About the authors:
Rodrigo (Rod) Mena is a socio-environmental AiO-PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam. His current research project focuses on disaster response and humanitarian aid in complex and high-intensity conflict-affected scenarios.
Kees Biekart is Associate Professor in Political Sociology at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. His area of expertise is in NGOs, social movements, civil society, and foreign aid, in particular in relation to Latin America.
The environment in which scholars are expected to produce societally relevant knowledge seems to become increasingly insecure. An estimated six hundred cases reported over the past two years of academics being subjected to arrests, threats, physical or verbal abuse, violent assault, prosecution or job losses have led us to raise the question: How safe is the academic milieu for scholars? This article, based on the Scholars at Risk seminar organised by the ISS in September 2017, discusses the precarious situation of academics and presents alternatives to current risky environments, particularly strategies both at the individual and institutional level for protecting scholars at risk.
Can the academic environment really be typified as a safe and secure space for scholars? While in some contexts academics may work freely and without fear, worldwide the reality can be quite different. Statistics show that academics are increasingly facing uncertain and insecure conditions, with almost six hundred cases reported over the last two years of negative actions taken against academics, including arrests, threats, physical or verbal abuse, violent assault, and prosecution. Such actions result primarily from negative perceptions of the research topics and ideas that scholars teach and research, the position that academics hold in society, the locations in which they conduct research, and their interactions with other members of society. The Academic Freedom Monitor has verified that in recent years, more than 800 attacks on staff and students in higher education have taken place globally; this number does not include cases remaining unreported primarily due to fear or the embarrassment associated with stigmatisation.
Scholars at Risk
In order to better understand the risky conditions scholars increasingly face, in September 2017 the ISS and the UAF co-organised a seminar titled ‘Scholars at Risk’, named after a project of the Foundation for Refugee Students UAF and the Scholars at Risk network (SAR). During the seminar the programme coordinator of the Scholars at Risk project and an academic who in her professional capacity had faced threats engaged in a discussion of their experiences and possible solutions to this problem facing the academe. Three topics discussed during the seminar are of particular interest:
First, the discussion emphasised that the phenomenon of risky academic environments does not just affect developing countries or institutions, but occurs globally. Northern scholars are also subject to pressures, threats and limitations on freedom of expression in their research and corresponding publications. When transgressing certain societal boundaries, restrictions and sanctions ensue. For example, in Eastern Europe and in Russia, cases of the imprisonment and prosecution of scholars can be cited; however, in the rest of Europe academics most commonly face the threat of job loss. However, in many northern countries justice systems generally operate more effectively, allowing scholars to denounce threats or seek support in threatening situations.
Second, scholars in diverse fields are affected. Precarious environments do not only affect social scientists and scholars in the humanities – mathematicians, biologists, doctors, and engineers are also constantly targeted. Last year, a NASA physicist conducting research at the University of Houston was detained in Turkey and accused of being a spy for the United States government and a member of the Turkish Gülen movement. This academic is still detained and awaiting a possible prison sentence of up to 15 years .
Third, the effects of risky academic environments stretch beyond the confines of the academic space, threatening familial security, forcing scholars and their families to seek refuge, and obstructing scientific advances and knowledge generation. Freedom of expression is also limited, as public discussions and discourses, social reflection, and freedom of thought are reduced, impeding efforts to strengthen democracy. It is hence evident that it is a serious and potentially dangerous phenomenon affecting society-at-large and the foundations whereupon societies are built – science, technology, and critical and reflective thought.
Moreover, persecution is not only restricted to scholars, but also affects physical spaces in which they work. Universities, laboratories or observation centres are also attacked, destroyed, or limited in their operations. The non-academic staff working in these spaces, including translators, facilitators and administrative staff (and their relatives) are increasingly confronted with violent situations or are threatened due to their work. The problem hence can be said to directly affect the entire higher education community.
When confronted with this reality many scholars face, many people may ask whether the academic space, then, is shrinking, especially when viewed alongside the other harsh realities of the modern academic world, including the pressure to publish in high-impact journals and the dictation of research topics by research grants. While we do not know whether the academic space is actually shrinking, we do know that it is rapidly transforming. Academics are confronted not only with the risks mentioned above – their freedom of access to information is also under fire. Conducting research in countries suffering from violent conflicts often implies physical risks for academics, alongside the possible destruction of historical information or reduced capacity to produce new knowledge.
A Possible Way Out
After sketching this scenario, the obvious question that arises is how this situation can be addressed. Certainly, no easy solutions can be presented, but a number of steps can be taken in an attempt to create a safer working environment for scholars. The 2017 Free to Think report of Scholars at Risk states that scholars first have to cast a spotlight on the situation, advocating for change and urging states, civil society and leaders to ‘recognize publicly the problem of attacks on higher education, their negative consequences, and the responsibility of states to protect higher education communities within their territories against such attacks’ (Scholars at Risk 2017).
Within our academic communities, safe spaces will have to be created where affected people can publicly and freely discuss their situations. Moreover, we need to engage and urge our academic institutions to become part of organisations and networks protecting and assisting scholars at risk. After all, should it be so difficult to host scholars who seek protection? The academic community is responsible for providing protection to scholars and will have to create mechanisms to support affected people and their families. While ethics committees of research institutions focus on the safety of research subjects, the safety of researchers still does not enjoy sufficient attention.
Scholars also must reflect on the impact of their activities on others. While the full responsibility must not be placed on academics, we, as scholars, can also be proactive by taking measures such as avoiding hazardous situations, protecting our data, engaging with our informants, and by improving our interaction by means of the internet (through emails, web-based research and the use of cloud storage). The abovementioned are only some of several measures that we can take to actively protect ourselves from those people and situations putting us at risk. Especially scholars working or residing in repressive settings known for putting scholars at risk should know which options are available to them to avoid persecution. The global community will concurrently have to advocate for change. Manuals such as the ‘Security guidelines for field research in complex, remote and hazardous places’, although focusing primarily on one component of academic research, can provide valuable information on how to prevent and reduce risks scholars can face.
In conclusion, we as scholars need to engage in an on-going discussion on how to become more aware of scholars at risk and of the actions we can take to help our colleagues. Very likely, much more can be done to protect and support fellow scholars who cannot or are hesitant to speak out, or who have gone into hiding. A safe academic environment moves beyond support for affected scholars, since we all benefit from the academic freedom our predecessors have fought for. After all, how can we cherish academic freedom if some of us are unable to speak out freely?