Scholars at Risk: What it is, and why your university should join

Scholars at Risk: What it is, and why your university should join
25 Jul 2018 by Monique Deveaux

 

“Erdogan, Flush With Victory, Seizes New Power in Turkey”, shouts the headline in the New York Times (July 19, 2018).  This is very bad news for the country’s academics, thousands of whom have been dismissed, detained, arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned in recent years. Many university students have likewise been expelled, detained, or barred from travelling abroad; many Turkish students studying overseas have had their grants and travel permission revoked by their government.

 

According to Scholars at Risk (SAR), the global network that advocates for academic freedom and publicizes attacks on faculty, students, and administrative staff worldwide, Turkey is breaking new records when it comes to the harassment and persecution of academics. While we in Canada fret and argue (not unreasonably) about the latest free speech controversy surrounding Jordan Peterson and his critics, it is worth bearing in mind the situation of Turkish academics. During the ‘2016 Turkish purges’ set in motion by an emergency decree, 15 universities were ordered closed, as well as over 1000 private schools. In 2016-17 alone, over 7000 higher education personnel in Turkey were fired and banned from public service or travelling abroad. More than 1404 of them were arrested, detained or named in warrants. Many of those persecuted had signed public peace petition of January 2016, condemning state violence against Kurdish youth activists and urging the government to begin peace talks with the Kurdish political movement (KPP). President Erdogan’s latest decree, issued immediately after the July 2018 election, orders the dismissal of 18,500 state employees, including 199 academics.

 

Through its Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, SAR monitors and publicizes a terrifying number of killings, disappearances, and wrongful imprisonments of academics worldwide. It also keeps track of state-directed dismissals or firings, expulsions, and travel restrictions meant to silence scholars and students.

 

SAR also identifies especially vulnerable academics, and connects them with prospective host universities in other countries. Over 300 scholars who are under threat are hosted each year this way. SAR identifies academics at risk through various means (including individuals who contact the organization directly), and works with them to put together an information dossier for prospective university hosts without endangering them further. The network’s staff (based at New York University) provide an up to date list of scholars seeking host opportunities on its website, and includes such basic details as their country of residence, their status or risk level, their area of research, preferred host region or country (and timing): https://www.scholarsatrisk.org/actions/host-a-scholar/

 

At the University of Guelph, where I teach, our SAR committee has worked over the past few years to build support and funding to host our first scholar at risk. Working closely with the SAR program office, we invited a Turkish historian to come to Guelph for the year. Dr. Evren Altinkas, who has arrived safely in Guelph with his family, will resume his research, teach in his areas of speciality, and raise awareness about issues of academic freedom through public talks. Dismissed from his university teaching position in Turkey, Dr. Altinkas and his family have faced escalating harassment by police and government forces as a result of his research on Kurdish minorities and his wife’s status as a religious minority.

 

There are of course numerous possible objections to hosting a scholar at risk in this way. One concerns fairness: why single out academics when journalists, trade union activists, etc., are similarly persecuted? Another worry centers on the fate of the hosted scholar after their placement ends: if their home country is still unsafe for them to return to, and the SAR hosting arrangement can’t offer a path to permanent residency or citizenship, might a hosted scholar be left stranded following a placement stint? Sometimes being chosen as a SAR scholar and being hosted by a foreign university suffices to protect an academic at risk upon their return home. But if significant risks remain, SAR works to secure further opportunities for the scholar in the same country as the original hosting, or in a safe third countries.

 

Yes, it’s a drop in the bucket, but the host program is expanding every year, and the organization is bringing more attention to urgent issues of academic freedom and the persecution of professors and students. Dr. Homa Hoodfar, the Concordia social anthropology professor who was imprisoned in Iran for several months in 2016, has become an advocate for academic freedom and assists in SAR’s mission. Known for her work on gender and sexuality in Islam, Hoodfar was held at Iran’s Evin prison by state authorities following her arrest on grounds of ‘co-operating with a foreign state against the Islamic Republic of Iran’.

 

Hundreds of universities in over 40 countries are now institutional members of SAR. Is your university among them? At present 20 Canadian universities are members of SAR: https://www.scholarsatrisk.org/sections/sar-canada/ If your university or college is not a member, please consider asking your VP for Research or equivalent to agree to your university joining the SAR Network ($1000 USD institutional membership annually).

 

Individuals can also become involved through the action campaigns that SAR has initiated, advocating on behalf of particular scholars and students who have been imprisoned or who face serious threats as a result of speaking out or because their research is deemed threatening by the government. The network also coordinates working groups to enable collaborative research and advocacy on matters of urgent concern. One such group is the ‘Protecting Student Expression Project’, which works to publicize the persecution and imprisonment of students — such as the more than 150 university students who have been detained since their arrest during country-wide protests in January 2018.