Category Archives: Scholars at Risk

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.”

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.

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