libri mappa

Promoting academic freedom glocally


Students from the University of Padua discuss their experience with an ‘advocacy seminar’ in the context of Scholars at Risk’s advocacy initiatives

We, students of the University of Padua, are committed to promoting the general principles of liberty and academic freedom that are at the core of this institution.
One of the important features of the functioning of the university community is academic freedom, which allows the university to achieve its main goals. What is the value of academic freedom? In a broad sense, it is seen as an opportunity and a guarantee of security ‘in the search for truth’; while according to international agreements this means that all higher-education teaching personnel and students should enjoy freedom of thought, conscience, religion, expression, assembly and association as well as the right to liberty and security of the person and liberty of movement.

Academic freedom allows for the creation of comfortable and secure conditions for people who do creative work. A person’s great motivation to research and create can be destroyed under strict control. Often, in extremely authoritarian states, free-thinking is considered a danger to the regime. In this way, professors, scientists and students all too often fall under the repressive machine of dictatorship.

How can academic freedom and security in research and teaching be guaranteed?
Organizations such as Scholars at Risk (SAR) exist to arrange for positions of sanctuary at universities and colleges for intellectuals fleeing persecution and violence. Scholars are referred to this international network for assessment, referrals or transition assistance. We are pleased that our University actively takes part in SAR activities, and were honoured to work on a ‘SAR Students’ Advocacy Seminar’over the past months.

We have been privileged to live free. Our social and political lives are not restricted. We are not forced to conform, but rather we choose our own activities and do what we love. However, the cases of the two Iranian imprisoned scholars we had the opportunity to engage with – Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali and Dr. Nioloufar Bayani - reflect a corruption of this ideal. Their freedom to enjoy life has been stripped away. Governments have imposed conditions on Ahmadreza Djalali and Nioloufar Bayani that push them to stand on the brink of survival simply because they pursued what they loved to do: research and exchange of knowledge.

This is why, as a group of Italian and international students, we decided to take part in a Students’ Advocacy Seminar, organized at our university, whereby we were able to master our understanding of what academic freedom is and how it is jeopardized around the world; and to focus on specific cases of scholars who have been imprisoned on the basis of unjust accusations.

In the context of the seminar we had the opportunity to learn about the challenges and skills needed to conduct advocacy activities; and to master our understanding of the Iranian context with prof. Giuseppe Acconcia. We also discussed academic freedom from sociological perspectives with prof. E. Gallo from the University of Trento and Dr. A. Vatansever from Humboldt University Berlin, who shared her personal experience as an example of how she managed to cope with being an at-risk Turkish scholar in exile, and how she survived during the hardship of a period of crisis. We also had a meeting with prof. Silvia Bruzzi, a researcher specialized in the social history of North-east Africa and the relationship between Islam, Italian colonialism, and gender dynamics.
Furthermore we shared practices with students from around the world who are working, as we are, to promote academic freedom. We met students from the University of Dundee, who have been working, like us, on the case of Dr. Djajali; and we had a joint-lecture with Professor Nancy Postero and her students, from UC San Diego, who have been working on behalf of a scholar in Bahrain. Then we started to organize a campaign: tools and communication strategy with Amnesty International Padova; feedback on our Advocacy Plan from Adam Braver (coordinator of all SAR Students’ Advocacy Seminars); inspiration from prof. Alejandra Gonza and her students from the University of Washington, to hear about the advocacy campaign developed in collaboration with SAR in support of Dr. Nioloufar Bayani.

We, students of the Padua University, feel compelled to act for the freedom of research and the sharing of knowledge on behalf of threatened members of the global higher education community who are facing unjust restrictions, prosecution or imprisonment. So at the end of our course we decided to share our achievements and conclude our work, completely conducted online during the lock down times of the Covid pandemic, by organising a public online meeting.
This online event – titled “Raising awareness of academic freedom” - took place on June 30 2020 and was organized by students and professors of the SAR Students’ Advocacy Seminar in the collaboration with Amnesty International (Italy) and Scholars at Risk Network (Italy) .
The meeting was inaugurated by professor Alessandro Paccagnella, vice-rector of International Relations at the University of Padova. Prof. Paccagnella started out by marking the importance of academic freedom by referring to our university’s motto Universa Universis Patavina Libertas (Paduan freedom is universal for everyone). This is a very strong position which reflects the real intention of why we, as students of this university, decided to launch a campaign to support and liberate imprisoned academics. Then we students attending the advocacy seminar had a chance to present our work and at the same time used this occasion to promote our advocacy campaigns, articulated through the creation and integration of Wikipedia pages devoted to professors Djalali and Bayani in different languages; the invitation to join the hashtag #saveahmadreza #saveniloufar campaigns; and to participate in the symbolic presentation by changing the profile picture on our social media profiles. After we presented our activities, we were honoured to receive comments from Annunziata Marinari (Campaign officer at Amnesty International Italy) and Luigi Manconi (Senator of the Italian Republic and founder of the Association “A Buon Diritto Onlus”), who shared their precious experience in conducting advocacy campaigns. Their feedback is very important for us, because we now feel we can improve and maximize the effectiveness of our advocacy campaigns based on their comments and suggestions. The guest speakers highlighted the importance of public awareness, especially in the Italian context. Since Prof. Djalali is not Italian, though he’s worked in Italy at the University of Piedmont, it is very challenging to gain the public support, not to mention the support of Italian public institutions such as the Parliament and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. By starting from the local level of municipality and our own university to then engage with a wider audience – our guests suggested – our campaigns could have more impact. Another key element we are now fully aware of, is how to ensure the continuity of these advocacy activities because for some cases patience and time are crucial and needed. Many advocacy campaigns to protect fundamental human rights need to be conducted repeatedly and continuously. In the case of imprisoned scholars, a ‘handover process’ to the next Students’ Advocacy Seminars may be essential, as suggested by professors Ester Gallo and Donata Borgonovo, who were sharing the experience of Scholars at Risk seminar at the University of Trento. Finally, we hope this online meeting we have organized may also stimulate a new interesting initiative, such as the organization of a “Giornata Nazionale di Advocacy” (National Day of Advocacy), where the students from different universities who work on advocacy projects can meet and share their experience with other colleagues, and with institutions.
All in all, this online seminar as well as the entire advocacy workshop were very productive and effective, even though we experinced all this in the challenging times of pandemic. We got a lot of impressive inputs from many people in the different institutional contexts which would be meaningful for us to improve our future advocacy campaigns in support of professors Ahmadreza Djalali and Nioloufar Bayani, who suffered from health problems and endangerment to their lives. It was an obvious choice to take up their cases. This reality for the professors is neither a game nor research. After all, it is not simply about two study cases. Human lives are on the line. We are now fully aware that the online meeting we have organized is only the beginning and our work has just started.

Danyil Trus, Evy Elfira Natasya Saputri, Achira Veerapadungphol