Winter 2019

Academic Freedom

Defending the Line on Academic Freedom

On 21 November 2018, Daniela Tejada, twenty-seven years old, watched, shocked, in an Abu Dhabi courtroom as her husband, Matthew Hedges, thirty-one years old and a PhD candidate at the University of Durham, was sentenced to life imprisonment (Parveen and Wintour; Rawlison). Hedges, who at that point had been in prison in the United Arab Emirates for more than six months, had gone to the country to research his thesis on United Arab Emirates security policy in the wake of the Arab Spring. That ended with his arrest and sentencing, which reportedly lasted less than five minutes, with no lawyer present.

Hardly the end of the story, Hedges’s sentencing raises a host of questions about academic freedom in an era of global higher education, as well as about the responsibilities of higher education institutions, associations, faculty, and staff when such incidents occur. How we answer those questions, and, perhaps more important, how we discuss those questions, will have profound impacts on higher education and on society generally.

Where Is the Line?

The academic exercise is the exercise of asking questions. And the seeking of evidence—measurements, calculations, documents, testimonies, experiences, demonstrations, and so on—that responds to those questions. And the production and dissemination of theories, arguments, and discourses that articulate the responses and pose further questions. And so on.

Within the Hedges case, as within all academic freedom incidents, is a challenge to this view of the academic exercise, to the academic identity, and indeed to the concept of what it is to be a university. Within these incidents are implicit and sometimes explicit (as in the Hedges case) assertions that some questions should not be asked. Some evidence should not be sought. Some ideas should not be shared. In other words, there is a line that academics must not cross.

At Scholars at Risk (SAR)—a network of over five hundred higher education institutions and associations, including the MLA, in thirty-nine countries—we work regularly with higher education scholars, students, administrators, and leaders who are accused of crossing the line. Accused by whom? Most often by states and their agents but also by nonstate militants, commercial interests, religious and cultural groups, and even other members of the higher education community. As a result, scholars regularly suffer intentional violence or coercion because of their research, teaching, speaking, or publishing. A political scientist is prosecuted for sedition after giving an interview to a newspaper. A geographer is imprisoned for research on drought that exposes flaws in government responses that led to famine. A professor of gender studies suffers death threats and physical intimidation for allegedly undermining traditional values.

Defending the Line

SAR’s core mission is to defend the academic freedom line, primarily by responding to threats against scholars with direct assistance. This assistance includes arranging temporary positions somewhere in our network for those most at risk, so that scholars may continue their work in safety. SAR staff members and member institutions help arrange more than one hundred such positions each year. SAR staff members also provide advisory and other services for over three hundred scholars each year, spearhead campaigns for wrongfully detained scholars like Hedges,1 and conduct trainings for scholars and staff members at host campuses that help scholars identify next opportunities so that they might keep working until conditions at home improve and they can return safely, if they so choose.

Sadly, demand for this kind of help is growing rapidly. Over the last three years, SAR has seen record levels of requests for help from scholars fleeing Turkey, Syria, Venezuela, Ethiopia, and beyond. We have over six hundred scholars on our lists currently seeking help. We must do more—including creating more positions at more institutions. But at the same time we must do more to raise the visibility of the problem of attacks on scholars and academic freedom. Only then can we mobilize support and demand the kinds of accountability that will deter future attacks.

Mobilizing Action

SAR raises visibility about attacks on scholars through its Academic Freedom Monitoring Project and annual Free to Think report, through which volunteer monitors—including faculty members and students at network-member institutions—document and analyze incidents involving attacks on scholars, students, and universities worldwide.2 SAR’s Free to Think 2018 analyzes 294 attacks in 47 countries (up from 257 in 2017 and 158 in 2016).3 These include ongoing severe pressures on the university space in Turkey; targeted attacks on scholars in Iran; pressures on student expression in Venezuela and Thailand; recent state-driven threats to institutional autonomy in Russia, Hong Kong, and Hungary, among others; and, for the first time, incidents of increasing tension and violence on campuses in the United States.

This increased visibility can make a difference. In individual cases, like Hedges’s, increased visibility may lead to a scholar’s release. Reports indicate that Hedges’s wife tried for months to get government officials to intervene on his behalf. She secured that help only days after bringing his situation to the world media.

Increased visibility can also help at higher levels, as seen in a recent report and recommendation of the European Parliament, inspired in part by SAR’s earlier Free to Think reporting. The recommendation, approved on 29 November 2018, calls for the explicit inclusion of the defense of academic freedom in the European Union’s external actions (i.e., foreign policy; “Texts”). This recommendation will have far-reaching effects, including possibly unlocking existing and potentially new European Union fellowship programs to at-risk scholars and students.

Lines, Line-Drawing, and Consequences

Providing assistance, such as securing a temporary position at another institution for the scholar, and attracting public attention to a case, will help individual scholars. But these case-based actions are not enough to respond effectively to the wider challenge posed by the Hedges case and others like it—the challenge to the academic exercise, the academic identity, and the university itself. The challenge posed by the assertion that there is a line that academics must not cross.

We see this assertion not only in the extreme cases involving violence or loss of liberty, like Hedges’s, and we see it not only in cases over there, on campuses in other countries. We see the assertion that there is a line that academics must not cross in our own countries, on our own campuses, and even in our departments and disciplinary associations. Take, for example, the recent incidents on campuses in the United States involving the surreptitious recording of faculty members and students; intimidation of disfavored speakers; online harassment and threats against faculty members; orchestrated disruptions of campus activities, often by well-funded actors outside the higher education community; and distressing threats by public officials, trustees, and donors to withdraw funding because scholars have asked disfavored questions or challenged prevailing orthodoxy.

Asserting that scholars shouldn’t be sanctioned for doing their jobs—for asking questions and sharing ideas—is of course not the same as saying scholars can do whatever they like, wherever and whenever they like. 

Asserting that scholars shouldn’t be sanctioned for doing their jobs—for asking questions and sharing ideas—is of course not the same as saying scholars can do whatever they like, wherever and whenever they like. Academic freedom is not a get-out-of-the-provost’s-office-free card, let alone a get-out-of-jail card for egregious, fraudulent, or criminal acts.4 Nor should it be. There must be some line. But where is it? This is the question that scholars have been asking for generations, if not millennia.

Perry Link, a scholar of comparative foreign languages and Asian studies, addressed the question of line-drawing in an essay some years back. Link describes “a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier,” ready to drop on those below who cross the line, but without clearly indicating exactly where the line is. Link points out the utility of this arrangement to authoritarian structures: “Normally the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions.”

Link’s description matches Scholars at Risk’s experience with thousands of threatened scholars from every part of the world. This body of experience reveals that questions about the scope of academic freedom—Where is the line?—may not be the right questions. Even better are questions about agency—Who decides where any line is drawn?

Regarding the anaconda, Link appears to answer the agency question: “‘You yourself decide,’ after which, more often than not, everyone in [the snake’s] shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments—all quite ‘naturally.’” Of course Link knows this is a false agency. In repressive states, scholars don’t decide where the real line is; the anaconda does. Scholars decide their own lines; that is, they decide how close they are willing to risk going toward a line that the anaconda intentionally obscures.

This leads to perhaps the best questions of all, beyond scope and agency: questions about consequences. That is, What happens to the scholar who crosses the line? In Link’s essay the consequences are clear, if unsaid: the snake drops, crushes, and devours. And this too is borne out by the cases, including many incidents involving killings, violence, or disappearances each year (Free to Think 4).

Academic Freedom Guideposts

These questions of scope, agency, and consequences are difficult, especially in the abstract, lacking facts and contexts. That said, experience from past cases can offer a few guideposts.

First is the principle, sadly proved true in the violations, that scholars should never suffer violence or coercive consequences for their legitimate exercise of academic freedom. Put bluntly, it is never OK for a scholar or student to be killed for asking a question or expressing an idea. Never. The corollary to this is that it is always suspect when a scholar or student is detained, prosecuted, or imprisoned in relation to their questions or ideas. Always.

Second, the only fully pro-academic-freedom answer to the agency question has to be academics themselves, according to the professional standards and methods of their respective disciplines and with due regard for not only academic freedom but other core higher education values, including equitable access, accountability, and social responsibility. Accepting the agency of any other actor—especially public officials or others outside the higher education sector—will always result in a diminished scope of academic inquiry and a diminished sense of the university.

Finally, with regard to the scope of academic freedom and the line, if any, to be drawn, we must abandon the fallacy that a clean line can be drawn between academic topics on the one hand and nonacademic or political topics on the other, with the implication that the former are protected and the latter are not. Many a dictator has drawn such a line, with the direct intent of crushing free inquiry and expression. At the same time, many a well-meaning defender of academic freedom has attempted to articulate such a line, ostensibly to establish a clearer and more easily defensible boundary, but in the end has lent legitimacy to those who wish to declare certain content off-limits. From a pro-academic-freedom perspective, the content of ideas is never the distinguishing element—it is rather the methods of inquiry and discourse that matter, in which academic freedom protects any engagement undertaken seriously, using the methods of the respective discipline, and with due regard for professional and social responsibility.

Responding to Incidents

Even with these guideposts, incidents related to academic freedom remain challenging.

As the Hedges case shows, preparing to meet challenges to academic freedom is more important than ever, as more institutions embrace partnerships with other institutions, scholars, and students in or from places where higher education values are not well understood or respected.5 Advance preparation is always the best course. By developing strong local practices for discussing values concerns among all stakeholders before incidents happen, institutions can build common vocabularies and trust away from the media or other pressures that often accompany incidents.

When responding to incidents, the most important thing is to expand the range of stakeholders consulted and responses considered. The latter especially helps to avoid false all-or-nothing choices. In response to an academic freedom incident in another country, for example, institutions with programs in that country are often called on to cancel or suspend their activities entirely. Since cutting off all activities generally involves significant costs, such all-or-nothing responses are implicitly biased toward “do nothing.” This can result in inadequate responses that may harm institutions, individuals, and core higher education values generally.

At the same time, there should be an overall bias against not responding—doing nothing—when assessments of the incident and interests involved suggest high levels of concern or importance. A corollary to this is a bias against only private forms of response—behind-the-scenes communications, for example—which might create the misimpression of inaction.

And when our academic leaders, associations, and institutions stand silent—or appear to stand silent—in the face of these violations, the likelihood of future violations increases.

And finally, there should be a bias in favor of responses that increase dialogue and respect for core values. These might include, for example, public statements or events discussing academic freedom concerns and incidents. This bias in favor of dialogue might sometimes seem counterintuitive, because it might mean maintaining relationships or activities especially in places where challenging incidents have occurred, instead of cutting off dialogue by withdrawing entirely. But in such cases, maintaining contacts would only be appropriate if doing so offers genuine, ongoing opportunities to discuss and address values concerns. Ending programs and cutting off relationships might be cleaner and more satisfying, but doing so might also foreclose opportunities for future improvement.

Assessing Hedges

Regarding Matthew Hedges, where does this leave us? How would we assess his case?

Does it matter that Hedges’s research was formally approved by his academic program? Does it matter that the harm, life imprisonment, was very great? And how do the answers to these questions weigh against the fact that he is the sole victim? Or are there other, indirect victims? Who are the key stakeholders in this incident? Certainly Hedges, his wife, and family. Certainly scholars, students, and leaders at the University of Durham, his home institution. But what about other scholars, students, and leaders at other institutions in the United Kingdom, or other institutions with programs in the United Arab Emirates, or other countries where similar incidents have taken place? How should they have responded to the Hedges case? And how should they prepare for the next such situation?

The answers to these questions will depend on facts that can be reliably known only to those most intimately involved with the case. What we do know for certain is that if those directly involved fail to ask these questions, academic freedom will suffer. Each time a scholar is shouted down or denied a visa or arrested or killed because of the questions she or he might ask or the ideas and evidence she or he might share, the space for inquiry and expression shrinks. And when our academic leaders, associations, and institutions stand silent—or appear to stand silent—in the face of these violations, the likelihood of future violations increases.

Hedges’s sentencing is not the end of the story, for Hedges or for academic freedom. On 26 November 2018, five days after his sentencing, Hedges was pardoned “in response to a letter from the Hedges family bearing in mind the historical relationship between the UAE and the UK,” according to officials from the United Arab Emirates (Wintour and Batty). He quickly returned to the United Kingdom, where he reunited with colleagues.

But where is the pardon for academic freedom? Where is the happy reunion with core values? And will Hedges’s pardon be enough to remove the chill that the incident produced? We can’t know. But we can know this: speaking out about academic freedom doesn’t create the risk of such incidents. Silence about these risks won’t make them go away. And pretending the Hedges incident, and others like it, didn’t happen won’t do anything to strengthen academic freedom, our institutions, or society.


1. SAR Scholars-in-Prison campaigns include Ahmed Mansoor, who is still imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates. See “UAE”; see also Emmett, noting the problematic ethics of academics and authors from the United Kingdom protesting the detention of Hedges but not that of Mansoor.

2. Faculty members and students may participate through SAR-affiliated legal clinics, which prepare submissions to national and international monitoring or legal bodies, including, for example, the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, and SAR Student Advocacy Seminars, which provide students with the opportunity to develop human rights research and advocacy skills while taking on the cases of scholars facing unjust restrictions, prosecution, or imprisonment.

3. Since the inception of the project in 2011, SAR has documented over 1,091 incidents involving 1,533 attacks on higher education in 109 countries.

4. For example, see the stories about a professor who pled guilty of forging a job offer letter to secure a pay raise and a tenured professor who pled guilty of wire fraud for selling fake college certificates (Trager; “CUNY”).

5. Scholars at Risk has developed a set of resources that can help institutions navigate these challenges, leading to more inclusive, nuanced, and potentially productive responses. These resources include two companion publications, Promoting Higher Education Values: A Guide for Discussion (offering core content on academic freedom, its promotion, and defense, including over thirty-five possible responses to values-related incidents) and Promoting Higher Education Values: Workshop Supplement (offering sample exercises and questions for discussion), and Dangerous Questions, a free online course on academic freedom (including articles, videos, animations, exercises, and polls, produced under Academic Refuge, an EU-Erasmus+ project).

Works Cited

“Academic Refuge.” University of Oslo, Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

“CUNY Medgar Evers College Lecturer Pled Guilty to Wire Fraud for Selling Fake College Certificates.” United States Attorney’s Office Southern District of New York, 31 May 2018,

Emmett, Jonathan. “A United Front.” The Bookseller, 4 Dec. 2018,

Free to Think 2018. Scholars at Risk, Oct. 2018, PDF download.

Link, Perry. “China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier.” New York Review of Books, vol. 49, no. 6, 11 Apr. 2002,

Parveen, Nazia, and Patrick Wintour. “Matthew Hedges: British Academic Accused of Spying Jailed for Life in UAE.” Guardian, 21 Nov. 2018,

Promoting Higher Education Values: A Guide for Discussion. Scholars at Risk, Dec. 2017,

Promoting Higher Education Values: Workshop Supplement. Scholars at Risk, Dec. 2017,

Rawlinson, Kevin. “Matthew Hedges Says UAE Asked Him to Spy on Britain.” Guardian, 4 Dec. 2018,

“Texts Adopted: Thursday, 29 November 2018 – Brussels: Defence of Academic Freedom in the EU’s External Action.” European Parliament, 3 Jan. 2019,

Trager, Rebecca. “Disgraced US Chemistry Professor Will Not Face Jail Time.” The Royal Society of Chemistry, 17 Sept. 2018,

“UAE: One Year On, Award-Winning Human Rights Defender Ahmed Mansoor’s Whereabouts Remain Unknown.” Scholars at Risk, 20 Mar. 2018,

Wintour, Patrick, and David Batty. “Matthew Hedges: Pardoned British Academic Arrives Back in UK.” Guardian, 27 Nov. 2018,

Robert Quinn is executive director of the Scholars at Risk Network (SAR;, an independent nonprofit corporation and network of higher education institutions and associations working to protect threatened scholars and promote academic freedom. All views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and not those of SAR, its member institutions, or its sponsors.

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