MAXWELL:  University program offering safe refuge for at-risk scholars abroad

7/2/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


When I was in the Gaza Strip and West Bank last year, I visited four of the universities there and met political science professor Dr’Abd al-Sattar Qassem and retired Professor Ahmad Shakr Dudin. I also spoke with many students.

At Al-Azhar University in Gaza City, my student guide, Ismael, warned me that the campus crawled with student and faculty informers, that I would be wise to stick to general questions about Gazan society.

I had heard about Qassem and Dudin because they had earned the well-publicized enmity of the Palestinian Authority. Their crime was a simple one: They signed a statement criticizing the PA’s leadership.

Last November, I learned from another student at Al-Azhar University with whom I correspond, that Qassem and Dudin, along with six other academics and writers, had been arrested. Although all were released recently, their careers in their native land may be permanently ruined because they dared to exercise academic freedom.

The other day, I learned from friends in Yugoslavia that one of my former classmates at the University of Chicago, a linguistics professor who returned to Yugoslavia in 1993, still has not been seen by his relatives since Slobodan Milosovic’s forces targeted scholars at his university in April.

Worldwide, many scholars, writers and public intellectuals, along with students, face uncertainty and peril because they are not free to speak out and publish their work.

Here is a short international roundup of recent attacks on academic freedom:

The New York Times reported in December that the administration building of the University of Antoquia in Columbia was dynamited by leftists. A highly regarded professor, a student leader and a activist cafeteria worker were shot to death on campus for their politics.

Although the university’s doors remain open, the murders, along with constant threats of new assassinations, continue to smother campus life. Several professors have gone into hiding or left the country, and the student government has disappeared. Professors and students left on campus keep a low profile and watch their every word.

In Cuba, Professor Felix A. Bonne Carcasses, along with two economists and an attorney, were imprisoned for their participation in an opposition group and their public insistence on democratization as a prerequisite to viable economic liberalization.

In December, a Serbian court sentenced Kosovo’s leading poet, who is a women’s rights advocate and a pediatrician, to 12 years in prison on charges of terrorism during the NATO air campaign in Kosovo. Human rights aides at the trial argue that the prosecution offered scant evidence to support the charges. Human rights representatives say this clearly was a political trial.

In Vietnam, prominent geologist, writer and outspoken critic of the government Nguyen Thang Giang was arrested and detained for two months because he was in possession of documents reported to be against the interests of the Communist Party.

Relief may be on the horizon for these and other other intellectual dissidents around the world. A conference at the University of Chicago a few weeks ago _ attended by 75 representatives of colleges, academic associations and human rights groups _ initiated the formation of the Scholars at Risk Network. In addition to defending academic freedom around the globe, the organization will provide refuge to foreign scholars in trouble back home.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the network, under the auspices of the University of Chicago and headed by Robert J. Quinn, will coordinate temporary positions at U.S. colleges and research centers for professors, writers and public intellectuals who may be displaced, discriminated against, censored, intimidated or physically attacked.

“Our objective is to promote free and open societies through the protection of academic and artistic freedom, by pushing back on repressive regimes, one episode at a time,” Jonathan F. Fanton, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and a donor to the network, told the Chronicle. “The very existence of such a network is bound to fortify the courage of scholars to resist injustice in their home countries.”

Until now, when scholars have been forced to leave their countries, most have faced great difficulty finding comparable positions and salaries in their adopted countries. And, until now, none have received the kind of psychological counseling often required after imprisonment, loss of income and the realization that a person is a refugee.

The network’s objective is to remedy these crises.

“What we are proposing is that large institutions interested in this take one of the faculty hiring lines they reserve for a visiting scholar and use it on a rotating basis to hire a scholar at risk, for an appointment of from one to three years,” Quinn told the Chronicle.

Assisting foreign scholars and public intellectuals will be difficult, but Morton Winston, a professor of philosophy at the College of New Jersey and chairman of an Amnesty International’s standing committee involved with the network, told the Chronicle that assisting foreign scholars on the run has four cycles: rescue, refuge, restoration and repatriation.

Repatriation is an important stage. The network does not want to drain other nations of their best minds. The intent is to nurture scholars and help them return home to safe environments _ places prepared to let the best and brightest publish their research and challenge the status quo.

“To be a refugee is very hard,” Yuri Orlov, a physicist and human-rights activist who was imprisoned several times in the Soviet Union and expelled in 1986, told the Chronicle. “It is always a sad story _ and will be to the end of their lives.”