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If universities withdraw from their international initiatives each time there is a violation of human rights or an act of violence committed by academic partner’s government, soon all international academic engagement would probably come to a screeching halt.

Following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Harvard and MIT are reexamining their relationships with Saudi Arabia. Yet, these elite institutions continue to engage with other countries (China, Russia, etc.) where there is evidence of crimes, abuse of human rights and violent assaults on individuals.

In March, Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in England. The perpetrators of the poisoning were most likely current or former agents of the GRU, an undercover strike force for the Kremlin.  Several months later, Dawn Sturgess and Charles Rowley, British citizens, were poisoned by the same nerve agent. Ms. Sturgess died from the poisoning. They were unlikely targets of a Russian attack—more likely accidental victims of a substance being stealthily moved across borders by Russian agents. President Putin has denied any knowledge of these attacks, much as MBS has denied any knowledge of the Khashoggi murder.

This month, Scholars at Risk published their 2018 report listing 294 attacks against academics documented through August of this year—77 deaths through killing, acts of violence or disappearances; 88 imprisonments, 60 prosecutions, and more. Countries cited in the report for the most grievous abuses of human rights include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, and Yemen, but assaults against individuals for speech, research, or teaching extend across the globe.

According to Human Rights Watch, Turkey, our source of information about the Khashoggi murder, has cracked down on free speech and criticism of the government by dismissing thousands of academics and prosecuting (and ultimately imprisoning) hundreds of professors and students.

This week, The Wall Street Journal, reported that China’s Military is sending scholars abroad, without disclosing their affiliation with the People’s Liberation Army, to engage in research collaborations in technologically advanced countries and raising doubt as to how shared knowledge might be used in the future by a totalitarian government.

Fohla de São Paulo has reported police raids at public universities in in Brazil to clamp down on free speech. With the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil this past weekend, regard for individual rights and freedoms is likely to diminish further.

The University Grants Commission in India has notified all staff and academics at central universities that they “cannot make any statement of fact or opinion which has the effect of an adverse criticism of any current or recent policy of the central or state government.”

And there is ample evidence of rising hate crimes in the US (on campus and off), assaults on innocent individuals and targeted discrimination in the justice and immigrations systems.

We live in a complicated world where belonging to a specific ethnic or racial group, holding certain religious beliefs, openly declaring sexual orientation, or speaking out against a government, frequently puts one at risk of assassination, imprisonment, or deportation. As an individual, I find all of these assaults on humanity to be immoral and intolerable. The dilemma we all face is how to respond. Do we simply withdraw from contact with all governments committing unspeakable acts?

I support the cessation of economic investment in, and the sale of military weapons to, any country guilty of immoral acts against its citizens. I would also support the cancelation of visas for any individual involved with any act of violence against another human being for any reason. Terminating academic collaborations is another matter entirely.

Yet it is not possible for any country to withdraw entirely from our unavoidably globalized world. If we cancel academic engagement with a country, then we cede international interaction to economic, political and military interests. If there is any hope for mutual understanding, the protection of human rights, sustainable development and more evidence-based policy, I don’t think it will happen without the participation of scholars and universities.

Like so many others I am horrified by the mounting evidence that Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. This is yet another incident in the ever-increasing catalog of international horrors.

I should disclose the fact that I have worked as a consultant with the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia for more than six years. I began this collaboration knowing essentially nothing about the Kingdom. I have learned a lot. I found my Saudi colleagues to be much more progressive than I had anticipated. A very high percentage of the faculty at Saudi universities have completed graduate degrees abroad; they continue to engage with the international academic community and share the values (academic freedom, academic integrity) that all of us cherish.

I am uncomfortable with the call for scholars or universities to pull back from Saudi Arabia. We could certainly do this as a symbolic statement of our abhorrence of the Khashoggi murder. But what will it accomplish and who will be hurt?  Don’t we also risk hypocrisy? Why stop with Saudi Arabia?  If we reject this kind of violence against individuals, shouldn’t we also cancel academic relationships with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, India, Israel, Kenya, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, Yemen and many other countries?

Although I share the horror of the evolving story about Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder, I’m not convinced that retreating from academic collaborations will achieve anyone’s goals.



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