UCLA symposium: Academic Freedom at Risk, Jan. 27, 2017

UCLA symposium: Academic Freedom at Risk, Jan. 27, 2017  February 21, 2013. Student protest in support of academic freedom at Istanbul University. The procession leaves through the main gate to read declarations in front of journalists, who were barred from campus. Photo: Clément Giradot/ Flickr, 2013; cropped.CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Scholars from the US and Canada will meet at UCLA to discuss a disturbing trend emerging in the Middle East that treats academic research and knowledge production as government security threats.

UCLA International Institute, January 9, 2017 — 2016 was a horrendous year for professors and scholars working in Turkey and much of the Middle East. Since the failed coup attempt in Turkey, thousands of professors have been removed from their positions, all university deans and presidents were forced to resign and some 15 universities were closed entirely.

Beyond Turkey, academics face repression and risk across the Middle East, whether as a consequence of war (Syria and Yemen) or government intervention (Egypt and Bahrain). Many scholars from the affected countries face a form of civil death: no longer able to work as academics, they are also subject to official stigma and travel bans that prevent them from finding alternatives to support themselves at home or abroad.

North American and European scholars studying the Middle East have also been impacted. For many, their ability to conduct research in the countries they study or even to travel to the region has been restricted. Further, campuses across the U.S. have been targeted by outside advocacy groups seeking to censure academics for their research and teaching about the Middle East.

Research and knowledge production: The new security threat?

While the scale and intensity of attacks against academic freedom, as well as the causes and sources of repression, vary widely, we are witnessing a troubling trend in Turkey, the Middle East and beyond. This trend treats academic research and knowledge production as security threats and uses the logic of counter-terrorism to silence all forms of critical thinking and dissent.

Some argue that the global trend of ascendant ultranationalist and far-right politics has ushered in forms of disinformation and polarization that have created a post-truth world. Independent scholarly research in the humanities and social sciences may seem particularly threatening to those who wish to ban facts from our political discourse.

There are numerous initiatives underway to extend emergency assistance to scholars-at-risk from the Middle East. European and North American universities are responding by enabling those who can leave to find temporary institutional placements abroad. In Germany, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation recently funded 39 universities to host scholars-at-risk for two-year residencies. The scholars placed at German universities in the most recent round of grants come from Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Burundi and Tajikistan.

In the U.S. and Canada, individual colleges and universities are independently finding ways to support individual scholars-at-risk. Two organizations are assisting those universities interested in participating, one by providing funds and the other by establishing a network of scholars-at-risk in need of placement.

In many ways, these efforts represent a continuation of an earlier period, when U.S. universities mobilized to assist scholars imperiled by Nazi persecution. Led by the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars (created in New York City in 1933), the model developed with U.S. universities in the 1930s remains vitally relevant today. The goal: help scholars-at-risk and threatened intellectual communities survive periods of intense repression while enriching American universities with the research and teaching of well-trained, knowledgeable experts.

UCLA's response: Symposium and campaign

On January 27, UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES) will hold a one-day symposium to examine the threats to academic freedom where they are most acute. The keynote speaker will be the Iranian-Canadian scholar, Homa Hoodfar, emeritus professor of sociology and anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. Professor Hoodfar herself was arrested in March 2016 in Iran, where she had traveled to visit family, and eventually detained in Evin prison for four months on charges related to her academic work. A noted scholar of gender roles, she will consider the question of how women’s rights matter to both moderate and conservative forces in the current environment.

Panelists will include Can Aciksoz (UCLA, Anthropology), Aslı Bâli (UCLA, Law and CNES), Laurie Brand (USC, Political Science), Eda Erdener (Pomona College, Psychology), Sondra Hale (UCLA, Anthropology), Zeynep Korkman (UCLA, Gender Studies), Pardis Mahdavi (Pomona College, Anthropology) and Sherene Razack (UCLA, Gender Studies)

The symposium will also serve to launch a campaign to host a scholar-at-risk at UCLA. The scholar will gain respite from the repression that he or she may face at home, as well as a chance to connect with international scholarly networks.

UCLA, meanwhile, will benefit enormously. The expertise of the visiting scholar will enhance both the university’s curriculum and CNES programming; UCLA faculty will have the opportunity to collaborate with a deeply knowledgeable country expert; and students will access an unmediated understanding of the worldwide crisis in academia.

And the wider UCLA community will gain an informed perspective on the ominous trend that has made academics targets of government reprisal. We invite the university community and the public at large to attend this important daylong conference to learn about this crisis and to join our campaign to support scholars at risk.


image for printer

Published: Monday, January 9, 2017