A new report has flagged up the sheer scale of violence and persecution suffered by university staff and students across the globe.
Part of the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project established by the Scholars at Risk international network, Free to Think was launched in Geneva today. While acknowledging that its findings represent “only a small subset of all attacks on higher education”, it nonetheless points to “333 attacks arising from 247 verified incidents in 65 countries” since January 2011.
Most serious are “at least 485 killings involving members of higher education communities in 18 countries”. Some were completely indiscriminate, as when gunmen affiliated with Somali militant group Al Shabaab forced their way on to the campus of Garissa University College in Kenya, asked students whether they were Muslim or Christian, and shot at least 142, along with three security officers and two university security personnel.
Yet the report also draws attention to a number of far more targeted murders. Muhammad Shakil Auj, “an outspoken and progressive religious scholar” who served as dean of Islamic studies at the University of Karachi, was killed by unidentified attackers. Many others have been “disappeared” or threatened with violence designed to keep them quiet, including Professor Mohammed Dajan of Palestine’s Al-Quds University, “accused of treason for leading a student trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland as part of a course in conflict resolution”.
Free to Think goes on to address further incidents of “wrongful persecution and imprisonment”, “loss of position” and “improper travel restrictions” in countries ranging from Afghanistan, Bahrain, China and Colombia to Yemen and Zimbabwe.
Given higher education’s “inherently democratic function” in allowing people to “ask questions about complex and contentious questions and learn to resolve those questions guided by reason, evidence and persuasion”, the authors acknowledge that it is “not surprising that states and other actors who depend on controlling information and what people think go to great lengths to restrict or even silence higher education communities and their members”.
Their recommendations to the sector include “assist[ing] states in reviewing national laws and policies”; “tak[ing] all reasonable measures to provide adequate security”; and “develop[ing] policies and practices which reinforce a culture of respect for principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy”.