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Network forms to help scholars whose ideas put them at risk

image: Campus News In the United States, academics who voice controversial opinions aren't likely to face consequences beyond the jeering of a newspaper columnist or vehement disagreement from a colleague. But in some countries, speaking out can mean imprisonment or torture. It's an age-old problem, one that last received significant public attention during World War II, when the Nazis persecuted such scholars as Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt, who found refuge at American universities, including the U of C.

After attending a 1998 conference where those efforts to help European academics and public intellectuals came up, U of C associate professor Katie Trumpener and some colleagues continued the conversation on campus; Trumpener e-mailed Jacqueline Bhabha, director of the U of C's Human Rights Program. As e-mails began to pile up, attesting to the ongoing repression and oppression of intellectuals around the world, the scholars decided to establish a modern-day aid effort.

And so the Human Rights Program launched the Scholars at Risk Network at a working conference held June 5-7 in Chicago that drew representatives from some 50 institutions. By conference's end, participants had adopted a resolution "recognizing the central importance of scholarship, academic freedom, and higher education for the promotion and protection of peaceful, democratic societies" and "the shared responsibility of all scholars, administrators, students, and their institutions to join in solidarity in defense of their colleagues." The group resolved to establish a network of research and educational institutions dedicated to protecting the fundamental human rights of the global academic community; providing sanctuary for scholars threatened by displacement, discrimination, censorship, harassment, intimidation, or violence; and raising awareness of their plight.

In the two weeks following the conference, says Scholars at Risk director Robert Quinn, a dozen scholars had already contacted the network asking for help. With a B.A. from Princeton and a J.D. from Fordham Law School, where he was the Crowley fellow in international human rights, Quinn joined the U of C last October. Over the next year, he hopes to place the first group of five or so scholars, and to double the number of institutions in the network to 100. And, although a $250,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is getting the network off the ground, he'll launch a fund-raising campaign toward the organization's long-term viability.

He's off to a good start on finding placements: by late June, the U of C, the universities of Iowa and Michigan, Illinois Wesleyan University, Chicago-Kent College of Law, and Albion College had made good-faith commitments to host an at-risk scholar. Of those institutions, the U of C, Michigan, and Chicago-Kent each agreed to offer a three-year visiting professorship to a scholar in any discipline, from any world region.

But applying doesn't guarantee placement. First the network will verify that the applicant is both a scholar-defined in broad terms and including poets and physicists, holders of master's degrees or multiple doctorates, and academics at all kinds of institutions-and at risk. The program will work with professional associations, government offices, and international organizations to determine the hardships facing applicants.

Three times a year, Quinn plans to send the network's member institutions a report on ten or so at-risk scholars, hoping to match them with the needs of a particular institution; the matching process will eventually be facilitated by a database. Smaller institutions will be asked to commit to at least a one-time appointment, while bigger institutions will be asked to commit one of their visiting-scholar slots, generally for a period of one to three years.

Once a scholar is placed, the network will check up on him or her regularly and help in finding a post-placement job. "Making the Scholars at Risk Network an international organization will make it easier for them to return to their own region," Quinn says. The network will also work with nongovernmental organizations on post-placement monitoring.

"I fully anticipate, 10 or 15 years down the road, you will have chief executives of companies, university presidents, leaders of countries who have gone through this program," says Quinn. "It depends on our ability to keep them around long enough."

Institutions and research centers that can't host a scholar can still participate by designating a liaison to receive and disseminate information or choosing a representative to serve on an advisory committee. The network's Web site (scholarsatrisk.uchicago.edu) offers an on-line Academic Freedom Institute, with a discussion forum and reports on country and regional conditions. Users can join a listserv of updates and announcements, browse a bibliography of relevant books and reports, volunteer as an "academic freedom monitor" for a country or region, and contribute information on current or past displaced scholars.

There are plans to publish an on-line journal of scholarly works and profiles of persecuted scholars, as well as provide a virtual classroom on academic freedom featuring the works of displaced scholars. Publicizing the scholars may be even more significant than hosting them in the States, notes Quinn. "A scholar at the conference said placement isn't as important as creating an umbrella. If a scholar becomes known as being watched by the American academic community, that offers a measure of protection."-K.S.


  AUGUST 2000
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