A Conversation with Scholars at Risk

Article excerpt

In the process of writing the preceding feature article, Academe staff member Wendi Maloney interviewed Robert Quinn, director of the Scholars at Risk Network and former adjunct professor and Crowley Fellow in International Human Rights at Fordham University's law school. The conversation printed below expands on issues raised in the article.

Academe: The feature article that accompanies this interview quotes you as noting some limits on the assistance that SAR is able to provide threatened scholars. Are there others?

Quinn: The most significant limit to date has been resources. For the first four years of its existence, SAR was only one full-time employee, with student interns and volunteers helping out. Only this past academic year did we add a program officer. SAR is just beginning a fund-raising campaign to ensure our long-term survival, and if we can raise the money to add staff, we can do more. But for now, the biggest limit is how many staff and volunteer hours there are in the day.

Academe: How is SAR funded?

Quinn: SAR received start-up money from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. We have also received limited support in the past from other sources, including the Reebok Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the Institute of International Education, and small, individual donations from faculty members. We need about $200,000 a year to keep operating.

Academe: How does SAR determine which scholars to assist?

Quinn: First, we determine whether candidates are scholars and whether they are at risk. These are objective tests. We use a wide definition of scholarship (for example, writers and artists might qualify in exceptional cases). Recognizable risks include any serious threat to a scholar's work or person not caused by the scholar and not of a purely economic nature. Severity of risk is, of course, a significant consideration. Once the scholars pass this basic qualification stage, it then becomes a question of allocating limited resources. We assist as many scholars as we can, but we focus our resources on those who, in our experience, have the best chance of finding a host or other relief with the help of our efforts. We also consider which candidates have the best chance of remaining scholars over the long term, and which candidates offer the most promise in terms of their work or their potential future contributions.

Academe: Despite the difficulties described in the feature article that accompanies this interview, do you think the endeavors of SAR and similar organizations continue to be critical? If so, why?

Quinn: Yes, asolutely. For the scholars, our efforts are critical, because most of them had nowhere else to turn when things got bad at home. 1 have had frank conversations with most of our candidates about ongoing problems of one sort or another, from loneliness to finances to health, and about their ideas on how to improve our services. Dut all are grateful for the chances that SAR, the host universities, and the Scholar Rescue Fund have provided; none has indicated regret at leaving home. Also, keep in mind that the rescued scholars you interviewed for your article were early participants in the program. As our experience grows, we will build a community of host universities and individuals who have a common understanding of what it is like to go through the SAfL process. They will be able to lean on each other more than the earlier groups, and we will continue to collect best practices.

I think our efforts are also critical because we are educating the public about a very large, somewhat invisible problem. People are shocked by the volume of cases we have seen-and they are just the tip of the iceberg. I liken attacks on academic freedom to the problem of a hacker stealing a few pennies from every account he enters. On the individual level, each incident seems rather insignificant and perhaps even goes unnoticed. But in the aggregate, the incidents are a huge drag on the system. …