Preserving Syria’s intellectual capital

The Chicago Tribune, July 4, 2013

By Allan E. Goodman and Mark A. Angelson

With the death toll in Syria passing 100,000, the country’s bloody conflict has been much in the news. But the policy debate over the outside world’s next steps remains stymied. There certainly are no perfect answers to the issues surrounding intervention and arming rebel groups, whose provenance and future intentions are unknown.

But as Syrian university labs and classrooms are being bombed, and students and professors killed, kidnapped and imprisoned, the international community has a singular chance to affect the future of the Syrian national academy and a moral imperative to do so.

Syria’s students, professors and researchers represent the country’s best chance to rebuild after the current violence subsides. Many Syrian families have been displaced or are living in refugee camps, with limited access to basic education, while schools in Syria have been damaged or destroyed.

The Syrian scholarly community faces violence that is even more chilling. Students have been targeted in retribution for their participation in protests. General violence has spilled over onto university campuses. Students have been forced to leave their homes and communities to escape shelling, and others have been unable to reach their classrooms because of the dangers en route.

Human rights experts who interviewed Syrian students and professors in refugee camps foresee a severe risk of creating a “lost generation” if nothing is done to help. This would compound the tragedy and place even greater roadblocks on the path to peace and stability in the future. Without professors, there can be no students, and without educated young people, the character of future leaders will be diminished in ways that would not augur for a bright future.

So we say the international community must act now to preserve the intellectual capital of Syria. Universities, governments and the donor community — large and small — can take immediate action, even while world leaders are struggling with the correct foreign policy approach.

Some 40 universities, mostly in the United States, have joined a consortium led by the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago and the Institute of International Education to provide emergency student scholarships and host threatened scholars from Syria. A Syrian-American group called Jusoor has mobilized resources to help fund the students. But there is an urgent need for more fellowships for professors and emergency scholarships for students, and for more safe-haven countries and host institutions around the world to join in this special effort to protect those who will be most needed to rebuild Syria.

Preserving higher education is essential to defending academic and civil freedoms, protecting regional and global security, and rebuilding fragile states. We know this because our institute has been in this business for nearly a hundred years, having dealt successfully with similar challenges starting with rescuing Russian scholars from the Bolsheviks, saving Europeans from fascism and national socialism, and, most recently, rescuing hundreds of the most senior and threatened scholars from Iraq.

Since 2002, 500 scholars have found safe haven at 300 institutions in 40 countries; seven greater Chicagoland institutions have stepped up to host 11 scholars from eight countries. But more hosts and safe havens are needed, and soon. There are productive actions that Americans can take now. Taking in students and professors from Syria will provide crucial aid by which the funding does not leave the country and no lives are placed at risk.

Too often, in a conflict situation, the rescue work happens last. But in the case of Syria, we can do something now, before the knowledge base is destroyed. We urge every campus in Chicago, as well as those across the Midwest and throughout the United States, to join universities and governments around the world in hosting visiting scholars from Syria before it is too late.

Allan E. Goodman is president and CEO of the Institute of International Education. Mark A. Angelson is chairman of IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund and the former deputy mayor of Chicago.