Free to Think 2023: Suppression of dissent and spread of illiberalism threatens academic freedom and endangers democracy

Posted October 31, 2023

NEW YORK, Oct. 31, 2023 — Scholars at Risk (SAR) announces the release of Free To Think 2023, a report analyzing 409 attacks on the higher education community in 66 countries and territories, between July 1, 2022, and June 30, 2023. The report highlights how attacks on academic freedom threaten democratic society and social progress more broadly, and calls on stakeholders to create robust protections for scholars, students, and higher education institutions.

“The past year has seen targeted efforts to quell dissent and restrict free discourse,” said Robert Quinn, SAR Executive Director, referring to the report’s analysis of attacks intended to silence the global higher education sector. These range from violent attacks such as Iranian authorities’ use of force to suppress student participation in the “Women, Life, Freedom” protest movement; to coercive attacks, such as a substantial influx of newly proposed legislation aimed at restricting the teaching of disfavored topics in the United States. “These attacks illustrate the erosion of academic freedom and university autonomy and the shrinking space for discourse and sharing ideas. These attacks harm all of society.”

The report is the ninth edition of SAR’s Free to Think series and a product of the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, which identifies and tracks attacks against the higher education community.

Free to Think 2023 details concerning global and regional trends and profiles 16 countries. These include Afghanistan, where the Taliban has taken the extraordinary step of barring women from higher education and brutally repressing the public opposition to those restrictions. In Russia, China, and Turkey, government crackdowns on dissent have reinforced cultures of fear and self-censorship. In Iran, India, and Sri Lanka, police and security forces have used violence to suppress student expression.

The report highlights the impacts of war and armed conflict on higher education over the last year. In Myanmar, Sudan, and Ukraine, military forces have destroyed and occupied facilities at several universities.

The report also stresses that liberal democracies are not immune to attacks on higher education, and, indeed, that efforts to undermine academic freedom are hallmarks of democratic backsliding. In the United States, lawmakers have sought to restrict teaching and research related to disfavored topics including critical race theory and gender studies, and have undermined university autonomy.

“Free to Think 2023 highlights the devastating impact of attacks on higher education, but it also outlines the actions that higher education communities and states can and should take to protect scholars and students,” said Clare Robinson, SAR Advocacy Director. “Attacks against higher education are diverse, occurring in both authoritarian and democratic societies. Frequently, those responsible are not held accountable. Understanding why attacks occur and how they can be prevented is essential. This requires states, higher education institutions, civil society, and the public to build awareness and implement concrete protections for the academic community.”

SAR calls for global action in defense of academic freedom and higher education communities, and urges partners and stakeholders to refer to the report’s Call to Action for practical guidance and resources.

The formal launch of the report will take place at 7:30 a.m. ET on November 9, 2023, during the Second Regional Conference on Academic Freedom in the Americas, organized by the Coalition for Academic Freedom in the Americas (CAFA) and hosted by the Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Paraná-PUCPR in Curitiba, Brazil. Those interested in attending virtually can sign up here. More information about the conference program and speakers is available here.

For questions about the report and requests for comment, please write to SAR’s Advocacy Assistant, Ayodele Abinusawa at

About Scholars at Risk: Scholars at Risk (SAR) is an international network of over 600 higher education institutions and thousands of individuals in more than 40 countries that is leading the charge in protecting and offering sanctuary to threatened scholars and students. SAR’s mission is to protect higher education communities and their members from violent and coercive attacks, and by doing so to expand the space in society for reason and evidence-based approaches to resolving conflicts and solving problems. SAR meets this mission through direct protection of individuals, advocacy aimed at preventing attacks and increasing accountability, and research and learning initiatives that promote academic freedom and related values. SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project identifies and reports attacks on higher education to protect vulnerable scholars and students, hold perpetrators accountable, and prevent future violations. Institutions or individuals interested in participating in network activities are invited to visit or email