In this SAR Spotlight, we speak with Professor Adam Braver, Library Program Director and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Roger Williams University (RWU), on SAR membership, his efforts to establish the SAR-USA section, and plans for RWU to become a field office for the development and support of US-based Student Advocacy Seminars.
Prof. Braver is RWU’s Library Program Director and has been a professor in the Department of English Literature and Creative Writing since 2003. Braver is the author of six novels, including the acclaimed Misfit, and his work has been published in a number of literary journals, such as the Harvard Review, Tin House, and Daedalus. In addition to his role as a professor and writer, Prof. Braver also serves as the Chair of the SAR-USA Steering Committee, coordinating outreach with US universities and organizations to encourage broader participation in SAR’s protection, advocacy, and values promotion efforts.
Since 2007, Prof. Braver has been instrumental in coordinating RWU’s Student Advocacy Seminar which works in partnership with SAR on behalf of threatened and imprisoned academics. The seminar’s efforts include on-campus advocacy, advocacy in Washington D.C., international outreach, and participation in SAR’s D.C. Student Advocacy Day.
Prof. Braver and SAR are gearing up for the establishment of the SAR-USA section, which will act as a network of higher education institutions and organizations organized on the national and regional levels to build momentum around SAR activities and services in the United States.
How did you first learn about Scholars at Risk (SAR) and what does Roger Williams University being a SAR member mean to you?
Adam Braver (AB): I first learned about SAR when Robert Quinn came to Roger Williams University (RWU) to give a talk about the SAR Network. At the time, I’d been developing our advocacy seminar with PEN American Center. The people who had organized Rob’s visit to our university also arranged for a meeting between Rob and me. They’d told him what I was doing, and he was interested in ways that SAR could get students involved in their work. Rob and I kept up communication. Later that year, I arranged for one of my former students to do an externship with SAR. Eventually, we began a seminar partnership with SAR.
In being part of the SAR network at Roger Williams University, we have actively joined our academic colleagues worldwide to promote the value of higher education and to support our colleagues who are under threat for their ideas. To me, our work with SAR is an essential aspect of being a member of the higher education community.
In addition to being SAR primary representative for Roger Williams University, you’ve also taken on being Chair of the burgeoning SAR-USA Section Steering Committee. What were the motivations for creating this section and what has the effort looked like thus far?
AB: The SAR-USA Section is moving from its developmental phase to its formal establishment. I was driven to be part of it because I think that it is necessary for educational institutions in the United States to work together in order to have more of a collective voice on issues, programs, and collaborative efforts pertaining to academic freedom that are specific to our country – just as institutions in SAR’s international sections work on their own regional and domestic issues.
One of the challenges we have faced in developing the network is that the United States is not only geographically vast, but it is vast with its myriad systems of higher education – private schools, state schools, and various systems within individual states that face different and competing pressures. Our goal is to try to find common ground and a sense of cohesion for people to work together. An additional challenge is that individual regions within the United States are in and of themselves rather large, and institutions within these regions may be dedicated to addressing a variety of unique issues.
So we began to ask ourselves some questions.
Should the various affinities of network members be purely regional or based on institutional systems? For example, the University of California System (UC) has been very good at organizing within their system. However, the issues they address are very system specific.
Do we look at other types of affinities? As an example, I was just at the American Library Association Conference in New Orleans, and upon returning I have been reaching out to librarians and library administrators from several panels that addressed the roles of social justice in libraries, particularly in the context of the ALA Code of Ethics that expects library professionals actively to protect intellectual freedom.
At this point, we have a great group of representatives that can address these unique institutional and geographical characteristics, and with SAR’s assistance, experience, and input, we have begun to put it all together.
For seven years, the RWU Student Advocacy Seminar has been working in partnership with SAR to advocate on behalf of threatened and imprisoned academics. What have been the most rewarding and challenging aspects of leading RWU’s Advocacy Seminar? What work will the Seminar be engaging in during the coming semester?
AB: Among the things that are rewarding about leading the advocacy seminar are participating in addressing issues pertaining to academic freedom, trying to create change, and becoming engaged in the world as opposed to being a passive observer. Scholar cases that have dealt with family members of the threatened and/or imprisoned scholar have also been particularly meaningful for our seminar to address – we feel like we have a direct and not just theoretical impact on the lives of others.
The challenging aspects of the seminar – on a larger level – are obtaining credible information and working to create change in systems that are not interested in changing. On a localized level, the challenge can be convincing our own university community that they should care about what we are doing – that it should matter to them as members of the higher education sector.
Next year, we will not be working on a specific scholar case, but rather piloting a project with SAR to house a so-called field office for the Student Advocacy Seminars. As the coordinators for the program, we will be supporting existing student advocacy seminars, helping other interested schools start new seminars, helping to gather information, evaluating what is and what is not working in terms of advocacy, and planning SAR’s Student Advocacy in Washington, D.C.
How does SAR benefit RWU’s campus community? What role do advocacy and public engagement play in the higher education experience?
AB: I think our work with SAR benefits the RWU campus community by encouraging our campus to value engaging with the rest of the world and creating a certain solidarity with other academic institutions and threatened academics. We have a responsibility to foster and protect the pursuit of knowledge. For students, it is important to realize that the world does not just stop with the campus microcosm.
Additionally, our work has introduced a lot of people, including me, to new ideas, perspectives, and ways that the world works that we did not know before. This knowledge has come through the Student Advocacy Seminars, speakers on campus including SAR scholars who have shared their experiences, and engaging in SAR conferences. These activities have helped us become a part of both our public and professional worlds.
Rather than solely promoting advocacy, I think that higher education has a responsibility to advocate when its values are under threat or being challenged. When one individual or group’s thoughts and values in higher education are being challenged in essence, all of our thoughts and values are being challenged.
With the upcoming establishment of SAR-USA, there is a palpable sense of enthusiasm and urgency to protect core higher education values. The SAR-USA section is expanding its network to represent the diversity of higher education institutions and organizations in the US to meaningfully engage them in its work and inspire collective action in promoting the right to ideas. If your institution is interested in becoming a SAR member, you can join the network here.
The SAR Spotlight is a monthly series highlighting SAR scholars, partners, and network activities.