Scholars At Risk Global Congress: Presentation of the “Courage to Think” award to Dean Habib Kazdaghli

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 “Courage to Think” Celebration.


Courage to Think Celebration

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Thank you and good evening.  I am Jonathan Fanton, and I am very pleased to be here tonight in my capacity as the Chair of the Board of Scholars at Risk, to announce the recipient of the “2014 Scholars at Risk Network Courage to Think Award.”

Scholars at Risk inaugurated the award in 2011 to recognize individuals, groups or institutions that have demonstrated exemplary courage and commitment to protecting scholars and promoting academic freedom through the impact of their professional work or community service, or by withstanding physical, emotional, professional or other risks.

The inaugural award was presented in 2011 to Aryeh Neier in recognition of his leadership during a career dedicated to promoting intellectual freedom and human rights as the national Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, the founding Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, and later President of the Open Society Foundation.

Tonight, we honor an individual in the category of a “defender award,” which is reserved for individuals or organizations which have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to the protection of scholars, universities and higher education values, especially academic freedom and institutional autonomy, despite grave professional, personal and physical risks.

Tonight’s honoree exemplifies all of these.

The receipient of the 2014 Scholars at Risk ‘Courage to Think” Defender Award is:

Dean Habib Kazdaghli of the University of Manouba in Tunisia

            As an educator, the Dean has demonstrated respect, patience and tolerance for the views of all students, even when such virtues were not returned to him in the same measure.

As a higher education leader, he did not hide from the responsibility to defend his university, and the values it stands for, including autonomy, academic freedom, tolerance and inclusivity.  As a human being, he continues to demonstrate, extraordinary courage in facing down physical intimidation, risk of imprisonment, and death threats.

Dean Kazdaghli is a historian with a particular interest in contemporary minority rights, including Tunisia’s Jewish minority.  His academic work is deeply rooted in issues of equity and fair access, which are central to the open, merit-based ideal of the modern university.  For this reason, the Dean was already a target for extreme elements in Tunisia, who do not wish to see a Tunisian society that includes diverse communities and perspectives, let alone a university which studies, discusses and even celebrates different backgrounds and views.

So it is not surprising that the Dean’s campus was targeted by those people from outside the university community, who wanted to use the university to make their point. Implicitly their actions showed that they know what we all know– the value and power of the university to shape society.  Indeed, their actions reveal that they feared the university as a free space, and therefore wanted to control it.

In post-revolutionary Tunisia, the people of Tunisia have a chance for the first time in decades to openly debate what kind of a state and society they want to live in, to raise their families in.  The university plays a vital role in that discussion, and these demonstrators from outside the university community know that.  They know that the university represents one vision for society—one that is inclusive; one that respects all members of society; one that respects learning and promotes knowledge as a bridge to a brighter future for the whole society.

So they blocked access to the campus and tried to force the entire university community to adopt their vision of a less open university.  They even tore down the Tunisian flag and replaced it with the jihadist banner—an incident which became famous when a young, female student tried to defend the national flag and the values of the university, only to be physically pushed aside by the mob of demonstrators.  The Dean led his faculty in resisting this threat, a threat not only to the autonomy of the university but to the role of the university in society and to society itself.

It is worth noting that the context—around the same time as the University of Manouba was under pressure, free expression was under wider attack in Tunisia.  Journalists and a television producer were being threatened and prosecuted.  An art exhibit was violently disrupted and an offending painting set on fire.  Instead of prosecuting those resorting to violence, the state prosecuted the curator of the exhibit.

In this context, it would have been understandable had the Dean closed his ears to the demonstrators.  But he did not.  He reached out to the few students among them, who were members of the university community.  He attempted dialogue and appropriate accommodation of their personal views with the overall well-being of the campus community.  He exhibited patience with them, even tolerating the occupation of his office and administration building.  But he did not yield to the outside interference seeking control of the university.

Even when he, his faculty and other members of the campus community were physically threatened by this angry mob at the campus entrance, he did not give in nor did he return their violence.  He stood face to face with the aggressors, without returning their aggression.

Yet when he sought help to protect his campus, little came.  He reached out to the police, but they did not come.   He reached out to the Ministry of Education, but help did not come.   Instead, the Dean found himself charged with a crime.  The students occupying his office, after the university brought a complaint against them for destroying property and papers, filed false charges against the Dean.  Rather than come to his aid, the State elevated the charges.  If convicted he would face years of imprisonment.  Still, he did not quietly relent.  He fought the charges, appearing regularly in court while his accusers repeatedly failed to appear.  Finally, he was vindicated.  The court not only dismissed the charges against him, but convicted the students of filing false charges.

But even that was not the end of the Dean’s ordeal.  He has been asked to bear even more in defense of the values of the university.  Because of his courageous defense of the university, the Dean’s name appeared on an extremist website on a list of those to be killed for obstructing the extremists takeover of society. This would be disturbing to any of us under the best of circumstances, but remember this was a time when violence was in the air, and the State was not responding.   Then a colleague, a prominent political figure in Tunisia’s transformation, was assassinated.  The government has still not solved that case.  Then a second public figure on the same list was also assassinated. Again, the case remains unsolved.

How many of us would keep going, when our name is on a death list?  How many of us would have the courage to speak the truth, as we see it?  I hope none of you ever have to find out.   But we know this—like so many of the courageous scholars we have the honor to work with– Dean Kazdaghli was not silenced.  He continues to speak openly about the importance of the values of the university, to the university itself, and to the emerging society in which education and educated young people will play a critical part.  In fact, he invited the world to come and discuss and share these values with him. In response, Scholars at Risk and our partners held an international conference on the “University and the Nation”, in Tunisia last year.  And he held a follow-up event earlier this year.

Forced to live his life under the protection of bodyguards simply because of the ideas he articulates and the values he represents, he has carried on.  He has traveled and talked about the importance of the university and its values, especially to the Arab Spring countries, at events in the region, in North America, and here in Europe. By his example and his courage, he has become Tunisia’s unofficial ambassador of intellectual freedom.

It is my great pleasure to present the 2014 Scholars at Risk Network Courage to Think Award to Dean Habib Kazdaghli of the University of Manouba, “for his courage and dedication to academic freedom and university autonomy.”