The Confounding Relationship between Autocrats and Western Universities

Joshua Burg | March 2021

Former Haitian dictator François Duvalier, also known as Papa Doc (1957)


or decades, Western higher education has been a highly demanded pursuit for countless aspiring leaders, intellects, and revolutionaries. In the United States specifically, there seems to be a high correlation between leadership and higher education. Since 1967, the proportion of members of the House of Representatives holding a bachelor’s degree has never fallen below 94%. However, the power of the idea of Western higher education expands well beyond the borders of the United States and the Western Bloc.

Numerous current and former heads of state, representing nations ranging from Colombia to Singapore, have received degrees from Western universities. When looking at the University of Oxford alone, the list of notable graduates expands significantly. However, an often-overlooked story in Western education is its place in the biographies of numerous illiberal and autocratic leaders and officials.


One of the most famous illiberal leaders in modern-day Europe, Viktor Orban, briefly studied at the University of Oxford before returning to serve in the newly-formed, post-Communist Hungarian parliament. Although Orban considered himself to be a liberal early on in his career, his later career and premiership have shown his dedication to illiberalism and anti-intellectualism – values certainly contrary to what is publicly promulgated by Western universities such as Oxford.


Numerous other morally questionable world leaders have also obtained degrees from Western universities. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, a prominent war criminal, and a close advisor to his father, received his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics in 2008. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, once charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court for encouraging post-election ethnic violence that led to the death of 1,200 people, received his education from Amherst College in Massachusetts. His charges were dropped due to his government refusing to hand over vital evidence to prosecutors. Even some well-known historical dictators, such as Papa Doc and Syngman Rhee, received an American postsecondary education.


When looking at all these cases, it is tempting to conclude that there exists a seemingly contradictory connection between Western universities and autocracy. However, this position is likely unfounded.

The Converse: Western Universities and Democratization


Although we should not nonchalantly conflate a college education with a moral or democratic education, current literature suggests that there is some connection between democratic values and Western education. In a 2015 study by Thomas Gift and Daniel Krcmaric, all the models they developed suggest a positive and statistically significant relationship between whether a leader received a Western education and the propensity for democratization to occur under that leader. Thus the stories of the autocrats I have since described may very well be exceptions to a general rule. 


In an even more recent study from October of last year, authors Ishac Diwan and Irina Vartanova found that respect for authority was estimated to be 70-77% lower in individuals educated in a democracy than those educated under an autocratic regime. Besides encouraging democratic values by teaching and engaging students with democratic ideas, perhaps part of the value of Western education comes from its general independence from the state’s agenda. 


The ability of individuals to participate in independently critical thought regarding their governments is an important means of democratization and reform. A lower respect for authority signifies that students of universities under democratic regimes are more willing to engage in the kinds of criticism necessary to foster a free market of ideas. 


It’s important to note many students who attend Western educational institutions may not be able to attain a position in which they can encourage democratization at a national level. However, higher education may be a means of introducing democratic values to both students and their social webs, promoting democratic change at a grassroots level.


Although for moral and practical reasons we cannot rely on higher education as a method of socially engineering “good leaders,” as evidenced by autocrats such as Orban and Duvalier, it is clear that a Western education may just help tip the scales towards democratization. And in a world that appears to be careening towards authoritarianism, any weight on the side of democracy is beneficial.

Joshua Burg is a Staff Writer at Midwestern Citizen and a junior at the University of Michigan studying Political Science, Economics, and History. Raised in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, Joshua, though a devout Wolverines fan, has a soft spot for the Northwestern Wildcats. He is interested in environmental policy, political theory, international politics, and early medieval history. Outside of MC and academics, Joshua has been picking up chess and crossword puzzles to help pass the time during lockdown.