Academics stand against Brazilian government

PSU staff members join the 17,000 signatories on open letter to Brazil

17,000 professors and graduate students, including 11 from Portland State, have signed an open letter addressed to Brazil to protest President Jair Bolsonaro’s announcement that the government would  “decentralize investments in philosophy and sociology” at public universities across the country.

Among the PSU signees are graduate students Bernie Smith and Elizabeth Hulen, Assistant Professor of Sociology Dr. Daniel Jaffee and Assistant Professor of Social Sciences Tina Burdall. Dr. Cassio de Oliveira, an assistant professor of Russian at the PSU Department of World Languages and Literatures, also signed the letter.

“I wanted to show my solidarity with my colleagues in Brazil and with the Brazilian academic system where I spent the first two years of my undergraduate education,” Oliveira explained. “I am neither a philosopher nor a sociologist, but an attack against these disciplines is a de facto attack against humanistic inquiry. It displays not only the animosity toward the humanities and related social sciences that we’ve come to expect from fascists, but it is also incredible shortsighted and ignorant.”

Assistant Professor of Sociology Dr. Aaron Roussell said he was compelled to sign the letter when he recognized similarities between the United States and Brazil in the countries’ leaders’ approach to education.

“I think Brazil is a bit further down the fascist spiral than we are, but that’s mainly a result of our relative world positions,” Roussell said. “What Bolsonaro is doing to education in Brazil by fiat is being done here [in the U.S.] by a general investment on multiple fronts, [President Donald] Trump being only the most obvious.”

Harvard PhD students Derick Baum and Mo Torres organized the open letter addressed to Brazil after Bolsonaro’s announcement. The letter criticizes the Brazilian government, claiming the funding cuts would lead to the limiting of students’ learning at public universities. It calls Bolsonaro’s announcement “ill-conceived” and claims the cut in funding “violates principles of academic freedom that ought to be integral to systems of higher education.”

“Public universities are the leading research institutions in Brazil,” Baum told Vanguard. “Areas that lack financial backing from the government will not be able to produce scholarly work and are bound to vanish. But the Bolsonaro administration has consistently shown little concern with keeping itself honest about its goals regarding education.”

Bolsonaro also announced the funding cut would be redirected to “areas that give immediate returns to taxpayers, such as veterinary science, engineering and medicine.”

“The Brazilian Ministry of Education clarifies that resources destined to any fields of knowledge will be analyzed in order to prioritize those that, at that given moment, best suit the demands of the population,” the Brazilian Ministry of Education told Vanguard. “In this regard, there is no reason to talk about losses or gains. It is only a matter of adjusting to our national reality.”

Bolsonaro has claimed Brazilian public universities spread a  “Marxist ideology” and said he plans to remove references to feminism, homosexuality and violence against women from textbooks.

“[Bolsonaro] believes that humanities and social sciences departments are hotbeds of left-wing, especially communist, activity,” Oliveira said. “Once he gets rid of these departments, he will probably move on to something resembling the wet dream of Brazilian neoliberals, which is to privatize the public higher education system.”

As of May 1, Brazil cut funding to multiple public universities throughout the country by 30%. The cuts led several hundred students, teachers and administrators to organize rallies and protests.

“We [in Brazil] approved a national education plan, with clear objectives to meet,” Nilton Brandao, president of one of the largest teacher unions in Brazil, told The Washington Post. “It’s a project that has been approved and that is still in vigor. The government is ignoring this plan. They don’t want to discuss education.”

The cuts will affect the maintenance of public universities around the country. Bolsonaro has claimed the new budget cuts are part of a plan to reduce all government spending.

Make no mistake about it: Bolsonaro and his minions are dead-set on their plan to change for the worse Brazilian public higher education, which since the postwar era and especially over the past decade, has been a key agent of social justice and economic equality,” Oliveira added.

Baum said he and Torres were unsure of the effect the letter would have in the future. “More than 17,000 academics and other people who care about education across the globe have signed the letter—people from Mexico, Zambia, Argentina, [the] United Kingdom, Israel, Lesotho, Hungary, Japan, Brazil and many other nations.”

“We think that organizing this event is a symbolic act of global resistance against the fascist policies of the Bolsonaro administration,” Baum said.

“I signed the letter because I agree with its basic sentiments,” Roussell said. “I don’t have high hopes that Bolsonaro, or Trump for that matter, will read it and recoil in horror at his mistake, but I do hope to help inspire academic to leave their ivory tower and fight for their—and everyone’s—right to a free, quality education that is critical and comprehensive rather than simply job training.”