Scholars At Risk Network 2014 Global Congress

From April 9-10, 2014, Jonathan attended the Scholars at Risk Network 2014 Global Congress: Courage to Think, Responsibility to Act. The conference convened in Amsterdam and was co-hosted by Scholars at Risk, the Foundation for Refugee Students (UAF), University of Amsterdam (UvA), Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU), and Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (HvA). For more information on Scholars At Risk, follow them on Twitter (@ScholarsAtRisk) or visit their website at Below are the remarks Jonathan delivered at the opening session of the Global Congress.


Scholars At Risk Network Congress Opening Session

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Thank you.  My thanks to the Rector and to everyone at VU Amsterdam, our hosts for today; to the University of Amsterdam, who will host us tomorrow; to Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences or co-organizing these event; to all of the co-sponsors; to UAF, SAR’s long-time and valued partner, for taking on so much of the work not only in this event but in building up Scholars at Risk activities in the Netherlands and beyond; to all the members of the UAF-SAR Netherlands Section; to the many other members and partners present here; and to all of you who have traveled, from near or from far to be with us we look forward to a robust discussion of our work and future goals.

Imagine a world where new ideas are not allowed.  Where it is illegal to think about ways to end poverty, build peace or spread opportunity.  Where talking or writing or teaching about how to improve the quality of life for millions could get you arrested, or even killed.

As we all know too well, in some places it’s like that today.

Now imagine a world where ideas are valued.  Where thinking of ways to end poverty, build peace and spread opportunity is encouraged.  Where talking and writing and teaching about how to improve the lives of billions is welcomed, listened to, even honored.

We are here today because we want to build that world together.  We want to protect the courageous women and men who risk their lives to improve the lives of others; the researchers, writers, teachers who are persecuted for thinking about difficult issues and training others to be strong, creative, thoughtful contributors to society.  We want to nurture a culture of respect for university values—academic freedom, autonomy, and social responsibility—and build a world where knowledge and education are set free to solve problems and improve lives.

It was 2 ½ years ago that many of us here today met in New York for the last Scholars at Risk Network Congress.  I am delighted to reconnect with you again and to share our experience with new colleagues here to make common cause with us.

In New York we were celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Network, and I repeated what I said in my opening remarks at the very first meeting in Chicago that launched our network in June 2000:  we are “present at the creation of something very important for the building and sustenance of healthy democratic societies throughout the world.”

I feel that even more today.  Events in every part of the world continue to highlight the essential role that higher education communities play in establishing, maintaining and growing healthy, prosperous, just societies.  In the last few months we see urgent challenges—in Egypt, Ukraine, Venezuela, in the continuing crises in Syria and Iraq and ongoing situations in the Congo, China, Iran and Zimbabwe.  We will have a chance to participate in dialogues with colleagues from some of these and other places, in what will be one of the highlights of our two days together.

At our earlier gatherings I posed a simple question that I ask again today:


“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?”

The answer of course, is no.  “[A]cademic freedom and democracy go together as indispensable partners.  The abridgement of academic freedom is an early warning sign that democracy is in peril. Courageous intellectuals are often first targets of anti-democratic crackdowns…Some give their lives in defense of free expression, others languish in jail and some escape to work in exile against repressive regimes at home. Their voices are essential to keeping hope alive, rallying world opinion, and mobilizing pressure for change.”

That is why Scholars at Risk exists:  to build a global movement to protect scholars and promote academic freedom and the values of the university.  To protect the space to think, to ask questions, provoke critical discussions, to share ideas, freely and safely.

Together, we are making a difference.  We have arranged over 500 positions of safety for scholars from over 30 countries, and assisted over 500 hundred more in other ways.  They come from all over, including Syria, Iran, China, Zimbabwe, Colombia, Iraq and Sri Lanka.

Many have already gone home, to Ethiopia, Indonesia, Mexico and Uzbekistan, where they have continued their academic and policy work, often despite on-going pressures.

Others unable to return safely have continued to contribute their ideas and talents, securing short-term and long-term contracts, and even tenure-track positions in their new universities.  Some of these scholars are with us here today from their new homes at VU University Amsterdam,  Leiden University, Utrecht University, University of Amsterdam, and the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, among others.

Still others bridge both worlds, unable to return safely but actively engaged with their colleagues back home. Some supervise students from afar; others are active in movements for social and political change.

All are vital links to the outside world, beacons of hope for change that will push back authoritarian rule, replace repression with freedom and unleash the creative energies of people ready to build open and just societies at peace.  So while our numbers are modest, our network emboldens thousands of other intellectuals in repressive societies, and in our own, to take risks speaking truth to power.  While they may never actually need our help, they have wide impact as they critique government policies, oppose censorship, advocate free elections, and mobilize unions, youth, environmental and human rights groups.

In the end, our objective is to promote free and open societies through protection of academic and artistic freedom, by pushing back on repressive regimes one episode at a time, by defending one idea and one scholar at a time.  The cumulative effect of our work will build a culture of respect for academic and intellectual freedom that knows no boundaries. As our network grows, with more sections in every region of the world, our impact increases exponentially.

So let us use this gathering to rededicate ourselves to our core mission of helping scholars at risk across the globe.  As an organization, as a community, we are at an inflection point, poised to do more: to increase the numbers of scholars assisted directly but also to strengthen our role in advocating for changes in policy and behavior so that scholars never have to flee in the first place. Protection, Prevention, and Promotion are the three pillars of our work.

We know that positive change is possible.  A good example is Tunisia, which in January of this year adopted a new constitution which explicitly protects academic freedom, the first in the Arab world to do so.  Scholars at Risk had reached out two years earlier to partners in Tunisia to see how we might be helpful.  Among the requests taken was to prepare a report on comparative constitutional protection for academic freedom, which we delivered in person to the constitutional drafting committee in Tunis. We later held an international conference on university values at the embattled University of Manouba.

We did not cause the drafters to adopt the academic freedom provision, but we know that providing this comparative international experience and demonstrating international solidarity with local higher education leaders helped those who were arguing for this protection.  And every little bit helps.  We are joined today by the Dean of the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences at the University of Manouba, Habib Kazdaghli, who has been steadfast and courageous in his defense of the university and its autonomy.  We are delighted to have him with us and look forward to hearing from him later this afternoon. The Tunisian example challenges us to look for similar opportunities on every continent where the solidarity and strength in our growing network can secure greater protection for higher education and its values.  And we should seek opportunities to demonstrate that these values are what enable higher education to thrive and develop its fullest capacity, for the good of the state and the whole society.  Great nations need great universities, and great universities need security, autonomy and the freedom to do their work.

The continuing growth of our network, and partner sections, like the vibrant project with UAF here in the Netherlands, and so many key partners in countries like Norway, the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland and beyond, promises to bring more universities and individuals into this vital work.

I am delighted to be here with you, and look forward to building this movement together, sharing stories and experiences and hearing your ideas on the strategic choices ahead as we strengthen Scholars at Risk and deepen the culture of academic freedom and autonomous universities as our best hope for a more just, humane and peaceful world with opportunity for all.

Thank you.