Universities Under Attack

New report documents a range of types of attacks on higher education worldwide, including killings, imprisonments, wrongful dismissals and expulsions, and restrictions on the movements of students and scholars.

June 23, 2015

An April attack on Kenya’s Garissa University College by Shabab militants that left 147 people dead. The disappearance -- and presumed killing -- of 43 students at Mexico’s Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa last fall. The September 2014 killing of Muhammad Shakil Auj, dean of Islamic studies at the University of Karachi in Pakistan and a liberal Muslim scholar who had reportedly been accused by fellow professors of blasphemy for a speech he gave abroad.

Those are just 3 of nearly 250 incidents analyzed in a new report on global attacks on higher education from the Scholars at Risk Academic Freedom Monitoring Project. In addition to documenting cases of violence such as those mentioned above, the "Free to Think" report also considers incidents involving wrongful prosecution and imprisonment of students and scholars, loss of academic position or expulsion from study, and improper restrictions on travel, among other issues.

The report analyzes incidents from January 2011 to May 2015 that occurred in 65 nations, including countries that are sites of active combat, like Iraq and Syria, and the United States (one case highlighted in the report involves the fall 2014 cancellation of a lecture at Utah State University by the feminist writer Anita Sarkeesian following threats of a shooting).

Other examples of specific incidents cited in the report include the imprisonment of two individuals charged with insulting the monarchy for their involvement in staging a satirical play, The Wolf Bride, at Thailand’s Thammasat University; the firing of a Moscow State Institute of International Relations history professor, Andrei Zubov, after he wrote a newspaper op-ed comparing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria; and the expulsion of hundreds of Bahraini university students who participated in pro-democracy protests during the Arab Spring in 2011. The report also examines incidents in which countries have denied entry or exit to scholars seemingly due to their academic views, such as the recent case in which the United Arab Emirates prevented Andrew Ross, a New York University professor who has been a critic of that country's migrant labor policies, from boarding a plane to Abu Dhabi.

Rob Quinn, executive director of the Scholars at Risk Network, which is affiliated with NYU, said he hopes readers of the report will gain “an appreciation of the scope and crisis level of this problem.”

“These are deliberate attempts to shape the future of society, using violence and force,” Quinn said. “If we don’t pay attention to these and respond early and vigorously, we run the risk of significant increases in conflict and an erosion of stable, peaceful international order and domestic situations.”

Rafia Zakaria, a lawyer and writer who monitors Pakistan for Scholars at Risk, describes public universities as being at the center of that country’s ideological conflict. “It’s a political microcosm of the country,” Zakaria said. “Taking control of that space becomes a metaphor for the group’s ability to take control of the country.”

Attacks on higher education in Pakistan described in the report include the killing of Auj, mentioned above; the 2013 bombing of a bus carrying students from Sardar Bahadur Khan Women's University, which resulted in 14 deaths; and the jailing of a Bahauddin Zakariya University English professor under the country’s blasphemy law.

“There are two separate issues here where Pakistan is concerned,” Zakaria said. “One is just the general worsening of the law and order situation. There’s a breakdown of security, which generally imposes a greater risk on everybody, not just academics.”

“The second issue is particular to academics in that Pakistan is very much the front line of the war on terror,” Zakaria said. “The way the conflict plays out there -- and the Taliban are part of this -- is that there is a very concerted epistemological war against certain kinds of education.”

"As anti-Western, particularly anti-American sentiment, has risen," she said, so has resistance to "Western" education.

Other researchers for Scholars at Risk spoke to some of the leading threats to academic freedom in the countries they monitor. In Venezuela, for example, a primary concern involves the arrest and reported use of violence against antigovernment student protesters.

Mayda Hocevar, a professor of theory of law at the University of Los Andes who monitors Venezuela for Scholars at Risk, said there were more than 50 attacks at more than 20 universities during a period of intense student protests from February to May 2014. “The attacks came mainly from the Bolivarian national guard, the national and regional police forces, and also from the so-called colectivos -- illegally armed civilians that sometimes act on their own and sometimes in collaboration with public forces,” Hocevar said via email.

Hocevar said the attacks involved the use of firearms and tear and pepper gas, and the burning of university buildings.

Scholars at Risk’s country monitor for Thailand, Tyrell Haberkorn, described a crackdown on political freedoms and freedom of expression following that country’s May 2014 military coup. Haberkorn, a fellow in political and social change at the Australian National University, specifically cited the greatly expanded use of the lèse majesté law, which bars any perceived insults against the monarchy, and the use of military courts to try civilians in these cases.

Haberkorn said via email that “the incidents highlighted in the '[Free] to Think' report are only the tip of the iceberg of an increasing and widening clampdown on any kind of action or thought which questions the ruling status quo, and in particular, the institutions of the monarchy and military.”

Quinn, Scholars at Risk's executive director, said certain countries are of particular concern -- Iraq and Syria in terms of the effects of active conflict on higher education, Egypt with regard to imprisonments, Thailand with regard to a state crackdown, Pakistan related to nonstate violence that the state either "isn't willing or is unable to control."

But he also emphasized the "global" nature of the problem and the need to pay attention not just to the most extreme cases involving deaths but also the more subtle problems like dismissals from academic positions and restrictions on mobility. "That's what you see more often in the 'safe places,' but they are still attempts to use the power of the state or a nonstate actor to shape society," he said.

This is the first time Scholars at Risk has released a comprehensive report based on its academic freedom monitoring activities. The report concludes with a list of recommendations for how states, civil society organizations and others can improve the security of higher education institutions.

“This space,” Quinn said, “has to be off-limits.”


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