Jesse Levine is the Senior Advocacy Officer at Scholars at Risk (SAR). He leads SAR’s international advocacy work before the UN and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, among other international and regional bodies. He is an experienced US litigator with a wide range of legal and human rights experience, including working for New York law firms and in civil society.
What impact has the deterioration of democracy around the world had on academic freedom?
The global wave of authoritarianism of the past few years has brought new patterns of violations and pressures. One example is the broad erosion of university autonomy, with the goal of remaking educational institutions in the image of the ruling government. This can occur through overt means, such as the outright shuttering of universities, but more common — and just as worrisome — are the subtle tools that authoritarian leaders have been increasingly using, such as the tendency to install political allies in positions of power within a university, giving them control over curricula, hiring and firing, budgets, and other key policy matters. This often occurs over the vocal objections of the university faculty and other members of the higher education community, who have every right to demand that they be meaningfully involved in the process of selecting university leadership, and that such appointments be driven by ability, rather than political alliances.
What are the human rights challenges facing scholars?
There are innumerable ways that state and non-state actors alike look to silence scholars, ranging from overt violence and imprisonment to more subtle pressures. SAR documents key incidents in the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project and in annual Free to Think reports. The thread that runs through all of these is the intention to silence or alter the university space. One of our biggest current areas of focus is building an understanding of what academic freedom is — and its foundational importance to a democracy.
How can Canadian academic unions defend scholars’ right to freedom of expression?
It is important for everyone in the fight for academic freedom and scholars’ right to freedom of expression to think hard about the distinct types of threats to academic freedom, and how the responses change depending on the nature and source of the attack. A violation perpetrated by the state, for example, might be addressed through litigation; the response to a violation perpetrated by an academic institution might use local, institutional resources; threats coming from the public might be addressed through public-facing political advocacy. But the most important thing is for academic unions — who have as good an understanding as anyone about the resources available to them — to help make those resources available to their members, communicate effectively about what members’ rights are, and what domestic and international law has to say about them.
What would you like to see happen with academic freedom on a global level?
We have a few near-term goals, aimed broadly at empowering scholars, students, and others to protect, promote, and defend academic freedom. We also aim to concretize existing legal principles that are protective of academic freedom into tools for practical, on-the-ground change. For example, Scholars at Risk, together with the University of Ottawa and the University of Monterrey (Mexico), lead the Coalition for Academic Freedom in the Americas, which works to build partnerships with academics, students and institutions to generate awareness and advocacy, and to make the conversation about academic freedom a much more prominent part of campus life in the Americas. We are also working with colleagues around the world to develop a set of authoritative Principles for Implementing the Right to Academic Freedom. The Draft Principles were discussed in detail at a side event at the UN Human Rights Council in July.
What is your key message to scholars who face grave threats to their human rights?
Our message is one of solidarity and support — always. We know from experience that, for scholars facing the gravest threats, it matters a great deal to hear that their colleagues around the world are not just thinking of them but working to free them or protect them from harm. That is one of the reasons why it is so important that Scholars at Risk works with a network: it gives threatened scholars a way to hear from their colleagues in hundreds of institutions around the world that they are not alone.
Are you optimistic about the future state of academic freedom?
Yes. We have seen widespread commitment at all levels to protect academic freedom across the SAR Network, which now includes 650+ institutions across 40+ countries, and with partners worldwide. In the Americas, we see this commitment reflected in documents like the Inter-American Principles on Academic Freedom and University Autonomy, released in 2021. We are inspired by the energy devoted to academic freedom by the UN Special Rapporteur for the protection and promotion of freedom of opinion and expression, the Special Rapporteur on the right to education, and the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights. All this sets a foundation for progress in the coming years.