Academy at Risk: Challenges of the 21st Century

“Academy at Risk: Challenges of the 21st Century”

European Humanities University

Vilnius, Lithuania

January 26, 2018

It is an honor to be back here at EHU, a university I first came to know in 1995 when I visited Minsk in my capacity as President of the New School for Social Research and as Chair of the European division of Human Rights Watch. It was my privilege to support EHU as President of the MacArthur Foundation with substantial grants over the years. Most recently, as Chair of Scholars at Risk, I have continued my support for EHU and scholars facing repression around the world.

I also feel a deep bond to Vilnius. It is a particular pleasure to be here in Vilnius this special year – when Lithuania commemorates a centenary anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Vilnius plays a special role in the history of many nations; being a capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, it has also become a cultural center for generations of Jews, Poles, and—certainly—Belarusians.

As Chair of Helsinki Watch I first visited Vilnius in late January 1991. I saw then the courage and determination of the Lithuanian people. I will never forget coming through the sandbags and volunteer guards that ringed the Parliament to meet with President Landsbergis.  The spirit of freedom was alive in the entrance gallery full of young people singing songs of tradition and liberation.  The President told me, “If we are not crushed completely in a short time, this process of independence will succeed.”  How right he was.

I am proud that MacArthur provided support for the critical relocation of EHU from Minsk to Vilnius. And I was honored to join President Adamkus and Rector Mikhailov at the opening ceremony of the European Humanities University International in June 2005. In my remarks I said:

At today’s occasion, I cannot help but recall that the Graduate Faculty of the New School was founded 72 years ago this month as the University in Exile.  The New School rescued scholars from Germany and elsewhere in Europe, giving them safe haven from Nazi terror.  The faculty adopted as their guiding principle “To the Living Spirit,” words etched on the main building of the University of Heidelberg and defaced by the Nazis.

In the 1980s, when dissident academics in East and Central Europe were subject to persecution, the New School supported their underground seminars, brought forbidden books and journals in, and brought censored manuscripts out for publication in the West. So through the New School tradition, I feel a special kinship to scholars in peril.

MacArthur was drawn to supporting EHU for intellectual and pedagogical reasons: We saw in EHU, the European University of St. Petersburg, the Central European University, and the New Economic School a force for strengthening the Humanities and Social Sciences. We saw a generation of scholars yearning to meet international standards through open inquiry and exchange. And a desire to connect research with policy at a time when we hoped that democracy and wider freedom would take root in the post-Soviet space.

EHU has been a leader in creating research centers, libraries, and institutes. I think of the Center for Gender Studies, the Laboratory of Critical Urbanism, and the Center for Constitutionalism and Human Rights as shining examples, producing research that informs and improves policy.

Over the years I have had the privilege of meeting with EHU faculty and students. Watching your students grow in their understanding of complex societies, appreciate how the arts and humanities contribute to a vibrant nation, and acquire the skills to be leaders has been an exhilarating experience.

So it is the positive accomplishments and even greater potential that drew me to EHU and fires my determination to see it endure and prosper. As I said at the opening ceremony in 2005:

Let us today dedicate EHU International, this new university in exile, to The Living Spirit and may it stand as a symbol of hope that freedom, opportunity, and democratic prosperity will flourish in Belarus when this university returns to its rightful home in Minsk.

I feel those sentiments now more than ever. EHU is a symbol of hope for academic freedom and quality teaching and research at a time when threats to higher education are growing. We know the tragic story of the Central European University fighting for its life since this past April, when the Hungarian parliament adopted legislation designed to force the university’s closure.

This year, when all three Baltic nations are commemorating the 100th anniversary since the declaration of independence, we shall again re-confirm the critical role that independent academia plays in assuring the well-being of our societies. Hence all necessary efforts should be made to secure conditions for those students and faculty who are under attack.

I am on the Advisory Board of the European University at St. Petersburg, and have seen firsthand the pressures increase that threaten its survival. Having lost its license to teach students, most recently on the pretext of fire safety violations and unspecified “unreliable information,” it now continues as a research center. But it cannot endure without the education function.

I am well aware that EHU has faced its own challenges in recent weeks, challenges that arise from bureaucratic infighting and a failure to appreciate its special role in the fight for academic freedom worldwide. I will say more on why we must make common cause to defend EHU in a moment.

From my experience at Scholars at Risk, I see the threat to scholars and academic freedom worldwide. The rationale behind Scholars at Risk’s work is that the root causes of attacks on universities, scholars, and students can be traced back to the simple fact that scholars ask questions, while authorities frequently think that scholars’ questions go too far.  That is essentially the position of the Turkish government today, when it claims that the over 1,000 scholars that signed a public peace petition had gone too far in their questions and critical words about government policy, equating them with treason and incitement to terrorism. And is that not essentially why EHU is here in Vilnius and why EUSP and CEU are threatened today?  Because they teach and support scholars and students who ask questions.

Scholars at Risk calls on us all to reaffirm our commitment to asking questions. It is an international network of higher education institutions—currently over 500 in 37 countries—dedicated to protecting threatened scholars and promoting academic freedom everywhere.  EHU has been a long-standing member and partner, including hosting SAR’s Global Congress in Vilnius in 2008.  CEU, EHU, and EUSP all have been the subjects of Scholars at Risk advocacy alerts and campaigns, as each has come under pressure.

Last year alone the network helped over 400 scholars, including arranging over 150 positions of academic refuge, both records for a single year. (EHU and CEU have both hosted SAR-assisted scholars over the years.) In its most recent report, Free to Think 2017, the network documented over 250 attacks on higher education communities in 35 countries, involving thousands of scholars and students. And the SAR network used the data generated to increase the visibility of these threats and to demand greater accountability and protection. Last year alone, SAR members sent over 4,000 appeals on behalf of threatened universities and wrongfully imprisoned scholars and students.

At the next SAR Congress in Berlin this April, we will reaffirm these commitments.  The theme is “The University and the Future of Democracy,” suggested by the theme of our conference today.  And it is affirmed by what we know from the experience in this room today: that democratic values themselves are under pressure, and that the university, in the sense of the scholarly community as a whole, has a responsibility to develop, explain, and defend those values.

I hope you will send representatives to the Global Network Congress in Berlin. Being there, with hundreds of like-minded colleagues, you will see that only by working together can we really stand up to the growing threats.

Lithuania has earned the admiration of defenders of academic freedom worldwide for rescuing EHU. The recent bureaucratic challenge has been disappointing, but the high-level support from Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis and Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius has been reassuring. Let us hope the forces of enlightenment prevail and EHU’s license to teach is secure. And that it gains special status, respecting its unique circumstances and global importance.

And as we join together to encourage resistance to attacks on scholars and institutions worldwide, we must also redouble our effort to ensure that EHU achieves a strong and stable foundation.

It is an institution only 25 years old (founded June 1992), in early adulthood seeking to strengthen its identity, its quality, and its financial stability. EHU deserves continued support from the American philanthropic community. And it needs partner universities in the United States and Europe for faculty and student exchange, joint research projects, and more.

I concluded my remarks at the reopening of EHU pledging to the students and faculty:

We must not—we will not—fail them. They can count on our determined effort to attract others to provide material and spiritual support so that scholars in peril the world over will take heart that academic freedom eventually will triumph over authoritarian regimes.

I feel those sentiments even more strongly today, as EHU is a “beacon upon a hill” calling forth a united effort to protect imperiled institutions and scholars across the globe.

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