Global ‘snapshot’ of attacks on academia released by SAR

Hundreds of attacks across 66 countries on scholars, students and higher education institutions have taken place, ranging from the deadly assault by a suicide bomber on a Kabul educational centre to student abductions in Nigeria and arrests of outspoken professors in Afghanistan. These are just the cases that are known, according to a new report by the New York-based Scholars at Risk (SAR) network.

Free to Think: 2023, which covers the period July 2022 to June 2023, notes that many countries used legal and administrative tools to undermine academic freedom. In Tunisia, for example, an emeritus professor was stripped of his title because he was planning, while at a conference in Paris, to hold meetings to normalise relations with Israel.

Tunisia is ranked, approximately, in the middle of the Academic Freedom Index (AFI) produced by researchers at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Institute of Political Science in Nuremberg, Germany, and the V-Dem Institute in Gothenburg, Sweden.

China, which is at 142nd place out of 152 countries on the AFI, uses high-tech equipment to surveille professors and students, as well as more traditional means.

Chen Saibin, an economics lecturer at the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, was suspended after a student posted his comments about China’s dependence on food imports from Europe and the United States on social media.

“Surveillance by students,” writes Amy Kapit, SAR’s senior program officer for advocacy and principal author of Free to Think, “threaten Chinese scholars’ academic freedom” and causes them to adhere to “scripted” teaching methods.

Mexico, which has an AFI score of 0.67 (out of 1.00), is not the only North American country to use laws and administrative means to restrict academic freedom by cutting research funding and firing two professors who supported students protesting the Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana’s (Mexico, City) handling of sexual assault cases.

In the United States, which has an AFI score of 0.79, dozens of states have passed laws and seen their governors use their administrative authority to ban the teaching of critical race theory and defund diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programmes and offices.

In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis ousted members of the board of trustees of New College (Sarasota) and replaced them with acolytes that quickly restructured the school so that it aligns with his conservative principles.

Despite the objection of faculty and students DeSantis appointed Ben Sasse, an ideological soulmate, who at the time was a Republican senator from Nebraska to the presidency of University of Florida despite the fact that he has little relevant academic experience.


According to Kapit, academic freedom around the world is at risk as a result of different but mutually reinforcing trends.

One is the rise of illiberalism and anti-democratic forces in countries. “That’s affecting the academic space. This includes both legislation and regulations that undermine university autonomy and free speech on campus,” as well as the penal code to limit free expression, said Kapit.

An example of this occurred in Indonesia when the government banned five foreign scientists whose research “highlight[ed] the difference between current data on declining orangutan populations and the figures contained in a speech by the Minister of Forest and Environmental Affairs”.

In addition, authoritarian countries pass increasingly restrictive laws, such as Russia’s recent ban on sharing information about LGBTQI+ persons and human rights, which provide “a veneer of legitimacy to silence speech rights and silence scholarship”, Kapit told University World News.

Attacks on scholars and academic freedom

The 409 attacks on scholars and-or their academic freedom documented by SAR that occurred in one-third of the members of the United Nations are, the report says, a fraction of the total number.

SAR’s limited resources and the challenges of verifying reports as well as the scope, variety, and complexity of attacks, and the fear survivors have about the consequences of reporting attacks prevented a more fulsome picture.

The report provides both a thematic analysis, grouping attacks under such headings as ‘Killings, Violence and Disappearances’ or the more administrative attack of ‘Loss of Position’ and in-depth discussions of 16 countries, including China, Columbia, Iran, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine and the United States.

Additionally, Free to Think, SAR’s eighth annual report, contains capsule analyses of countries such as Afghanistan, Turkey, Egypt, Hong Kong, Hungary, and other countries in the bottom half of the AFI index.

It is one of the great strengths of the report that it doesn’t spare mature democracies. For example, South Korea, which has a 0.87 AFI score, is among the countries cited for wrongful imprisonment and prosecution, and the report highlights the case for the police search of the home of Dae-il Jeong.

Jeong studies North Korean Juche (that is, self-reliant) ideology at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. He was charged with violating the National Security Act for possessing, among other documents, a memoir written by Kim Il-Sung, who was president of North Korea from 1948 until his death in 1994.

SAR is also critical of Sweden, which has an AFI score of 0.94, the 12th highest ranking. Sweden’s conservative government has ignored criticism that it was undermining university autonomy by reducing the term of university board members from three years to 17 months.

The change will allow the government to alter the mix of members, who traditionally have come from business, the senior civil service and retired heads of universities, with security experts: “a move the government justified by warning of foreign [that is, Russian] espionage in academic research,” writes Kapit.

Some academics have warned that the government is undermining democracy and even “taking steps toward authoritarianism”.

Japan, which has almost half of Sweden’s score, 0.58, and is ranked in the bottom 40% of countries by the AFI, has also moved to consolidate appointments under the government.

The proposed external council, appointed by the government to appoint members to the Science Council of Japan (SCJ), may have been abandoned in the face of opposition by five dozen academic societies. But the government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is pushing ahead with a new plan: the creation of a public corporation that would have some autonomy but would still be subject to government oversight.

One critic cited by SAR claimed that the restructuring of the SCJ is linked to the government’s interest in military research, despite the SCJ’s charter stating that it supports “peaceful developments”.

Attacks on universities

Violent attacks on universities fall into two categories: those that occur during armed conflict and what SAR calls “opportunistic” attacks.

The killing of Professor Thomas Meixner, chair of the University of Arizona’s Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences, is an example of this second category.

So too are the death threats against a Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne professor by QAnon conspiracists who said the “15-minute city” idea was akin to an urban “prison camp”, and the stabbing of Kathy Fuller, a philosophy professor and two students at University of Waterloo (Waterloo, Ontario) by a student enraged by the subject of the class: gender issues.

The greatest loss of life occurred in Somalia, when Al Shabab, the Islamist terror group, blew up two cars, a few minutes apart, near the women’s side of the Ministry of Education and Culture. The explosions killed at least 121 people and injured hundreds of others. Six Palestinian students were killed, and hundreds were injured when an Israeli air-strike in northern Gaza hit a branch of Al-Quds Open University.

Though no one was killed, SAR included the destruction of the library archives at the Muhammad Omar Bashir Centre for Sudanese Studies in this category. Over 10 days, the archive was looted before what was left was destroyed in a fire – all while the Rapid Support Forces, which is at war with the Sudanese government, reportedly did nothing to prevent the destruction of the archive, says SAR.

Silencing of scholars

The misuse of state power to intimidate scholars takes many forms, including wrongful imprisonment and prosecution. Since SAR’s inception in 2015 it has documented 868 cases of wrongful imprisonment and prosecution: a total of 86 occurred this past year.

The aim of these actions, says the report, is to obstruct academics from exercising their lawful rights of expression, association and activity by use of opaque and overbroad laws on blasphemy lèse-majesté, civil and criminal defamation, sedition, espionage, national security and terrorism.

"Free to Think 2023 provides a ‘snapshot’ of this year and should be understood as illustrative rather than comprehensive,” says Kapit.

“That said, something that is notable is that we did see a proportionately high number of cases of wrongful dismissal of scholars and students. That might be partly attributable to better reporting of dismissals in certain countries – some of the places where we saw many cases of wrongful dismissal include Iran, Russia, and the United States – but it's indicative of an important fact: that scholars and students are highly vulnerable to administrative sanctions across contexts, including in cases of political violence, armed conflict, and polarisation,” says Kapit.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban arrested a number of professors for publicly opposing their policies, including two who criticised the Taliban ban on women attending university.

Sebnem Korur Fincani, the president of the Turkish Medical Association and professor of forensic medicine at Istanbul University, was arrested following an interview she gave to a television station with links to the Kurdistan Workers Party in which she called for an investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Turkish military in Kurdistan.

The security forces of Belarussian president Aleksandr Lukashenko detained several dozen employees of the National Academy of Science after they allegedly took part in a Telegram (messaging app) group chat called ‘Scientists against violence’. At least three of the scholars were held for 10 days by the government of the country with the fourth worst AFI score – 0.56,

Travel restrictions

Travel restrictions – both those preventing scholars from travelling to another country to, for example, go to a conference or preventing scholars from coming into your country to conduct research – are also threats to academic freedom.

In addition to the banning of five foreign scientists, who challenged government data on orangutan populations, Indonesia ordered the country’s national park service to report on any foreigners conducting research in the parks so that the scientists could be monitored and controlled.

Algeria’s Ministry of Higher Education prevented Algerian scholars from attending conferences in Morocco and publishing in Moroccan journals, allegedly, SAR reports, because a Moroccan legal journal published ‘anti-Algerian articles’.

Israel’s AFI rating is 0.93, the 17th highest score. Nevertheless, SAR has documented that the Knesset is considering a bill that would prevent Arab Israeli-citizens from studying medicine in Palestinian universities. Further, the checkpoints and travel permit (required of all Palestinians) restrict scholars. Additionally, Israel prevents foreigners from studying in the West Bank.

Both regulations and the technicalities of travel into Israel from where they theoretically could travel to other countries, restricts the ability of Palestinian scholars to travel abroad.

Russia: a precipitous decline

As recently as 1998, Russia’s AFI score was 0.79; this year it was 0.24. SAR notes the closure of the Free University (Moscow), which had been one of the few autonomous universities in Russia, after it was accused of imposing an “ultraliberal model of democracy” on its students.

Smolny College (St Petersburg), which had been forced to sever its relationship with Bard College, the liberal arts college in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York (and, thus with the Open Society University Networks in 2021), discontinued its liberal arts programme.

Perhaps more alarming is the militarisation of the university curriculum that began this past September. Russian university students are now required to take courses in the fundamentals of military training, methods of conducting modern arms combat, as well as nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

“Fundamentals of Russian Statehood,” SAR notes, justifies Russia’s war against Ukraine as it “scientifically” promotes the “special Russian path”. Among the course’s five parts are units called ‘Russian state-civilisation’ and the ‘Russian worldview and values of Russian civilisation’.

Russia has targeted at least five universities in Ukraine with at least 90 separate missile attacks. In occupied Kherson, the Russians appointed a pro-Russian rector to run the Kherson National Technical University. Russian authorities established the Kherson Technical University on what had been the Kherson National Technical University, a Ukrainian institution.

SAR draws attention to the plight of Volodymyr Vorvoka, a marine biology professor at the Melitopol Pedagogical University in Ukraine, who was kidnapped in December of 2022 and whose story was documented in these pages.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has devastated Ukraine's higher education. Particularly concerning, Russian missiles and artillery attacks have damaged dozens of education institutions-meaning that the country's higher education infrastructure will need substantial investment to rebuild.

“Russia has also sought to control the higher education curriculum in Ukraine by seizing control of Ukrainian universities and appointing pro-Russian leadership,” Kapit told University World News.

LGBTQI+ students under attack

SAR points to a number of countries where LGBTQI+ students have been singled out for attack.

In Turkey, police have prevented students from expressing their support for LGBTQI+ rights. Two students from an LGBTQI+ group who distributed pride flags at a supermarket were barred from receiving scholarships for six months – and threatened with more severe penalties for any future violation of regulations – by their school, Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Russia has banned the discussion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered persons, and their human rights in both scientific research and educational institutions.

Late last year, “fearing repercussions under the ban, Logos, a Russian philosophy journal, retracted a publication on lesbian fashion by Reina Lewis, a professor of cultural studies at the London College of Fashion at the University of the Arts London, demonstrating the cross-border impacts on scholarship that can result from domestic restrictions on academic freedom,” writes Kapit.

The laws passed by American states that dissolved DEI programmes and proscribe against teaching ‘divisive concepts’ such as racism and gender issues are both threats to LGBTQI+ students and faculty, and to academic freedom as a whole, according to SAR.

Violations of student rights

In the year covered by the report, SAR documented some 200 incidents where students’ academic freedom, and rights to assembly and association, which are protected by internatioal covenants, were violated.

In Peru, police, supported by tanks and a helicopter, stormed the campus of National University of San Marcos (Lima) to disperse students calling for the resignation of the university’s president, Dina Boluarte; an undetermined number of students were killed, and hundreds were arrested by the truncheon-wielding police.

Security forces of Iran, which has an AFI score of 0.08, the world’s 13th lowest, “regularly detained students protesting for women’s rights,” says the SAR report.

Students at Tehran University protesting the requirement that women wear the maghna’eh (black cloth covering the head, face and chest) found that security cut off their access to food, water and toilet facilities; violent clashes with police led to students being injured and 10 were arrested.

India’s AFI score of 0.38 places it in the lowest 30% of nations in terms of academic freedom. Authorities regularly use Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code to crack down on students, many being detained. Among them were students at a number of universities which either planned to or screened the BBC documentary, India: The Modi Question, which delves into Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the ethnic violence in Gujarat in 2002, when he was chief minister of the state.

While Free to Think did not specifically refer to students in its discussion of the threats to academic freedom in the United States, the actions of governors and state legislators (in almost half of the country’s 50 states) who have acted to ban DEI programmes and courses directly impact students.

The erosion of academic freedom represented by Florida’s banning of discussion in state universities of “systemic racism, sexism, oppression or privilege inherent” in the United States has two key impacts: the first is that it makes students from marginalised communities feel even more marginalised; the second is that it deprives all students of intellectual analysis of America.

Proactive closure of programmes (for example, the Gender Studies Department at New College) infringe on both scholars’ and students’ academic freedom.

Among the bills SAR alludes to is Florida’s “Intellectual Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity Assessment”, which requires both faculty and students to complete surveys on their political viewpoints and those represented in their classrooms.

Referring to similar bills in other states, the report states: “Opponents of these measures fear that they set a dangerous precedent for state intervention into core teaching and research functions by stigmatising areas of academic discourse and encouraging self-censorship.”

Endangering future leadership

Physical, legal and intellectual crackdowns on students differ from similar crackdowns on established scholars, both Kapit and Robert Quinn, SAR executive director, told University World News.

According to Kapit: “University students are often at the forefront of pushing for peace, justice, and social change, and they are the future leaders of society. Exercising academic freedom and free expression is one way that students learn to be members of a healthy and civically engaged society.

“Cracking down on students' rights to free expression and assembly now – when they are learning to engage with difficult issues in a productive way – reduces the chances that they will, in the future, see peaceful expression as a pathway for positive change.

“Some of the places where we saw these kinds of crackdowns occurring this year were Myanmar, where the governing military junta has detained, arrested, and handed severe sentences to students involved in the civil disobedience movement; and Sri Lanka, where students protesting the detention of their colleagues faced tear gas and water cannons numerous times.”

For his part, Quin says: “Today’s university students are tomorrow's business, cultural and political leaders. A world where more young people learn to develop and express their thoughts with reason, evidence and persuasion – the hallmarks of the university – is a healthier, more just and more secure world.

“Attacks on students exercising academic freedom and free expression threaten that future three times over: first by directly targeting today's student leaders for violence, wrongful arrest, and expulsion; second, by intimidating and silencing the next generation of leaders; and finally, by denying all of us the benefits of those future leaders in building understanding and solving the world’s problems.”