Let freedom ring: why Scholars at Risk has opened a US section
Rob Quinn is executive director of Scholars at Risk
The international Scholars at Risk network has established a new US national section. The move comes at a time of record attacks on scholars and universities abroad around the world – Turkey, Nicaragua, Pakistan and Yemen come to mind – and of heightened tensions on many US campuses.
Those tensions shouldn’t be surprising. Higher education in the US is broadly representative of the American public in its income levels, race, nationality, immigration status, gender, religion and politics. Therefore, many campuses exhibit the same tensions seen in US society.
More surprising is the way that these tensions have manifested on some campuses: surreptitious recording of lectures and meetings in attempts to capture out-of-context “gotcha” moments; profanity-laced social
media posts; protests and counterprotests with and without violent clashes; shouting down invited speakers; e-trolling of faculty, including racist, misogynist and homophobic slurs and even death threats; exposure of personal information online – even about children – as a means of intimidation; campaigns to disinvite, de-hire, and deny hiring or promotion.
Although relatively few people have participated in the most egregious of these activities, their actions have exposed a wider breakdown in respect for core higher education values, such as equitable access, accountability, academic freedom, autonomy and social responsibility.
The new SAR-United States section will invite US universities, colleges and higher education associations to unite in support of those values.
SAR is perhaps best known for its work arranging temporary positions at participating institutions for international scholars who face threats to their lives or work in their home countries. In addition to arranging these positions for scholars, SAR also offers participating institutions a range of advocacy and educational activities aimed at building understanding of academic freedom and its importance not only to higher education but also to democratic society.
The section will offer to US campuses a bridge to counterparts throughout SAR’s global network of sections, along with partners in the UK with the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara) and Belgium and the Netherlands with the Foundation for Refugee Students.
US institutions were among the founding members of SAR and have hosted many SAR-assisted scholars. And US higher education has an even longer history of action in support of at-risk scholars and students, from the Second World War scholars fleeing western Europe to scientists and dissidents fleeing the Soviet bloc; from Latin American intellectuals fleeing brutal dictatorships to students and scholars fleeing crackdowns in China after the Tiananmen Square protests and the former Yugoslavia under Slobodan Milošević.
Right up to today, US campuses have always tried to do their part. I am sure they always will, and this new SAR-United States section magnifies that. What’s new is that it offers a chance to help even more people through collaboration. And it offers a chance to push back against the disheartening conduct that we have seen on too many campuses recently, not with titfor-tat intolerance and invective, but with a call to deeper meaning and higher ground – a call to reaffirm our mutual commitment to core values.
We invite every US higher education institution – large and small, two-year to four-year, public and private – to turn words into action, to join us in this new SAR-United States section and to stand up for the principles that ideas are not crimes, that critical dissent is not disloyalty and that everyone should have the freedom to think, question and share ideas.
It offers a chance to push back against the disheartening conduct that we have seen on too many campuses