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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Episode 34: “Our voices really do matter from an early age” – Student advocates at UC Santa Barbara highlight wrongful charges against against Egyptian scholar Patrick Zaki
Emma Hartley and Jonathan Gelfond, undergraduates at UC Santa Barbara in California, weren’t sure if elected officials in Washington DC would agree to speak with them. They were advocating on behalf of Patrick Zaki – a University of Bologna graduate student formerly detained for two years, in apparent retaliation for his human rights research in Egypt. Though released in 2021, authorities continue to postpone Zaki’s trial, and he faces up to five years in prison if convicted.
To Hartley and Gelfond’s surprise, they got four meetings on Capitol Hill. “We were focusing on issues that might not be these representatives or senators’ first priority,” Gelfond says. “It was really empowering.” They join Free to Think along with their SAR Student Advocacy Seminar professor, Claudio Fogu, to describe campaigning on behalf of Zaki, using art as a tool for advocacy on campus, and the impact of engaging in human rights work. “No matter how daunting it may seem at first,” Hartley says, “our voices are important and they do make a difference.”
Learn about setting up a Student Advocacy Seminar on campus here: scholarsatrisk.org/actions/student-advocacy-seminars/
Episode 33: “‘Jane from California’ might be an Afghan woman…” University of the People’s Shai Reshef on education in Afghanistan under the Taliban
Free to Think speaks with Shai Reshef, President of the University of the People, the first non-profit, tuition-free, American, accredited, online university whose mission is to help students worldwide overcome financial, geographic, political, and personal obstacles to higher education.
Since August 2021, University of the People has received increasing numbers of applications from women in Afghanistan seeking a way to continue their studies. After the Taliban reimposed a ban on women attending universities, University of the People provided 2000 scholarships for Afghan women. “They want to expand their knowledge, to learn to enrich themselves, but also to feel part of the world,” says Reshef. “Studying… is exactly what they need in order to keep them alive and hoping for a better future.”
Episode 32: “Raising the cost of repression” — Sol Iglesias on political violence, red tagging and threats to academic freedom in the Philippines
Free to Think speaks with political scientist Sol Iglesias about “violence for social control” and threats to scholars in the Philippines, including online trolling, “red-tagging,” threats, and violent attacks.
Iglesias, who is a professor at the University of the Philippines and contributes to SAR’s monitoring of attacks on higher education in the country, believes academic freedom is the lifeblood of social progress and development. “[It’s] part of this ecosystem of truth telling, speaking truth to power, [and] producing evidence-based social and political criticism,” she says. “We can’t do without it.”
Episode 31: “Every day my children can go to school, I laugh, because my heart is full of joy,” with SAR scholar Zahra Hakimi
In Herat, Afghanistan, Zahra Hakimi was a faculty member, midwife, family planning trainer, and women’s reproductive healthcare provider. She often worked in secret and at personal risk to provide treatment to survivors of sexual assault.
Within a week of taking control of her city, the Taliban raided Hakimi’s home. They condemned her work as “anti-Islam.” They threatened her and her husband, and demanded her teenage daughter for a forced marriage. She had no choice: She had to flee.
On Free to Think Hakimi shares her incredible journey, including several attempts to escape Afghanistan, first through Iran, then the United States, and ultimately Canada. With SAR’s help, she is now a visiting researcher at the Centre for Research on Health and Nursing at the University of Ottawa. Since December 2022, the Taliban has banned higher education for women in Afghanistan. Now in Canada, however, Hakimi’s daughter hopes to become a dentist. “Every day that my children can go to school” Hakimi says, “my heart is full of joy.”
Episode 30: The ‘forgotten crisis’ of attacks on higher education in Venezuela
Venezuelan higher education is in crisis. After decades of political attacks on universities, many professors struggle to survive a national economic collapse that threatens the whole society with runaway inflation, skyrocketing poverty, and mass outward migration of millions. Professors rely on multiple side jobs and foreign remittances but still can’t make ends meet. How and why do they go on?
Free to Think speaks with Mayda Hočevar, Director of the Human Rights Observatory at the Universidad de Los Andes, and David Gomez Gamboa, the director of Aula Abierta, as they unpack the history that has contributed to the current crisis. They explain the “direct relationship between academic freedom and democratic guarantees” and why now, more than ever, is the time to fight for university autonomy and academic freedom in Venezuela — and by extension, wherever democracy is threatened.
Episode 29: “There were no fatalities. . . [but] if this happens again, I am not so sure.” Discussing the forcible violation of the Universidad Nacional de San Marcos, Lima, Peru, with Salvador Herencia-Carrasco
On January 21st, police forcibly entered the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima, Peru, arresting over 200 people including students pulled from their dormitories. Free to Think speaks with Salvador Herencia-Carrasco about his work with colleagues inside and outside Peru to free students from unlawful detention and to defend academic freedom and university autonomy.
Hernencia-Carrasco is director of the Human Rights Clinic of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa, Canada, and leading member of Coalition for Academic Freedom in the Americas (CAFA).
Episode 28: “Academic activism” in Southeast Asia, with SHAPE-SEA’s Joel Mark Barredo
What is ‘academic activism’?’ What responsibility, if any, do scholars have for engaging outside of academia, with the public and with marginalized communities in particular?
Free to Think speaks with Joel Mark Barredo, the Executive Director of SHAPE-SEA, the “Strengthening Human rights and Peace Research and Education in ASEAN/Southeast Asia” program. SHAPE-SEA is a regional programme for and by human rights and peace scholars and institutions engaged in dialogue, research, and advocacy about threats to academic freedom and human rights in Southeast Asia.
Episode 27: “Empathy is active.” Henry Reese, on Salman Rushdie, City of Asylum, and the “reader effect.”
In 1997, Henry Reese and his wife, Diane Samuels, were at a public talk by writer Salman Rushdie, and inspired by his call for communities around the world to offer sanctuary to exiled writers. They “kicked each other under the chair” and thought, why not? Six years later, they founded the City of Asylum, Pittsburgh, a multi-unit residency program that has welcomed exiled writers and artists from China, Syria, Bangladesh and beyond.
Twenty-five years later, Reese was invited to interview Rushdie at the Chautauqua Institute Amphitheater. Just as the interview was about to begin, Rushdie was violently attacked. Reese has described the audience’s rushing to the writer’s aid, attributing it to what Reese calls the “reader effect” – a real time demonstration of how reading literature and sharing stories builds empathy and meaningful community.
Episode 26: “The fear has fallen away…” Roya Hakakian and Sasha Gladkikh on the death of Mahsa Amini and the protests in Iran.
Free to Think talks with Roya Hakakian, a writer and founding member of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, and Sasha Gladkikh, a student activist and director of philanthropy at the Iranian Student Group at UCLA about the recent protests in Iran.
On September 16th, 2022, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman died in the custody of Iran’s notorious state morality police. Since then, sustained mass protests have erupted across Iran, including at more than 50 universities, led by women and girls demanding freedom from state-directed violence. Hakakian and Gladkikh discuss the importance of Mahsa Amini, the protests, and the fight for women’s dignity and rights.
Episode 25: “They were trying to keep education going.” Ukrainian higher education endures the conflict
Free to Think talks with Yulia Bezvershenko, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, and Liz Shchepetylnykova, a civil society activist, on the state of higher education in Ukraine after four months of war.
As Russia invaded Ukraine, and war broke out across the country, professors and students in Ukraine fought to keep education going. Even from bomb shelters, they provided lectures online and completed their coursework. “[I]t’s very important to provide this feeling of future, of opportunities.” They describe how Ukrainian students and researchers are experiencing the war, explain why many scholars are opting to stay in the country, and offer advice on immediate and long-term strategies for supporting the students, scholars and higher education institutions of Ukraine.
Episode 24: “The Life of Dr. Djalali is Paramount”
Free to Think talks with Hadi Ghaemi, founding Executive Director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
Why is Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali, a Swedish-Iranian scholar and 2021 SAR Courage to Think Award winner, at risk of imminent execution in Iran? And what can advocates worldwide do to help? Ghaemi describes Dr. Djalali’s imprisonment since 2016, academic hostage taking in Iran, and current efforts to support Dr. Djalali’s case. See ways to help Dr. Djalali on our website here.
Episode 23: “There’s no way you did that!” Learning to speak truth to power through the SAR Student Advocacy Seminars
Free to Think talks with Brian Mello, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA, where he leads a Scholars at Risk Student Advocacy Seminar. He’s joined by his student, Bhavna Prakash, a biology major and political science minor at the university.
“You’re 19,” said Prakash’s friend. “There’s no way you got a meeting at the Senate’s building.” But she did, joining 30 other students and faculty at SAR’s Student Advocacy Days in Washington DC this April. Prakash and Mello describe speaking with members of Congress to advocate on behalf of wrongfully imprisoned Egyptian scholars, the value of non-traditional classrooms, and their advice for students and faculty interested in getting involved on their own campuses.
Episode 22: “A virtual target painted on my back…” A conversation with Northern Ireland’s Professor Colin Harvey on the social responsibility of scholars in post-conflict societies
Free to Think talks with Colin Harvey, a Professor of Human Rights Law and former Head of the School of Law, Queen’s University, Belfast about what UN experts described as a “smear campaign” against him for his work debating the possibility of new constitutional arrangements for the island of Ireland after Brexit.
An expert on human rights and constitutional law and former Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Harvey references growing up during the ‘conflict,’ achievements under the Good Friday Agreement, and how these are threatened by Brexit. Harvey sees the pressures on him as part of a larger struggle against human rights and democratic values going on around the world and says that academics have a responsibility to robustly defend those values, despite the risks.
Episode 21: “We lost 20 years of achievements.” An Afghan scholar resumes life in Ireland
Free to Think talks with Dr. Aziz Mohibbi, an environmental engineer and former chancellor of Afghanistan’s Bamyan University, about his recent relocation to Ireland following the return of the Taliban, and Dr. Roja Fazaeli, an Associate Professor of Islamic Civilization, Near & Middle Eastern Studies at Trinity College, Dublin, who helped to arrange his visit.
Dr. Mohibbi shares his work building up Afghanistan’s education system, his flight from Afghanistan, and how he and his family are settling into life in Ireland. Dr. Fazaeli shares a behind-the-scenes look at how SAR members Trinity College Dublin and Maynooth University, together with partners at the IIE Scholar Rescue Fund and beyond, raced to create an opportunity for an Afghan scholar, and ended up with a new colleague and new friends.
Episode 20: “No red lines?” The ‘KIWi Compass’ guide for scientific cooperation under complex conditions, with DAAD’s Christiane Schmeken and Julia Linder
Free to Think talks with Christiane Schmeken, Director of the Strategy Department of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and Julia Linder, at the Center for International Academic Collaborations (KIWi) at DAAD.
They discuss DAAD’s new ‘KIWi Compass,’ a guide for institutions and leaders navigating complex security, political, economic, and cultural issues within international higher education and research partnerships. They discuss the challenge of engaging with values, whether there are any ‘red lines,’ and if so, who draws them?
Episode 19: “The Lack of Clarity…Creates a Climate of Fear: The cases of Patrick Zaki and Ahmed Santawy in Egypt with TIMEP’s Mai El-Sadany
Free to Think talks with Mai El-Sadany, Managing Director and Legal and Judicial Director at the Tahir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP).
El-Sadany discusses the cases of Patrick Zaki and Ahmed Samir Santawy, two graduate students targeted by Egyptian authorities. She describes the arbitrariness of such detentions and how the global academic community can stand in solidarity. “It can be extremely helpful for the international community to speak up,” El-Sadany notes. “It not only sends a strong message to the Egyptian regime, it also sends a message to these detainees and their loved ones that they’re not alone.”
Episode 18: “Self-censorship is hard to admit” Control, resistance and academic freedom in Russia
Free to Think talks with Elizaveta Potapova, a researcher at the Public Policy and Management Institute in Lithuania. She holds a PhD from the Central European University, where she did her dissertation on academic freedom in Russia.
Potapova discusses DOXA, an independent student journal which focuses on the problems of the modern academic environment in Russia and defends student rights and freedom of expression. She describes how DOXA editors have faced criminal investigation for their work, motivations behind self-censorship in academia, and the value of building community among scholars.
Episode 17: “We do not accept. We do not give up.” Turkey’s Bogazici University protests
Free to Think talks with Zeynep Gambetti, Associate Professor of Political Theory, and Can Candan, a documentary filmmaker and academic, both from Turkey’s Bogazici University.
They discuss the collapse of institutional autonomy in Turkey, the one-year anniversary of faculty and student resistance, and how “the struggle [they] are engaged in isn’t only about Bogazici, and it isn’t only about Turkey… There is an encroachment on rights and academic freedoms everywhere in the world.”
Episode 16: “Weaponization” of Higher Education: Threats to Academic Freedom in Brazil
Free to Think talks with Camila Nobrega, a Brazilian journalist, fellow at the Alice Salomon Hochschule, and PhD candidate in the political science department at the Free University of Berlin, and Dr. Débora Medeiros, a researcher at the Institute for Media and Communication Studies and researcher with the Collaborative Research Center Affective Societies, also at the Free University.
They discuss threats to academic freedom in Brazil, including pressures on researchers working on socio-environmental conflicts and with intersectional communities, all within the context of a governmental “weaponization” of higher education as a means of advancing an authoritarian agenda.
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.
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.
- If you are at a higher education institution or other organization that might offer a position to a colleague from Afghanistan, please email ScholarsatRisk@nyu.edu.
- Support SAR’s advocacy on behalf of Afghanistan
- Donate to SAR’s urgent appeal for Afghanistan.
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 https://www.scholarsatrisk.org/afghanistan_support/
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 http://sharetheplatform.org.
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: ‘Generational exit’ in South Sudan
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.
Episode 1: Women’s Rights, Whatever the Cost
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.