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LectureHop: Symposium On Displaced Scholars

You know the event is legit when it’s held in Low

This Monday, a panel of experts on the topic of displaced scholars gathered in Low Library to discuss how institutions of higher learning around the globe can support scholars in war torn regions whose work has been endangered. Although not quite as popular as Ralph Nader’s speech on why we need to dispose of our cell phones, the Symposium on Displaced Scholars was an interesting dissection of the particular responsibility universities have during this refugee crisis to protect international academics and their intellectual pursuits. First-year Bwogger Isadora Nogueira brings you a recap of the event.

Sporting a shiny turquoise tie, President Bollinger began the symposium with an expression of thanks to the experts and an emphasis on the urgency of the issue of displaced scholars. Although difficult to estimate, he noted that the study of 100,000 Syrian scholars are thought to have been interrupted by civil unrest.

Then came a more passionate introduction of the symposium from Allan E. Goodman, Prezbo’s counterpart and President of the Institute of International Education, the organization that cosponsored the event. Goodman spoke on the uniqueness of this refugee crisis in comparison to historical ones, such as the influx of immigrants following World War Two, due to the higher percentage of civilians receiving tertiary education in the 21st century. In order to emphasize his point, Goodman pointed to a striking statistic. During World War Two, he said, only 5% of the population in the most advanced Western countries had gone to institution of higher learner; in Syria before the war, 25% of the population had attended some form of tertiary education. He then spoke excitedly of the UN’s new recognition of higher education as a need. Goodman ended with some historical reflection, telling the audience to remember “1939, 1940, and 1941” and how the neglected and displaced civilians from World War One reacted.

Almost immediately after the discussion portion began, the criticism that the focus on higher education was not a pressing issue for the refugee community was brought up. This was a concern I, too, had at the back of my mind during the introduction.

The first response to this criticism explained the logic of providing higher education as a way to combat the growing forces of ISIS in recruiting disgruntled youth between the ages of 18 and 24. The second point in defense of providing higher education for refugees was that universities can’t do everything; thus is it appropriate for them to protect and nurture scholars. One expert pointed to what he called “an academic freedom problem,” saying that other universities need to protect the fundamental right for there to be university. Or rather that we have a responsibility to protect the enterprise itself.

Other concepts brought up in the discussion included the concept of “knowledge without borders”: the idea that refugees will then use this knowledge to return to their country to rebuild the society, once a level of safety has been returned. One professor in the audience told of his experience in Cambodia, which in the ‘70s seemed like a broken country but which has now recovered to its previous state, due to the efforts of educated Cambodians in rebuilding the infrastructure and government.

After defending the notion of higher education scholarships and schools for refugees, the discussion shifted into the obstacles involved. Another Columbia professor in the audience spoke of the difficulties each country presents, mentioning that the reality of geopolitical factors might prevent an exiled scholar from returning to their country. UN special Rapporteur and special adviser to the President at Columbia, Agnes Collard, then mentioned the pretty obvious issue involving scale — that the nearly 200,000 displaced scholars around the world created a large gap between their need and the number of opportunities offered.

Bruce Usher, the Co-Director for Business Enterprise, offered up another hurdle, a problem at the root of all our problems: funding. He emphasized the need to see the education of refugees as a “long term investment” rather than as aid. Describing those under 25 as the hunting ground for radical ideology, he added that the cost of not doing anything or not doing enough was far greater than the initial investment. Usher then proposed that we “follow suit” from Canadians, who have various independent organizations that identify endangered scholars in camps and fund their education.

This vague proposal to follow the lead of the Canadians was one of the few actual proposals discussed for how to integrate scholars into foreign universities. This was due to the formatting of the discussion, which first focused on the defense of supporting displaced scholars and then on the major hurdles it would face without first evaluating the existing and possible solutions to their displacement. Other programs mentioned were the creation of a “university of exile,” similar to the one started by the New School in 1933 for scholars fleeing from fascist Italy or Nazi Germany; and higher education programs in refugee camps. The discussion would have been more productive if there had been more dissection of a few plans for the integration of displaced scholars, rather than the brief mention of half-baked ideas.

Two displaced scholars brought to the United States by the Institute of International Education were then interviewed about their experience. Their names aren’t mentioned on the program, but one was a professor of Urban and regional planning from Iraq and the other studied at the New School and now works for Goldman Sachs. The Iraqi professor, Professor Mustafa, spoke of how his scholarship here and his trips around the world have shown him that “humanity is one” and that what we all want is peace. He got one of the only laughs of the whole night when he added that the problem was really with the politicians.

The other interviewee was Zana from Syria whose perspective on the United States radically changed through her IIE scholarship. She said she no longer saw the United States as “the devil” the way which they were presented in the media, but rather as a culture she was as equally indebted to improving as the Syrian one. She also mentioned that were her lifestyle in Syria half as rich as the one she has here, she would not hesitate to go back.

There was plenty of interesting discussion of the role of universities in the international refugee crisis, but it was obvious that the questions could have focused much more on the concrete approaches. With a topic so profound and complex, it’s ultimately unsurprising that closure was not to be found at the symposium.

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