The rescue of science and learning amid global threats
US colleges and universities have long been a safe haven for scholars and students threatened by wars, despots, tyrannical regimes, and calamities. Indeed, institutions of US higher education have consistently aided the Institute of International Education (IIE) from its earliest days in our mission to assist threatened scholars and provide them with academic placements and the chance to reclaim their lives by continuing to teach, research, and write.
IIE was founded in February 1919 as a clearinghouse for international education opportunities and by the next year was deep into its rescue mission. As the Bolshevik Revolution unfolded in Russia, our small staff in the United States traveled to Europe to help bring scholars to safety and assist Russian students stranded far from home without any source of support. Since then, we have had a lot of work to do.
In compiling our centennial history in 2019, we never could have imagined that the years still ahead of us would be busier and more challenging than those when we provided life-saving support and academic opportunities to scholars fleeing from Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the apartheid regime in South Africa, or the more recent wars in the Middle East. In the past two years, the world has witnessed earthquakes, a global pandemic, regime change in Myanmar, civil war in Ethiopia, economic collapses in Venezuela and Lebanon, the return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and Russia’s devastating invasion of Ukraine. IIE has been busier than in all of our previous 103 years. And that kind of busy is not a good thing.
Today’s world is an increasingly unsafe place for many scholars. The dangers that threaten their lives and their work arise from different circumstances or choices—living amid a conflict, expressing dissent against an authoritarian regime, or publishing sensitive research that challenges an official narrative. The cost goes far beyond missed opportunities for research and teaching. It could be the loss of scientists who would have discovered the next vaccine or made a technological advancement that alleviates global warming. Or it could be the loss of brave scholars and public intellectuals who strive to move their society toward democracy.
Threats abound. Every day, the applications we receive for IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE-SRF) reflect the substantial and mounting challenges scholars are facing worldwide.
A scholar in Yemen describes living and working amid the country’s civil war, which is now in its seventh year and has led to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations. “We stayed home for weeks without food and water because of the intense bombing,” the scholar describes. “The roads in and out of Taiz were closed, with barriers inside the city. The militants put snipers in the university, sniping anything that moves without discrimination. They planted it with mines and improvised explosive devices, looted all its contents, and bombed a large part of its buildings.”
In Tajikistan, where the government has suppressed freedom of expression, a scholar organized an academic roundtable on minority languages and invited members of the press. “Afterward, I was called by security services,” the scholar explains, “and [someone] told me that such advocacy is ‘anti-constitutional’ and ‘anti-state.’ I was later apprehended by uniformed men and beaten, humiliated publicly, falsely accused, and threatened.”
In 2021, IIE-SRF received more applications than any year in the program’s history—the fifth year in a row we had a record number of applicants. This was prior to the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine, which has resulted in the mass displacement of Ukrainian professors and researchers and a crackdown on dissenting scholars and civil society actors inside Russia. As we write this article, Ukrainians are flooding IIE-SRF with requests for help. At least in the near term, we will prioritize supporting these scholars to resume their work temporarily at institutions in Poland and other countries neighboring Ukraine. Higher education institutions in the United States and globally can play a key role by providing financial, logistical, and other assistance and expertise that will allow Ukrainian students and scholars to undertake short- and medium-term opportunities in the countries where they are already displaced.
International students at US colleges and universities also face the loss of parents and other support back home due to natural and human-made disasters and wars. It is not a small problem: The United States hosts more international students than any other country in the world. As noted in IIE’s Open Doors 2021 Report on International Educational Exchange, more than 914,000 international students undertook academic studies at higher education institutions across the United States during the 2020–21 academic year. And while they contribute $40 billion to our local communities, mainly by enlisting sources in their home countries to pay for tuition and local expenses, it is increasingly unclear where they can go for help when their financial resources become restricted or are entirely cut off. Since 2010, IIE has attempted to cover this gap with its Emergency Student Fund, awarding more than 2,500 grants and more than $7 million in support to international students on US campuses. Many recent recipients of support hail from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Haiti, Lebanon, and Ukraine.
IIE operates amid a prolonged and unprecedented rise in requests for help from students and scholars facing threats to their academic work and safety. But Afghanistan, from August 15, 2021, onward, has posed challenges for us on an entirely new level.
Usually, it takes a year or so for scholars and students experiencing threats to reach out to us for aid in finding a safe haven. After the fall of Kabul, however, it was only a matter of hours before requests for help poured in.
Every day, IIE is working with our higher education partners in the United States and globally to assist scholars and students in Afghanistan. But our ability to help is limited, at least for now. Many students and scholars remain inside the country, unable to flee. They often have large families and cannot leave without them. Many others are stuck in transit countries, with their visa pathways to the United States and elsewhere unclear. The severe threats facing these Afghan students and scholars are frequently tied to their connection to US institutions. One scholar described “playing a hide-and-seek game with the Taliban” and explained that he could no longer communicate with us for security reasons.
When a college or university commits to hosting an Afghan scholar, it frequently embraces the opportunity to help the scholar’s dependents with needed resources and support. The institution recognizes that the scholar may need a period of transition and recovery. Moreover, the college or university demonstrates flexibility, given that the position’s timing is often unpredictable.
The Scholar Rescue Fund fellowship package includes a $25,000 grant, relocation and professional development funding, and critical supplemental support before, during, and after the appointment. We undertake a carefully curated process to pair scholars with appropriate host institutions that contribute matching financial support and invaluable academic, logistical, and professional resources to support scholars’ successful integration into their new communities. Host institutions also offer our scholars opportunities to share their knowledge and experiences with students, faculty, and host communities. Often, we work with other partners from outside IIE and the host campus, and these individuals and organizations provide academic, professional, personal, legal, and/or other resources and assistance. For example, we invite IIE-SRF fellows to enroll in online courses through the Coursera for Refugees program, which provides refugees and other vulnerable populations access to thousands of online classes. Academic and professional associations such as the Midwest Political Science Association and the American Historical Association offer our scholars complimentary memberships and attendance at annual conferences. In addition, attorneys from the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP provide pro bono legal advice and representation to IIE-SRF fellows as they navigate complicated legal pathways.
Accordingly, a scholar receives many kinds of support from various sources. That kind of help takes a village. Indeed, a few years ago, we asked to take a picture of a scholar assisted by IIE-SRF, his family, and all the people at the host university who helped them. We counted twenty-two people in the picture, in addition to the scholar and his family.
Since creating an endowment in 2002 to support this work, IIE-SRF has saved the lives, voices, and ideas of more than one thousand scholars from sixty countries. We have done this in partnership with nearly five hundred hosting institutions in fifty-one countries. US colleges and universities represent around 40 percent of these host partners, with nearly 170 US institutions of all types and sizes—private research institutions, liberal arts colleges, large public universities, and community colleges—stepping up to offer scholars a safe haven and committing $13 million in matching funds.
A humanitarian impulse and commitment to academic freedom drive our partner colleges and universities. However, the institutions also recognize that their students, faculty, and wider communities benefit immensely from hosting these scholars. The return on investment is significant.
Laura Spitz, the former vice provost for international affairs at Cornell University, explains the university’s decision to host a sociologist from Turkey. “Academically and morally, it was the right thing to do,” she says. “First, these scholars are incredibly smart folks, and we benefit from having them in our academic community. Second, they bring with them crucial information about where they come from. And third, they enrich us as human beings.” Cornell has hosted eight IIE-SRF fellows from seven countries, including recently welcoming an Afghan scholar in partnership with IIE.
Students and staff gain the rewards of learning from and getting to know a distinguished scholar relocating from a country with a history and culture uniquely different from their own. They gain a deeper and broader worldview. At the same time, the scholar’s eager participation in the classroom, laboratories, and campus and community events enables students to acquire an enriched set of intercultural competencies. Professors benefit directly from the research activities and collaborative working relationships with the scholar, as do the national and international professional societies that support networks of scholars from across the globe. These collaborations enable further research in the disciplines that advance new knowledge and innovation.
“One of the things that’s really valuable about bringing these scholars to Stanford is that we learn from them,” Jovana Lazić Knežević, associate director of the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Stanford University, told Stanford Report in March 2021. “We benefit not only from the ideas they bring from different parts of the globe but also from their experiences of what it’s like to live and work in a society that doesn’t afford them the same kind of freedom of thought and expression.” Stanford has hosted eleven IIE-SRF fellows from eight countries and also plans to welcome scholars from Afghanistan.
Threatened scholars who are supported to relocate to safe haven campuses author books, chapters, news articles, editorials, and reports in peer-reviewed journals that bring great value to their host institutions, communities, states, and the nations that become their second homes. Further, developing relationships among these scholars, their new faculty colleagues, and students nurtures a supportive and safe environment for learning that has the power to grow talent, spur innovation, and create intellectual property. In many cases, scholars, faculty, and students develop lifelong friendships across borders. Host colleges and universities also benefit from the scholar’s campus and community outreach efforts, bringing diverse perspectives to the institution.
In the larger sense of mission, our partner institutions gain reputational advantages from their IIE-SRF fellows’ participation in conferences and events as they share their stories and inspire deeper commitments to the values of a vibrant democracy that welcomes academic freedom, free speech, and the independent search for new knowledge.
Amal Alachkar, an associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), is a Syrian alumna of the IIE-SRF program who has more recently hosted an IIE-SRF fellow within her Alachkar Lab. She describes her astonishment at the work the scholar has already completed during the short time he has been at UCI. “Every day he has a novel idea to share with us, which makes students very excited,” she says. “If every college and university in the United States offered just one scholarship or fellowship, together we would be providing safe haven to thousands of future leaders and peace builders.”
As we write this article, our volunteer selection committee, chaired by Mariët Westermann, art historian and vice chancellor of New York University Abu Dhabi, is preparing to review the harrowing applications of scholars from nine countries. The committee considers the level and type of threat the scholars face, their scholarly record, and the strategic impact on their disciplines and home countries if they are enabled to continue their academic careers in safety. Committee members, who come from higher education, human rights organizations, philanthropies, business, and government, have lived and worked in every corner of the globe.
The selection committee has the daunting task of assessing the scholar’s accomplishments and readiness for successful placement at participating institutions of higher education. The decision to select a scholar necessitates a collective judgment on a range of factors:
→ the quality and rigor of the scholar’s research and teaching history;
→ the scholar’s potential to build new knowledge and generate further productivity at the hosting college or university and thereafter;
→ the scholar’s desire to join and engage with a new and different academic community abroad, including interest in collaborating with campus faculty and students; and
→ the scholar’s commitment to return home when it is safe to do so or to continue contributing to the home country from abroad.
The members of the selection committee also consider how the scholar has tackled the challenges of war and persecution back home. Moreover, committee members take into account the devastating environmental conditions affecting the scholar’s accomplishments.
A dedicated staff at IIE reviews all of the requests for help and works extensively to prepare the final dossier that is submitted for selection. Academic experts in each scholar’s field review and verify every case. There are no slow moments or shortages of cases to consider. The IIE-SRF endowment supports a maximum of forty-five annual grants and, thanks to additional donations, IIE-SRF has awarded on average more than ninety grants per year since 2017.
Many of us are alive today because of what once-threatened scholars have discovered and given to the world, including magnetic resonance imaging, cures for blood cancers, plants that eat diesel exhaust fumes, and the preservation of ancient cultural artifacts that otherwise would have disappeared into the black market of looted antiquities.
IIE-SRF alumni have published more than five thousand books, journal articles, and papers and registered more than forty patents, according to IIE’s recent report on the impact of program alumni between 2002 and 2020, To Rescue Scholars Is to Rescue the Future. They have imparted their knowledge to more than 50,000 students through 1,600 academic courses, supervised 2,600 student theses, and developed more than 160 curricula within their home countries and abroad. Nearly a third of these scholars have held higher education leadership positions since completing their fellowships. They have become leaders and agents of change within their host and home communities, working to increase intercultural understanding, supporting disadvantaged populations, and promoting social justice.
Many scholars supported by IIE-SRF have returned to help rebuild their home institutions after war or long periods of authoritarianism. Many others have rebuilt their lives in the United States and are now contributing to the fabric of our country and educational system. In both cases, they have achieved these outcomes because of the haven that US colleges and universities provided.
We believe that US institutions of higher education must continue their historic commitments to eliminate the silos that divorce nations from embracing humankind, peace, and understanding. Supporting a scholar from a war-torn country is a precious opportunity for our nation’s colleges and universities to demonstrate and advance the humanitarian values that have built the democracy that furthers prosperity here in the United States and worldwide.
We thank IIE’s many college and university partners who have already stepped up to assist our academic colleagues across the globe who need our help. And we extend the invitation to other institutions to join these efforts.
The impact is undeniable. “Syria was like a big jail with no public space to share free and critical ideas,” explains Issam Eido, one of our alumni from Syria who is now an assistant professor of religious studies in Vanderbilt University’s Department of Religious Studies, where he also serves as director of undergraduate studies. “In the United States, my whole life has changed. Thanks to the University of Chicago [the scholar’s IIE-SRF host institution], I realized the true meaning of intellectual life. Here, I can dedicate my life to achieving my dream through participating in all academic activities.”
Lead illustration by Mr.Nelson Design