Scholars in Danger Join World’s Refugees

In the Middle East and beyond, academics face a growing threat
The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 3, 2014

By Aisha Labi

Their stories are grim.

A Syrian engineer flees the country after being detained and tortured by government forces. A writer and human-rights activist escapes following threats from members of a far-right political group in Greece. In Thailand, a military coup forces an outspoken anthropologist to seek refuge abroad. 

Intellectual dissidents have long faced political persecution and violence. But in recent years, the dangers facing them and universities in troubled regions have reached a crisis point. According to the Institute of International Education, which has been helping imperiled scholars since 1919, academics and students are being forced to flee their homes and homelands at a level not seen since World War II, when thousands of professors and scientists escaped Nazi-controlled Europe.

While those seeking aid are from all corners of the globe, the greatest need is in the Middle East, says Allan E. Goodman, the institute’s president.

The Syrian civil war and violent expansion of the so-called Islamic State terrorist group have caused a wave of destruction in Iraq and Syria and a vast flood of refugees into countries like Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Academics and their families have often been caught in that tumult.

But to a greater extent than in previous wars and conflicts, scholars are now specifically attacked, and centers of learning have gone from being incidental victims to “battlegrounds,” says Mr. Goodman. “War is more being driven by terrorists than ever before,” he says, “and terrorists get a lot more bang for their buck by destroying universities and killing professors, and thereby intimidating a whole lot more people, than if just fighting a regular army.”

The renewed chaos in Iraq over the summer due to the Islamic State has been a significant setback for that country’s higher-education system. In recent years, Iraqi scholars who had fled earlier sectarian violence and persecution there had started to return. But now many have reversed course and been forced to again find sanctuary elsewhere. “Three months have undone three years of effort,” says Mr. Goodman.

Even before the advent of the Islamic State, though, the civil war in Syria had become noteworthy for the extent to which professionals, especially doctors and academics, had become targets of aggression. “Doctors who do what they are charged by the Hippocratic oath to do are being targeted,” says George Rupp, a former president of Columbia University who recently led the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit group that aids people during humanitarian crises.

The gruesome trend has appeared in other countries where radical Islamist militants have waged bloody campaigns. In Nigeria. the terrorist organization Boko Haram, whose very name means “Western education is forbidden,” has attacked schools and colleges. While in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, the young woman who shared this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, was singled out for attack by Taliban gunmen because of her support for female education.

According to “Education Under Attack 2014,” a report released in February that examined violence directed at schools and universities in 30 countries, the greatest threats are in Afghanistan, Colombia, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria. From 2009-12, each country had more than 1,000 documented reports of attacks on students, faculty members, or educational institutions, which could include school or college buildings being occupied by military forces.

The report, which was produced by the Global Coalition to Protect Education From Attack, said that attacks on higher education over the reporting period included “assassination, killing or injury of students and academics, arbitrary arrest, torture, abduction, kidnapping, imprisonment, and the bombing of groups of students, individual academics, and higher-education facilities.”

Diya Nijhowne, director of the coalition, said such attacks were probably not a new phenomenon, but were becoming better documented and therefore gaining more attention.

Indeed, while the situation in the Middle East is clearly an emergency, experts say it’s more difficult to tell if political persecution of scholars is on the rise globally or if other factors are in play.

“Iraq and Syria are clearly the crises of the moment,” says Robert Quinn, executive director of the Scholars at Risk Network, but he emphasizes that attacks on intellectuals are constantly taking place around the world. His organization, which is based at New York University and advocates on behalf of threatened academics, has experienced an increasing demand for its services since it was created in 2000.

Similarly, requests for aid to the Institute of International Education,whose Scholar Rescue Fund provides grants and other support to academics, have reached the highest level since the fund started in 2002. From June through August of last year, the fund received 99 applications for assistance. During that same period this year, the requests shot up to more than 240. In all, it expects to help 15 percent more scholars this year compared with 2013.

The nonprofit says it would like to do more to help, but is limited in its response by financial constraints and the number of universities that volunteer to provide sanctuary.

The fund prefers to help relocate academics close to their homelands, placing many Iraqis, for instance, in Jordan. The goal is for the scholars to eventually return home and help rebuild their shattered countries.

But in some cases, the fund spirits professors to the United States and places them within its network of universities.

Rutgers University at New Brunswick, for example, is playing host to two threatened scholars, one from Iraq and one from Ethiopia.

Joanna Regulska, the university’s vice president of international and global affairs, says hosting scholars can be a challenge, in terms of helping them adjust to a new academic culture and finding the money to supplement what the Scholar Rescue Fund provides in stipends, which is usually $25,000.

But despite any difficulties, she says, it’s a valuable service for universities to provide. “It’s very important for academic institutions to engage with scholars who are in danger,” she says. She notes that in her home country of Poland, support from American academics and institutions was vital during the Cold War.

Of course, helping persecuted individuals is not purely an act of charity. At Rutgers, she says, the foreign scholars infuse a valuable international perspective to the campus by teaching classes, working with other professors, and conducting research. “We’re bringing the world to Rutgers by bringing the scholars” here, she says.

Whether such benefits could be more widespread if the displacement of persecuted academics continues is unclear. European scholars uprooted by the turmoil of World War II, who included such luminaries as Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, and Niels Bohr, greatly advanced the country’s intellectual and scientific prowess.

But today the numbers coming to the United States, as opposed to being displaced or relocated within in their own regions, remain relatively small. Even if that figure increases, Mr. Rupp, of the International Rescue Committee, is skeptical of a broad impact on American higher education. Most of the rescued scholars, he says, “are not the world’s leading people in their field in the way it was the case in the 1930s.”

Other experts disagreed, saying that the displaced scholars coming here are poised to make lasting intellectual and societal contributions.

Says Mr. Quinn: “The impact they will have on the U.S. will be different, but I would argue no less important if you look at the demographics of what is projected for world population by the end of this century.”

With much of the world’s population living in Africa and Asia, the West will increasingly require scholars with deep understanding of those regions. “All you have to do is look at the headlines, and to me it is patently obvious,” says Mr. Quinn. “The only way humanity moves forward is if we have a setup of rules for discussing this set of problems that is knowledge-based and open to different points of view, and that’s the university.”

Academe Under Threat: By the Numbers

143 percent
Increase in requests for aid to the Scholar Rescue Fund from June through August 2014 compared with the same period last year

Number of academics the Scholar Rescue Fund has assisted so far in 2013-14

Estimated number of people killed in bombings at Syrian universities in 2013

Number of Iraqi professors assassinated during 2009-12 based on reports by the news media and human-rights groups

Number of countries with more than 1,000 reports of attacks on schools, universities, students, and faculty during 2009-2012

Sources: Institute of International Education; Global Coalition to Protect Education From Attack