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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Q & A with Robert Quinn

SBL: How did the idea to start the Scholars at Risk Program begin? Was there any reason it started in June, 2000?

RQ: First off, I should mention that I direct two related organizations: The Scholars At Risk Network based at the University of Chicago, which is a network of academic and other institutions to support threatened scholars by providing them with a safe haven for research and possibly teaching. (See: http://scholarsatrisk.uchicago.edu). I also direct the Scholar Rescue Fund, part of the Institute of International Education in New York. The Fund provides matching grants and supplementary funds to schools that can't fully fund a visiting scholar. (See: http://www.iie.org/ScholarRescueFund).

To answer your question, there was an interesting simultaneous realization in the late 1990s among many academics and others that the problem of academics under attack is not only historic, but contemporary and quite widespread. I think in particular, it was events in Yugoslavia that woke people up; Milosevic's "oaths of allegiance" were all too remeniscent of Nazi era rooting out of academics and the exertion of political control over universities.

SBL: On your website, it appears you have many members, but relatively few participants or "hosts" willing to invite a scholar at risk. What are the difficulties in your program?

RQ: The Network is still growing and maturing, and as it does, we will be able to expand the number and types of candidates we help. The website is a little out of date, but there are more hosts now, and over 25 candidates have been assisted, out of 225 cases, which is pretty good. Of the 225, roughly one third don't qualify for assistance for one reason or other, and perhaps one tenth are not scholars but students. Also, we also have different levels of commitments from schools, because we understand that some are not able to take a leadership role right away.

One difficulty had been finding resources to help schools support candidates. The Scholar Rescue Fund helps us do that. And with the Fund's launch in 2002, applications have increased. We have also been able for the first time to do major outreach, which is why this appearance in your newsletter is so important and timely. Word of mouth within the appropriate academic community helps us with our greatest difficulty-reaching scholars who may be cut off from resources because of national, cultural, geographical or language barriers.

Another challenge is to find the right institution for each candidate. That's why we invite schools to join the Network, so that they will receive information about candidates seeking help. In some cases, institutions have been able to support a candidate through an existing visiting scholar program or through temporary vacancies created by faculty on leave or sabbatical; other schools have allocated funds specifically for Scholars at Risk candidates; and in some cases Scholars at Risk or the Scholar Rescue Fund has supplied partial support.

SBL: Could you tell us a little about your screening process for applicants? How do you decide on legitimate candidates?

RQ: Each institution makes the final determination on their own whether they will accept a particular individual. The Network office acts more like a match-maker. We verify that the candidates are in genuine, serious risk, using references provided by the candidates and our own contacts and international sources. We also verify that they are scholars, although the level of scholarship ranges from lecturers and junior professors through department chairs, deans and emeritus tenured faculty. The office then shares information with Network institutions, inviting them to review the cases to see if they can find a good fit for any of the candidates on their campus. Scholars at Risk staff then work with the institutions to answer questions and to finalize details for visits. In appropriate cases such as when the institution lacks sufficient resources to support a visitor, Scholars at Risk may work with the institution to present an application for partial financial support to IIE's Scholar Rescue Fund.

SBL: What happens to the visiting scholar when they return home? How is their safety and research protected?

RQ: We haven't yet dealt with this because we are only in our second year of placing scholars. But we believe that placement through the Network increases the scholar's profile and international contacts, and therefore provides a measure of protection through notoriety. For some scholars, even those who are assisted for a short term, say, 3-6 months, this may be enough. These include, for example, scholars under severe pressure facing sudden arrest, censorship, banning of publication, restrictions on expression, work or travel, etc.

Of course for some scholars, especially those who face likely death, torture or imprisonment at home, the Network knows that assistance may be necessary for a longer term, say 1 to 2 years. In these cases, the goal is to keep them alive and working in their field long enough to get back on their feet. Once reestablished as scholars they can continue working while waiting for conditions at home to improve to allow safe return. You could say we are working to put more exiled scholars in classrooms and laboratories, and fewer driving taxis and working in restaurants.

In 10 years we will be able to see better how many scholars have returned to contribute to their homes. But historical evidence suggests that the results will be good. After World War II, hundreds of European academics found safe haven in North America. Within 10 years of the end of the war, the vast majority of these scholars had returned to their home country. The only exception was scholars fleeing Germany, most of whom remained in American academe. I expect a similar pattern of return in our cases as time passes.

SBL: What is the range of countries involved in the persecution of academics?

RQ: We have received requests for assistance from more than 61 countries. The "top ten" source countries of applications—which is not an index of persecution per se—include: China, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Palestinian Territories, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iran, and Sudan. Cameroon may be moving up on Sudan now, and the Former Soviet Republics in central Asia are also important, but we still have problems of outreach and access in that part of the world.

SBL: Are there any fields that are persecuted more than others?

RQ: No. There is a remarkable breadth in areas. Our applicants represent more than 40 different academic areas, from agricultural studies to zoology. And many times the dangers faced are only tangentially related to the candidate's work. For example, physicists often get into trouble, but rarely for their physics. They want to share data, to travel and associate with colleagues. When denied these basic rights, some call for more openness and freedom. As a result, they are persecuted. Of course, what governments almost universally fail to recognize is that scholars are deeply dedicated to their work and to their freedoms of thought and expression-or to say it another way, stubborn. They generally don't give in quietly and can be easily radicalized when a government tries to restrict these basic freedoms.

That said, those who do get in trouble directly for their academic work tend to be humanists and social scientists-rights-related anthropology or sociology for example. Research on land-rights issues can easily get an anthropologist in trouble, for example. Political scientists often face risks in areas of open political conflict.

SBL: Do you know of any bible scholars or theologians "at risk?"

RQ: Not yet. We have one candidate in antiquities (ancient near east) but that's it. Again, I think this is more a function of outreach. The more word spreads through professional associations and personal networks, the more confident I will feel that individuals in all fields who need our assistance know of the program.

SBL: What would you like to see from academics who might be interested in joining your efforts?

RQ: We are always looking for help in spreading the word to qualified individuals so that we might know if they need our help. We need help putting scholars at risk in touch with resources. We prefer to advertise the work of the Network and the Fund in this way—through other academics and professional networks—in order to maintain a high degree of confidence in the cases we consider. We don't want to attract applications from individuals who are looking for a research grant or fellowship but aren't facing a genuine, serious danger.

Of course, we also welcome any academic to urge their institution to join the Network, and if possible, to host a scholar. The Network is still young and growing, and now is a great time for people to get in at the ground floor and help shape the direction of the project.

Citation: Moira Bucciarelli, " Q & A with Robert Quinn," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Dec 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=116

 
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