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Calling on all academics to stand up for academic freedom

Credit: Sortica / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

Recent events like the attack on Garissa University College in Kenya in April and the disappearance of 43 college students in Mexico about half a year earlier have shocked the international and higher education communities. Although such events are some of the most visible and egregious attacks on higher education, they are only the tip of the iceberg, according to the Scholars at Risk Network (SAR), an international network of higher education institutions, affiliated associations including AAAS (the publisher of Science Careers), researchers, and students that aims to defend academic freedom and human rights for scholars around the world. Last month SAR, based at New York University in New York City, released a new report that sounds the alarm on this issue.

The reported attacks vary greatly in their severity, ranging from killings and disappearances to loss of position and restrictions on travel or on-campus debates. Most of the attacks, especially the most severe ones, occurred in zones of conflict or repressed states, but it would be wrong to believe that this problem doesn’t concern the Western world, SAR's Executive Director Rob Quinn writes in an email to Science Careers. “[I]t can and does happen ‘here at home’ also, albeit manifesting in less violent/coercive ways,” Quinn writes. And regardless of the form they take, “pressures on higher education … are all related because at their core they are about access to knowledge and knowledge communities, and about the never-ending tension between power and ideas.”

Scholars in safe situations, for example, can 'help combat the isolation of those under pressure at home.'

—Rob Quinn

The report describes 333 violent or coercive attacks or threats against higher education communities that SAR documented and verified over the last 4 years. These incidents occurred in 65 different countries, including places like the United States, Australia, and India. At the global scale, “[a]ttacks on universities and colleges are occurring with alarming frequency,” Quinn stated in the release announcement. “We hope this report will inspire everyone to do more to protect higher education and the freedom to think.”

Michael Halpern

Michael Halpern

Credit: Michael Halpern/Union of Concerned Scientists

In addition to raising humanitarian and democratic concerns, such attacks have the potential to harm the entire academic enterprise, regardless of the place or discipline. It is an issue that the scientific community as a whole needs to tackle, says Michael Halpern, who is program manager at the Center for Science and Democracy of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Washington, D.C., and has not been involved in SAR or the report. “A thriving international scientific enterprise is essential for solving complex global problems and improving our overall quality of life,” Halpern writes in an email to Science Careers. Scientists need access to data and perspectives from a variety of countries, he adds. “Attacks on scientists in more authoritarian countries directly impact the work of scientists in more democratic countries.”

As documented in Free to Think: Report of the Scholars at Risk Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, which tracked and analyzed attacks between January 2011 and May 2015, scholars and students may be persecuted for the content of their research or teaching or for exercising fundamental rights such as the freedom to express their opinions, whether on academic or unrelated matters. Perpetrators may be state authorities, military and paramilitary organizations, extremist groups, or criminal gangs. In most cases, the report explains, the attackers aim to silence or punish scholars and deter other academics from behaving in ways the attackers deem improper. Political science; social, cultural, and religious studies; law; and economics are obvious targets, but other disciplines like archeology, physics, and math are not immune to attacks.

The most severe attacks detailed in the report are the targeted killings, disappearances, and physical violence perpetrated against scholars and students. In September 2014, for example, Muhammad Shakil Auj, who was the dean of Islamic studies at the University of Karachi in Pakistan and was seen as an outspoken and progressive academic, “was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen … while en route to a reception that was to be given in his honor,” the report says. That same month, in Mexico, 43 college students who protested a lack of funding for their school “were reportedly kidnapped following a confrontation with municipal police.”

In some countries, scholars are also subject to violence not specifically for their individual views or actions but simply because of their connection to a higher education institution, which may be viewed as an easy target with predictable schedules, “a proxy for state authority or … a symbol of a modern, education-based society,” the report says. The Garissa attack in Kenya earlier this year, reportedly perpetrated by “gunmen affiliated with Somali militant group Al Shabaab,” resulted in more than 140 dead students.

The SAR report also documents the use of deliberate coercive legal authority to wrongfully prosecute or imprison outspoken scholars by conjuring blasphemy, defamation, terrorism, and lèse-majesté (against the crown) laws. “By sanctioning the mere expression of thought, such laws threaten the freedom to think itself. They impose artificial boundaries on research, teaching and publication, undermining quality, creativity and innovation,” the report says.

Some academics may find themselves silenced, censured, or threatened by a less egregious but nonetheless career-breaking attack: being fired from their positions, in most cases under false pretexts such as budget cuts or unfounded claims of fraud or poor performance. The report gives the example of Zafel Üskül, a law professor at Doğuş University in Turkey, who lost his position in March 2014. According to the report, Üskül likely “was dismissed as the head of the constitutional law department” because of a petition he had brought “to the Turkish parliament’s Human Rights Commission objecting to an optical fingerprint scanning security system installed on campus on the grounds that it harmed academic freedom.” However, his removal was “ostensibly for insufficient academic credentials; this despite his having published extensively in the field, served as a professor at the university for over three years, and served at several other institutions prior to that.”

Robert Quinn

Robert Quinn

Credit: Scholars at Risk/Robert Quinn

Scholars’ human rights, academic freedom, and ability to work can also be hampered by restrictions on their travels aiming to control the flow of information or limit academic inquiry and expression. According to the report, in February 2013, “economics professor Ilham Tohti, a Chinese national of the ethnic Uighur minority was stopped at the [Beijing] airport en route to take up a visiting scholar position abroad. … He was interrogated for ten hours about his publicly expressed views on Uighur rights. He was then returned to his home and placed under house arrest, unable to travel or to engage in normal professional or personal activities.”

Some scholars and universities may be under pressure to refrain from debate. According to the report, “feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian cancelled an appearance at Utah State University” in the United States, in September 2014, after receiving an anonymous email threatening a school shooting, the report says. “Incidents like these show that university officials … may feel they lack the authority or capacity to more forcefully resist … pressures,” the report says. “[T]he failure to guarantee that research, teaching and discussion on sensitive issues can safely go forward undermines the university space and critical values of autonomy and academic freedom.”

The report encourages all academics and students to get involved by helping to flag and document attacks, wherever they take place, and by demanding that governments recognize the issue and their responsibility to protect higher education communities. Higher education and its values “are critical to democratic culture and the public good,” SAR’s Quinn writes in his email to Science Careers. The report also urges scientists to offer each other support and protection whenever possible. Scholars in safe situations, for example, can “help combat the isolation of those under pressure at home … by inviting colleagues from restricted places to conferences, workshops and fellowships, and by visiting colleagues in these places to share solidarity as well as professional expertise,” Quinn writes.

If you are a scholar under attack, or feel at risk, know that there are organizations that can help you. SAR provides visiting positions in safer places to scholars who feel forced to flee their home institutions. SAR also exerts pressure through the media and letter campaigns to defend scholars who are wrongfully prosecuted or imprisoned at home.

“For those under pressure but still able to function, I [urge] them to try to link up with colleagues to the extent possible,” Quinn adds in his email. “While there is [certainly] too much violence and legal coercion used against scholars worldwide, … the primary threat is isolation. Bad-acting states and others seek to isolate scholars and thereby shrink [academic] inquiry and discourse.”