More than 15,000 academics sign letter against Brazilian president’s education plan

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On April 26, an open letter was organized in protest of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s initiative to “disinvest” in philosophy and sociology departments at Brazilian public universities. The letter has collected more than 15,000 signatures from academics and people who care about education globally, including 50 from UC Berkeley professors and graduate students, as of press time.

The letter was organized by Harvard sociology doctoral students Mo Torres and Derick da Silva Baum. According to Baum, public universities account for approximately 90 percent of all scientific research being conducted in Brazil. Baum added that fields that do not receive government funding cannot produce scholarly work.

“Professors are afraid of losing their jobs. Graduate students are afraid of losing their funding. Departments don’t know if they will be able to admit additional Ph.D. students in the upcoming academic year,” Torres said.

The letter has been signed by the president of the International Sociological Association, Sari Hanafi.

Presidents of several national sociological associations — such as those of Israel, Australia, New Zealand and Greece — have also signed, according to Baum.

“We are not sure if the letter will incite any change in policy, but we are confident that this act is a symbolic demonstration that the world will not turn a blind eye to what has been happening in Brazil,” Baum said.

According to Torres, the American Sociological Association and the American Philosophical Association are also working to prepare a joint response. He added that the International Sociological Association is working with sociologists to prepare a global response to Bolsonaro’s initiative as well.

Jonathan Simon, a UC Berkeley professor of criminal law and director of the Center for the Study of Law & Society, said that though this decision may not have a direct impact on sociology in the United States in the short run, he is worried because sociology and philosophy are academic sectors that are not owned by or subservient to the government.

“It is convenient for authoritarian leaders to remove these inconvenient watchdogs on society and the state,” Simon said.

According to Baum, the Ministry of Education of Brazil has also announced a 30 percent cut on all federal universities’ budgets, causing public universities to discuss the possibility of closing down next semester because of a scarcity of resources.

“What has been seen are systematic attacks on every university community, without spaces for productive dialogues,” said Carolina Botelho, a professor at the National School of Statistical Sciences and the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics and a visiting fellow at UC Berkeley.

Brazilian universities have not had the resources to prevent financial cuts from happening because of reduced communication between the state and universities, according to Botelho.

According to Botelho, some deans have organized to try to set up dialogue with current Minister of Education Abraham Weintraub to reverse the decision. She said that if the cut is made abruptly, universities would be forced to paralyze numerous services.

“Brazilian students are some of the most politically engaged individuals I’ve ever met,” Torres said. “I have no doubt that Brazilian students will organize an incredible response to that proposal.”

Contact Aishwarya Kaimal at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Aishwarya_R_K‏.