Free to Think podcast

Posted March 3, 2021

Free to Think features conversation with interesting, thoughtful, and inspiring individuals whose research, teaching, or expression falls at the always sensitive intersection of power and ideas. We’ll be speaking with those who have the courage to seek truth and speak truth, often at great risk, as well as with those who support them and share their stories.
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Season 2: 

Episode 15: “Nobody is working on your case:” Fighting ‘hostage diplomacy’ with Ali Arab and Hostage Aid Worldwide

Free to Think talks with Ali Arab, Associate Professor of Statistics at Georgetown University and board member of Hostage Aid Worldwide, which fights globally for the release of hostages while aiming to study and prevent hostage-taking against other innocent people.

Arab discusses “hostage diplomacy,” “ransom creep,” and the importance of sharing information across hostage cases, honoring family wishes, and mobilizing colleagues to raise visibility and, ultimately, secure a hostage’s release.

Season 1:

Episode 14: Higher Education for Democracy 

Free to Think talks with Dr. William Tierney, university professor emeritus and founding director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California.

He discusses his new book, Higher education for Democracy: The Role of the University in Civil Society, released by SUNY press in July 2021, in which he argues that beyond research, teaching, and preparing graduates for their future careers, the university community plays an important societal role.  In the face of a worldwide democratic recession, Tierney argues, “the university has to change its behavior, and be more involved in trying to support the basic tenants and organs of democracy.”

Episode 13: Free to Think message on the crisis in Afghanistan

University scholars and students, public intellectuals, civil society leaders, and human rights defenders across Afghanistan, especially women and ethnic and religious minorities, are in fear for their lives. None of them wore a uniform or got a government paycheck, but for the better part of twenty years, these talented individuals have worked for a new, rights-respecting, forward-looking, and knowledge-based Afghanistan. They dedicated their lives to education, openness, and tolerance. Their lives are now at risk. 

Institutions and individuals throughout the Scholars at Risk network and beyond have mobilized to offer temporary positions and other support to as many as possible. 

In honor of our colleagues there, Free to Think is replaying our earlier conversation about Afghanistan. We will return with new episodes soon.

For more on SAR’s response to the crisis, visit

Episode 12: Beyond solidarity: Bangladesh’s Dr. Shuchi Karim on being a SAR-assisted scholar

Free to Think talks with Dr. Shuchi Karim, an academic, researcher, feminist, and activist from Bangladesh. Her work on gender and sexuality brought her praise, and condemnation, forcing her into exile. On continuing her work despite threats, Shuchi notes “Fear does live with you, you know, not only for your sake, but your loved ones, because we are not isolated individuals.”  

Shuchi shares her experience as a SAR-assisted scholar at universities in the Netherlands and Canada. She is currently a Visiting Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University, where she has “nothing but praise” for her “amazing, amazing students.” 

Episode 11: Sanctioned by China: “No regrets for telling the truth”

Free to Think talks with Dr. Jo Smith Finley, a Reader in Chinese studies at Newcastle University, UK. In March 2021, Dr. Smith Finley was sanctioned by the government of the People’s Republic of China, along with a group of UK politicians and peers, a legal chambers, and the entire staff of The Uyghur Tribunal. The sanctions include a ban on traveling to China, a freeze on assets, and a ban on collaborating with Chinese counterparts in the PRC.

The sanctions were in retaliation for Dr. Smith Finley’s research about reported human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. These include the forced internment of over one million Uyghurs, a largely Muslim ethnic minority, in what some have labeled an ongoing attempted genocide.

Episode 10: “Still very much in Africa, in a way”: Zimbabwe’s Dr. Prosper Maguchu on experience as a SAR-assisted scholar

Free to Think talks with Dr. Prosper Maguchu, researcher, human rights lawyer and activist from Zimbabwe. He worked to defend victims of state violence before domestic and international courts, bringing vindication to his clients, but drawing threats and violence against himself. “I wanted to be on the right side of history,” he said, “I was motivated each time my clients got justice in court, motivated to soldier on, to continue on with the work. That’s why I never gave up.”

Prosper shares his experience as a SAR-assisted scholar at universities in the Netherlands, where he is currently a  guest associate professor in the Centre for the Politics of Transnational Law, and project manager with the Centre for International Cooperation, at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Episode 9:  Questioning authority: Myanmar’s Kyaw Moe Tun and Parami University

Free to Think talks with Kyaw Moe Tun, executive director of the Parami University, the first private, non-profit, liberal arts and sciences university in Myanmar. Parami nurtures future leaders by providing students from various cultural, ethnic and economic backgrounds with skills in global citizenship and critical thinking.

Dr. Kyaw Moe Tun completed his undergraduate education at Bard College and Oxford University. After receiving his PhD from Yale University, he returned to Myanmar to dedicate his life to the educational development of his country. He discusses the promise and challenges of liberal education in a time of protests and unrest.

Episode 8:  Transforming Afghanistan through education: Aziz Royesh and the Marefat High School

Free to Think talks with Aziz Royesh, a leading advocate for primary and secondary education in Afghanistan and the founder of the Marefat High School in Kabul, which currently serves more than 3100 Afghan students, about half of whom are girls.

Royesh is a former fellow at the US National Endowment for Democracy and Yale University, and a 2014 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize, which recognizes teachers as changemakers not just in their classrooms, but in their communities.

After withstanding assassination attempts, mob assaults at his school, and escalating extremist violence, Royesh discusses the imperatives of transforming communities through education that unleashes the power of individualism, critical thinking, wisdom and creativity.

Episode 7: The Engaged Listening Project

Free to Think talks with Sarah Stroup,  Faculty director of the Engaged Listening Project at Middlebury College. Created after protests and disruption of a visit to the campus by controversial scholar Charles Murray, the project aims “to create spaces for close listening and productive disagreements.”  

Stroup is an associate professor of political science at Middlebury College, where her research focuses on international non-governmental organizations.

Episode 6: ‘They fight their battles on women’s bodies’ 

Free to Think talks with Marvi Sirmed, a political commentator, journalist, and human rights activist from Pakistan, about the 2021 Aurat March (Women’s March), violence against women, intersectionality, blasphemy accusations, and the responsibility of social media companies. 

Sirmed advocates for minority rights, women’s rights, and secular democracy. She has withstood years of threats and harassment, including home invasions, theft of travel documents and papers, and death threats, including attempted shootings.

Sirmed is currently a Research Scholar at the University of Connecticut, a SAR network member, where she is working on a book on free expression in South Asian countries.

Episode 5: Share the Platform. 

Free to Think talks with Alfred Babo about Share the Platform, a new initiative formed by a group of practitioners and scholars from refugee and non-refugee backgrounds to “center the expertise of refugees to improve policy, programs, and practice” in a wide variety of fields.

Babo is an interdisciplinary scholar in the anthropology of development, political science, and African studies, currently teaching at SAR network member Fairfield University. A refugee from the civil war in Côte d’Ivoire, Babo previously taught at the University of Bouaké, and later at Smith College in Massachusetts, USA. He is also a member of the Governing Board of Scholars at Risk.

Share the Platform invites participation in their upcoming virtual conference on May 13, 2021. Information and registration at

Episode 4: I was a hostage

Scholar Xiyue Wang on dynamics of academic hostage-taking in Iran

Free to Think talks with Xiyue Wang, a PhD candidate in history at Princeton University, whose research focuses on Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union, China and the late Ottoman Empire. 

In May 2016, Wang visited Iran to do library and archival research in Tehran. Despite prior approval of his research plan by Iranian authorities, in August he was detained, falsely charged with espionage, and eventually he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years. He was sent to Evin prison, notorious for housing of political prisoners and allegations of mistreatment.

After international campaigns on his behalf, Wang was released in a prisoner swap between the US and Iran in December 2019. Wang talks with Free to Think about the complicated intersection between state hostage-taking and international campaigns for prisoners’ release.

Episode 3: ‘At risk’ or in reserve? 

Free to Think talks with Asli Vatansever, a labor sociologist and author of “At the Margins of Academia: Exile, Precariousness, and Subjectivity,” which examines misconceptions and structural inequities in academic labor markets around the world, through the lens of scholars displaced from their home countries.

Vatansever was among the thousands of scholars in Turkey and abroad who signed a January 2019 public petition (the “Peace Petition”) demanding an end to fighting and renewed negotiations between Turkish forces and members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Vatansever, along with hundreds of other signatories, was dismissed from her post, banned from working, and forced to seek academic employment abroad.

At the Margins of Academia situates the path of academic exile—familiar from earlier generations of scholars–within the wider dynamics of contemporary academic labor markets. It asks whether displaced academics are “at risk” or “in reserve,” and whether these are two sides of the same coin?

Episode 2

Free to Think talks with Peter Biar Ajak, scholar, civil society leader, and democracy advocate from South Sudan.

As a child, Peter was one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, who were displaced by the civil war and endured treacherous journeys to refugee camps. Ultimately, Peter was resettled in the United States, earning degrees in international development and international studies from Harvard and Trinity College, Cambridge.

Forgoing career opportunities in North America and Europe, he returned to South Sudan — the youngest sovereign state in the world where roughly half the population of 12 million is under the age of 18 — to assist in peacebuilding. His calls for “generational exit” –transitioning political power through free elections — quickly attracted a following among young people, and threats from senior officials. He was arrested, and jailed for 18 months in the notorious Blue House prison. After international campaigns on his behalf, he was released in January 2020.

Please send us your comments, questions, or suggestions for future episodes to, or tweet us @RobQ_SAR or @ScholarsAtRisk.

Episode 1

Free to Think talks with Marcia Ross and Jeff Kaufman, the team behind NASRIN, a beautiful and inspiring new film about Nasrin Sotoudeh, Iranian human rights attorney.

The film shows Sotoudeh’s courage and compassion, as she represents those who have been forsaken by a brutal regime:  political prisoners, religious minorities, women, and children.  Arrested in 2018, while the film was being made, she was sentenced to 38 years and 148 lashes for the “crime” of defending women protesting the mandatory headscarf.

Sotoudeh has been called “Iran’s Nelson Mandela.” The filmmakers show her as she is: a lawyer, activist, feminist, wife, mother, friend, and a central figure in an extraordinary generation of Iranian women who simply refuse to accept anything less than full and equal rights. 

Please send us your comments, questions, or suggestions for future episodes to, or tweet us @RobQ_SAR or @ScholarsAtRisk.

Free to Think is presented by Scholars at Risk, where we celebrate people with the courage to think, question, and share ideas. For information on membership, activities, or donating to Scholars at Risk, visit  
Free to Think is hosted by Rob Quinn, a human rights advocate, lecturer, lawyer and executive director of Scholars at Risk. Rob is the author of, among others, The Fight to Protect–and Define–Academic Freedom2019; Free speech is not enough, 2017; and V.E.R.I.T.A.S., 2018; co-editor of Free to Think, SAR’s annual report on attacks on universities; and co-instructor for Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters.

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