Tunisia: Inspiring Possibilities for Academic Freedom and Strong Universities

On February 21 and 22, 2013, Jonathan Fanton spoke at the University of Manouba in Tunisia on the subject of higher education in the country. Along with other distinguished guests, Dr. Fanton outlined how universities promote academic freedom and serve as the bedrock for democratic development. To see the conference program for “The University and the Nation: An International Dialogue on Safeguarding Higher Education in Tunisia and Beyond,”  click here: SAR TUNISIA POSTER AND PROGRAM

Tunisia: Inspiring Possibilities for Academic Freedom

and Strong Universities

Jonathan F. Fanton

I had the honor of addressing the conference at the University of Chicago in June 2000 which gave birth to Scholars at Risk. I opened with these words:

“I have a sense of being present at the creation of something very important for the building and sustenance of healthy democratic societies throughout the world. Do you know of a free and democratic society that does not respect academic freedom? Put another way, do you know of an authoritarian regime that dares to allow widespread artistic and intellectual freedom? Academic freedom and democracy go together as indispensable partners.”

We are present at the creation of a new and democratic Tunisia whose economic and political future depends on strong and independent universities and respect for academic freedom. I come here to listen and learn from your experience at this inflection point for Tunisia and to hear your ideas about how we can help.  But first I have been asked to share my own experience, and so I want to talk with you for a few minutes about the importance of universities to open and prosperous societies. Then we will open the floor to a dialogue about how we can work together to strengthen support for universities.

But first a personal comment.

As I look back on my career, protection of academic freedom and the independence of universities has been the central theme. While President of the New School in the 1980s, I helped organize underground seminars for dissident scholars in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslavakia. In 1933 the New School founded a University in Exile in New York to rescue scholars from Nazi persecution. As President of the MacArthur Foundation, I helped strengthen universities in key countries like Russia and Nigeria where MacArthur had offices. MacArthur is one of the largest global foundations working in 60 countries on human rights, peace and security, conservation and women’s health. I started Human Rights Watch’s International Committee on Academic Freedom which introduced me to Tunisia. In 1997 we protested the harassment of mathematician Moncef Ben Salem who was under house arrest for accusing the government of human rights abuses and hostility to Islam. After being forbidden to teach and living under constant surveillance for nearly twenty years, Ben Salem, as many of you know, was appointed the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research in 2011.  Likewise Human Rights Watch and Scholars at Risk both advocated on behalf of Moncef Marzouki, then a Professor of Community Medicine from the University of Sousse, who similarly suffered harassment and prosecution by the Ben Ali regime.  As we know, Professor Marzouki has since become President of the Republic.

The fact that these two men today are involved in shaping Tunisia’s future, although from different parties, perspectives and positions, highlights an important point: protection and security for higher education communities and their members benefits everyone, regardless of ideology or politics.

Organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Scholars at Risk monitor the state of academic freedom around the globe, expose systemic abuses, and protect individual scholars in danger. This important work must continue. The needs are great. Witness over two dozen academics waiting to be helped by Scholars at Risk, from Syria to Sri Lanka, from Iran to Rwanda, from El Salvador to Zimbabwe and beyond. Perhaps universities here in Tunisia might agree to host some of these colleagues for 1 or 2 year visits on your campuses.  Perhaps some of your universities will join our Network.

In all, scholars from over 100 countries have sought help from Scholars at Risk. That tells me that this is not a problem limited to any one place or culture or political system.  This is a problem about the tension between ideas, and the change that comes from ideas, and those who resist or fear change, and try therefore to limit or restrict ideas.

But let us not be consumed with defensive measures after academic freedom has been breached. I believe history will judge that we live in a time of transition and opportunity as the pace of transition to democracy has accelerated the world over. Together, we can capture that opportunity.  And as we do, Tunisia will ever be a symbol of the dawn of a new era for academic freedom.

The eyes of the world are on Tunisia to set the example for the region. That is why we are here in Tunisia, and at Manouba. We know the hopes of the Arab Spring have turned to disappointment, even despair, for some. But if Tunisia can craft a model Constitution, and put its principles into practice, then it is possible that dreams deferred in other countries can be rescued by following Tunisia’s lead. And that model must include protection, security, autonomy and freedom for universities and scholars.

Fortunately, Tunisia has a rich experience of wrestling with the challenges of democratic transition, going back well before 2011.  Indeed, in the words of political scientist Alfred Stepan at Columbia University, Tunisia has “a usable past.”

Let us remember the Tunisia Constitution of 1861 was the first written Constitution adopted in the Arab world.

And “The Call from Tunis” in 2003, brought together a wide range of political and social actors, who articulated two basic principles: first that an elected government should “be founded on the sovereignty of the people as the sole source of legitimacy,” and second that, while showing “respect for the peoples’ identity and its Arab-Muslim values”,  the State should provide “the guarantee of liberty of beliefs to all…”[1]

The high ideals of the Call were carried forward in a document produced in 2005 by the four major parties together with many smaller parties. The “18 October Coalition for Rights and Freedoms in Tunisia” declared that the future ideal was for a democratic state that was “a civic state … drawing its legitimacy from the will of the people.”

The challenge now is to once again take leadership in the region in crafting a constitution with strong protection for academic freedom and independent universities.

There are new constitutions being written and old ones rewritten in many countries, an historic opportunity to embed humankind’s highest aspirations for freedom in law and normative values.  Tunisians have an opportunity to seize this moment.  And the current draft Constitution does a good job, so far.

For example, Article 30 states that “Academic freedoms and freedom of scientific research shall be guaranteed,” and goes on, “The state shall furnish all means necessary for the advancement of academic work and scientific research.”

Coupled with protections for basic human rights, including the right to education (Article 29), freedom of opinion and expression (Article 36), of access to information (Article 28), of assembly (Article 25) and of movement (Article 18), Article 30 provides a good model of broad protections in simple, clear language without limits and exception.  Tunisian scholars and higher education leaders need to be sure this language is approved in the final document.

And even after adoption, vigilance will be required to ensure that this simple language is given its fullest, broadest meaning, and not diminished by interpretation or limitations elsewhere in the text or later statutes. By doing so, you will again lead the way, being (we believe) the first Arab state to protect academic freedom with explicit language in its constitution.

We at Scholars at Risk, representing more than 300 higher education institutions in over 34 countries, stand ready to help you by sharing our comparative experience.  Even in countries like the United States with a long tradition of free universities, we still need to be vigilant in protecting them from intrusion and assuring the financial support they need to make good use of their independence.

So let us think together about how to make the affirmative case for the powerful link among economic development, democracy, independent universities and academic freedom.

Here is what I believe:   Democracy is not an event, but a process that takes years, even decades. It requires patience, as progress is measured little by little, day by day. For Tunisia, as well as for Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, that may mean improving  the constitution, strengthening the independence of the judiciary, consolidating a stable multi-party system, encouraging the right kinds of foreign investment, building a better transportation, energy and IT infrastructure, or reinforcing civilian control over the military.

There are many such building blocks but none more central to the process of strengthening democracy than education. This seems to me undeniable. For individuals, education is the ladder of opportunity; for communities, it is the base of common values that holds diverse people together; for nations, it is the engine of economic growth; and for all who believe in freedom, education provides the moral foundation for democracy guided by respect for individual dignity and the rule of law.

Let us be clear. First-rate universities are not a luxury; they are a necessity. It is essential to spend what it takes to establish and maintain them, because great nations grow from great universities, and Tunisia belongs among the great nations of the world.

But why is higher education so central to development and democracy?

University graduates tend to earn more money and are usually employed

under better working conditions, therefore enjoying better health and living

longer. More able to reason and communicate, their interests are broader

and their ambitions greater.

Studies demonstrate that graduates increase productivity in the overall

work force, providing higher skills and greater flexibility. Their children are

likely to perform better in school and are more likely to attend universities

themselves, and thereby multiply the benefits of a higher education down

the years.

Societies also benefit from the research that universities undertake that

brings technological advances to industry, communications, and agriculture.

All of this suggests how higher education is good for development. Just as important is the role a university can play in building and sustaining a democratic society.

There is, after all, nothing inherent or inevitable about democracy. Democratic habits must be learned, which means they must be taught. To understand how important this is, consider that bigotry, intolerance, and violence may also be learned and taught. No one is born hating anyone else. That is something we learn when the educational process is perverted and people are taught not how to think but what to think — not to seek knowledge but to accept whatever they are told.

The challenge every free society faces is to provide the kind of education that liberates, rather than imprisons, the mind.

The best universities cultivate in their students a capacity for critical thinking, a comfort with complexity, a commitment to civility — qualities essential to the democratic process and a bulwark against closed ideologies of all kinds.

Universities are, by their very nature, cosmopolitan connections to the larger world of ideas and diverse cultures, while at the same time they conserve and interpret what is distinctive about national and local history and tradition. At their best, they bridge between the local and the international, the traditional and the modern, the religious and the secular.

The finest universities also attract talented students from around the world, from every region of a country, from every ethnic and religious group, providing a venue where differences can be understood and respected, where national identity can be forged through shared ideals — not at the expense of the other.

A great university is characterized by democratic values of fairness, transparency, and wide consultation. It sets the standard to which all other institutions, public and private, should be held; it carries within itself the conscience of a society, keeping alive the vision of what the nation at its best can be.

So all who care about the future of Tunisia and its universities face a twin challenge. The first is to secure protection for academic freedom for universities and their members. This is best done in the constitution in simple, clear language without limits and exceptions. The second is to strengthen public understanding of the importance of strong independent universities in building a robust democracy and a vibrant economy.

We need to do our homework, spotlight examples from Tunisia and around the world of how universities have contributed to their societies. Then we need to make the case rooted in solid evidence of the positive role that high quality universities play the world over. And we need to show the indispensable link between academic freedom and the benefits universities confer on the nation.

Constitutional protections are the essential point of departure. But the future of higher education depends on informed public support backed up with the resources public and private, local and international, necessary to unleash and harness the tremendous talent of the Tunisian people and the people throughout this wonderful region.

All of us who care also have responsibilities, not because of the countries we come from, but because we are members of a shared community of universities, of knowledge.  And so we come here to Tunisia to listen and learn from your experience with these issues.  We came to ask what you need from us, to pledge our solidarity with you, and explore what we can do together to protect academic freedom, to protect autonomous universities and to protect individual scholars, not just in Tunisia, or Egypt, or Libya or North Africa, but all around the world.


[1] Alfred Stepan Tunisia Transition and the Twin Tolerations in Journal of Democracy, April 2012

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