The terrible loss of life is horrific and sadly is not the only such targeted campus attack the world has seen this year. It is not even the only one Pakistan has seen this year. Militants similarly attacked Bacha Khan University in Charsadda in January, killing at least 20 and injuring dozens. Rather, this is only the most recent occurrence in an alarming crisis of attacks on universities and colleges worldwide, as documented in a report released Monday, “Free to Think 2016.”
The report, the second installment in Scholars at Risk’s study of attacks on higher education communities worldwide, identifies key negative trends drawn from 158 reported attacks in 35 countries that occurred from May 1, 2015, to Sept. 1, 2016, including accounts of killings, violence, disappearances, wrongful prosecution and imprisonment, loss of position and expulsion from study, improper travel restrictions, and other severe or systemic threats.
The most alarming trend is the continuing incidence of extreme violence by armed groups and individuals against learning communities. This includes mass attacks as in Quetta and Charsadda, and the similar attack on the American University in Afghanistan in August, as well as killings of individual scholars and students in Bangladesh, India, Iraq and Syria, among others.
Such attacks demonstrate the extent to which universities, colleges and their members are targeted not only because of the vulnerabilities endemic in societies plagued by conflict and unrest. They are often subjected as well to heightened pressures and violence because of their unique role in encouraging discourse and shaping future generations.
States, higher education leaders and civil society therefore share a common responsibility — and a vital interest — in protecting them in this role. States especially must do more to protect higher education communities from attack. This means devoting the resources necessary to increase proactive protection measures — for example, funding campus security personnel, entry and identity controls, and training for personnel and assistance for victims — and to investigate and hold perpetrators accountable.
But extreme violence, while still far too common, is by no means the only threat. Rather, state interference with academic inquiry and expression remains even more pervasive and, as the report shows, has worsened considerably in some places. In Egypt, a decrease in reported incidents of violence or arrest compared with SAR’s 2015 report might suggest — incorrectly — an improvement in conditions. The fact is, however, that thousands of students and hundreds of scholars arrested earlier remain imprisoned for peacefully exercising their right to free expression and association. Against this backdrop, the report warns of a further tightening of restrictions on academic communities in the form of arbitrary travel and administrative restrictions seemingly intended to further limit inquiry and expression.
In Turkey, thousands of higher education professionals have been caught up in sweeping actions by state and university authorities. Scores have been detained, while thousands more face criminal investigations, prosecution, dismissal and administrative proceedings at their universities based on unsubstantiated state allegations of involvement in “terrorism” or “treason” — the former against signatories to a January public peace petition, the latter against alleged sympathizers with the July coup attempt.
These allegations evaporate under calls for evidence of any wrongful conduct, revealing the expression of critical or unpopular ideas as the only grounds for state actions taken (assurances by Turkish officials that they will respect academic freedom, as enshrined in Turkey’s constitution, notwithstanding). This conflates critical discourse with disloyalty and poses a danger not only to academic freedom but to democracy itself. States, higher education leaders and civil society everywhere must resist this conflation, lest it spread like a virus, giving license to any state to impose at will sanctions for questions about state conduct that it decides are too probing, too sensitive and off-limits to public examination.
Read the report:
It is not too late. State authorities in Turkey and Egypt can and should suspend and reverse actions against higher education professionals and students who did nothing but engage in the peaceful expression of critical or unpopular ideas, including releasing those detained or imprisoned. State authorities everywhere can and must do more to protect higher education communities from attack, including taking all reasonable measures to ensure adequate security for all members of higher education communities; reaffirming publicly their commitment to institutional autonomy and academic freedom; disavowing direct or indirect involvement in violence, undue external interference, or compulsion against higher education communities; and initiating prompt, thorough and transparent investigations of attacks on higher education communities aimed at holding perpetrators accountable.
Everyone can and should resist the “conflation virus” and demand instead universal recognition of the principle that ideas are not crimes and critical inquiry and discourse are not disloyalty but, rather, that they are a scholar’s duty.
Robert Quinn is executive director of Scholars at Risk, an international network of institutions and individuals based at New York University working to protect higher education communities and promote academic freedom worldwide. For information, visit scholarsatrisk.org.