Fighting to Protect—and Define—Academic Freedom

For two decades, Scholars at Risk has assisted academics across the globe.
By Robert Quinn

Despite the leading work of the AAUP, academic freedom is not well respected, or even understood, in much of the United States and globally. This is evidenced in confrontations on US campuses, many of which conflate academic freedom and free speech (to the detriment of both). And it is evidenced globally in record levels of reported attacks on scholars around the world, ranging from loss of position or denial of promotion to restrictions on travel, harassment, intimidation, wrongful prosecution or imprisonment, and violence resulting in serious harm or even death.

Twenty years ago, Scholars at Risk (SAR) was founded to respond to the severest of these attacks—to help threatened scholars stay alive and keep working. In its first ten years (2000–2009), SAR developed a core set of programs aimed at providing direct assistance to scholars who are targeted for their work and ideas. These activities include arranging teaching and research positions for those unable to work safely in their home countries and organizing campaigns or other support for those unable to travel because of prosecution or imprisonment.

Over this period SAR pioneered a new solidarity among higher education institutions around the world, building what has become a network of over five hundred institutions in thirty-nine countries. Increasingly, these institutions have organized into national SAR sections that coordinate activities in each country. The SAR USA section launched in 2018 with more than 150 members and a steering committee of representatives from five geographic subregions—South, Northeast, Midwest, Frontier, and Pacific. Any accredited US higher education institution is eligible to join the section. SAR also forged partnerships with existing higher education networks and associations, and through these “partner networks” SAR makes its services and materials accessible to higher education institutions and scholars around the world.

SAR members have helped to create positions of temporary personal and professional sanctuary for more than one thousand scholars through this global network. Last year alone the SAR network helped more than 350 scholars, including by arranging more than 120 visits to campuses in the United States and elsewhere for those threatened in their home countries. During their visits, scholars teach, conduct research, supervise students, publish, and in some cases pursue further study—all activities aimed at helping them resume their academic careers, either in exile or upon safe return to their home institutions whenever conditions permit.

To further this goal, scholars hosted at one campus might travel as part of SAR’s speaker series to give talks or participate in panels or other events at colleges and universities across the country. Such events give scholars a chance to rebuild their professional networks. Meanwhile, host campuses gain access to a diverse group of inspiring scholars who demonstrate both the importance of academic freedom and the privilege of working in communities where it is generally observed, even if not fully understood.

The majority of scholars assisted by SAR have been traditional academics and researchers from the Global South, and most are hosted by institutions in the Global North. From the inception of the network, however, a significant number have been students, writers, artists, journalists, judges, lawyers, leaders of nongovernmental organizations, and human rights defenders. What do they have in common? All are targeted for speaking truth to power. Or, more accurately, all are targeted for seeking truth and asking questions—endeavors at the heart of the academic enterprise.

Sometimes these individuals are attacked for a specific idea. Scholar X publishes a paper calling for the reform of an antidemocratic constitution. Scholar Y gives a lecture examining the female voice in sacred text. Both suffer predictable consequences. In the case of Scholar X, it is prosecution and imprisonment. In the case of Scholar Y, there are death threats, assassination attempts, and forced exile. More often, however, scholars are attacked not for any one idea but merely for asking questions. The act of asking thoughtful questions is viewed as a threat because it can undermine the legitimacy of those in power, whether they are state authorities, religious or cultural communities, commercial interests, or even officials within universities themselves. So these powerful actors attempt to curtail the questioning function of scholars—as well as journalists, writers, artists, human rights defenders, and others—by drawing lines around the topics or spaces about which questions may be asked. They seek to define the zone of “legitimate” questioning, the zone of academic freedom. In so doing they assert, implicitly or explicitly, that some questions should not be asked, some evidence should not be sought, some ideas should not be shared. They declare that there is a line that academics must not cross. And they enforce that line with threats and sanctions, including the kinds of violent attacks we see around the world.

The core mission of SAR is to contest the line-drawing that attempts to impose boundaries on academic freedom, and we defend scholars when they are accused of crossing this line. Sometimes such line-drawing is explicit, as in the case of Turkey’s Academics for Peace, prosecuted for signing a public petition demanding an end to the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. At other times it is internalized, as when scholars or administrators judge others who “cause trouble” by raising certain questions or expressing certain ideas. Generally, the cases reflect two dominant forms of line-drawing, two views of academic freedom. The choice between them has serious implications for higher education communities and for the number of attacks on the scholars we are trying to help.

Two Views of Academic Freedom

The scope of academic freedom is traditionally described in physical terms. It is delimited by the context of the expression (academic journal articles versus blog postings or opinion columns), the format (data-heavy analysis versus narrative commentary), or the target audience (the higher education sector versus a wider public), with the implication that what is not “academic” is outside the scope of protection. According to this view, for example, a political scientist exercises academic freedom when publishing in an academic journal but not when publishing in a newspaper. This view has its origins in idealized notions of the ivory tower and articulations of academic freedom dating from the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth.

A broader contemporary or socially engaged view of academic freedom resists this emphasis on physical contexts. It invites scholars and students to engage in the community and is consistent with long-standing AAUP principles protecting expression outside of the campus (even extramural expression on subjects beyond a scholar’s professional expertise). In this view, academic freedom protection turns not on location or audience but on whether the inquiry or expression is undertaken according to the ethical and professional standards of the subject discipline, as determined by higher education professionals of similar expertise. The content of ideas is not the distinguishing element; it is rather the methods of inquiry and discourse that matter, with academic freedom protecting any engagement undertaken seriously, using the methods of the relevant discipline, and with due regard for professional and social responsibility. This view has its roots in the modern university that sees itself as of and within a larger world and in the articulations of academic freedom, free expression, and the right to education that arose out of the human rights movement of the second half of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first century, including the 1994 UNESCO Statement on the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel and other statements such as the Lima Declaration, the Kampala Declaration, the Magna Charta Universitatum, and the Amman Declaration.

The choice between these views matters enormously, because each represents a different bargain for the protection of scholars. The traditional view, with its focus on contexts, formats, and audiences, rests on a bargain that is similarly contextual: if scholars stay within the boundaries—that is, if they stay on the campus, inside the tower—they will be left alone and will be safe. This view suffers from several defects. First, it oversimplifies the modern academic experience. Significant areas of academic inquiry and expression have long been outside the physical boundaries of the campus or laboratory. Scholars in schools of law, journalism, business, public and international affairs, medicine and public health, social work, and other fields are deeply engaged in the public sphere.

The traditional, contextual view also supports a false distinction between areas that are “safe” or “legitimate” and those that are “sensitive.” Superficially, for example, inquiry into the physical or biological sciences might seem safe, while inquiry into political science, sociology, gender, or religion might be deemed sensitive. On deeper examination, however, it is apparent that scholars in the physical and biological sciences may be just as likely to raise sensitive or troublesome questions and suffer attacks as a result.

This false distinction in turn obscures two dynamics seen in SAR cases: selective targeting and self-censorship. Even in repressive societies, many scholars may enjoy a relatively wide range of academic freedom so long as the questions they ask do not challenge established authority. These scholars may believe that full academic freedom exists because they have not experienced problems directly. Meanwhile, scholars who are aware of the risks may change their behavior to avoid sharing their ideas or researching or teaching about certain topics. As a practical matter, such self-censorship reduces the number of visible attacks on scholars in a particular discipline or location, but that does not mean the discipline is safe or that academic freedom is respected in that location. The combination of these two dynamics—selective targeting and self-censorship—makes attacks on scholars, students, and universities a very efficient means for authorities to attempt to impose control on higher education communities and, by extension, the wider society.

Beyond this false distinction, the traditional view also rests on a false assumption: if scholars stay within the boundaries, inside the ivory tower, they will be safe. Many authorities would support this view, but the higher education community should reject it. There is no evidence that preemptively limiting the scope of academic inquiry or expression to defined venues, subjects, or audiences will protect scholars’ academic freedom. Rather, history strongly suggests that accepting contextual limits on academic inquiry or expression undermines both academic freedom and security—especially when the limits are imposed by the state or others outside higher education.

Finally, the traditional view cuts academia off from the public. Academics should do more than merely publish findings in academic journals and debate them with other academics. They have a responsibility to communicate scholarship on complex topics in ways that inform public understanding and debate. When academics retreat to the ivory tower—whether voluntarily or in response to external pressures—their direct engagement with the public decreases. Such retreat risks undermining public support not only for academic freedom but for higher education generally. It also adds fuel to latent anti-intellectualism, which is easily manipulated by unscrupulous actors.

In contrast, the contemporary or socially engaged view of academic freedom rests on a different premise. Under this view, society and the state grant higher education academic freedom and autonomy, scholars and institutions use that freedom to ask questions in pursuit of the public good, and society and the state protect scholars when they come under threat.

Of course, such protection does not always materialize. States, higher education leaders, and civil society actors frequently interfere with academic freedom and autonomy. Institutional leaders might act in disregard of academic freedom standards. Donors or government officials might threaten to withhold financial support. States and their supporters might resort to politicization, unlawful coercion, and violent attacks to silence critical discourse.

But where the traditional view wrestles with contextual questions about whether an academic “went too far”—a blame-the-victim mentality—the contemporary view of academic freedom does a better job of labeling outside interference as such and demands that the state and society leave questions about the scope of intellectual inquiry to the higher education community to decide, according to professional standards and ethics.

Proponents of the traditional view sometimes suggest that this socially engaged view is dangerous—that by encouraging scholars to bring their work out of the campus, we invite attacks. And there is some truth to the claim that this contemporary view carries risks for scholars, inasmuch as it affirms their role in engaging with the experiences of people in repressed or overlooked communities around the world. But asking rigorous questions about their lives does not create conditions of repression any more than retreating to an ivory tower would make those conditions go away. The risk of attack is created not by asking questions outside the walls of the academy but rather by the assertion of false truths by illegitimate authorities who are threatened by those questions. Silence will not make the risk go away.

Call to Action

SAR’s experience teaches us that without strong defense from within higher education, states and other outside actors will insist on the narrowest version of the traditional view of academic freedom. In international higher education partnerships, we have almost come to expect that in each location certain areas of inquiry will be off limits. Where these boundaries exist, we must call them what they are—limits on academic freedom. We must challenge claims that there is full academic freedom in places where such exceptions and taboos exist, because if we fail to do so the definition of academic freedom itself will be warped, and with it the knowledge we produce.

Instead, we must fight for acceptance of the socially engaged view of academic freedom and the open, engaged view of the university itself. We must stand up for the first principle that scholars should never suffer violence or coercive consequences for their legitimate exercise of academic freedom. It is always wrong when a scholar or a student is killed for asking a question or expressing an idea, and it is always suspect when a scholar or student is detained, prosecuted, or imprisoned as a consequence of their questions or ideas.

SAR members take up this challenge first by trying to assist as many individual scholars as possible. But with the level of threats we see today—SAR’s current caseload involves over eight hundred scholars—individual, case-based actions are not enough. That is why SAR has over the last decade (2010–19) developed a range of complementary activities aimed at both increasing assistance for at-risk individuals (principally by involving more university partners and identifying sources of support for temporary visitor positions) and addressing root causes of the problem. The latter involves a long-term effort to employ the tools of the human rights movement and the higher education sector, respectively, to raise awareness, demand accountability, and promote norms of behavior that respect academic freedom and related values.

The foundation of these activities is SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project and its annual report, Free to Think, which document attacks on scholars and students around the world. Last year SAR documented nearly three hundred attacks in forty-seven countries involving thousands of scholars and students. Free to Think 2019, to be released in late October 2019, will include even more.

On this foundation SAR has built student advocacy, clinical programs, regional partnerships, courses, and workshops, all aimed at documenting violations, training more defenders, and ultimately demanding accountability and better behavior. Faculty and students participating in SAR’s Student Advocacy Seminars research the cases of wrongfully detained scholars and students and campaign on their behalf. Over the years students have helped secure improved conditions for or the release of many of these scholars. Other students have researched and drafted legal submissions on academic freedom concerns for the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review process (including submissions on Turkey, Iran, Venezuela, China, and Pakistan, among others), the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and other international and domestic venues.

SAR has also developed workshops and materials exploring the meaning and importance of academic freedom and related values, including through the publication of Promoting Higher Education Values: A Guide for Discussion and a companion workbook with exercises and notes for facilitators. And together with partners in an EU-funded Academic Refuge project, SAR and the University of Oslo created a free, online course, Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters. More than 2,400 participants from 120 countries have taken the course in its first three sessions.

Through all of these efforts, we seek to improve public understanding of academic freedom and better defend it. We ask universities, colleges, and other institutions to do the same: to do a better job recognizing scholars’ and students’ legitimate role in public discourse and to defend the space for it. This means not waiting for the next crisis to arrive but working to build a richer culture and vocabulary of academic freedom in the everyday lived experiences of academic staffs, faculties, students, and other concerned parties. It also means moving beyond simple statements of broad principles and developing transparent practices that remind us and the public that the rules of inquiry and discourse on the university campus are different from those that exist elsewhere, and that this difference is important to defend. For example, how many universities train new students, staff, or faculty—through a course or online training program—on what academic freedom is and on the norms of intellectual discourse on campus? Many other professions require such training about their core values and ethics—law, medicine, journalism, business. How can we expect discourse on our campuses to improve when we do not provide such training?

College and university students, if they are to be recognized as having a socially engaged right to academic freedom, must similarly demonstrate responsibility in their individual and collective activities, especially in the area of organized student expression—on and off the campus.

States, too, must do a better job of protecting higher education and the socially engaged view of academic freedom. At a minimum, elected officials must resist demagoguery and refrain from threatening universities and scholars in response to ideas they generate and questions they ask. We must demand that all states observe the Principles of State Responsibility to Protect Higher Education from Attack, promoted by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, of which SAR and other partners are members. These principles are grounded in international human rights law and higher education standards and require that states (1) abstain from direct attacks or complicit involvement in such attacks; (2) protect higher education communities against present and future attack; (3) assist victims of attacks; and (4) deter future attacks, including by investigating and holding perpetrators accountable. We should insist that states recognize academic freedom and institutional autonomy as a condition of membership in a responsible international community. State authorities should also speak up in bilateral and multilateral forums when academic freedom is challenged.

Finally, we need to do more to engage the public in the defense of academic freedom. In fact, we need the public to be our primary defender. In these polarized times, such public mobilization may sound like a fantasy. But we have seen it happen repeatedly. Last year in Budapest, for example, thousands of citizens went into the streets in support of academic freedom and the autonomy of the Central European University. We need to cultivate such support.

Doing so takes time, and when the cult of efficiency has taken hold and time is in short supply, these might seem like inessential pursuits. But they are not. Each time a scholar is shouted down, or denied a visa, or arrested, or killed, the space for inquiry and expression shrinks. And each time we in the academic world stand silent in the face of these violations—or worse, each time we contribute to a narrowing of the definition of academic freedom by retreating to the false security of the ivory tower—the likelihood of future violations increases.

Challenges notwithstanding, there has never been a better time to fight for academic freedom. Never in the history of academic freedom have we had so many tools and resources to bring about positive change. We are more global and connected. University staff, students, and scholars travel and meet with one another more frequently. We have the extensive and important body of work of the AAUP, the tools of the human rights movement, and new messaging and communication tools. Perhaps most important, never before in the history of higher education have so many institutions, NGOs, states, funders, and partners been assembled into a global community like today, dedicated to advancing the cause of academic freedom. Together, we can bring about change that we all wish to see—for ourselves, our colleagues, our campuses, and our communities—securing the right to think, question, and share ideas, now and for future generations.

This essay draws from remarks at the 2019 Forum for Academic Freedom organized in cooperation with the Philipp Schwartz Initiative of the Humboldt Foundation and the Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany, held in Berlin in March 2019. All views are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Scholars at Risk or its board, staff, or participating institutions and partners.

Robert Quinn is executive director of the Scholars at Risk Network. His email address is [email protected].

Cases Monitored by Scholars at Risk

The following are selected cases about which SAR has recently reported through its Academic Freedom Monitoring Project. Visit to learn more about these cases or to get involved with SAR.


More than seven hundred scholars in Turkey have been prosecuted on criminal charges solely because they signed a peace petition calling for a halt to the fighting between Turkish forces and members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and an end to what they described as the “deliberate massacre and deportation of Kurdish and other peoples” in the southeastern region of Turkey. The petition, organized by a group known as Academics for Peace, was issued in January 2016 and initially signed by 1,128 scholars from eighty-nine Turkish universities as well as more than three hundred scholars from outside the country. Eventually more than 2,200 signatures were collected.

Signatories have been charged with propagandizing for the PKK, and nearly two hundred have been sentenced, most to a fifteen-month suspended prison term but some for as long as thirty-six months of imprisonment. Füsun Üstel, a political scientist with expertise on nationalism and Turkish national identity, who chose imprisonment to enable a legal appeal, and Tuna Altinel, a mathematician and assistant professor at the Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1 in France, who was imprisoned in May during a trip to Turkey, were released in late July after Turkey's Constitutional Court, in a 9–8 ruling, ordered retrials in the cases of ten convicted scholars, including Üstel, citing violations of their civil rights. Over six thousand people had signed a petition demanding Altinel’s release. In August a court in Izmir acquitted scholar Ahmet Kardam of terror charges based on the high court ruling, and in September an additional twenty-three scholars were acquitted. It was widely expected that other acquittals would follow.

Apart from the criminal proceedings, hundreds of the signatories have lost their jobs at Turkish universities.

On September 1, 2016, after a failed July 2016 coup, Turkish authorities issued two emergency decrees ordering the dismissals of more than forty thousand public employees, including 2,346 academic personnel, based on suspicions of links to Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic cleric in exile in the United States who the Turkish government alleged was behind the coup attempt.

Decree No. 672, which was issued under a state of emergency, called for the dismissal of individuals “identified to adhere or be related to the formations or groups or terror organizations determined to pose a threat to the national security.” The dismissed were further banned for life from seeking employment as civil servants. Under the decree, those dismissed and their spouses had their passports invalidated indefinitely.

A second decree issued that day, No. 673, ordered the expulsion of 158 students who were studying abroad at the time of its issuance, based on allegations of suspected connections to the Gülen movement. In addition, foreign certificates and degrees received by these students will not be recognized in Turkey, according to the decree.

In June, Turkish authorities detained Baki Tezcan, an associate professor of history at the University of California, Davis, who had signed the peace petition, upon his arrival in Istanbul with his wife and children. An Istanbul court overseeing Tezcan’s case had requested that the US Department of Justice turn over the professor after he missed the first hearing in his trial. The department responded in January that Tezcan’s signing of the petition was protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The court then issued an arrest warrant.

Tezcan was released from custody, but his legal status remains unclear in the wake of the July Constitutional Court decision. His next hearing was scheduled for October. While Tezcan was the first US-based scholar to be detained in Turkey, at least one other Turkish American signatory has been indicted since Tezcan was charged. Asli Igsiz, an assistant professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University, received an indictment in May and an arrest warrant shortly after, she said. 

University of Khartoum, Sudan

On June 9, 2019, paramilitary forces raided the University of Khartoum, killing four protesters and destroying campus property.

Protests had been ongoing throughout Sudan since December 19, 2018, when demonstrators—frequently led by scholars, students, and professional groups—began demanding President Omar al-Bashir’s resignation and protesting food shortages. In February, student activist Wefag Gorashi, along with her sister Wafaa Gorashi, were violently attacked and detained in apparent retaliation for their participation in the protest movement. Authorities also arrested Muntaser Ibrahim, a professor, in retaliation for his activism. After the military ouster of al-Bashir in April, the protests continued, with demonstrators demanding a transition to a civilian government.

On June 3, Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group, attacked a group of peaceful protesters near the university campus, killing more than one hundred, raping seventy, and injuring more than five hundred. On June 7, in response to the violence, the University Teaching Staff Initiative, together with other associations, launched a civil disobedience campaign.

RSF responded by raiding the University of Khartoum, destroying and looting professors’ offices, and burning the university hospital. They killed four protesters at the barricades of the university and eventually took over the university with forces stationed inside and around the campus.

University of Novi Sad, Serbia

On June 7, 2019, a group of unidentified men attacked students Marko Đelević and Mihajlo Nikolić on the campus of the University of Novi Sad in apparent retaliation for their activism.

Đelević and Nikolić are student activists associated with For a Roof Overhead, a local organization that fights forced evictions and “investment urbanism.” On the day of the incident, the two students had taken part in a protest against a proposed plan by local developers to raze a small park next to two apartment complexes.

The incident took place one day before another student activist was attacked on the Novi Sad campus shortly after attending a protest. A group of University of Novi Sad professors have signed a petition condemning the violence, but the university administration did not issue a public statement.


Beginning on January 22, 2018, students at several universities throughout Myanmar began a series of protests demanding increases in education funding and other changes in education policy. The protests lasted a total of four days. The day after the protests ended, universities began issuing notices of expulsion to their students, on the grounds that their protests had violated disciplinary rules. The expelled included twelve students (and two individuals who had not registered) from Yadanabon University, eleven students from Yamethin Technological University, six students from Meikhtilar Economic University, four students from Mohnyin Degree College, and one student from Meikhtilar Technological University.

State University of Jakarta, Indonesia

On March 7, 2019, Indonesian police arrested Robertus Robet, a State University of Jakarta sociology professor, in apparent retaliation for expression critical of Indonesia’s government.

A day earlier, a video surfaced online of Robet, who is also a human rights activist and a board member of Amnesty International Indonesia, singing a protest song critical of the country’s military and government at a human rights demonstration. Shortly after the video was circulated, police arrested Robet at his house and briefly held him in custody before releasing him. Authorities charged Robet under Indonesia’s electronic information and transactions law for allegedly “insulting the military.”