NEW YORK, Dec. 13th, 2021 — On Thursday, December 9th, Scholars at Risk (SAR) announced the 2021 Courage to Think Award and the release of the Free to Think 2021 report at its Free to Think 2021 virtual symposium. The event featured sessions on threats to academic freedom in Myanmar, Afghanistan, Belarus, and the United States.
“We celebrate the fact that we, as a community, have come together across borders, time zones, nationalities, cultures, ethnicities, religions, ages, identities, and professional disciples to help threatened colleagues,” said Robert Quinn, SAR Executive Director.
Clare Robinson, SAR Advocacy Director, introduced the Free to Think 2021 report, which covers 332 attacks on higher education communities in 65 countries and territories, ranging from assassinations and campus bombings to the use of legislative and executive powers to restrict academic freedom.
“These attacks chill entire academic communities, undermining debate and research that have the potential to benefit all of society,” said Robinson. She urged the international academic community to put the report to use as an advocacy tool to join SAR in efforts to protect academic freedom.
Ole Petter Otterson, President of the Karolinska Institutet, presented the 2021 Courage to Think Award to Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali, an alumnus and former researcher of the university and a Swedish-Iranian scholar of disaster medicine sentenced to death in Iran. The award, presented in absentia, recognizes Dr. Djalali’s “courage, dedication to his academic profession, and continuing struggle for freedom.”
Vida Mehrannia, Dr. Djalali’s wife, accepted the award on his behalf and spoke of his arrest in 2016 while attending academic workshops in Iran. She called on the European Union and Sweden to take action on behalf of Dr. Djalali. “As we speak, Ahmadreza has been detained over 2,050 days,” Mehrannia said. “He is paying this price of his life because of his deepest commitment to humanity, freedom, and acting against terrorism and a dictator regime.”
The first of the four sessions highlighted concerns in Myanmar. Alex Kaung Myat Akhar, a lawyer and the head of Spring University Myanmar Law School, joined Nyi Nyi Kraw, a fellow at Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen, to discuss the impact of the military coup on Myanmar’s higher education sector and the nation-wide efforts to support scholars and students deprived of education under the junta’s rule.
Omar Sharifi, Country Director of the American Institute of Afghan Studies, joined Metra Mehran, co-founder of the Feminine Perspectives Campaign, to discuss the immediate consequences of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the implications for the country’s higher education community.
Maksimas Milta, Associate Analyst at the Eastern Europe Studies Center and ReThink.CEE Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, spoke with Alena Buinskaya, a Ph.D student at the California Institute of Technology, about the use of excessive force and arrests by President Alexander Lukashenko during national demonstrations in Belarus. “Students who could be leading scientists and advance Belarus are in prison,” Buinskaya said. “This is a government sponsored brain drain.”
Sumi Cho, Director of Strategic Initiatives, The African American Policy Forum, spoke with Emily Houh, Gustavus Henry Wald Professor of the Law and Contracts at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, about legislative attacks on academic freedom in the United States. Cho argued state laws aimed at restricting discussions of race, gender, and critical race theory on higher education campuses and in K-12 education are “thought control propaganda.”
See the full Free to Think 2021 virtual symposium agenda and session recordings, read the full Free to Think 2021 report, and see how you can take action to support Dr. Djalali and higher education communities in the countries featured in the event.