Academics and experts involved in higher education from around the world will gather at Manouba University for a conference Thursday and Friday to discuss how scholarly freedom can be safeguarded during Tunisia’s transitional period.
“The space of the university must be safe. There is no room for intimidation or force,” Robert Quinn, executive director of the United States-based Scholars at Risk (SAR) network, said during a press conference Wednesday. “Great countries need great universities.”
The conference, “The University and the Nation: Safeguarding Higher Education in Tunisia and Beyond,” has been organized by groups including SAR, New York University’s Center for Dialogues, and the Tunisian Association for the Defense of University Values.
“More than a year after the revolution that inspired a wave of change throughout the region, Tunisians are now seizing this moment to debate the foundational values upon which to build their democratic future,” according to a press statement about the conference. “Recent intimidation and violence against Tunisian artists, intellectuals, and higher education communities highlights the critical moment at which this debate is taking place.”
The SAR network, which includes 300 universities in 34 countries, began its current engagement with Tunisia around two years ago, after learning about acts of intimidation at the country’s universities, Quinn said. The network first hosted Tunisian scholars in New York and then Quinn came to the country last June, meeting with figures from government, academia, and civil society.
“This conference is the next step in our engagement, but certainly not the last,” Quinn said.
He explained that SAR had been particularly concerned about the case of Manouba Dean Habib Kazdaghli, who was accused last March of assaulting a veiled female student. The incident has become a flashpoint for religious and secular forces in society.
Quinn said that in the case of Kazdaghli, who will speak at the conference, “it appears the process is against the defender of the (university) space. We will be following this case as long as it continues.”
Jonathan Fanton, former president of the New School for Social Research and MacArthur Foundation, highlighted the connections between free universities, democracy, and social and economic development.
“Can you think of an authoritarian society that allows free and strong universities?” he asked.
Lisa Anderson, president of the American University in Cairo, added that innovation depends on “being able to challenge authority, and that’s what really needs to be protected.”
Underscoring the conference as an “act of moral solidarity,” Mustapha Tlili, founder and director of the Center for Dialogues, said Tunisia must not “fall into an abyss.”
“We don’t want what is happening in Tunisia to be happening in the dark,” he said. “We want to let our Tunisian colleagues know that we are with them and we are watching what is happening.”