New petition urges University to foster at-risk academics

Sherilyn Chew 21 January 2016

A group of Cambridge PhD candidates has started an online petition, “Cantabs for Persecuted Scholars”, which has thus far attracted over 500 signatures from University students and academics. 

The petition calls on the University to help at-risk academics fleeing oppression in their home countries. The University has not yet responded. 

A fundraising campaign has also been established to raise money to support more at-risk masters’ students.

As well as urging a public commitment to support threatened academics, the petition calls on the University to commit to facilitating a “centralised coordination point” to assist the work of the organisation ‘Council for At-Risk Academics’ (Cara), and provide housing and financial support.

Cara was founded in 1933 to help academics who were being persecuted by the Nazi regime. 

It currently supports 180 academics and their 300 dependents. This is the largest number it has helped since the 1930s. 

Last week, campaign supporters met at King’s College, Cambridge, with Stephen Wordsworth, Cara’s Executive Director, to publicly discuss the issues surrounding vulnerable academics.

Wordsworth told The Cambridge Student that Cambridge has “hosted many [at-risk academics] in the past”, but the work would be easier if there were “one coordination point” between the colleges, as has recently been introduced at Oxford. Cambridge has taken at least one academic a year for the past eight years.

Oxford University is currently hosting four academics, but since the new system has been introduced, “half a dozen” more applications have been made.

Brendan Mahon, now the president of St. Edmund’s College, Combination Room, who started a similar campaign in Michaelmas 2015, expressed his hope for positive results, and “urged everyone to sign it.” 

Kaitlin Ball, one of the creators of the petition, who is studying community justice for her PhD, told TCS that “we should never underestimate the power of community [grassroots] movements as they create the potential for real, positive change.” 

However, she stressed: “No one is asking the University of Cambridge to relax its standards in any way. Any at-risk academic must meet the rigorous academic standards of Cambridge.” 

Anne Lonsdale, Chair of Cara and a former President of New Hall, previously spoke to TCS about an “Iraqi woman who is a Professor at Baghdad Technical University. She goes on working as long as she can take it in Baghdad and then has three months or so in [a Cambridge] lab able at last to get access to the equipment to test her work… She said to me: “When you sit around the table at breakfast with your family you wonder who will be there at suppertime.” It is the chance to keep working and get out to Cambridge that has kept her going and she is a great role model”.

A significant tenet of Cara’s operations is that the academics they help are not seeking permanent asylum in Britain. According to their figures, 90% of the academics they helped during the Iraq war have now returned.

Many academics they helped chose this because, in Anne Lonsdale’s words, they are ‘‘brilliant people and their families, who need to survive to rebuild their countries when at last the trouble stops.”

One of the creators of the recent petition, Stefan Theil, stressed this point, calling helping at-risk academics both a “moral obligation” and an “investment into the future of war-torn countries”. He argued that helping persecuted academics meant protecting “an important part of the cultural and intellectual identity” to build a better future for everyone. However, while he hopes for a successful campaign, he says it will only be “a first step towards a more comprehensive effort” across the UK and Europe, and expressed his fear that small-scale progress could cause us to rest on our laurels.

“The danger I see is that progress on a small scale will lull us into complacency, into believing that we have done all we can as a society, when in fact, compassion, human dignity and our shared values compel us to do so much more.”

Another of the petition’s creators, Ryan Rafaty, commented that “the petition is just a small step in the right direction. It sends the very important message that many students and faculties are not complacent or comfortable with inaction.”