Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Probing Academic Freedom at Arab Spring's Sharp End

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Probing Academic Freedom at Arab Spring's Sharp End

Article excerpt

Political shifts viewed with concern and hope by scholars at event in Tunisia. Matthew Reisz writes.

A conference in Tunisia has explored new opportunities and threats for universities in countries transformed by the recent Arab Spring.

The event was organised by the Scholars at Risk Network and the Center for Dialogues, both based at New York University, and took place on 21 and 22 February at the University of Manouba's Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities.

The venue was chosen in part to express solidarity with an institution that has been targeted by Islamist militants. The dean of the faculty, Habib Kazdaghli, is due to come to trial this month for allegedly assaulting two veiled students who came into his office - a prosecution that Scholars at Risk has suggested "lacks merit".

Beyond that, said Scholars at Risk executive director Robert Quinn, the conference was designed to "look to the future and see what can be done in new constitutions to support academic freedom" and to consider "what HE institutions can do to contribute to society", for example by acting as "a bridge between different sectors, rather than an ivory tower or oasis".

The event, The University and the Nation: Safeguarding Higher Education in Tunisia and Beyond, brought together speakers from across North Africa, as well as France, Turkey and the US, although debate focused on the three countries where regime change offered particular challenges.

The new Egyptian constitution protects institutional autonomy but not academic freedom, while the draft Tunisian constitution does the opposite, with Article 30 stating that "Academic freedoms and freedom of scientific research shall be guaranteed" and that "The state shall furnish all means necessary for the advancement of academic work and scientific research". Libya has not yet reached the drafting stage for a post-Gaddafiera constitution.

Jonathan Fanton, chair of the Scholars at Risk Network and former NYU president, made the case for universities' crucial role in democratic and economic development. "Democratic habits must be learned, which means they must be taught," he said.

"To consider how important this is, consider that bigotry, intolerance and violence may also be learned and taught. …

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