Scholars at Risk: global network for academic freedom

The global university network Scholars at Risk helps threatened scholars find relevant work in a new country -- and sheds new light on the meaning of academic freedom.

“A well-for­mu­lated idea might still have the power to make a chan­ge,” says Robert Quinn, the exe­cuti­ve direc­tor of Scholars at Risk (SAR). SAR pro­mo­tes aca­de­mic free­dom and defends threate­ned scholars and aca­de­mic com­mu­nities world­wi­de.

“In a sen­se the threate­ned scholars make up a micro-cos­mos,» Quinn says. «They are pie­ces in a lar­ger game whe­re orga­nised for­ces are try­ing to mono­po­li­se know­led­ge and whe­re the for­ces of plu­ra­lism will orga­ni­se a reply. The lat­ter is more dif­fi­cult, becau­se you have to coope­ra­te even with peop­le you dis­agree with. The under­ly­ing ques­tions are: How sin­ce­re are we in allowing plu­ra­li­ty? And to what lengths are the oppres­sors wil­ling to go in order to suppress ideas?»

Magical opport­u­ni­ty
SAR, estab­lis­hed in 2000, brings together about 150 uni­ver­sities world­wi­de, most of them in the USA. More than 1.500 scholars from 110 countries have asked for help, and to date SAR has been able to assist 200 of them, offe­ring them tem­po­ra­ry aca­de­mic positions at Western insti­tu­tions.

“We do match­ma­king. First and fore­most it is about iden­ti­fy­ing scholars suf­fe­ring phy­si­cal threats or extre­me har­ass­ment. Next step is to bring them to a safe coun­try. Then we try to offer them rele­vant work. These are very bra­ve scholars: they speak up, unlike most of us. Most of the scholars we approa­ch have been nomi­nated by NGOs, human rights orga­ni­sa­tions or fel­low scholars,” Quinn says.

Robert Quinn (photo: Runo Isaksen)

MAGICAL OPPORTUNITY: Hos­ting a scho­lar is a magical opport­u­ni­ty to expose one’s com­mu­ni­ty to the essen­ce of aca­de­mic life, remin­ding us what it is all about, accor­ding to Robert Quinn, the exe­cuti­ve direc­tor of Scholars at Risk (SAR). (Photo: Runo Isak­sen)

The idea is that the aca­de­mics con­tri­bute to their host cam­pu­ses through teaching, rese­arch, lectu­res and other acti­vities. And that they return to their home countries when it is safe to do so.

“I think ten years is the cor­rect measure of return, alt­hough we do see peop­le going back after five years. Iraq is a spec­i­al case, of cour­se. By and lar­ge the scholars fresh from their home countries are not ready to jump into full-time teaching. But they can start offe­ring guest lectu­res, gra­dual­ly offe­ring more clas­ses.”

In gene­ral, sala­ry is offe­red by the host insti­tu­tion. The legal sta­tus of the scholars con­cerned may dif­fer. Some are refuge­es, others are tem­po­ra­ry visi­tors.

“As host insti­tu­tion you don’t have to do eve­rything for the scho­lar. Just tell us what you can do and then we will figu­re out somet­hing. That is the way this network has sur­vi­ved and expan­ded,” Quinn explains, emp­ha­sising that the bene­fits for both par­ties are cle­ar. Scholars are free to live and work wit­hout fear, and SAR mem­bers get talented and inspi­ring edu­ca­tors in return.

“It’s a bene­fit just stan­ding with other insti­tu­tions say­ing: ‘Scholars and uni­ver­sities should not be attack­ed for mere­ly doing their job.’ Hos­ting a scho­lar is a magical opport­u­ni­ty to expose one’s com­mu­ni­ty to the essen­ce of aca­de­mic life, remin­ding us what it is all about,” says Quinn, who recent­ly visited Nor­way to enlist more Nor­we­gi­an scholars and insti­tu­tions. So far, the Uni­ver­sity of Oslo is the only Nor­we­gi­an mem­ber of SAR.

Free­dom and dia­lo­gue
Hos­ting threate­ned scholars like Felix Ulom­be Kap­u­tu is but one of the acti­vities car­ried out by SAR.

“The­re are three tra­cks, of which hos­ting threate­ned scholars is one. But hos­ting a scho­lar does not help much if we are not able to strengt­hen the uni­ver­sities, too, and their place in socie­ty. This, then, is the second tra­ck: enga­ging facul­ties in set­ting up tra­i­ning work­shops, notab­ly in devel­o­ping countries, to make them defen­ders of aca­de­mic free­dom and dia­lo­gue. We hope to see a snow­ball effect,” Quinn says.

A third tra­ck is rese­arch. SAR is cur­rent­ly con­duc­ting a sur­vey asking ques­tions such as: What are the core ele­ments of a uni­ver­sity? What is aca­de­mic free­dom? What means are avai­lab­le for respon­ding to threats to uni­ver­sities?

“The pro­blem is that this ter­ri­tory is so poor­ly map­ped. In a sen­se we con­tri­bute to set­ting up a new sub­field of study: aca­de­mic free­dom stu­dies. For let us face it: the­re might very well be gaps even betwe­en the two of us as to the exact meaning of, say, aca­de­mic free­dom,” Quinn says, admit­ting that it is cru­ci­al to feel the way care­fully and to build a dia­lo­gue aimed at devel­o­ping shared under­stan­ding.

“The­re are many land­mi­nes: for examp­le reli­gious uni­ver­sities ver­sus secu­lar, pri­va­te ver­sus pub­lic, and so on. I think the network, by vir­tue of our expe­ri­en­ce with scholars in over 100 countries, can offer some fram­ework for approa­ching these dif­fi­cult ques­tions. Of cour­se advo­ca­ting aca­de­mic free­dom will be a never-ending process.”

To Robert Quinn per­so­nal­ly, inte­rac­tion with the scholars who are wil­ling to speak up in the face of oppres­sion and the staff going out of their way to help these scholars has been the most inter­e­s­ting aspect of this work.

“In essen­ce it is a won­der­ful look at huma­ni­ty. So if you ask me, why bot­her? I will say: becau­se not to bot­her will have deva­s­ta­ting con­se­quen­ces in the long run. The ten­sion is the­re not only in Iraq or Afgha­ni­stan, but also in Euro­pe and the US. Again: how sin­ce­re are we in allowing plu­ra­li­ty?”


  • Inter­na­tio­nal network of uni­ver­sities and uni­ver­sity col­le­ges
  • Pro­mo­tes aca­de­mic free­dom
  • Defends threate­ned scholars
  • Defends scholar­ly com­mu­nities
  • Mem­ber­ship: open to accredi­ted hig­her edu­ca­tion insti­tu­tions in any coun­try com­mit­ted to the prin­cip­le that scholars should be free to work wit­hout fear or inti­mi­da­tion
  • Acti­vities: Orga­ni­ses lectu­res, con­fe­ren­ces and pub­lic edu­ca­tion events and under­ta­kes rese­arch and advo­cacy
  • Finan­cing: Spon­so­red by a varie­ty of trusts and foun­da­tions, inclu­ding the Sigrid Rau­sing Trust, the Arca­dia Trust and the Open Socie­ty Insti­tute
  • Secre­ta­riat: three full-time emp­loy­e­es located at New York Uni­ver­sity

Runo Isak­sen is an infor­ma­tion advi­ser at The Nor­we­gi­an Cent­re for Inter­na­tio­nal Coope­ra­tion in Hig­her Edu­ca­tion (SIU).

This article was ori­gi­nal­ly pub­lis­hed in Glo­bal Know­led­ge no.2, 2007.



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