This paper examines the ways in which administrators, academics and students living under conditions of authoritarianism come to imagine the university’s political possibilities and horizons. To this aim, we first consider how alternative imaginaries are constructed and contained at Boğaziçi University, where the parameters of political possibility are pre-figured both by the current ruling regime and the enduring histories of empire that pre-date it. Then, we turn to Aleppo countryside, where we compare Syrian opposition universities to newly established Turkish ones. In doing so, we attempt to trace the ideational lifeline of Syria’s revolutionary imaginary as it persists in higher education under conditions of disillusionment and co-optation. When taken together, we argue, these two cases point not to the primacy of belief in creating or sustaining imaginaries, but rather to the constitutive role of violence, coercion and control in shaping notions of who and what the university is for.