Band-Aid for academics

Nieuws | de redactie
16 december 2013 | ‘Scholars at Risk’ arranges temporary positions for academics that are threatened in their home country. Furthermore the organization pushes for strong language on academic freedom when EU and US universities partner - for instance - with China.

Scholars at Risk started out as the human rights program of the University of  Chicago in 1999. The network now encompasses 380 universities worldwide. Since 2010 European Director Sinead O’Gorman is laying out the SAR-strategy for Europe, establishing  national and regional sections and increasing the participation of European institutions in SAR activities.

Nowadays more and more European and American universities enter into cooperation with institutions in less democratic countries, leading to awkward situations. What is the stance of Scholars at Risk on this topic?

O’Gorman: “We very strong advocate that European and American universities bring their own values into the cooperation and that the agreement should include very strong language on how ‘academic freedom’ should be defined. In this regard the recent ‘Hefei statement’ is an important step.” The Hefei-statement calls for ‘academic freedom by faculty to produce and disseminate knowledge through research, teaching and service without undue constraint’.

Connection with quality

However, there has been some controversy around this statement. Critics regard it as window dressing, and for instance the recent decision by Peking University to sack economics professor Xia Yeliang has provoked little reaction by western partner institutions.

According to Sinead O’Gorman partners at least have something they can point to. “And this is happening a bit under the radar”, the SAR-director knows. “Nevertheless we have to take things a step further and make clear that research quality and academic freedom are interrelated. Academic freedom therefore deserves a central place in discussions on quality assurance.”

Most Syrians already left

Most of the scholars that currently apply for place at a host university come from Syria, Iran, Ethiopia and Eritrea. “There is a shift towards applicants from Iran. Sadly I think that most Syrian scholars already left the country.”

A related problem concern students and scholars who had gone abroad on a Syrian scholarship, but who cannot return to their home country now and have run out of resources in for instance France. Scholars at Risk devised a new scholarship programme that fulfills the needs of these people.

Global conference coming up

In 2014 Scholars at Risk (SAR) will hold a global conference in Amsterdam, which will be co-hosted by the University of Amsterdam and the VU University Amsterdam. This is the only opportunity that the 380 member of the SAR-network have to come together. Sinead O’Gorman: “Some universities are not very active yet, not all of them are in fact hosting threatened scholars.”

But the ‘Band-Aid’-side of the work is not all that the organization does. There is also letter writing and a lot of private advocacy behind the scenes. Interestingly, in some countries it’s mainly something that students do. “In America for instance a professor would take up a specific case together with his students. This helps in getting young people motivated for Scholars at Risk.”

Labelled as a trouble maker

“In the future we want to do more for scholars in their home countries”, tells Sinead O’Gorman. “We want to develop an ‘academic freedom monitor’ and focus more on early intervention. On a monthly basis there will be reports on the Middle-East and Sub-Saharan Africa for instance. We have a person in Ethiopia who covers the horn of Africa for us.”

Sinead O’Gorman refers to a recent report the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) on the situation in Turkey. “This is the type of work we need to do more.” Representatives of the Academy investigated the cases of eight scientists, engineers and medical doctors who are detained under vague and broad-ranging crimes such as ‘attempting to overthrow the government’ and concluded that the prosecutors have not provided convincing evidence of their guilt.

The idea behind this future monitor is that repression is not always violence, but also isolation. Often scholars are ostracized. Treating critical scholars as trouble makes is a very efficient tool of isolating a person.  “Making this public creates a virtuous cycle”, thinks O’Gorman, “The more reports you have, the easier it becomes to talk about these incidents. It prevents self-censorship.” To be really effective, Scholars at Risk will aim at reaching global coverage.

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