People Making a Difference: Robert Quinn

By Jones, Marilyn | The Christian Science Monitor, September 14, 2009 | Go to article overview
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People Making a Difference: Robert Quinn

Jones, Marilyn, The Christian Science Monitor

Robert Quinn has a plane to catch. He also has to write a speech for a conference in the Netherlands. But first he has to help a student from Azerbaijan get to a safe place. Because that's what Mr. Quinn does: He saves scholars from danger.

"I just help the people who are helping other people," says Quinn. As founder and executive director of Scholars at Risk (SAR), Quinn and his small staff match scholars with a network of more than 200 universities and colleges in 26 countries. The goal? To find a place where academics can work free from threats to their physical, emotional, and professional safety.

The SAR team takes threats to scholars seriously. For example, in September 2001, Prof. Dayan Dawood, dean of Syiah Kuala University in Aceh, Indonesia, spoke publicly about the university's need to provide neutral space to discuss peaceful resolution to the political violence in his country. Four days later, he was assassinated.

"We're trying to build a better world through promoting respect for knowledge and the free exchange of ideas," Quinn says.

As in the case of Taslima Nasrin, who first had her life threatened in 1994 in her native Bangladesh. Her crime? Writing about women's rights. Later, in 2008, while living in her adopted country, India, she again had her life threatened by religious fanatics when she continued to write and speak about women's freedom. She cannot return to either country. Now a SAR scholar at New York University (NYU), she says, "SAR came to my aid by helping me to survive in a new land."

Universities must operate freely because they stand on the front lines of change, Quinn says. For any society to progress, scholars must have the freedom to come together with thinkers from other countries to exchange ideas and discoveries, he says.

But sometimes those advanced new ideas threaten entrenched regimes. Consequently, those with the ideas must either go silent or face persecution.

Recognizing the urgent need to help scholars find havens, Quinn began work on his project in 1999. With seed money from the MacArthur Foundation, he officially launched SAR as a nonprofit in 2000. Today SAR operates from offices at NYU. The university hosts the headquarters and has become active in bringing scholars such as Ms. Nasrin to campus.

Scholars at Risk focuses on two areas: First, it works to help individuals who face threats ranging from harassment to death. Ideally, SAR tries to help people remain safely in their own countries. If that can't happen, then SAR either matches them with a position as a professor or lecturer at a university or helps them enroll in a relevant academic program.

"For lack of a better word," Quinn says, "we call this our 'sanctuary work.' "

The second part of SAR's efforts focuses on finding long-term solutions.

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