Saturday, Nov 21 2020 8:00 pm

In Event Types: Conference Film Launch Webinar


On November 19, 2020, Scholars at Risk hosted “Free to Think 2020: Responding to Attacks on Higher Education,” a virtual conference marking SAR’s 20th anniversary and the release of our annual monitoring report, Free to Think 2020.

“Within the COVID-19 crisis we see increased threats to scholars, students, and universities—even to truth itself,” says SAR’s Executive Director, Robert Quinn. “We see scholars threatened for sharing evidence-based research that contradicts official sources. We see growing pressures on scholars documenting gaps in response efforts. And we see authorities use the pandemic to hide crackdowns on free inquiry and expression generally.  COVID-19 shows us the  imperative of responding forcefully to these threats—our lives literally depend on it.”

The event featured the presentation of SAR’s 2020 Courage to Think Award to Dr. Rahile Dawut, a scholar of Uyghur studies who disappeared in China in 2017 and is suspected to be held in state custody.

This year’s report draws on data from SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, which documented more than 195 attacks on higher education between September 1, 2019 and August 31, 2020. These include violent attacks on higher education communities; wrongful imprisonments and prosecutions of scholars; pressures on student expression; legislative and administrative threats; and COVID-related issues. 


The virtual conference featured six panel sessions discussing these issues globally, and with particular emphasis on situations highlighted in the report including China and Hong Kong, Yemen, India, Turkey, and recent developments in Europe.


“Since 2011, SAR has reported over sixteen hundred attacks on higher education in over one hundred countries. These attacks challenge everybody’s freedom to raise difficult questions and share ideas,” says Clare Robinson, SAR’s Advocacy Director. “Free to Think demands urgent action from governments, higher education leaders, and civil society to actively protect higher education communities and defend academic freedom.”

The report recommends steps that stakeholders—states; higher education institutions, associations, and societies; faculty, staff, and students; media; and the public—can take to promote and protect academic freedom. These include calls for more states to endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration; higher education institutions offering temporary positions of academic refuge for endangered scholars; and faculty and students participating in SAR Academic Freedom Legal Clinics and Student Advocacy Seminars.


The virtual conference also featured the presentation of SAR’s 2020 Courage to Think Award to Dr. Rahile Dawut. Dr. Dawut is being recognized for her own work, as well as that of all the scholars and students of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, who together struggle for academic freedom and freedom of opinion, expression, belief, association, and movement. Dr. Dawut’s daughter, Akida Pulat, will accept the award on her mother’s behalf. The Courage to Think Award recognizes individuals, groups, or institutions that demonstrate an exemplary commitment to protecting scholars and promoting academic freedom, whether through professional work, private or community service, or by facing personal risk.


For those who were unable to attend or would like to revisit the panels, a video catalogue of the full program can be found below. 



Higher education institutions are invited to inquire about SAR’s work and about joining the SAR network by visiting or emailing


Scholars at Risk calls on our members, affiliated partners, and the international higher education community to join in solidarity and help seek the release of imprisoned scholars, invite threatened scholars to your institution, and give voice to students and scholars who demand academic freedom.



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