STEPHANIE SY: Welcome to Ethics Matter. I'm Stephanie Sy.
Our guest today is Robert Quinn, the executive director of an organization called Scholars at Risk, which provides temporary teaching positions and advisory services to hundreds of threatened scholars around the world every year.
Robert, thank you so much for joining us on Ethics Matter.
ROBERT QUINN: It's a pleasure to be here.
STEPHANIE SY: I understand your caseload has grown a lot in the last year or so.
ROBERT QUINN: That's true, Stephanie. Unfortunately, our caseload has skyrocketed. What normally has been about 300 cases each year is over 600 right now, and has been for at least the last year.
STEPHANIE SY: A lot of that I understand is because of the war in Syria—there are scholars that are literally fleeing for their lives when it comes to Syria—but also Turkey. You visited Turkey last year. Tell me what the situation is there.
ROBERT QUINN: I did. The situation is unprecedented in the modern history of Turkey, despite a history of military coups in the past. We have thousands of scholars, along with tens of thousands of other civil servants—a different category—who have come under pressure, threats of firings, firings, threats of prosecution, and imprisonment, all, frankly, for simply speaking their minds and doing their work.
STEPHANIE SY: This attack on scholarship, researchers, and academics all began, from what I understand, in January of 2016. There were more than a thousand academics in Turkey who signed a letter criticizing President Erdoğan's actions against the Kurds and asking for a peaceful solution. That is all that the petition asked. What happened in response to that?
ROBERT QUINN: That is true. They called it the "Academics for Peace" petition. It was a group of academics saying, "We believe we need to stand up for truth and that there is a better way to resolve the problems of the country." As a result, the government immediately put all of those who signed the document under investigation.
In the months that followed that, numbers were fired, numbers were forced into retirement. But several were put up for prosecution; they were arrested and face prosecution, with possible long prison terms.
STEPHANIE SY: Prosecution on what charges?
ROBERT QUINN: On the charge of being traitors to the state, of being sympathizers; but, beyond sympathizing, participating in the active support of terrorism merely for expressing the idea that there was a better way to resolve these problems.
STEPHANIE SY: President Erdoğan, after that petition came out, said that they were supporting "terrorist propaganda and insulting the government." He further tried to undermine these academics' credibility by calling them "so-called intellectuals." What effect does it have to brand academics who are simply questioning the actions of government "terrorists" and putting them in that category?
ROBERT QUINN: It has, I think, at least three devastating effects. One is obviously on the academics themselves, their families, and those immediately around them. It tries to isolate them from not only the rest of society but from their own academic community. It says they are different somehow, "They're not just doing their jobs, but they're actually trying to hurt us."
For the wider community it sends a message of, "Don't you dare speak up, or the same could happen to you." So it chills the whole academic community and it says, "This is a place where you need to think twice before you do your work."
But perhaps the biggest harm is what it does to society. What does it do? It drives a wedge between those who have knowledge and the skills to ask important questions and the rest of the public, and it makes the public think, We can't trust those who are asking questions of our government. What does that do?
STEPHANIE SY: That theme of undermining trust in institutions seems to be part of the autocrat's playbook, and it is something that some say we are seeing in this country as well, which we will get to.
How does your organization help scholars? Have you placed Turkish scholars at American universities or at other Western universities?
ROBERT QUINN: We certainly have. Basically our core activity is placing scholars who are not safe in their home countries at universities in other parts of the world so that we don't lose their voices or lose their talent.
That really was the ethos behind getting Scholars at Risk started. We are now in our second decade of doing this work. You are right; there is an unwritten playbook where power tries to silence those who are asking questions, and scholars are among those who ask the most difficult questions.
STEPHANIE SY: This is a real reversal because in modern Turkey there is a tradition—in the last several decades at least—of a vibrant intellectual community. In fact, we were talking earlier about how Scholars at Risk actually had a presence in Turkey as a refuge for scholarship.
ROBERT QUINN: It is really one of the saddest parts of that moment. In fact, we wrote to the Ministry of Education in Turkey and said: "Look, you've spent the last couple of decades building up your international education partnerships. We know you value higher education, and we know that these actions are eroding all of that investment that you've made." Even if they don't want to take it from outsiders, the investment they've made themselves in their own higher education and the future of their own young people is being eroded by this kind of pressure.
STEPHANIE SY: What was their response?
ROBERT QUINN: It was very interesting. Number one, we did get a response. So I think that's important.
When you say, "How do you do your work at Scholars at Risk? How can you possibly take on these kinds of forces?"—we can't change what the government is doing, but we can cast a light on the legitimacy of what the scholars were doing and compare it to the illegitimacy of some state action, in this case the prosecutions, arrests, and pressures on them.
We got a letter back from the ministry that said, "We totally agree with you about the importance of academic freedom and institutional autonomy." They cited, as we did, that it is protected in the Turkish constitution. But then they said: "But you don't understand. They went too far. They crossed a line." Implicitly what they were saying is—because there was no conduct alleged; the only conduct was the words on the piece of paper challenging the government's position—that critical inquiry, critical discourse, is disloyalty. They are conflating the two.
STEPHANIE SY: Are they also making a national security argument? President Erdoğan, as you know, is dealing with multiple threats from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), threats from Kurdish separatists who he has branded "terrorists," not to mention an attempted military coup in Turkey over the summer. Can you see where Erdoğan's government is coming from at all when it comes to a crackdown?
ROBERT QUINN: I think it's important to point out the coup in particular. This crackdown on academics started in January. The coup attempt wasn't until July. There is a sign right there that this wasn't about the coup; this wasn't about an attempt to overthrow the government.
Are we sympathetic to the fact that there is a very difficult geopolitical situation in Turkey as well as domestic politics? Of course. Our letter to the government said that we are sympathic to that. But we also said that any country, any state, that is democratically legitimate and based on rule of law has to find a way to address those challenges within the frame of rule of law and within one that doesn't shut off discourse. You can't equate asking a question about government policy publicly with treason; when you do that, you are no longer a democratic state.
That is what we said to them. We said: "We support any reasonable measures within rule of law, of course, to address security concerns. But you can't stifle public discourse about important questions."
STEPHANIE SY: So essentially what you're saying is what some would say is a backsliding of Turkish democracy run in concert with the oppression of academics.
ROBERT QUINN: What we're saying is, whether it's Turkey or anywhere else, if you conflate critical discourse with disloyalty, that is the beginning of the end of democracy.
STEPHANIE SY: We know, for example, that there is support among the public for ISIS in Turkey. What does that translate to on a university campus? Do those types of voices or does ISIS ideology have a place on a university campus?
ROBERT QUINN: That is the great challenge of having open discourse and universities in particular. The implication is: Is there no limit? Don't we have to draw a line somewhere? The government is drawing the line at any criticism.
What we are saying is, "No, that can't be the line." What we are saying is that the special nature of a university in a democratic society is, number one, that academic professionals figure out where the line is. Under the rules of their discipline, they have to determine what is appropriate inquiry and appropriate methods for doing that within the scope of the university.
There is one bedrock rule, though, and I think it is really important to remember. In the university space, we do not support violence; we don't allow you to get your way in that space through coercion and force. If someone was in the university space and was forcefully and intentionally advocating violence to get their way in that space, that would be a violation of those principles.
But that is not what happened in Turkey. What happened in Turkey was a thousand people signed a piece of paper saying, "Please stop killing people; please try to negotiate a way to peace."
STEPHANIE SY: What does—and this may be outside of your wheelhouse, but clearly you've given the societal impact some thought—this crackdown on academics and scholars portend for Turkey's future?
ROBERT QUINN: We know it's not helpful, and it could have very long negative effects. Turkey, like many countries in the region and many countries around the world, has an extremely young population. Those young people are going to be coming up, taking power, and will be active players in the economy and the society.
So what do you do with young people if they're not able to get a fully enriched, open, global education? Will they be more closed-off than the prior generation in Turkey? What will that mean for Turkish policy in the region? Will they be more inclined or less inclined to take evidence of different opinions and consequences of actions?
I think we really have to worry—not just in Turkey but anywhere in the world—when we see a crackdown on universities. It is not just about what's happening today, and it's not just about the professors who are in jail or the students who get arrested. It is also about what happens to the future generations and, therefore, the policies of that state and its impact on the rest of the world.
STEPHANIE SY: It also strikes me that it is more insidious than simply jailing or intimidating scholars. There is a self-censorship effect that must happen at these universities because you're talking about people losing their livelihoods.
ROBERT QUINN: Self-censorship is the big dark matter in all of this. In fact, our motivation is to help as many individual scholars as we can because they are the bright spots, and it is looking through the individual cases that we help that we do see those much wider impacts.
All of us are smart enough to know that when the handwriting is on the wall, maybe we need to stay clear of this issue or that issue. That is the big risk in this, that we get to a place where global higher education accepts that there are zones that are off-limits. Maybe it's a different zone in each different part of the world or each different country, but what we end up with is a Swiss-cheese zone of academic freedom rather than a fully open debate.
STEPHANIE SY: Do you also end up with a brain drain of sorts? I know that your organization finds at least temporary teaching positions for these scholars. Is it helpful for them to leave, or do they need to stay in-country and continue to fight for these values?
ROBERT QUINN: Our program certainly isn't a magnet drawing people out. Our program was created on the realization that scholars are being killed and scholars are being imprisoned. When they are dying and when they're in prison for long periods of time, we're not taking those voices away from society when we're saying, "Come here and work here and be safe." In fact, we're doing just the opposite.
Nowadays when a scholar is based in another country they can still communicate back home; they can share their ideas; they can still engage. Many scholars that we help, when they are outside their country, still supervise their Ph.D. students and so forth. So being outside isn't fully isolated, and in fact it is the best way to keep them working.
Of course, all of our assistance is temporary, and all of our scholars want to go home when conditions permit them to. One of the conversations that we like to have with states when they'll talk to us is: "Look. This excessive pressure on this space isn't good for you. It isn't good for your society. You're driving away some of the best people who can really contribute to the future of your society."
STEPHANIE SY: Beyond Turkey, you have active war zones in Syria; you continue to have active war zones in Iraq—for example, ISIS made the University of Mosul a base, although I understand that has now been liberated. These are the obvious places where you have scholars literally at risk for their lives. What are some of the non-obvious places where scholars are persecuted?
ROBERT QUINN: In our experience, the way I look at this is that you have a chronic and an acute problem. The acute problems of the day are Turkey and Syria, the places that you would see in the news.
The chronic is always there. There is always pressure on scholars and ideas, and maybe that doesn't get into the papers quite as much. In the history of our program, we've had cases from over 120 countries, so this really is everywhere. In some places, it might be the one scholar who wrote that paper that was particularly politically sensitive. In other cases, it is dozens or hundreds.
Right now, for example, in addition to Syria and Turkey, we have a lot of activity in Thailand, a lot of pressure on the universities there; in Venezuela, in addition to the overall collapse of the society generally, the universities have been suffering terribly. When you talk about brain drain, you're seeing generations of doctors and intellectual, educated people leaving Venezuela just to be able to support their families as they go forward; that is going to have devastating consequences long term—in Southern Africa, of course; we have cases in Asia. It really is a global dynamic.
STEPHANIE SY: Is the common thread among those scholars who are persecuted that they are doing political work that somehow challenges the values of the governing party?
ROBERT QUINN: It is a common, understandable predisposition to think that, and there certainly are scholars who know they are working on something that is politically sensitive, let's say constitutional reform or human rights.
But actually the truth is as you get into this work, you see, no, it's anyone who is generating knowledge or anyone who is simply trying to get people to connect and ask questions. We've had scholars come through our program who were agrarianists, who were trying to develop different forms of agricultural products; we've had scholars whose work touched on environmental issues, and therefore they've had corporate pressure come on them; we've had scholars who worked on public health issues. But because their data was different from government, official numbers, it became tense with the government.
Any time there is a power base, government or otherwise, nonstate, that depends on a certain narrative of truth or a certain set of facts, scholars who work on narratives—intentionally or otherwise—that end up being counter-narratives can come under pressure.
STEPHANIE SY: Post-U.S. election 2016, the election of Donald Trump, in which so-called "fake news" played a role, there is so much discussion about that, and you are talking about how scholars are generating truths. They're generating facts, data, and narratives that may run opposite but are grounded, I assume, in fact and knowledge.
Does that make scholars in this country the next target of a society that may not value fact and just may not care what fact is? They care about sentimental narratives, what they feel to be true.
ROBERT QUINN: I don't want to write off our society and say we don't care about facts. We're living through an historically challenging time, in that we've had an explosion of information and at the same time a democratization of how information gets out. So I think we're in a phase where we need to revalue curators of information and how we decide which curators are worth listening to and which aren't.
In the best incarnation, universities and university scholars are themselves serving that role to the public. They are curators of complexity. They're developers of data, and then they can help shape that and pour that into the public discourse. At the same time, again in an ideal, they are training young people to develop those skills for themselves so when they go out into the world they are curators for those that they come into contact with, and they come to appreciate expert curators.
So I think we are living in a moment where that isn't happening, or at least the respect for that isn't as great. I would like to call it straight: fake news is a lie. When we say, "What is fake news?"—it's a lie.
STEPHANIE SY: Consistent lies, yes.
ROBERT QUINN: It is putting out a lie as if it is true. That's different from when scholars put out the best available research at the moment and have an interpretation of it, have an academic debate over it, and so forth.
I think we are living through a moment, yes, but I think that moment is only highlighting how critically important scholarship and that exercise and the connection between universities and the public is for all of us.
STEPHANIE SY: I think of climate change and the fact that I think 99 percent of climate scientists, geologists, and people who study climate agree that the Earth is warming and that it is caused by human activities. In this country that is still a debate; the facts on climate change are still up for debate.
Isn't that an example of how powerful the narrative can be, even when it contradicts actual science? How careful do scientists need to be of delving into those political polarities at the risk of being discredited by the president of the United States himself?
ROBERT QUINN: I think you are right that these are challenging times. I guess I would say there are two elements to that.
Number one is we need to call on our universities, our academics, our scholars, and students to play that societal role, to be willing to put information into public consumption in ways that it can be reasonably digested by the public. I do not mean dumbing it down, but I mean actually explaining the information. To some, that is challenging. Some in academia who have a more traditionalist view say, "Well, my job is to publish the paper, but after that I've done my part."
STEPHANIE SY: You're saying they should take a larger, more vocal role?
ROBERT QUINN: I am. I'm saying that is an old school and, to me, elitist view of the academy. What I am saying is in order to justify the massive public investment in education and in research that we want to have and see, in order to justify this concept of "you should have a zone of autonomy and freedom to critique power," including the power that may fund some of that activity, that is somewhat of a contradiction there if you look at it from one side. I think that is the way a lot of the public and a lot of those who are hostile to the academic exercise look at it: "Why should we fund criticism of the state?"
But in a democracy that is essential, because the power in the state comes from the people and that funding comes from the people, and so the people use the universities as their representatives to present the information necessary to challenge power, to challenge truth or distortion of truth.
So I think we do need to look to our universities. I don't mean this critically, because they are doing a tremendous amount of work, and there are people who are really gifted at connecting with the public. We need to encourage that side of higher education to get that out there to the public, to show that that investment is important, not just because it helps young people get a better job and move onto a higher economic level but also because it has a structural component.
STEPHANIE SY: Academics have begun to mobilize against the Trump administration in some ways already. You've heard of the Scientists' March on Washington. Some have worried that it will politicize science and backfire.
Robert Young, a geologist, wrote this recently in an opinion piece in The New York Times: The march will "serve only to reinforce the narrative from skeptical conservatives that scientists are an interest group and politicize their data, research, and findings for their own ends." The writer worries that it will actually undermine the cause of the data, science, and research because it will simply put scientists and academics into that political fray, into the culture wars. What do you think?
ROBERT QUINN: It's an understandable concern. But at the same time, if one abandons the entire space of defending truth, defending facts, and defending the coherence of the research that science or other academics are doing, then maybe that is an overreaction. You characterized the march as an anti-Trump science march. My understanding of those organizers is that actually it is a pro-science march. Obviously, they can get confused, and one has to try to keep one's message as clean as possible.
But if we are living in an age where people are claiming that there are different facts based on one's ideological point of view, that is a direct assault on the university. The ethos of the university is: "No, that isn't the truth. We may have different interpretations of evidence, we may have different schools of thought for how we look at things, but our attempt is to get to some measure of common understanding of the world around us."
I fully agree with you that there is a difference between being partisan and being academic. I think the difference between what is political and what is academic is a bit of a red herring and much more difficult to try to tease out.
I think if we look at it historically, every attempt to draw a line between academic work and political work usually comes from the outside of the university; it usually ends up shrinking the space of legitimate—or so-called "legitimate"—research; and it is usually to the harm of the university community.
STEPHANIE SY: Since we're already talking about the Trump administration, let's talk about the effect and the impact that President Trump's immigration policies are having on scholars. Again, you think of U.S. universities certainly as being a place of refuge and sanctuary for scholars, for example, from Iran, which is one of the seven countries being impacted by Trump's reexamination of travelers and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
What impact has that had on the work that Scholars at Risk does?
ROBERT QUINN: The first thing you have to say about the order is, obviously it's very broad. It is affecting many populations other than scholars and students. I want to acknowledge that. But scholars and students are centrally impacted by the order.
First and foremost, for those who are directly affected, our first effort was: Who do we know that we've worked with to assist that is in motion at the moment? Is anybody trapped outside the country who is based here, and how do we get them back? How do we make sure their families are okay?
I think the first thing we have to acknowledge is, whatever one's view on the policies, the manner in which this was done was cruel. It caused tremendous emotional harm to families worried about whether they would be separated for very long periods of time when there was no factual basis that these families posed any risk whatsoever.
STEPHANIE SY: A lot of these academics were already based here, so maybe they had gone on vacation or gone just to visit home, and some of them had a hard time coming back.
ROBERT QUINN: Exactly right. So our program is to give them a place where they can work.
The great irony is—you mentioned Iran, a country where they have arrested a number of scholars who have gone to Iran to do work that benefits Iran, and yet they arrest them when they try to leave the country and charge them with various things so that they can't leave. That is a state making arbitrary interference with the academic exchange, with the academic exercise, largely for a domestic political audience.
By no means am I making a direct comparison between Iran and the United States. But if you look at the executive order and its impact on universities, it is fundamentally an arbitrary exercise of state power ostensibly to serve a domestic political constituency without an evidentiary base that really justifies it. So our first concern was obviously on the direct impact on immediate individuals.
Our next level of concern is: What will that mean for scholars who are here, the scholars that we've tried to help? By the way, this is not just for the seven countries directly named in the order, because the administration has already said they could well add other countries to the list. What it really says to all immigrants—scholars, students, all people on a temporary status in the United States—is "Don't go anywhere," because they really can't risk crossing the border right now. That level of uncertainly is, again, deeply, humanly hard for them to deal with. It also is deeply damaging to their work. It means, "You can't go to that conference." It means, "You can't go to that event where you could speak truth about what's going on in Syria" or so forth—in Iraq and so on.
Number three is: What about those who are outside who normally would come here to do work? That could be foreigners from some of these countries, but it could be foreigners from anywhere in the world who might normally come to use U.S. universities, U.S. campuses, U.S. research parks, U.S. industry, and flow back and forth, sharing information that is really good for Americans to have. But they're going to say: "You know what? We can't do the meeting in the United States because many of our colleagues can't get there." So they're going to move those meetings to other places. They are going to base those projects in other places.
Students and researchers are going to say, "Maybe I can't trust having my career in the United States because I don't know how stable that will be."
STEPHANIE SY: It just sounds disastrous from the way you describe both the short-term effects on people and the long-term effects on scholarship and on cultural and educational exchange.
ROBERT QUINN: I don't want to overstate it, but one has to understand that academia, education, and the industries that grow out of them are, by definition, long-term investments. So if we look at this in a commercial narrative, any industry that is looking at long-term investment has to look at risk. An arbitrary order that suddenly slams the door, literally while people are flying from one place to another, is an unprecedented statement that there is a new risk regime around this space. That is a very severe and serious thing that those who will be thinking long term need to address.
Am I saying it's irreparable? No, I'm not ready to say that yet. But I am saying that, no matter what happens in the courts about this particular order, the willingness of the administration to both play "Gotcha!" and use an extremely broad brush will have long-term consequences.
STEPHANIE SY: I want to go back to the example of what's happening in Turkey. Unlike in Turkey, where scholars and academics are directly being persecuted, prosecuted, and investigated, this is a side effect of a ban which President Trump has ordered in the name of national security.
Do you see parallels at all between the oppression as an indirect result of this immigration ban in the United States and the direct persecution of scholarship in Turkey?
ROBERT QUINN: In one sense—and again, no direct comparison—the Turkish order, if one wanted to say, at least has the virtue of being directly targeted at those who signed the petition, at least in its first manifestation.
The closer parallel in Turkey is the post-coup activity. In the post-coup activity you had 30,000 individuals who almost immediately lost their positions. You can't have a list of 30,000 prepared with due process and due diligence in a day. So that either tells us there wasn't a process or that the lists were prepared in advance. Either one is a scary reality, and we will have to see over time which one it really was.
I think there is a parallel in that what we have is an order that affected at least tens of thousands—and if you tack on the spill-on effects of what does it do to certainty generally in the field, hundreds of thousands—that was arbitrarily and very suddenly imposed. So there is a parallel there.
Do I see the risk of scholars being imprisoned in the United States at the same speed that we have seen in Turkey? No, not at this moment. But do I see severe damage to the free flow of ideas? Yes.
Fortunately, we do have a very resilient society, a very diverse society, and we do have a very rich history of academic freedom in this country. My hope is that this will give us an opportunity to talk seriously about it and to remind ourselves—because I think when one has academic freedom for a long time—and I've gone all around the world talking about academic freedom—the funny thing is that for the first 10-15 years of doing this work I had to spend most of my time explaining it in the United States.
When you go to other countries where they haven't had it for as long, or they've lost it, or they've seen states actively manipulate the universities, they get it. We can go immediately into "What do we do about it?" But here we used to have to spend a lot of time explaining to the public "Why does this matter?"
My hope is that maybe the silver lining in this is that we will have a chance to have a conversation, because people now do see that arbitrary action can happen very quickly.
STEPHANIE SY: I think that is a perfect segue to a change of topics here, which is free speech on university campuses here in the United States. There is a vibrant debate about free speech protections.
In fact, I was just reading that in Tennessee now there is a bill in front of the state legislature that has been named after a Breitbart editor, Milo Yiannopoulos, who has had appearances, as you know, at universities canceled because of student protests, and even riots, against his appearances. The Tennessee bill calls out liberal universities for censoring conservative speech.
What are your thoughts on that debate? Is conservative speech being censored, being blocked, at liberal universities in this country?
ROBERT QUINN: I think we have to go back to what I said earlier about what the bedrock principle of the university is.
We had a workshop in Amman, Jordan, about six or seven years ago, and we had representatives from countries all over the region come, so all of the Arab countries, many of whom are affected by the ban that has recently happened. We ended up with the question, "What's the difference between the university and the street?" The answer came from the president of a Palestinian university. He said, "In the university, we leave our guns at the door." I thought that was profound.
What he meant by that was—and he acknowledged, even if it's not true every day in a real sense—what we say is that here in this space we can't get our way through violence and coercion. In the street you can have any opinion you want, and I can challenge you, but if I challenge you too far, I might get punched in the nose. On the campus, I'm supposed to challenge you, and you know that coming in, and you're not supposed to punch me in the nose; you're supposed to come up with other arguments, other data, and other evidence. I mention that because if we ground what's going on on domestic campuses in that principle, then we can test each of these incidents against it.
So was there a violent or coercive element to either the speaker who was trying to somehow incite those things or to those who were trying to shut it down? I think we've seen good and bad examples over the last five years in the United States. I would say that the place where I'm most concerned is, what is the institutional response of the university, and what is the response of the state?
Universities have a very difficult job. I fully respect those who are trying to do it. Safety has to be one of their paramount concerns. But I think we're living in a climate where they need to budget for security to keep open the space for discourse, and they need to talk to students about what is an appropriate way to exercise their disagreement with speakers and what is not. If those students are using violence to shut down—if they are lighting things on fire, for example—then that is clearly a violation of the space.
At the same time, we need to hold states responsible, state-elected representatives, and so forth. They have their right, as all of us do, under the First Amendment to express their disagreement. But when a state authority seems to start to challenge the autonomy or the funding of a university because they don't like messages that are going out, that is also a violation of that principle.
STEPHANIE SY: I had a debate recently with somebody who asked whether Hitler should have been given a platform at universities. It goes back to the other level of this. You talked about the difference between incitement to violence, which should not fit the ideal of the university because you're not leaving your guns at the door then, and the free expression and exchange of ideas on a university campus.
Again, who should draw that line, and where should that line be drawn in academia?
ROBERT QUINN: I think the first question, "Who should draw that line?" is easy. It has to be the academic community, because if it's anyone from outside the community drawing that line, that is, by definition, a shrinking of the space.
STEPHANIE SY: Would the academic community in that definition include the students at the university? In the case of the University of California, Berkeley, students—and I understand it wasn't all students who took part in the rioting and the protests against this Breitbart news editor—are they part of who should decide where that line is drawn?
ROBERT QUINN: The student voice obviously matters, yes. But the student voice is also a transient voice through our universities. Our administrators, trustees, and alumni in our system also have important voices institutionally that are supposed to last through any one particular moment.
Of course, there is a natural tension between those. In the best functioning, the student voice—which is the current, the now—pushes the institutional voice to pay attention to the now so they don't miss it. But at the same time, the institutional voice is there to make sure that distortions of the now don't distort this core principle of the space.
The biggest question is, what happens when the line is crossed? Most of our work at Scholars at Risk is when violence happens because someone crossed the line, and so someone gets thrown in prison, someone loses their job, someone gets killed or threatened. That is all off-limits. What we are trying to do in our work is we have a project on promoting higher-education values. We are trying to encourage the higher-education sector to operationalize their own core values.
One of the great things that has come out of the recent incidents regarding the executive orders is that you've seen universities put out statements about their core values. I think that's fantastic. One of the deans of one institution that I know in our network had a principle where when a speaker comes to give a talk, in exchange for getting that forum they have to agree to take questions for at least as long as the amount of time they spoke. That is an example of operationalizing their values.
I cannot say whether Hitler should have been invited. But I would have asked the time question. Should Hitler have been invited in 1945? Of course not. But should Hitler have been invited in 1935 is a different question. If he were forced to be challenged to answer questions and if he were forced to give evidence for the hateful things he was saying and was shown not to have any honest evidence about that, how would that be different?
So I think we just have to go back to our base principle—why is this space different?—and all of us, regardless of our political leanings, need to recommit ourselves, saying, "Yes, we actually want to have a conversation" and "Yes, we actually want to try to get to some understanding"; "No, it isn't just about scoring points with an outside audience," and what methods we can use to do that.
STEPHANIE SY: You mentioned how in this country it is not taken for granted that truth would be vulnerable, that universities might be vulnerable.
Do you feel like we are at an unprecedented time here when the ideals that you talk about are gravely threatened?
ROBERT QUINN: It is difficult for me to say "unprecedented." I have a short frame of reference. I know our universities have been around for a long time; they have weathered other storms.
What I do think is unique to this storm is that we have a conflation of a couple of different things, the explosion of information and the erosion of traditional curators. That is supporting what are obviously conscious efforts to distort truth and to distort democratic process based on untruth. So that is, I think, a challenge of this moment.
There is a good side to that, in that part of that explosion of information and erosion of curators results from the democratization of education itself. I think one thing we really need to avoid is a pullback, and there are some voices out there who say, "Well, maybe everybody shouldn't be educated." I think that is a mistake. I think we need to continue this broad democratization of higher education.
But what we want to do is make sure that we're reinvesting in the core values that are underneath that, that are common to all of the groups that come into higher education, so we get to a better understanding. I think that information flow thing is a little bit unprecedented.
I think we are also at least at a moment in our history where people are willing to look aside or overlook the possibility of trying to get to common truth. So there is more of a winner-take-all attitude than there has been in recent times, and that I think is worrisome.
STEPHANIE SY: Scholars at Risk seems to be more relevant than at any other time during my lifetime, certainly. Do you have plans to position your organization any differently or to pursue different roads of advocacy maybe, different concentrations, in light of what's happening geopolitically and in this country?
ROBERT QUINN: I think you're absolutely right that the relevance of what we do is more visible now. I think it has always been relevant, but there is a moment happening.
First and foremost we want to try to help as many scholars as possible. Everything we do is rooted in that. So that is primarily finding more universities that are willing to join our network, to step forward, and say, "Yes, we'll try to host somebody." We still have a very tiny percentage of U.S. universities and colleges in our network, so we would be thrilled if every university would ultimately join up and say, "Yes, we believe in these values. Yes, we want to try to help."
Beyond that, what we're trying to do is use the unique lens we have—that lens is through the individual cases in worst-case scenarios—so we can say, "Looking at this case from Syria, at this case from Zimbabwe, at this case from China, we're saying, 'This is what happens when a society doesn't value the space that a university holds and fills in democratic discourse. This is what power can do, and if we're not careful about that, we can see an erosion in our own system.'"
I think looking through that lens when we look at the debates and issues that are going on on U.S. campuses and we look at the impact of things that are going on in U.S. politics, on U.S. campuses, and society, I do think we have a perspective to share that could be very helpful. So we're delighted to do shows like this and get out there and talk to people.
STEPHANIE SY: Was there an individual case that inspired you and personified the mission of Scholars at Risk and how it's helping?
ROBERT QUINN: There have been a lot of individual cases, obviously. One of the, I think, very gratifying things that I've seen in this work is that as we've gotten bigger and have had more staff come in and take on the awesome responsibility of receiving requests for help, evaluating, and then trying to find universities willing to help, we have largely a young staff, and they take it really seriously. It is emotionally very taxing to literally have a pile of cases saying, "Help me, help me!" on your desk. How do you go home at night, and how do you come in the next day? I have found that all of the staff have done well at that, and humanly, intuitively connect a little bit more to one or two cases at any time.
Parents aren't supposed to have favorite children—none of us do—but there are connections that are useful. So those are the cases. I guess I remember the ones that I connected to, not because they were necessarily the most severe, but because they were the realest to me.
We had one colleague who was very young when he came into the program from Afghanistan. He was a researcher on human rights issues, and he assisted international NGOs in documenting warlord abuses and so forth. So you can see the danger that comes from that. But you can also see why that matters to that country. How are they ever going to move forward after 40 or 50 years of war if they don't get some reckoning? So, critical, critical. Not to mention how much they need university-educated professionals who can do research, writing, and persuasion and so forth. So, he was one of the cases.
STEPHANIE SY: And what were you able to do for him?
ROBERT QUINN: We were able to help him get out of the country and ultimately continue his education in the United States and continue to do that kind of work remotely. Ultimately he went back and assisted the United States in trying to help rebuild Afghanistan.
The other reason he sticks with me is I had known this scholar for probably 10 years. Very often you get to know people over time; you get to know them intimately very quickly, and then the picture fills in over time.
What I learned later was that he had been literally a child factory worker. I didn't know him for a decade until I got the story of how literally he was sitting with three other children in this tiny little space wrapping candies, and these would get shipped out and so forth.
So the arc of his life and our being able to help one little piece of that, and trying to help a country like Afghanistan move from having children literally chained to a table in a factory to writing human rights reports, trying to advance justice in their country. So there is that one.
STEPHANIE SY: Such a tangible effect, too. You think of the cloistered confines of academia. In this work, you actually see results. You interact with people who might not have access normally to that ivory tower and the pathways that they took to get there. That must be really inspiring.
ROBERT QUINN: It is. I am not an academic by training. So for me, coming into this work was eye-opening and disabusing of the myth of the ivory tower. Are there some academics and some institutions that lean that way a bit? Sure. But actually higher education today is incredibly open; it is incredibly engaged with the local community, with the national community, and with the world. That was something that really inspired me.
The willingness of the higher-education sector to see our program work. We don't have any power; we don't have a bank of jobs to give out to scholars when they come to us. It only works because universities and the people in universities say, "Those are our values and, yes, we want to try to help."
That is all we ask. We don't ask them to try to do everything, and they are not trying to take people on for the rest of their careers. But that little bit of help at the right moment in time is transformative.
STEPHANIE SY: Thank you so much, Robert Quinn. That was terrific.
ROBERT QUINN: Thank you.