Academic Rebels Far from Home

Article excerpt

Fleeing death threats and dangers at home, scholars encounter new difficulties in adjusting to American academic life.

When history professor José Portillo returned to his car parked on the campus of the University of the Basque Country one afternoon in December 1998, he found that it had been set on fire. He immediately suspected that the ETA, the Basque separatist movement, was responsible. "I was a university professor," Portillo explains, "but I also wrote newspaper articles criticizing radical nationalism." A specialist in modern and contemporary Spanish, Basque, and Latin American history, Portillo had taught at the university since 1989. He was also active in a group called Basta Ya (That's Enough) that encouraged citizens to protest the violent acts of the ETA.

Founded in 1959, the ETA aims to establish an independent socialist Uasque state spanning an area of northern Spain and France's southern Atlantic coast. During its campaign, the organization has killed more than eight hundred people, including journalists, academics, police officers, judges, politicians, and businesspeople. The group's favored techniques are car bombings and assassinations.

Fearing for his safety following the attack, Portillo accepted a visiting professorship in the law school at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid. In November 1999, he returned to the University of the Uasque Country to address a conference. While he was speaking, he heard an explosion. Colleagues soon informed him that a bomb had destroyed his parked car. This time, a note warned him that he had better leave the country. He and his university concluded that it would be best for him to take a sabbatical outside Spain.

Portillo thus began a journey that would take him to three U.S. universities over a four-year period. "Most academics in the United Status expect their work to draw comment, criticism, and controversy," says !Robert Quinn, director of the Scholars at Risk Network (SAR), which arranges temporary research and teaching appointments, mostly in the United States, for scholars forced to flee their countries for political reasons, "Iiut scholars in many other parts of the world often risk much worse: censure, prosecution, imprisonment-even torture and death."

Since its founding in June 2000, SAR has received more than 500 requests for assistance from scholars from 90 countries around the world. It has intervened in more than a hundred cases and arranged positions for more than five dozen of the most seriously threatened scholars. Many of those assisted received fellowships from the Institute of International Education's Scholar Rescue Fund, which often works with SAR in helping scholars. "Together, the fund and SAR offer scholars safety and a way to remain productive until conditions improve at home," says Quinn, "with the hope that they will then return and contribute to rebuilding their society."

The United States has a history of welcoming foreign scholars forced to flee their home countries. Some intellectuals have chosen to remain in this country; among them, Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, and Thomas Mann. Political conditions have prevented others who wished to return home from doing so for many years, even decades.

In spring 2003, SAR convened a conference at the University of Chicago to assess its progress to date. Scholars in attendance whom SAR had assisted voiced their appreciation for the help they had received. But some described experiences in the United States that were far from easy, underlining the many difficulties involved in trying to transfer an academic career from one country or culture to another, even temporarily. The barriers to success that the scholars noted at the conference and in subsequent interviews with Academe included lack of fluency in English, unfamiliarity with U.S. academic culture, and conflicts with immigration law. Their problems suggest limits to the assistance that can be provided to scholars willing to risk their lives and livelihoods for the freedom to say and teach what they believe. …