Illustration Karin Sunvisson

Illustration Karin Sunvisson

Interviews “There is a global crisis of attacks on higher education”

Scholars at Risk (SAR) is an international network of institutions and individuals whose mission it is to protect scholars and promote academic freedom. We ask five questions to Lauren Crain, Director of Research and Learning at Scholars at Risk.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2018:4 Vol XI, pages 50-51
Published on on March 5, 2019

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Scholars at Risk (SAR) is an international network of institutions and individuals whose mission it is to protect scholars and promote academic freedom. We ask five questions to Lauren Crain, Director of Research and Learning at Scholars at Risk.

Why create a global network in support of academic freedom?  

“The Scholars at Risk Network brings together higher education institutions and individuals around the world to protect scholars facing risks and to promote academic freedom. We are a global network because the threats to higher education communities are not limited to a certain place or time. Since its founding in 2000, more than 4,000 scholars from over 120 countries have requested assistance from SAR. These scholars experience threats ranging from harassment and intimidation, to arrest, prosecution, and death. The reasons they are at risk may vary, some may face threats due to the content of their research or teaching, or because of their status as scholars. And the perpetrators may take different forms, including state actors, non-state groups, civil society, and individual actors. But their intent is always the same: to limit the space for free inquiry and debate, and to assert control over the freedom to think, question and share ideas, at an individual, institutional, or even a global level.

The Scholars at Risk Network was created to bring together the global higher education community in defense of these scholars and the values they represent. By producing new knowledge, developing critical insights, and designing innovations, these scholars and the wider higher education community benefit all of society. Consequently, when their work is threatened or compromised, these risks extend beyond the individual and pose a threat to everyone.”

Could you briefly give examples of the scale and the nature of attacks on higher education communities?

“There is a global crisis of attacks on higher education communities around the world. SAR’s most recent report, Free to Think 2018,1 analyzed 294 reported attacks on higher education communities in 47 countries during the reporting period (September 1, 2017—August 31, 2018). The report draws on data produced by SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, which investigates and reports attacks on higher education, including violations of academic freedom and/or the human rights of members of higher education communities in various categories, including: killings, violence, disappearances; imprisonment; prosecution; loss of position; and travel restrictions.

The report highlights targeted threats to scholars and students in Iran, the detention of Uyghur scholars and students in China, and ongoing threats to Turkey’s higher education sector. It also brings focus to legislative and administrative actions that pose serious threats to institutional autonomy in Russia and Hungary, and travel restrictions on scholars in Russia, Israel, the West Bank, and elsewhere, including proposed government travel regulations in Tajikistan that had the potential to chill academic freedom across the entire higher education sector.

The increasing risks to members of higher education communities also map to SAR’s data on scholars seeking assistance: from 2015—2018 SAR has seen a 200% increase in the average rate of applications it receives each month. Presently more than 700 scholars are either awaiting assistance or pending review.

In addition to the violent and coercive threats documented in Free to Think 2018, higher education institutions also face threats as a result of more subtle pressures, such as those arising from funding pressures and self-censorship, which have the potential to be just as corrosive to the core mission of the university. Challenges to academic freedom, institutional autonomy, accountability, and other core values run the risk of shrinking the space for free inquiry and undermining the quality of research, teaching, and learning.”

What responses and mobilizations are being developed to fight this trend?

“In response to these growing threats, we also see a global response emerging. Members of the SAR network—now numbering more than 500 institutions in 39 countries—are mobilizing support for these scholars by annually creating an average of 100 placements each academic year. We have created more than 1,100 placements for threatened scholars since our founding. The details of each placement (funding, candidate selection, post-placement options, etc.) vary according to different circumstances, and faculty and administrators interested in learning more about hosting can consult SAR’s How to Host Handbook2 or contact SAR.

At the institutional level, we see more members joining the SAR network, and increasing efforts to form national sections to coordinate activities locally, providing additional support for individual scholars and institutions by sharing resources, network building, and through joint fundraising efforts. Moreover with increasing threats to scholars and institutions around the world, these national sections also send a powerful message about the importance of core values and allow higher education communities to speak out in support of academic freedom, both at home and around the world, with a strong, singular voice.

At the international level we also see growing recognition of the importance of academic freedom, including in a report3 adopted by the European Parliament in November 2018 that resolves to give new priority to academic freedom in the EU’s external actions, and calls for concrete EU-led responses, diplomatic pressure, and material assistance for at-risk scholars.”

 How can individuals get involved?

“In addition to encouraging their institutions to join the global SAR network,4 there are many ways faculty, researchers, students, administrators, and other members of the higher education community can support academic freedom on their campus and in their communities.

Faculty, researchers, and students can participate in SAR-affiliated Legal Clinics5 and Student Advocacy Seminars,6 which provide opportunities to educate next-generation leaders about the importance of academic freedom. Working with SAR staff, these faculty-led programs help students develop research, advocacy, and leadership skills while making important contributions to SAR’s advocacy work. Individual faculty or researchers can join SAR’s global network of volunteers that produce reports for the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project.7

There are also opportunities to engage one’s campus in dialogue about the importance of academic freedom and related values. Students and faculty can invite at-risk scholars to campus through the SAR Speaker Series8 to hear their stories of perseverance and courage, and can attend other events, including the biennial Scholars at Risk Network Global Congress. They can participate in and help organize research projects, workshops, online courses, and webinars that explore the importance of core higher education values, and examine how they are promoted and defended both on their own campus and also in international partnerships.

No effort is too small. As part of a global movement, any individual can play a valuable role. Increasing awareness on campus regarding the importance of academic freedom will create stronger and more resilient higher education communities, which will be better able to recognize and withstand both subtle and overt threats.”

What can international scholarly journals like Baltic World do to contribute to this work and enable researchers to conduct research even if their academic freedom has been violated?

“Special editions like this one offer an excellent opportunity to raise awareness about the threats to academic freedom, so thank you for putting this together! More scholarly research on this topic is needed, and we welcome any scholars interested in pursuing additional work in this area to be in touch about opportunities to contribute to new research projects. Where possible, scholarly journals could also provide important outlets for at-risk scholars by offering opportunities for independent scholars to publish, by offering fee waivers where possible, and and by allowing scholars publishing sensitive research to do so anonymously. This is particularly important for scholars unable to leave their home country due to travel restrictions. These efforts offer invaluable opportunities for scholars to continue their work, and can also help advance a broader conversation about the importance of academic freedom.” ≈