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The Brazilian president’s offensive against universities threatens democracy and recalls the dark years of the country’s dictatorship.
The students and faculty of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, one of Brazil’s top universities, woke up to a shock on September 16. Overnight, President Bolsonaro had named a new person head of the university—someone who had lost the university’s own elections for the post. While this move was technically legal, it broke with longstanding practice of respecting universities’ self-governance and autonomy. The move was nearly universally condemned as an affront to universities by faculty, staff unions, and student associations. And while this was one of the more high-profile cases since the start of Bolsonaro’s presidency, it was not the first.
Universities played an indispensable role in the resistance to the military dictatorship. Today, they continue to house student activism and prominent dissident thinking in defense of democracy.
In more than two-thirds of the twenty-five cases where this has occurred, Bolsonaro has flaunted his authority and put his thumb on the scale, reversing the results of internal elections to nominate politically conservative rectors. Meanwhile, his administration has enacted budget cuts designed to strangle the university system and stoked his base—through the dissemination of lies on social media and elsewhere—against universities. The consequences have been chilling; the acts and threats of violence against scholars during the last two years recall the dark years of the dictatorship. The potential roll-back of recent social gains could set the country back decades in terms of inclusion, particularly for its Black population. And without a functioning university system to amplify dissident voices or to offer factual counterpoints to the barrage of misinformation (on the threats to the Amazon, or COVID-19, for example), it is hard to imagine Brazil emerging from the crisis that has engulfed the country for the last few years.
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Educational reform has been a centerpiece of Brazil’s democratization—it was one of the most impactful reforms initiated by the Workers’ Party national administrations of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rouseff in the years 2003–2016. Since the democratic transition that occurred from 1984–1988, reformers of various political stripes have sought to democratize education, expanding access and moving its pedagogy away from its authoritarian origins. After the transition, formerly mobilized schoolteachers of the 1970s and 1980s moved into policymaking and managed to implement significant reforms as access to public education increased. The work of Paulo Freire—the radical educator and a key figure in the resistance to the military regime—became a central element of teacher training in Brazil, which incorporated his books, such as Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and his conceptions of education as liberatory. Beginning with the Lula administration, progressive ideas about gender equality, sexual equality, and racial equality were explicitly adopted in primary curricula across the country. The Lula era also saw the spread of the democratization of public higher education. Though in the early 2000s public higher education resembled that of the 1970s (with schools concentrated in wealthier areas and a predominantly white, elite student body), this started to change with a massive investment in the public university system between 2003–2014. During this period the federal government created nineteen new universities, adding new campuses in 173 cities and towns (primarily in the poorer North and Northeastern parts of the country) and doubling the number of available seats. Then, in 2012, the Quotas Law stated that, beginning in 2013, at least half of the entering classes in federal universities had to come from public high schools. Within that group, the percentage of Black and indigenous students had to reflect the demographic statistics of the state in which the university was located. The resulting changes have been dramatic. In 2018 Afro-descendent students, for the first time in the country’s history, comprised 50 percent of students in public higher education, a proportion at least five times higher than in the prior decade.
The far-right in Brazil has long seen the education sector as an important front in the cultural wars. Bolsonaro has exploited this to gain traction.
But Bolsonaro believes that these steps forward threaten the fabric of traditional Brazilian society. Preceding his presidential campaign, he went on the offensive against what he termed the “left-wing domination” of education in Brazil (by feminists, cultural Marxists, and other “subversives” intent on undermining Brazilian family values). The far-right in Brazil has long seen the education sector as an important front in the cultural wars, and Bolsonaro has exploited this to gain traction. The fake news campaign during the election—for example, that leftists distributed “gay kits” to indoctrinate children into homosexual lifestyles at public schools—was blatant misinformation, but appealed to religious voters. At his campaign events, Bolsonaro supporters chanted against Paulo Freire, the progressive educator, whose legacy Bolsonaro promised to remove from the ministry of education “with a flamethrower.”
Before assuming office, Bolsonaro and his party encouraged a witch-hunt style campaign, ominously called “school without [political] party” that encouraged high school and university students to covertly film and denounce teachers for “ideological indoctrination.” Since assuming office, the initiative has only gained momentum and has led to the introduction of dozens of bills in congress. His first education minister censored “gender ideology” from primary education, and since 2020 the federal government has taken an increasingly active role in censoring textbooks that reach public schools in order to promote conservative values.
However, universities are more difficult to reign in. With greater obstacles to censorship in higher education, Bolsonaro has attacked universities’ institutional autonomy as a way to curb “left-wing influence,” particularly in the process of selecting leadership. Every four years each of the country’s sixty-nine federal universities and thirty-eight federal education institutes are required by law to consult with their communities (usually via an election in a council) to select a rector. The name of the winner—along with the second and third place candidates— is sent to the president, who then formally makes the appointment.
It is not atypical for these elections to be hotly contested; the political affinities of candidates are no secret and unions and other groups often endorse candidates. But Bolsonaro and his education minister have consistently complained that universities have too much autonomy in the process. Thus, in May 2019 the government signed a decree forbidding rectors from appointing high level administrators. Instead, administrators would be appointed directly by casa civil in a process that would include vetting candidates’ social media profiles to check for leftist connections. During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bolsonaro attempted, and failed, to pass a decree eliminating the process, alleging exigencies of the public health crisis.
Nonetheless, he has been slowly and steadily blocking appointments, beginning with smaller universities and institutes and becoming increasingly bolder. The Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul was one of the first major universities to have their process reversed, and the symbolism was not lost on anyone. The third-place candidate appointed by Bolsonaro only received three of the seventy-seven votes of the university’s council, and was connected to a far-right congressperson who had promised to end left-wing domination of the university and who has celebrated this as an important victory. Whether or not the rector appointed by Bolsonaro is able to push his policies through, the university has been plunged into crisis.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s administration has implemented sharp budget cuts to interfere with the university system. In 2019 the budget of Federal Universities was cut by 30 percent, nearly bringing the system to a standstill and occasioning a broad wave of protests across the country. Yet, in 2020, the government went even further, announcing a cut of 4 Billion Reais (18 percent reduction) in their operating budgets. Social media has circulated images where darkened hallways lead to bathrooms without soap or toilet paper.
These cuts have hit newer universities particularly hard, with ten of them facing budget cuts of more than 40 percent. Uncoincidentally, these were the same universities created during the Workers’ Party years. Most emblematic of the Bolsonaro cuts has been the defunding of the Federal University of the Southern Bahia (the UFSB), a Lula-era university designed to serve the majority Black population of that state, the first (and currently only) university in Brazil with a Black woman rector. In the entire university system, the UFSB was the single hardest hit university, with over half of its non-personnel budget cut. In a recent interview, the rector described having to choose which bills to pay, and forgoing air conditioning in an effort to keep the university running.
Bolsonaro is banking on anti-intellectual and anti-leftist sentiments being strong enough to allow him to disfigure universities.
Bolsonaro and his top officials have also repeatedly spread rumors about universities and, in some cases, individual professors. Earlier this year, the education minister claimed that federal universities were growing marijuana and other synthetic drugs, a statement for which he was eventually sued for libel. Other claims have been that Brazil spends disproportionately on education, that universities have low academic output, that education is of low quality in Brazil, and that universities serve as centers of leftist indoctrination—among others still. Though these statements have been fact-checked and deemed false, they have found traction on social media. Memes about doctrinarian university professors and trouble-making students circulate constantly and are a consistent topic on conservative talk-radio.
These sentiments have also energized far-right groups that have found greater empowerment under this regime. Right wing organizations have escalated their harassment, from trolling book events to threatening the lives of individual professors who have been critical of the regime. There have been dozens of reported cases around the country, following the prominent cases of scholars such as Debora Diniz, and Marcia Tiburi, who have had to leave the country amidst threats of death and sexual violence. In 2019 Brazil earned the dubious distinction of being, for the first time, one of the countries named in the Scholars at Risk, Free To Think Report of 2019.
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Bolsonaro is certainly not alone among global far-right autocrats in his contempt for the intelligentsia, and throughout his career he has never kept his visceral hatred of intellectuals a secret. But these recent and insistent attacks on the university system go beyond dog-whistle cultural wars and represent a risky calculus: Brazil’s Federal university system enjoys wide respect in the country, and the free public education it currently provides to nearly one million students has been a beloved entitlement of the country for the last several decades. Most of the country’s scientific output, too, including its industrial R&D, rests on this public infrastructure. Bolsonaro is banking on anti-intellectual and anti-leftist sentiments being strong enough to allow him to disfigure universities.
It is hard to know if Bolsonaro’s gamble will pay off. The selection of university heads by the university’s own community is seen as an important cornerstone of Brazilian democracy and has been respected by all governments since the country’s transition from a military regime in the mid-1980s. Universities are publicly funded, and the process of selection of its rectors—and the autonomy this implies—is a way to prevent the overreach of regimes who would turn universities into mouthpieces. On one hand, Bolsonaro’s attacks on university autonomy have provoked resistance and legal challenges. But, on the other, even if in the case of Rio Grande do Sul (or in the cases that will no doubt follow), the conservative rector is unable to implement their platform owing to faculty and student resistance, the university has been nearly paralyzed in the chaos. This, in itself, achieves Bolsonaro’s goal of silencing universities and scholars. And, of course, it is impossible to measure the chilling effect this will surely have for the universities awaiting administrative appointment.
Universities played an indispensable role in the resistance to the military dictatorship. Today, they continue to house student activism and prominent dissident thinking in defense of democracy. They are also significant spaces for supporting the fragile public sphere in such an unequal country. For this reason, Bolsonaro’s offensive against universities threatens the country’s democracy. It is quite plausible that a fundamental retrenchment of public higher education will occur, returning university education to an era when it was mostly limited to white and wealthy students.
This undermining of higher education will also affect the country's scientific infrastructure, which relies on public universities.
But it is perhaps most difficult to estimate the impact this will have on the country’s scientific infrastructure. The entirety of scientific research in Brazil, from work on vaccines to climate and environmental science, relies on public universities. There simply isn’t a plausible alternative as might be available in a country with robust, research-oriented private universities. And here, the threat extends beyond Brazilian borders. Brazilian scientists have consistently clashed with Bolsonaro on COVID-19, fighting to provide accurate numbers and scientific alternatives to the government’s undercount and obscurantist directives. One of the most popular YouTube channels in Brazil is currently that of Átila Iamarino, a university biologist who has been providing regular, factually sound counter-narratives on the pandemic. Scientists, too, have clashed with the administration on environmental issues. For example, the administration has sought to deny evidence of fires in the Amazon, despite satellite imagery. Scientific evidence has also been indispensable in revealing the sharp increase in incursions on Indigenous land and the death of indigenous populations, facts Bolsonaro’s regime has sought to deny as it has sought to defund and silence dedicated research institutes on Indigenous affairs.While there has been ample and increasingly organized resistance from social movements and the scientific community on behalf of science and the university system in Brazil, it is impossible to know if it will be enough to overwhelm the destruction of the Bolsonaro administration.
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