The global war on academic freedom


Earlier this week, Robert Quinn, the executive director of Scholars at Risk, an international network of higher education institutions in 39 countries with headquarters at New York University, published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post entitled “The War on Education.”  The attack last week at Pakistan’s Bacha Khan University that killed 22 and wounded dozens more was no isolated incident, he argues, but “part of a widespread pattern of attacks worldwide that has reached crisis levels.”  In June, Scholars at Risk reported some “333 attacks involving violent or coercive force against higher education institutions and their members in 65 countries.” According to Quinn, “These are only the tip of the iceberg, as we know most attacks go unreported.”

“Why attack universities,” Quinn asks.  “Partly because they tend to be soft, high-visibility targets – open by outlook, and porous by nature — where groups gather on predictable schedules. But more importantly it is because universities are home to diverse voices and points of view. . . .  Universities are attacked because there are those who prefer the persuasive certainty of force to the unpredictability of reasoned argument, who prefer the dominance of a single point of view to a forum hosting many voices, whether in Pakistan’s northwest or closer to home.”

While threats in the United States and in other “safe” countries are not of the same kind or magnitude, at their root is the same refusal to engage with ideas that contradict one’s preexisting views. When the anonymous tweeter threatens to kill African American students who dare show up for class, what is really being said is, “I refuse to accept your voice in society.” When a gun enthusiast insists on bringing a handgun into the classroom as a right, no matter its effect on the class; when a university “disinvites” a speaker in the face of public outcry over his or her views; when trustees, donors, elected officials and pundits deride scholars and threaten to have them fired because they don’t like the content of research, what is really being said is: “I don’t want to hear views I disagree with.” This like-it-or-not attitude, this refusal to leave even our metaphorical guns at the door (let alone our real ones) threatens meaningful discourse on our campuses, as its more violent counterpart threatens the lives of our colleagues in Pakistan, Kenya and beyond.

In 2014, Scholars at Risk and others in the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack announced four basic Principles of State Responsibility to Protect Higher Education from Attack, including obligations of countries to: “abstain from direct or complicit involvement in attacks; protect higher education against present and future attacks; assist victims; and investigate and hold perpetrators accountable.”

Publicizing the experiences of international scholars whose rights have been violated or lives endangered is one useful activity.  And a new online publication, New Research Voices, has joined with Scholars at Risk to devote its first 139-page issue to interviews with and select pieces of academic research by threatened scholars from all over the world. Researchers in Exile includes

6 articles from 6 academic researchers working in different fields of research in different parts of the world. The contributing authors hail from 5 different countries (Syria, Iran, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Thailand) and have contributed articles discussing the destruction of education in Syria, Koranic interpretations of homosexuality, authoritarian developmentalism in Ethiopia, the death penalty in Iran, the impact of American and Chinese foreign policy in Thailand, and the difficulties of conducting research in North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. While coming from very different fields the thread that binds these articles, and indeed the authors, together is the fact that all of the authors have been forced to leave their home countries to continue their academic work free from persecution and limitations on their freedom. These brave and tireless academics have all received assistance from champions of freedom in academia such as the Scholars Rescue Fund and the Scholars at Risk Network and sanctuary at various universities in Europe, the United States and Asia where they continue their fight for justice and a better world.