Patterns in Academic Persecution

Oppression of scholars extends across a range of countries, fueled not only by politics but also by general anti-intellectualism, a new report says.
April 14, 2009

The Scholar Rescue Fund drew applications from oppressed academics in 101 different countries in its first five years of operations, suggesting “at least a low level of scholar persecution in a surprisingly wide range of countries and regions” -- although it’s most prevalent in the Middle East/North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Scholars from the two regions accounted for 61 percent of all applicants from 2002-7 and 73 percent of grantees.

"Scholar Rescue in the Modern World," a report being released today by the Institute of International Education (home of the Scholar Rescue Fund), identifies such trends in reported persecution across 847 grant applications. The Scholar Rescue Fund awards fellowships for scholars to hold temporary academic posts abroad on the basis of the urgency of threats they face at home and the quality of their academic work. The report's authors acknowledge the limitations of a small data set and of the fund's reach -- North Korea, for instance, is not represented in the application pool -- but also assert the importance of gleaning what trends one can.

“Scholar persecution is a tactic that repressive governments and/or non-state actors actively and deliberately employ to achieve their objectives. And -- given the results that we are reporting here -- it is a tactic that is effective, strategic, and widespread," Henry G. Jarecki, the report’s co-author and chairman of the Scholar Rescue Fund (and a member of the psychiatry faculty at Yale University), writes in an introduction to the report.

“The reason this observation is so important is that tactics can be studied, documented, and acted on. If we know what 101 countries that persecute their scholars have in common in terms of methodology, then perhaps we can suggest responses that mitigate their pernicious effects.”

And, hopefully, also "shame people into thinking how do I get off this list," Jarecki said in a phone interview. What Jarecki calls the "academic oppression index" considers Scholar Rescue Fund applicants as a proportion of a country's academic population, and some of the figures are staggering. "Taken together," the report notes, "about 5 percent of all scholars in the [Democratic Republic of Congo] and almost 1 percent of all scholars in sub-Saharan Africa have applied to the Scholar Rescue Fund for help during SRF's first five years. This clearly indicates that scholar persecution (and, at the very least, scholar dissatisfaction) is of crisis proportion in that part of the world."

The report also describes the Middle East/North Africa region, and Iran and Iraq, in particular, as areas where scholarship is in crisis. (While observers may remember that the Scholar Rescue Fund started a special rescue effort to address the crisis in Iraq in 2007, figures from that country-specific project are not included among the 847 applications analyzed in the report.)

Authors found that factors correlated with oppression of scholars in a country include low gross domestic product, high levels of conflict, failed state status, low levels of country and press freedom, and a small population of scholars. “Which signifies to me, that last one, that in these countries, there is a relatively low regard for, or low interest in, academic work,” Jarecki said.

Anti-intellectualism appears to be pervasive. The report outlines a wide range of reasons for academic persecution, including persecution deriving from political activities (such as scholars’ participation with opposition parties or advocacy for political reform), and from legal issues (including involvement in human rights initiatives and the exposure of crimes, like in the case of a Colombian journalism professor who linked government officials with drug traffickers). Research on minority groups, religion, or, in some countries, HIV/AIDS, can also be controversial.

Yet, the report notes, “almost as many SRF grantees reported that they were threatened because of a general anti-intellectual movement in their countries as reported persecution for specific reasons, such as engaging in political activities or conducting research on a sensitive topic."

In general, governments were three times more likely than non-state actors to be to be the source of persecution, and threats reported by scholars included harassment, including surveillance and censorship, imprisonment and violence.

Moreover, applicants came from across the academic disciplines -- not just the obvious ones. The largest proportion (44 percent) came from the social sciences, followed closely by the hard sciences (37 percent). The smallest proportion (15 percent) came from the arts and humanities. “Perhaps it is not the field itself that brings scholars into conflict with the government or other powerful forces,” the report suggests. “Perhaps it is the nature of scholarship itself, for it not only seeks academic truth but it also accrues societal power, and, in addition, at its best, brings the scholar into repeated contact with colleagues in other countries. All these factors encourage threats. For example ...[c]ontacts with academic colleagues abroad can cause a professor doing research on such topics as new methods of bonding concrete to receive threats of kidnapping and death, an example that derives from an actual SRF case from Iraq.”

Another example in the report was of a marine biologist in Ukraine arrested after an academic conference for "compromising state security by showing slides at the conference of the seabed off the Ukrainian shoreline."

"We had a lady in Uzbekistan," Jarecki added, "who wanted to teach, I think, in Russian, rather than in a local dialect and so the secret police came to her house to discuss the language in which she would teach a given topic and when they didn't agree she must have said something that didn't suit them. They pushed her down the stairs and broke both her legs. These are unfortunately not intellectual encounters in many circumstances."

The report summarizes a number of recommendations, including reducing barriers for academics to cross borders and developing a United Nations Convention against the Persecution of Scholars. "It doesn’t seem right that scholars are being oppressed for nothing more than doing their everyday work," Jarecki said. "This everyday work isn’t even political, in many cases."

Share Article

Elizabeth Redden

Elizabeth Redden, Senior Reporter, covers general higher education topics, religion and higher education, and international higher education for Inside Higher Ed. She has more than a decade of experience as an education journalist. She holds an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from Columbia University.

Back to Top