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Academic freedom amidst global instability

Academic freedom amidst global instability

By John Lorinc

Nasim Niknafs is an associate professor of music education at the University of Toronto. She did not flee Iran, though may never be able to return because of her research. Her contract at U of T in 2013 was delayed by the Canadian government’s prolonged visa process. Learn more in her research article, “’Ma’am! You’re Being Randomly Checked’: A Music Education Terrorized.”

As she watches the uprising in Iran, where thousands have taken to the streets to protest the beating death of Masha Amini, Nasim Niknafs, a University of Toronto (U of T) professor of music, finds herself thinking back to her own experiences fleeing the regime in 2013. “It's an embodied situation for me,” muses Niknafs, who is associate dean of research and a member of the U of T Faculty Association's External Affairs Committee.

Her efforts to leave Iran were complicated by restrictions on exit visas, as well as the cost and difficulty of securing a flight. Four years later, by then established at U of T, she witnessed what was happening to graduate students from Iran who found themselves trapped by the Trump Administration's immigration clampdown. “The Muslim ban wasn't at the forefront of a lot of discourses,” she recalls. “I remember that the university had a townhall and I broached the subject, and they were thinking about it. It was basically the first time that you're thinking about bodies, scholarly bodies, that have to deal with visa issues.”

Niknafs says academic staff associations and scholars-at-risk groups are working to support academics who are fleeing war zones, civil unrest, and police coercion. She adds, however, that scholars who manage to escape must put their research on hold as they struggle with more practical and immediate concerns such as securing the safety of family members, finding housing and dealing with paperwork. “We need to use all our channels,” she says, adding that the university could do more in terms of providing financial resources.

According to the Scholars at Risk Network, an international NGO based in New York, the perils confronting academics and researchers in many hotspots around the world have risen in recent years. In fact, 2022 broke records with a surge of reports — 391 in 65 countries — of legal or physical harassment, imprisonment, travel restrictions, professional retaliation, bans on women scholars accessing campuses (Afghanistan), government-ordered campus closures (Nicaragua), and the deadly impact of the war in the Ukraine on that country's academic community. “Certainly, since the start of the COVID 19 pandemic, and over the past twelve-plus months, [there's] been really a sense of disaster,” says Daniel Munier, SAR's senior program manager. “We are absolutely confident that the situation has gotten more severe in recent years.”

One example is a recent article in EMBO Reports titled “Concerns about academic freedom caused by the Russia—Ukraine War” that shows Russian scholars have faced enormous political pressure and state censorship since the invasion began. “Academic freedom is also threatened as Russian scientists' freedom to comment on policies and hold beliefs that do not align with the current narrative are increasingly under attack from their government.”

Western University law professor Michael Lynk points out that the steady growth of “illiberal democracy” — in countries like Hungary, as well as in some U.S. states, where Republican legislators have imposed restrictions on the teaching of subjects like the history of racial discrimination — is posing another set of threats to academic freedom. “There is an exact parallel between the rise of illiberal democracy and authoritarian governments, and the crackdown on academic freedom and the independence and autonomy of universities,” he says. “They go hand in hand. In fact, it's one of our best barometers for assessing how much respect or how little respect there is for democracy and the rule of law.”

There's little doubt that the assaults on academics and academic freedom internationally spill over into Canadian campuses, either in the form of scholars fleeing war zones or through the spread of political attacks on the protections Canadian scholars enjoy. Lynk adds that as universities and colleges deal with provincial funding cuts and become increasingly reliant on wealthy donors, there are subtle risks to academic independence. Another complicating dynamic involves the work of scholarly research groups whose members may include those who live in jurisdictions that value academic freedom and those that don't. “That's always going to be a danger,” says Lynk.

Alison Hearn, an associate professor at Western University's Faculty of Information & Media Studies, and the chair of CAUT's Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee, says there’s a need to raise awareness among Canadian academic staff associations about the plight of scholars at risk, and that support should include more than just funding. Yet, she adds, many academic staff association executives find themselves juggling priorities. “It always comes back to this balance between looking after things at home and looking after things overseas.” For CAUT, partnering with organizations such as Education International (EI) has meant strengthening the organization’s commitment to academic freedom globally.

In 2020, CAUT joined with Education International (EI) and the global education community in condemning the lack of safety of teachers and union leaders in Colombia, where more than 6,000 education unionists had been killed, threatened, or forcefully displaced over the last 30 years. Other global-facing initiatives include CAUT supporting college lecturers in Zimbabwe for a bargaining conference post-pandemic and backing a judicial review in Malaysia over government interference in university governance. Teachers facing political and economic pressures in their institutions and countries are further at risk of having their academic freedom stifled.

Grace Nyongesa, National Chairperson of the Universities’ Academic Staff Union (UASU) from Kenya and keynote at CAUT’s Council meeting this past fall, told Council delegates that there is a lack of academic freedom for teachers across much of Africa to conduct their own research. She argued for stronger international partnerships between academic unions globally to build capacity and solidarity in the defence of academic freedom and other professional rights.

Hearn says that Canada is perceived internationally as having robust protections compared to many other countries. In Canada, she adds, academic freedom is embedded in and enforced through collective agreements negotiated between academic staff associations and institutions. Over 90 per cent of Canada’s academic staff is unionized and virtually every collective agreement contains explicit language about academic freedom. That means academic staff associations have a critical role to play in helping to strengthen international solidarity, especially as colleagues are under threat in increasingly more countries.

At a recent roundtable of the Scholars at Risk in Canada hosted by the Centre for Human Rights & Legal Pluralism, McGill University, Faculty of Law, panelists from several organizations that provide protection to at-risk scholars and human rights defenders (SAR NY, SAR Canada, SRF/IIE, National Endowment for Democracy, Open Society University Network, among others) discussed strategies related to recent events in Afghanistan and their grave impact on the academic community. Concerns raised by the participants focused on safeguarding the academic sector and its mission of knowledge creation, exchange, and dissemination when faced with humanitarian emergencies and political crises, along with identifying strategies for a synchronized and rapid response to future crises. The two main questions for discussion were: What are you and your organization doing to respond to the emergency in Afghanistan? What have you learned from your current efforts that would help in the planning of a response to another such crisis?

These are conversations we need to be having, says Nasim Niknafs from her vantage point as both an advocate for Iranian scholars fleeing an oppressive regime and a member of UTFA's external affairs committee. “We have a lot of expertise with the domestic situation, but we need to broaden the horizon. We need to have an international outlook.”  


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