Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Scholars at Risk Network defends academic freedom and human rights of scholars worldwide

In June of 2000, dozens of universities and colleges joined to form the Scholars at Risk Network to promote academic freedom and to defend the human rights of scholars worldwide. The Scholars at Risk Network was created to provide a temporary safe haven to academics all over the world threatened with censure, prosecution, imprisonment, torture and death.

One of the catalysts for the establishment of the Scholars at Risk Network was an article written by Joseph Saunders, the associate counsel for academic freedom research at Human Rights Watch. The article was first published in the Times Higher Education Supplement (London), but it caught the attention of U.S. professors when it was reprinted in the July-August 1999 issue of Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

In the article, entitled "A Human Rights Lawyer’s Appeal to Academics," Saunders noted that the AAUP has been at the forefront of efforts to safeguard academic freedom domestically since its beginnings in 1915, but that almost a century later there was a need for comparable efforts on an international level. After describing the harsh situations faced by scholars in many parts of the world, and building a strong case for the defense of academic freedom, Saunders concludes with a call for action:

Whether the threat is politically intolerant state authorities or corporate sponsors concerned more with profits than with the free flow of information and ideas, meaningful defense of academic freedom requires public understanding that autonomy and the free circulation of ideas are the lifeblood of healthy academic institutions. By joining with colleagues to speak out against politically motivated dismissals, discrimination, and censorship, academics fulfill an important part of their mission as educators.

Less than a year later, the Scholars at Risk Network (SAR) was established. The Scholars at Risk Network arranges short-term, emergency visits to network-member institutions in the U.S. and abroad for scholars who suffer because of their work, prominence, or exercise of their basic human rights. These positions allow scholars to continue their academic work in safety, and allow universities to demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom with concrete and tangible actions. In the first four years after its creation, SAR received more than 500 requests for assistance from scholars from more than 90 countries. It has also helped more than seven dozen people with temporary visitor positions or other relief.

SAR also organizes lectures, panels and conferences to educate the public about attacks on academic freedom and undertakes research and advocacy aimed at deterring attacks on academic communities everywhere. Network membership is open to universities and colleges in any country that support the principle that scholars should be free to work without fear of threat or harassment. Members may participate in lectures, panels, conferences and other Network activities to promote academic freedom. Members also are invited, if appropriate, to host an at-risk scholar.

Through this work, SAR has attracted attention to the importance of academic freedom, to the scholars themselves, and to the network-member institutions hosting scholars and events. SAR events have been covered by television, radio, print and internet media, and major academic publications and newspapers. This exposure helps to educates thousands of persons around the world about the vital role academic communities play in free societies, and also about the threats faced by scholars every day including arrest, torture and even death, and about the urgent need to respond to these threats before it is too late.

The SAR office was originally located in the University of Chicago, and moved to New York University in 2003. The Network is staffed by a director and program officer, supported by students and volunteers and guided by an advisory board made up of representatives of member institutions. As of 2004, the Network consists of nearly 100 institutions in the U.S. and abroad, including Ivy League research universities, large public university systems and small liberal arts colleges. SAR also encourages the active participation of NGOs, faculty, students and others interested in issues related to academic freedom.

In 2002, SAR partnered with the Institute of International Education in the creation of the IIE Scholar Rescue Fund. The Fund awards partial fellowships for threatened scholars from any discipline and any country. SAR works with the Fund to arrange temporary visits by fellowship recipients to Network-member universities and colleges.

The efforts undertaken by the Scholars at Risk Network in protecting academic freedom, physical integrity -and even the life- of threatened scholars cannot be underestimated. Not only does SAR offer a room in the labs and classrooms of different campuses to allow persecuted researchers to pursue their work; it also offers a temporary refuge that gives them a chance to flee from danger and to recover psychologically. As Quinn and Stuart (2004) reported, the work of SAR has saved many important voices and dozens of lives. It also provides a leading example of the importance of sharing responsibility of academic communities in the protection of academic freedom and the safety of threatened scholars anywhere in the world.


About Scholars at Risk: 

Saunders, Joseph (1999). A Human Rights Lawyer's Appeal to Academics. Academe Online, July-August. 

Quinn, Robert and Carla Stuart (2004). Academic Freedom and the Promise of International Higher Education. International Higher Education, Boston College, No. 37, pp. 2-3.

Prepared by Scholars at Risk and Daniel Schugurensky (OISE/UT), 2004

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