students to other locations in Eastern Europe.

Halting academic exchanges. One day after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) severed its relationship with the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow.

"This step is a rejection of the actions of the Russian government in Ukraine," MIT said in an announcement.

At the Texas A&M University system, Chancellor John Sharp directed officials across its 11 campuses to "immediately dissolve all agreements with Russian entities, specifically those relating to academics, research, and intellectual property." Those activities include cooperative research and visiting faculty positions.

Similar bans have been instituted in Germany and the U.K., where collaborations with Russian academics have been discontinued. Russian scientists also have been excluded from publishing in academic journals.

Such actions could be viewed as unfair given that many Russian academics have publicly expressed opposition to their country's aggression.

Students, alumni, and faculty at Moscow State University issued a statement saying, "We cannot imagine the depth of the wound that we, as the people of Russia, are inflicting on the people of Ukraine and ourselves right now."

Divesting in Russian assets. Several states and universities have pulled investments out of Russia. Following a request from Gov. Jared Polis, the University of Colorado said it would divest all holdings in Russia, including $3.5 million in mutual funds. In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin urged the state's public universities to divest from all Russian holdings. And in Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine signed an executive order requiring public universities to divest funds from Russia.

In Arizona, the Board of Regents instructed the presidents of Arizona's public universities to exit investments in Russian assets and announced its intention to exclude them from the board's retirement plan. The three Arizona universities have about $4 million invested in Russian assets.

"[W]e hope our actions are meaningful and signal our condemnation, in the strongest possible terms, of the illegal invasion of the sovereign nation of Ukraine," wrote Fred DuVal, chair-elect of the Arizona Board of Regents, in Higher Ed Dive.

Among individual institutions, Syracuse University announced its intent to dump Russian investments, modest as they are. Those investments constitute roughly .01% of the university's endowment, or about $135,000.

At the universities with the five largest endowments — Harvard, the University of Texas system, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton — it's unclear how much money is invested in Russian assets. Harvard spokesperson Jason Newton told the student newspaper The Crimson that the university doesn't hold direct investments in Russian companies.

The Yale Daily News notes the university recently pulled millions of dollars of its endowment from Russian investments and eliminated all financial exposure to the country. That translates to about $10.5 million.

"Economic sanctions are the leverage that our country — and most of the world — have chosen to exert pressure on Russia," Arizona Regent DuVal wrote. "It is not yet clear whether the sanctions to date will have sufficient depth, breadth and bite to be effective, but going forward, this is on us."

Historical Examples of Educational Sanctions

The extent of the sanctions against Russia may be unprecedented, but it's not the first time higher education has been involved in retaliatory measures during international conflicts.

During World War II, thousands of Japanese American college students on the West Coast and their families were evacuated or relocated to internment camps. And in the 1970s and 1980s, dozens of universities divested from South Africa in opposition to apartheid.

More recently, following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, hundreds of Middle Eastern students left the U.S. for their home countries, citing growing hostility. In the years following, increased security made it difficult for Saudi Arabians to attain visas. As a result, the number of Saudi students in the U.S. fell 44% between 2001 and 2004.

Efforts to ban students from Muslim countries continued under President Donald Trump. His 2017 order preventing citizens of seven Muslim countries from entering the U.S. had implications for some 17,000 students at the time.

In 2015-16, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia ranked among the top 15 countries of origin for international students in the U.S. The ban also left many American professors holding dual citizenship in those countries stranded while traveling abroad.

As was the case with these historical precedents, today's sanctions against Russia serve as a political statement but also impact the lives of people not directly responsible for the conflict.

"Leaders need to make a distinction between Putin and Russian people who want a better life," Jill Welch, a senior advisor for the Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, told NPR. "Sending anyone back wouldn't shorten any war by a day."