Scholars at Risk to Increase Efforts to Bring Threatened Scholars to Safety, Preserving Academic Freedom

Twenty years ago, a group of scholars at the University of Chicago was inspired to create the Scholars at Risk Network after listening to a radio interview with a professor forced to flee the oppressive Milosevic regime in Yugoslavia. Since then, the program, which found a home at New York University in 2003, has helped over 1,600 scholars regain safety, a network, and a voice.

Rob Quinn, who has led Scholars at Risk (SAR) since its inception, said its mandate “is to help as many threatened scholars as possible” by providing individual aid and by sharing stories to raise awareness about the chronic threat to academic freedom and the specific acute threats scholars face.

SAR announced today a $1.5 million capacity-building gift from the Charles Koch Foundation, which will allow the organization to keep up with rising demand:

“The idea behind Scholars at Risk was not new twenty years ago,” Quinn noted, “in the sense that colleges and universities have always taken in those displaced for their ideas,” especially in the World War II and Cold War eras. But earlier efforts were mostly ad hoc and unconnected, and what organized programs there were in the US generally disbanded after the initial crisis abated. “What makes SAR unique is its ambition to link up institutions and program into a permanent, global network that not only increases the number of scholars finding help, but that can be a voice and advocate for truth and intellectual freedom.”

The Foundation’s gift will help SAR meet the urgency of the moment. SAR’s caseload of individuals seeking help has exceeded 700 each of the last three years, up from 300-350 traditionally. Over the same time SAR’s annual Free to Think reports have consistently documented a worldwide crisis of attacks on higher education. SAR is helping more scholars today than ever before, but there remains an urgent need to increase capacity to prevent generations of talent from being lost, and to strengthen SAR’s operations and sustainability for the long-term. This gift will help SAR meet these urgent needs.

The gift “is nothing short of transformative,” said Quinn. “We have been running a marathon at a sprint pace to keep up with the increasing attacks on scholars and universities around the world. This generous gift will help us engage more universities and partners—creating more opportunities for more at-risk scholars—even as it helps us spread the word about the urgent need to protect free inquiry and the free exchange of ideas.”

While similar programs existed throughout the 20th century, SAR’s model is more flexible. Like previous efforts, SAR offers one- and two-year placements for endangered foreign scholars with schools worldwide, but it also refers scholars for legal aid, health care and other services, and provides gate-key assistance such as letters of introduction. This breadth allows SAR to provide aid to as many individuals as possible and contributes to its longevity, Quinn said.

“Protecting scholars and the freedom to think, question, and share ideas is critical to generating new discoveries that make the world a better place,” said Charles Koch Foundation Executive Director Ryan Stowers. “We share Scholars at Risk’s vision to support academics who pursue the truth wherever it may lead. Support for academic freedom unites individuals who may disagree on any number of other issues, because without it progress and innovation are impossible.”

Read the full announcement here.

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