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Scholars-at-risk program comes to Carleton and U of Ottawa

Scholars who feared for their lives in their home country have a chance to resume their careers.

By NATALIE SAMSON | MAR 25 2015

This coming fall, Carleton University and the University of Ottawa will be home to Canada’s first jointly hosted Scholars at Risk program. The Scholars at Risk (or SAR) network connects postsecondary institutions worldwide that harbour and support scholars whose work has placed them in danger. Since its founding in 1999, the network has grown to include about 400 institutions in more than 35 countries. Carleton and U of Ottawa will join nine other postsecondary institutions in the Canadian section of SAR.

The collaboration was announced at Carleton in March. Dubbed “Je Suis Scholar,” the event featured speakers who called for direct action to protect and promote academic freedom, particularly in light of recent threats to free speech, including the January shooting deaths in France at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

Carleton University journalism professor Allan Thompson (foreground, left) moderated a discussion between Farai Gonzo (centre) and Baktybek Beshimov (right) at the March launch of the Scholars at Risk program jointly hosted by Carleton and the University of Ottawa.
Carleton University journalism professor Allan Thompson (foreground, left) moderated a discussion between Farai Gonzo (centre) and Baktybek Beshimov (right) at the March launch of the Scholars at Risk program jointly hosted by Carleton and the University of Ottawa.

“Academic freedom and academic honesty should be the foundation of any education,” says Baktybek Beshimov, an adjunct professor at Northwestern University in Chicago and a scholar-at-risk. In his native Kyrgyzstan, Dr. Beshimov built his career around the fight for civil rights, liberal arts education, academic freedom and government transparency in a post-Soviet state. He was provost of the American University for Central Asia, president of Osh State University and leader of an opposition faction in parliament for more than 10 years when assassination attempts spurred him to flee the country.

“If we can’t tolerate dissent,” asks Dr. Beshimov, “how can we give people, especially young people, the opportunity to … develop critical thinking skills?”

He was joined on stage by fellow scholar-at-risk Farai Gonzo. In Zimbabwe, Ms. Gonzo worked at a state-run radio station as executive producer of a call-in show that would often air the anonymous grievances of the country’s poorest citizens. That and her approval of ad-time sales to the opposition party landed Ms. Gonzo in detention, where she was tortured over two days. She was brought into the SAR program by Centennial College in Toronto while living at a Toronto women’s shelter as a refugee. Ms. Gonzo became Centennial’s storyteller-in-residence in 2013 and since then has taught courses on international business, international health and global citizenship. She is pursuing a PhD at the University of Toronto thanks to funding from Massey College. The network, she says, “changed my life” at a time when she was terribly depressed. “I’m on my way to becoming a whole person [again].”

Peter Ricketts, provost and vice-president, academic, at Carleton, says the program is about supporting people “who found themselves in these situations, not because of their degrees but because of the world that we live in.” He says academics have a responsibility to act on their belief in “the freedom of scholarship beyond our own boundaries.”

Indeed, the joint program aims to serve not just one particular institution but the entire Ottawa region, according to SAR joint committee head Melanie Adrian. It’s a way to make Ottawa “a centre of refuge for scholars under threat,” says Dr. Adrian, an assistant professor of law at Carleton. The city’s two universities have pledged $60,000 to fund their first scholar, who will be revealed this spring.

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