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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