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A conference in Tunisia has explored new opportunities and threats for universities in countries transformed by the recent Arab Spring.

The event was organized by the Scholars at Risk Network and the Center for Dialogues, both based at New York University, and took place at the University of Manouba’s Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities.

The venue was chosen in part to express solidarity with an institution that has been targeted by Islamist militants. The dean of the faculty, Habib Kazdaghli, is due to come to trial this month for allegedly assaulting two veiled students who came into his office – a prosecution that Scholars at Risk has suggested "lacks merit."

Beyond that, said Scholars at Risk executive director Robert Quinn, the conference was designed to "look to the future and see what can be done in new constitutions to support academic freedom" and to consider "what higher education institutions can do to contribute to society," for example by acting as "a bridge between different sectors, rather than an ivory tower or oasis."

The event, "The University and the Nation: Safeguarding Higher Education in Tunisia and Beyond," brought together speakers from across North Africa, as well as France, Turkey and the U.S., although debate focused on the three countries where regime change offered particular challenges.

The new Egyptian constitution protects institutional autonomy but not academic freedom, while the draft Tunisian constitution does the opposite, with Article 30 stating that "Academic freedoms and freedom of scientific research shall be guaranteed" and that "The state shall furnish all means necessary for the advancement of academic work and scientific research." Libya has not yet reached the drafting stage for a post-Qaddafi-era constitution.

Jonathan Fanton, chair of the Scholars at Risk Network and former New School president, made the case for universities’ crucial role in democratic and economic development. "Democratic habits must be learned, which means they must be taught," he said.

"To consider 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."

Lisa Anderson, president of the American University in Cairo, described her experience of working in an institution just next to Tahrir Square, whose students played a prominent role in the revolution of 2011 and helped bring about the closure of the campus for a week last September.

Speaking to the Tunisia Live website during the event, Anderson noted that "the initial enthusiasm [of the Arab Spring] and expectation that things would be easy has worn off." Yet she remained "enormously optimistic in the medium term, because there is an enormous change in the culture of political expectations. As the Egyptians always say, they have lost their fear. People see themselves as citizens rather than subjects."

Although ways of "managing [new] freedoms are still being established," Professor Anderson said she looked forward to a system where people could "utilize those freedoms effectively and responsibly."

Tunisian-born Mustapha Tlili, director of the Center for Dialogues, warned of "distressing signs of [a] theocratic ‘curtain’ slowly descending on the countries of the so-called 'Arab Spring' – countries that had briefly experienced hope through their insurrections against secular dictatorships."

Yet Mohamed Jaoua, professor of mathematics at the University of Nice-Sophia-Antipolis in France, looked forward to the creation of a "Euro-Mediterranean space" in which to share knowledge, as "the greatest contribution that science could bring to consolidating democracy in the countries of the South now undergoing change."

The Tunisian intellectual diaspora in France, he added, had played a major role in the revolution and the transitional government that led to the country’s first democratic elections. Such "scientific diasporas of the South" would remain crucial in bringing democratic values back to their native lands.


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