Censorship and Corruption at American University of Armenia

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By A Member of AUA Faculty
For The California Courier

[Ed. Note: The name of the author has been withheld at their request. Contrary to the editorial policy of The California Courier not to publish any opinion article anonymously, we have made an exception in this case to protect the writer from any personal harm.]

On December 16, 2020, forty-five American University of Armenia lecturers and staff members issued the following statement demanding Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation. The statement reads as follows:

“In light of the post-war crisis in the Republic of Armenia related to political, economic, social, and military affairs, and based on the government’s failure in its duty to guarantee the security of the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Artsakh: to protect the country’s sovereignty, national security and inviolability of national borders; to honor the heroes of war and properly exchange the prisoners of war, as well as to repatriate the remains of the deceased soldiers in a timely manner; to provide necessary assistance to the families of most affected communities; we, the undersigned faculty and staff members of the American University of Armenia (AUA), join the public demand for the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his government. (Disclaimer: AUA is a non-partisan educational institution. The views herein are those of individual signatories and do not reflect those of all AUA faculty and personnel, or the institution.)”

The signatories were: Aida Avanessian; Anna Avetisyan; Adelaida Baghdasaryan; Arshak Balayan; Gayane Barseghyan; David Davidian; Vache Gabrielyan; Rubina Gasparyan; Margarit Gevorgyan; Lilit Ghazaryan; Arpi Grigoryan; Aram Hajian; Louisa Harutyunyan; Mariam Harutyunyan; Ani Hovhannisyan; Garabet Kazanjian; Varak Ketsemanian; Mariam Khachatryan; Suren Khachatryan; Artur Lalayan; Suren Manukyan; Lilit Martirosyan; Nshan Matevosyan; Sharistan Melkonian; Vahagn Mikaelian; Lilit Minasyan; Nelli Minasyan; Vahe Movsisyan; Hovhannes Nikoghosyan; Vahe Odabashian; Victor Ohanyan; Armine Petrosyan; Lusine Poghosyan; David Kocharov; Ruben Safrastyan; Siranush Sahakyan; Thomas Samuelian; Karen Sarkavagyan; Lusine Shahmuradyan; Albert Stepanyan; Zareh Tjeknavorian; Vahram Ter-Matevosyan; Armine Vahanyan; Tatev Zargaryan; Sargis Zeytunyan.

A disturbing incident has taken place at AUA against the backdrop of a calamitous time in our nation’s history. Even AUA is not exempt from the Pashinyan propaganda machine. Recently, under the disingenuous title “Diversity of Opinion”, the AUA President and Interim Provost launched an attack on freedom of speech. In an unprecedented warning to the entire faculty, staff and student body, the AUA administration warned everyone against expressing any opinion that anyone at the university might disagree with on the fake grounds that it may reflect poorly on their colleagues or the university’s reputation. Failure to do so could lead to reprimand or termination of employment: in other words, either self-censor or risk your job.

In a disciplinary action against AUA faculty for their criticism of the government, the AUA Administration cited pressure from staunch Pashinyan supporters inside and outside the university who launched an organized attack on the University threatening to cut off donations on which the university depends. AUA, once thought to be an exemplary institution, has caved to political blackmail and shown that no institution is immune from corruption in the Pashinyan era. Using its hallmark “iron-fist in a velvet glove” tactics, the Pashinyan team will stop at nothing to hang on to power.

This circular and related actions against faculty and staff, including threats of termination for criticism of the government, compromises the integrity of the institution and protection of freedom of speech at AUA. They have zero tolerance for serious criticism that they cannot dismiss with their broad brush smear tactics. Nothing is out of bounds, nothing is sacred, not church, not universities, not diasporan institutions, not professors who have no political ambitions and simply call things as they see them in the interests of truth and the public welfare.

The statement included the following disclaimer: “Notice: AUA is a non-partisan educational institution. The views herein are those of individual signatories and do not necessarily reflect those of all AUA faculty and personnel, or the institution.” It is worth pointing out that a similar letter was circulated 2.5 years ago, without such a disclaimer, in support of Pashinyan and signed by several members of the faculty and staff. There was no such reprisal.

What ensued can only be described as Orwellian.

First, some faculty were surprised that their colleagues dared exercise their freedom of speech. That should raise eyebrows at a place like AUA where until now freedom of speech has been not just respected but a core value. Many of those leading the charge were self-described “liberals and supporters of civic society.” However, it soon became clear that what was unleashed against those who dared to speak their mind was a coordinated attack by the new leadership of AUA.

The wife of the provost deliberately caused chaos, embracing her task and abusing her role in the Faculty Senate of the university through a series of insults, character assassination, false accusations, and slander targeting the 45 signatories of the letter as well as to those who dared to defend the signatories’ freedom of speech. Throughout this rude and sometimes crude exchange, which was conducted in front of the nearly two dozen Faculty Senate members, the Director of Communications and the President of the University said nothing, silently allowing the abuse of their colleagues.

Neither an internal nor an external message was given by the university administration reminding everyone that these people had simply exercised their freedom of speech as individuals, hadn’t spoken in the name of the university, and that no policies were violated. Instead, the administration took sides with the repressors of freedom of speech. By their own admission, they felt pressure from outside the university, compromising the integrity of the university and independence of thought and expression.

Even AUA is not immune from corruption.

Moreover, no one from the university leadership reprimanded the inciters of slanderous and threatening invective in attempts at censoring peoples’ right to express themselves. How convenient that the wife of the provost was hired as a package-deal so that the Provost would join AUA at the time as Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. He was subsequently and hastily installed as interim Provost despite having been at AUA less than 6 months as Dean even though many people have been turned away from faculty positions in the past on the basis of the AUA anti-nepotism policy, just because a relative worked in a different department at AUA. Apparently, there is an unwritten double standard. Such corruption is permissible if one is a “foreign employee,” and selective application of rules of ethics on the basis of nationality discrimination is also acceptable at AUA.

If this much was bizarre, troubling, and incredible, but could possibly be dismissed due to incompetence and/or corruption, what transpired was unprecedented. We are now witness to a brazen deliberate, premeditated, and ongoing attempt to destroy one of the preeminent Diasporan institutions of Armenia.

Faculty who dared to sign the statement — again, as individuals and not in their capacity as AUA employees — were summoned to the President’s office one by one with the intent to humiliate, suppress free speech, or goad them into reaction or resignation. The nefarious hijacking of a Diasporan institution of higher learning by the current president and provost (and their taskmasters within and outside the university) cannot be swept under the rug. While one of the victims preferred to not come forward given Orwellian conditions in which he/she is trying to work, I as an advocate of human rights cannot stay

silent. Armenia shouldn’t be transformed into a thugocracy, and no one should justify censorship and threats to employees of an institution such as AUA despite their conviction (or their orders from their masters) that Pashinyan should be untouchable like Kim Jong-un.

I fear for my job. I fear for my boss’s job. S/he is a program chair and in charge of hiring adjuncts like me. The university’s mission includes that AUA is a “center of diversity.” Evidently under orders from those hijacking AUA, an opinion critical of the Government is not only unwelcome but will get you fired. Next may be disallowing the Armenian Genocide commemoration on April 24, a march that the university has made every year since its founding 30 years ago. Such is the atmosphere of fear of retaliation by the administration and colleagues, that not a single colleague has risked speaking out to affirm the universally accepted, uncontroversial norm of any healthy scholarly community: “while I disagree with the opinion made, I respect the right of my colleague to have an opinion different from mine.”

This article also appears on The California Courier on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thecaliforniacouriernewspaper/posts/326979791982407

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