With her capstone project, Ida interned at Scholars at Risk Network, where she was able to explore the complexity of academic freedom.
Written by Ida Iselin Eriksson ‘14
Through my capstone project, I had the pleasure of interning at Scholars at Risk Network where I was able to explore the complex concept of academic freedom. My capstone project left me with more new questions than answers, but I was also left with a great appreciation for the work that non-profit organizations put in to ensuring rights such as academic freedom.
Scholars at Risk (SAR) is an international network of universities and colleges, of which Adelphi University is a member. The organization is committed to promoting academic freedom and defending the rights of academics worldwide. Among other activities, the network works with its member institutions to create academic positions of temporary refuge for scholars facing threats to their life, liberty or academic career on the basis of their research, race, gender or religion. My time at the organization has been both satisfying and challenging. It has made my heart bleed when reading the terrible conditions that some scholars must endure, but it has also given me the feeling of triumph when finding scholars safe havens to continue doing what they love.
At SAR we see academic freedom as a right, but what that right entails is very still unclear. This might be because the concept also encompasses many human rights, as defined by the UN Declaration of Human Rights: the rights of freedom of expression, assembly, and education. All of these in some way influence our conception of academic freedom. In my own opinion I have come to understand academic freedom not as an individual right, but as the right of the community. As much of my capstone work showed, academic freedom might enable individual scholars to pursue academic work, but their work stems from and reflects the problems and values of societies. That being said, I would argue that this is one of the reasons many authoritarian and oppressive governments discriminate, threaten and imprison scholars; because their work, their voices, and their influence in the society may very well threaten the authority of the regime.
By getting to know some of the scholars applying for SAR’s assistance, both virtually and in-person, I have gained a new appreciation for higher education. Even lacking academic freedom, these academics have continuously fought for the right to pursue, produce and share knowledge globally. I have learned that these people have not given up on their positions at their universities, their research or on their students, even when they face harassment, discrimination and severe threats to their lives. Academic freedom might not be a recognized international or domestic right protected by law, but it is most certainly an ideal constructed with the best intention, not for the individual, but for a greater society.
Specializing in creating temporary teaching and research positions for scholars, SAR’s work is of course very limited in terms of who they can actually help and the type of assistance they can provide. They rely on their member institutions to help provide these opportunities as SAR cannot force a university to take on a scholar. I would urge Adelphi University, as a member institution in SAR’s network to more actively participate. However, I also understand that budgets limit universities’ ability to participate, even when they are fully willing.
I am truly appreciative of the experience I have had pursuing my undergraduate degree in the International Studies Program. While my internship at SAR opened my eyes to the possibility of pursuing a career in international education, Adelphi introduced me to many inspiring academics who encouraged me to think bigger, and to conduct my own research with passion and integrity.
If not a right, academic freedom is at least a passion for knowledge, and I thank International Studies for showing me that!
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