École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) joined Scholars at Risk (SAR) in 2014. Two years after joining in 2016, EPFL contributed to the establishment of the Swiss section of SAR, which today comprises 24 partner institutions.
EPFL’s hosting engagement began in 2018 thanks to our collaboration with the Swiss Commission for UNESCO and the advocacy of Commission members. To begin, we had two priorities. First, we had to assess the EPFL community’s interest. Then we had to mobilize the necessary funds. I met with all the faculty deans and a number of other scientists. They were motivated but also concerned about the long-term instability that academics would continue to face. In this moment, I remembered the reassuring message from Prof. Jan Hesthaven, former Dean of the Faculty of Basic Sciences and EPFL’s Provost: “No one can question the relevance of SAR’s mission.”
SAR nominated several scholars from various disciplines and country contexts for our consideration. It was clear that they all were facing difficult situations and that a possible placement at a SAR member university in Europe would enable them to safely resume their academic career with hope for the future.
Meanwhile, the EPFL + Foundation granted us the necessary funds. In addition, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) launched a funding scheme to invite SAR scholars to Swiss universities in support of a free, diverse, and internationally open science system. We intensified our efforts with the conviction that protecting scholars and their careers ensures scientific progress and academic freedom, and that temporarily hosting them would enrich research, education, and the broader community at EPFL.
At the end of 2020, we were finally able to extend a visiting position to a Turkish scholar — a postdoc with expertise in engineering teaching and inclusive pedagogy. After a complex process to obtain his visa and work permit, and thanks to the advice of other Swiss universities with prior hosting experience, the first EPFL SAR scholar arrived on May 3, 2021. After five years away from academia, his excitement was evident.
Our goal was to create an ideal setting for him, which he has managed to enhance thanks to his positive and determined attitude. He has been able to resume his academic work, expand his international networks, and improve his language skills, all of which are essential for his future transition. EPFL has also benefited in various ways and has extended the position for a second year.
Looking back, several factors facilitated this first hosting experience. This ideal match has enabled us to benefit from the skills and expertise of the scholar to the fullest, even during the first year, which in turn has empowered and motivated him. The open, international, and English-speaking culture of EPFL and the multicultural environment of Lausanne also accelerated his settlement. Networking and collaborating with other university members of the Swiss section of SAR together with a high level of determination have also proven useful.
This has inspired us to continue. Our current efforts are focused on bringing three young Afghan women scholars in the fields of biochemistry, electrical engineering, and chemical engineering, all of whom urgently need assistance to continue their careers in a safe place.
The response from the EPFL community has been overwhelmingly positive and shows who we are as a university and as individuals, and publicly reaffirms our commitment to academic freedom, critical thinking, and the basic right to education and scientific progress in secure environments.
Dr. Gabriela Tejada
Academic Deputy at the College of Humanities, EPFL