Remarks by Jonathan Fanton about the Formation of Scholars at Risk Network, The University of Chicago
June 6, 2000 | Speech

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.

The abridgement of academic freedom is an early warning sign when democracy is in peril. Courageous intellectuals are often first targets of anti-democratic crackdowns as we heard in four moving stories last evening. 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. Think of Andrei Sakharov and Yuri Orlov in the Soviet Union, Jacobo Timerman in Argentina; or, more recently, Fang Lizhi, Wang Dan, and the many other outspoken scientists and scholars under pressure in China; Wole Soyinka exiled by the Abacha regime in Nigeria, or prominent geologist Nguyen Thanh Giang, still under siege in Vietnam.

To be most effective, exiled scholars need a base from which to work and financial support. And while there have been noble moments when the academic community has rallied to help colleagues in danger, until now we have lacked a permanent network of support. The very existence of such a network is bound to fortify the courage of all scholars in peril across the world to resist injustice in their home countries as long as they can.

The individuals we seek to help matter, but so do the thousands of other intellectuals whom such a network emboldens to speak their minds. While they may never actually need our help, they can have wide impact as they critique government economic policies, oppose press censorship, advocate free elections, organize unions, environmental and human rights groups. In many countries the distance between scholarship and public policy is a lot closer than it is here.

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. That is why this conference and the proposal before you to create a Scholars at Risk Network is so important.

I come to this topic with some personal history, which explains my passion for the project. As you know, I was President of the New School for Social Research for 17 years after working here at the University of Chicago with Hanna Gray. The New School's first President, Alvin Johnson, had been editor of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences through which he developed his own network of eminent scholars throughout Europe. April 5, 1933, was an important day in the history of the New School, for Alvin Johnson and ultimately for me.

On that day Nazi Order 34953, issued by the Minister of the Interior, proclaimed "that all members of the Jewish race (without regard to denominational affiliation) in the civil serviceas well as those on the teaching staffs of private schools, are to be discharged from duty until further notice."

Alvin Johnson quickly mobilized support from the Rockefeller Foundation to offer a safe haven at the New School for members of his network who faced loss of their jobs and ultimately their lives. Johnson founded a University in Exile at the New School for some, but was instrumental in placing many more nearly 200 of the brightest lights of a European generation at Yale, Chicago, Columbia, the University of Minnesota, the University of Michigan, and elsewhere. You will recognize their names: Max Ascoli, Gerard Colm, Victor Fuchs, Emil Lederer, Claude Levi-Strauss, Franco Modigliani, Hans Staudinger, Leo Strauss, George Szell, Max Wertheimer, Freida Wunderlich among them.

So there is a precedent for our institutions working together to provide a home for scholars at risk.

But it has not been easy to sustain the impulse to help generated by the Holocaust. To be sure many of the organizations represented here today have worked on academic freedom, defending colleagues in other nations facing harassment, providing visiting appointments to professors forced to flee. So we know how hard it can be to find a place and financial support on short notice in a localized emergency. And that is why a more formal standing network, ready to act, is a good idea.

The New School has continued its tradition of supporting scholars in peril. Building on the experience of the University in Exile, in the 1980s the New School worked with dissident scholars through a series of underground seminars in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and eventually the whole region. When we could get them out we did, but more often we smuggled in reading material and smuggled out their writings to be published in the West. Many of the New Schools principal contacts, for example Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron in Poland, Janos Kis and Gyorgy Bence in Hungary and Jan Urban and Martin Butora in Czechoslovakia, were also leading human rights advocates, which is how I came to be involved in Human Rights Watch almost twenty years ago.

At first my interest was Europe, but as a Board member, I quickly learned about threats to intellectual freedom all over the world. . It seemed odd that lawyers, doctors, writers and journalists all had human rights committees, but the academic profession did not.

Because of the New Schools work in helping scholars in East and Central Europe, the Director of Human Rights Watch, Aryeh Neier, approached me to start a committee to address the problem worldwide. So ten years ago, with support from the Ford Foundation, Human Rights Watch founded The International Committee on Academic Freedom.

Since its creation, the Committee has had more business than it can handle. Hear some examples: in May 1997 we took up the case of Professor al-Ahwany of the University of Cairo arrested for photocopying a paper critical of a controversial provision of an Egyptian agrarian reform law. In July 1997 we protested the harassment of mathematician Moncef Bensalem living under house arrest in Tunisia for accusing the government of both human rights abuses and hostility to Islam. That same month we protested disciplinary proceedings against Professors Bernal and Ardil for charging graft by the administration at the University of Panama. In September 1997, we called for the release of independent researchers in Cuba who had criticized Castro. In December of that year, we protested the decree restricting public release of scientific studies on the health consequences of air pollution in Malaysia. In December 1998 I tried to go to Belgrade to protest the Serbian law radically curtailing the facultys role in governance but was denied a visa. Then in Spring 1999, I participated in a report documenting the systematic curtailment of academic freedom in Belarus and that same year a report on Uzbekistans harassment of students and faculty for their religious beliefs.

More recently we protested the detention since July 1999 of Professor Kambaj wa Kambaji, a lecturer at the University of Lubumbashi, for his critical analysis of the uses of ethnic hate language in political discourse in Katanga. And just last week I received a letter from Obrad Savic, recently fired from the faculty of Chemical Engineering at the University of Belgrade. He sent us a copy of a courageous open letter to the Rector. Hear his letter to his colleagues which accompanied that open letter.

I am addressing this letter to you, hoping that a voice of revolt from shameful Belgrade will reach you. I am ashamed of addressing you from the country of terror and fear, the state where parliamentary life, media and University have been suffocated, the state where pensioners, workers and citizens are being beaten. I am ashamed of the state, which mobilizes paramilitary formations to oppress students in the University halls and classrooms. I am ashamed of the state which fears and arrests its rebellious youth, organized as the "peoples resistance" movement. I am ashamed of our democratic political opposition, which has wasted the trust of its citizens long time ago. I am ashamed of my feelings of hatred towards the regime and scorn towards the opposition. I am ashamed of sending my Open Letter to the Belgrade University Rector now, in the moment when everything around us is falling apart. I am ashamed of myself, of my feelings of superfluousness and uselessness in my own country. I am sad and worried for these darkest forebodings.

The open letter puts Professor Savic in harm's way. Wouldn't it be good if we could quickly offer him a visiting professorship for a few months?

I could go on but you get the point the threat to academic freedom knows no geographical boundaries: it is worldwide. Human Rights Watch comes upon new instances in the ordinary course of its work every week. Our Committee on Academic Freedom is a source of information about people who could benefit from this new network. But we are but one source others include Amnesty, the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Human Rights and (a similar program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science) others here at this conference.

I am sorry that the MacArthur Board meets later today and tomorrow so I cannot stay with you. The topics for the panels seem to me just right and the panelists well chosen. The right people are gathered here, the need is clear and the range of remedies to be explored, I am sure, will be comprehensive. I hope you will not leave this conference without recording your resolve to establish this network and articulating a concrete timetable and a set of steps to put it into action.

Now let me conclude with a challenge. The MacArthur Foundation is pleased to have contributed to the conference and I think it likely we will help respond to your plan of action. But the defense of academic freedom should not hinge on support from private foundations. Universities should take the lead as indeed the University of Chicago has today. Most universities can afford to support a scholar in peril from time to time if they want to. There are approximately 1,100 four-year, degree-granting colleges and universities in the American Council on Education. Let us set a goal of having 10% of them committed to supporting a scholar in peril for at least a year or two when this project is formally launched.

This is a leadership responsibility, which should not be delayed by internal bureaucratic processes. At the New School I held myself to that standard. I often made the commitment to help first and figured out later how we could cover the cost. Rapid response in the face of an emergency is essential. Almost always I found someone in the New School family who wanted to help financially, so the cost to the University was not great.

And while my remarks have focused on how we can help, the truth is the people we brought to the New School contributed immensely to research programs and to both graduate and undergraduate education. The Scholars at Risk Network will very much be a two-way street with institutions gaining, I predict, more than they give.

I hope you will forgive the directness of my challenge, but I feel strongly about the issue and, alas, it feels good to be back raising money from others!

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