Universities form consortium to aid threatened scholars

Eleven higher education institutions have created a consortium of universities that are providing temporary academic homes for refugee scholars threatened by authoritarian governments and wars in their home countries and they are expecting more institutions to join them.

Created and led by The New School in New York City, The New University in Exile Consortium harkens back to the university’s past as the first ‘University in Exile’, established in 1933 as a haven for European intellectuals threatened by fascist regimes during World War II.

The New School will host a public launch event on 6 September in Manhattan, featuring a discussion involving David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, who is a former United Kingdom foreign secretary.

The initiative was prompted by the ever-increasing attacks on scholars in many places throughout the world today.

In some places, for example in Turkey, universities are being shuttered and hundreds of scholars purged and jailed. In other countries, like Yemen and Syria, scholars have been forced to flee and universities have been destroyed, severely weakening, if not eliminating, the infrastructure necessary for higher education.

“We believe universities that are not confronting such threats must act to protect the scholars and universities that are,” the consortium says on its website.

It is spearheaded by The New School in New York City, the New University in Exile (UIE) Consortium, but includes Barnard College, Brown University, Columbia University, Connecticut College, Georgetown University, George Mason University, Rutgers University-Newark, Trinity College, The New School, Wayne State University and Wellesley College – a group which organisers say is expected to grow in the coming months.

Member institutions will provide space and resources to support hosted scholars.

The administrative base of the consortium is located at The New School, and will work to foster an intellectual community among the scholars – who come from Turkey, Syria, Iran and elsewhere – and their host institutions through joint programming.

The consortium was conceived by current faculty members at The New School for Social Research, led by Professor Arien Mack, the Alfred and Monette Marrow Professor of Psychology.

Its organisers say it takes its name and mission from the first ‘University in Exile’ founded by The New School for Social Research in 1933. Created as Adolf Hitler was rising to power in Germany – a period in which Jews and those deemed politically hostile were purged from German universities – the original University in Exile provided a safe haven for scholars whose careers and lives were being threatened by the Nazis, they said in a statement about the new consortium.

“It stood as a bulwark against brutal policies that undermined the independence of thought and research upon and for which universities are founded,” the organisers say.

David Van Zandt, current president of The New School, said the new consortium is promoting and protecting academic freedom, tolerance and free and open inquiry.

“In bringing scholars from Turkey, Iran, Syria and other countries impacted by authoritarian regimes and conflict, The New School continues to uphold its mission and the legacy of the University in Exile,” he said

“We are honoured to be joined in this bold and courageous effort by other leading academic institutions from across the country.”

The founder and director of the new consortium, Arien Mack, said the initiative was urgently needed and was “based on our conviction that the academic community has both the responsibility and capacity to assist scholars in need, by helping to protect the intellectual capital that is jeopardised when universities and scholars are under assault”.

The New UIE Consortium will try to create a sense of community and reduce feelings of isolation and dislocation among the displaced scholars by offering a series of seminars, workshops and other collaborative projects that will bring the scholars into frequent contact with each other and their host colleagues. The hope is that this will ease their transition into their new academic homes in the United States.

The consortium has set up an advisory group, whose members include well-known human rights activists Aryeh Neier, Kenneth Roth, Masha Gessen, Judith Butler and Jonathan Fanton.

Among the comments on the initiative by leaders of its institutional members, Safwan M Masri, executive vice president for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University, said most of the world’s 69 million forcibly displaced people live in protracted situations, often deprived of participating meaningfully in the communities where they live. Refugee scholars in particular face acute challenges in advancing their academic work, which inhibits their ability to contribute positively to the scholarly community and to the world.

“Columbia University and its Global Centers, in partnership with The New School and eight other universities, is committed to addressing this through the New University in Exile, which will nurture scholars in exile and provide them with opportunities to reintegrate into the academic community.

“By providing these exiled scholars with access to educational resources, support in building their professional networks, platforms to share their expertise, and showcases for their value to the global academic community, the New UIE Consortium can help address one of the world’s most urgent and important challenges.”

Brown University Provost Richard M Locke said: “Now more than ever colleges and universities locally and globally must join forces to keep our intellectual and physical boundaries open and welcoming. That is why we remain committed to hosting students and scholars who may be displaced by war, persecution or other manmade or natural disasters, and providing opportunities to contribute to the advancement of knowledge in relative peace and security.”

Tim Cresswell, Trinity College dean of faculty and vice president for academic affairs, said: “The practice of academic freedom by scholars around the world has often proved threatening to those who seek unquestioned rule. It is not surprising, therefore, that many great scholars, from Albert Einstein to Theodor Adorno, have also been exiles. Trinity College is delighted to be part of this important project finding homes for scholars in a troubled world.”

Protecting intellectual capital

Robert Quinn, executive director of Scholars at Risk, a network of over 500 higher education institutions – including several UinE consortium members – long engaged in assisting scholars and defending academic freedom, said. "We welcome the New UIE effort as a further recognition of the responsibility of everyone in higher education to do our part to help colleagues and to defend academic freedom.

"The scope of the threats is immense and growing. To the extent that the New UIE effort helps by generating new positions or by adding meaningful opportunities for academic advancement for those being hosted, it is a welcome addition to the fight."

The New UIE Consortium is meant to be both a humanitarian rescue effort to temporarily resettle scholars in new institutions as well as an effort to protect the intellectual capital that is jeopardised when universities and scholars are under assault and to create a community through both face to face and online programmes, it says.

These programmes are meant to provide a “roadmap for rescued scholars to assist them in navigating the US higher education system, and to significantly decrease their sense of isolation in their new academic settings”.

The launch event on Thursday will feature a discussion between David Miliband and Kati Marton, Hungarian-America author and journalist and award-winning former National Public Radio and ABC News correspondent. Comments will also be made by currently hosted endangered scholars from member institutions.

This article has been changed on 4 September 2018 to remove an incorrect reference to this being the first group of academic institutions to publicly announce their commitment to opposing the limits on academic freedom.