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Ambassador Power at the 80th Anniversary of the University in Exile

U.S. Mission to the UN - New York, N.Y.



Greetings to you all. I am delighted and most honored to be here and be part of this event, to see so many friends. I don’t get out much, in my current job.

In my life, I have had the privilege of wearing many hats—as a student, professor, journalist, human rights advocate, writer, diplomat, and mother. Each of these vocations—and I am discovering especially the last — are intimately connected to the principle of free expression. So, I feel especially privileged to join with you today in celebrating the 80th anniversary of the University in Exile.

Galileo once said, quote, “Of all the hatreds none is greater than that of ignorance against knowledge.” End quote. Ignorance just can’t stand knowledge.

This is why the University in Exile has made such a difference, why education can be so very threatening to the status quo, and preserving space for academic debate and civil society is a critical pillar of U.S. foreign policy. These are the themes I’d like to discuss with you today.

The history of the University in Exile illustrates the lengths to which small men have gone to stifle debate and expression. But it also shows the resilience and determination of education’s champions. Those who knew that, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen—as one must always do at the New School—learning could be the crack through which the light would get in. Conceived at a time when darkness was descending across Europe, the university enabled brilliant individuals to re-start their careers; it fostered renewal amid decay; and it drew a stark contrast between the moral emptiness of Nazi ideology and the intellectual richness of academic freedom.

In 1933, when the National Socialists seized power in Berlin, non-Aryans were barred from positions of public leadership, leaving a generation of Jewish German scholars without a home. As Hitler and his ilk burned books, jailed adversaries, and prepared to extinguish every glimmer of the Enlightenment, many professors and researchers were abandoned by peers, scorned by neighbors, and deprived of income. Some saw that they were in danger of losing their lives. They couldn’t remain in Germany, but where could they go? Who would take them?

The man who provided an answer was a middle-aged Nebraskan with a love for German literature and a fierce commitment to liberal education. His name was Alvin Johnson. In 1919, he had helped to establish a haven for academic exploration known as the New School for Social Research. And this college was partly a protest against the jingoism then infecting other universities in the United States, and partly a symptom of hope that fresh ideas could save the world from a second Great War. From its first days, even before it became a refuge, the New School was accused of providing a platform for the advocates of such “subversive” concepts as justice, peace, and critical thinking.

Given this starting point, it should have been no surprise when, as the Nazi stranglehold tightened, Alvin Johnson began inviting endangered German scholars to join with him in adding a graduate school to the New School. “The world is quick to forgive invasions of academic liberty,” wrote Johnson, but “it will never forgive Hitler as long as we have a working University in Exile.”

The results of the initiative were stunning. Within just a few years, the leading edge of European thinking on social sciences shifted from Berlin, Leipzig, and Vienna to lower Manhattan. The arriving scholars brought with them a vast reservoir of knowledge but also a sensibility far less complacent than prevailing attitudes in the United States. These were people who had seen fascism up close, and who knew that “evil” was not just a subject for classes on metaphysics; it was a living, growing real-world threat. Because of the intellectual energy of the exiles in residence, the New School became not just a center of learning; it became a center of warning. The exiles warned that Europe’s problems would embroil America not only surely, but soon.

The history of the University in Exile and the New School only underscores a larger point: promoting academic freedom and pluralistic education are not a luxury for any of us; they are essential to preserving free society. And we cannot forget for a second what we’re up against. Since the age of Socrates, teaching has been a dangerous profession. Inquiring minds have been considered threats. When, as frequently happens, wisdom challenges power, the wielders of authority are always tempted to suppress those who raise doubts. Ancient monarchs didn’t even pretend their positions were born of merit or logic; they just asserted divine right. Leaders of more recent vintage who want to avoid debate have simply camouflaged their agendas in nationalist zeal. If you seek to pervert truth or define it all by yourself, you have to start by outlawing free expression and debate.

And this starts in the sphere of education, because it is education that shapes the kinds of citizens we each become. In the 1930s, Thomas Mann, who had fled Berlin for Prague, described Nazi schooling as “an inexorable first draft of what the Germany of the future is to be”—excuse me, “what the German of the future is to be,” end quote. He wrote that students were taught to kneel before the state, despise Jews, look down on their Slav neighbors, and immerse themselves in preparedness for war. Day after day, the children of the Reich were puffed up by the news that God had chosen their race to dominate and that tomorrow would thus belong to them.

Today, we see too many cases of indoctrination masquerading as education; those in authority exploiting the very curiosity and malleability of a child’s wonderment to create pawns. Those who try to create a world in which gray is black and all else is white. In North Africa and the Near East, we see young boys being taught an upside-down version of reality and urged by Al Qaeda and its affiliates to volunteer for suicide missions.

In Pakistan, three weeks ago, a 15 year old ninth-grader named Aitzaz Hasan was on his way to school when he was approached by another youth, about the same age, wearing the same school uniform, and asking for directions. Aitzaz grew suspicious, and the second boy turned to flee. When Aitzaz tried to tackle the boy, it set off a bomb that the boy had planned to detonate in Aitzaz’s school, where more than a thousand students were studying. If Aitzaz had not intervened at the cost of his life, one can only imagine the large-scale carnage that would have resulted amongst school children.

And of course, the most notorious example of the assault on education that exists in corners of the world came when 15 year old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head simply for insisting on her right to attend school alongside her boy neighbors.

By contrast, we see educators all around the world nurturing in their students a hunger for information, which helps groom citizens who learn to inquire about corruption, pollution, inequality, and fair electoral practices. We see education providing the mother’s milk of innovation. And although not every new idea is a good one, the drive to challenge old assumptions is what fuels progress. Consider that if the conventional wisdom had never been stirred up, we might still believe that the sun revolves around the earth; that slavery is part of the natural order; that blood-letting is the proper treatment for every disease; that women are fragile vessels; that homosexuality is a psychological disorder; and that we can make it rain by dancing. We might even think—as do too many of our contemporaries—that climate change is a myth, and that the Holocaust never happened.

This contest between official fiat and organic debate, between mandated truths and generative pluralism, is one that is happening every minute of every day somewhere around the world. We are well into the 21st century, yet independent, scientific and objective thinkers—the Galileos of our age—are still in jeopardy. Intellectual freedom is still opposed. Scholars, journalists and truth tellers of all descriptions continue to meet resistance and require sustained help. So we have to ask ourselves: what is our responsibility? What do each of us owe to the endangered educators and reformers of our time?

And for the answer, we need not look far. In the past eight decades, the sparks ignited by the University in Exile have become a flame casting a steady light. Even though no single institution has the deep pockets and the global reach to aid scholars everywhere, the academic community as a whole can assist thousands at a time.

That help can come in a variety of forms, from a permanent position in exile, to a temporary stipend for study abroad, to material support for a student or professor in his or her home country, to a simple letter of support for a visa application.

Among those leading this effort is a dynamic duo of programs in which the New School participates. One is the Scholar Rescue Fund—or SRF—sponsored by the Institute of International Education. A second is the Scholars at Risk Network, hosted by New York University. These initiatives act as a bridge connecting academic professionals who face harassment to places where they can continue their careers, continue their learning, continue their teaching.

A good example of someone who has been helped is Abdul Sattar Jawad, a university dean and news editor whose Baghdad office was fire bombed by terrorists in 2005. The Scholars at Risk Network put Professor Sattar in touch with the SRF, which helped finance a post at Duke where he still teaches, now established as one of our country’s experts on Shakespeare.

Thirteen years ago, Professor Mehrangiz Kar was arrested in Iran for advocating constitutional reform. After her time in prison, she was able, with the help of SRF, to become a fellow at Harvard University’s Carr Center for human rights policy, where she was a colleague of mine. She is a go-to analyst on human rights in Iran and has taught at Brown, although her dream is one day to return and work freely in her home country.

Dr. Paul Ndebele was forced to leave Zimbabwe in 2003, when unrest created by the Mugabe regime made it impossible for him to continue his research in bioethics. With help from the SRF, he has found work with leading academic institutions in the United States, Italy, South Africa, Malawi, and Botswana. His goal, too, is to return to his native land and try to improve the life of his fellow citizens.

Six years ago, in Burma, Dr. Myint Oo offered on-site medical care to protestors injured during the unsuccessful Saffron Revolution. After thirty years of advocating public health as a human right, he was forced into exile. With aid from the Scholars at Risk Network, he began teaching at Tufts and later at the University College in Cork. In 2011, he returned to Burma where he established a local chapter for Physicians for Human Rights.

Few professions are more dangerous in some countries than that of journalists. In Colombia in the last decade, Daniel Coronell insisted on trying to expose the connections between drug traffickers and powerful politicians. He began receiving threats that included a funeral wreath inscribed with the name of his wife and a description of the clothes his six-year-old daughter was wearing to school. The menacing e-mails were traced to the computer of a powerful former senator, but no legal action was taken. The SRF enabled Coronell to come to the United States as a visiting scholar at Berkeley and Stanford, and eventually resume his journalism career at the Spanish-language network Univision, based in Miami, Florida.

One attribute of a good idea is that it sets a precedent for others. Early last decade, when the authorities in Belarus challenged the independence of the European Humanities University, the students and faculty fought back by creating a university in exile in neighboring Lithuania. This resurrection was assisted by a choir of philanthropic angels, including George Soros and Jonathan Fanton. The revived school remains a center of learning for young people who can’t obtain a serious education at home. As one student recently told the BBC, “In Belarus, we had to memorize vast quantities of information, but nobody encouraged us to ask questions. Here it is totally different.”

In war-torn Syria, higher education is among the many victims of today’s bloody conflict. The principal universities in Damascus and Aleppo have been bombed; professors and students have been detained, tortured and killed. The Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis has asked universities to step up, and many are responding by rescuing scholars and arranging special programs for refugees.

But the needs are overwhelming, and if the war cannot be brought to an end, it is likely that millions of young people will be denied the tools of knowledge in a part of the world that once served as a cradle of civilization.

All this is but a sampling, as you know. Every week, we see new reports of scholars being imprisoned or harassed in such countries as Iran and Turkey, Sudan and Vietnam, China and Egypt. In Egypt, Emad Shahin, a former professor at Harvard and Notre Dame, is among the many academics who had hoped to play a role in shaping a democratic new future and who now finds himself, like others, subject to absurd charges of having undermined national security. These events are disturbing, and in each case, the US government comes down on the side of academic freedom. This is vital because of the individuals we are able to help, but also because of the fundamental principle we uphold: the necessity of academic pluralism, both to freedom and to stability.

It was said of Alvin Johnson that throughout, “his eventful life he always sided with the weaker ones, fought against majorities for minorities, and stood up against oppression in the name of the persecuted.”

That is an inspiration to us, but it’s also a challenge to do all we can: not simply to rescue endangered scholars but to create a world in which scholars are not endangered in the first place, and in which no true university needs to conduct its business in exile.

This means honoring our obligation not simply to university professors, but also to young people who need help around the world in accessing basic educational opportunities because of the barriers of poverty, abuse, discrimination, and strife. Consider, for example, the case of Mali, where the university in Timbuktu was once a glittering center of Pan-Islamic scholarship and where today two-thirds of the country’s people are illiterate and the majority of children have never seen the inside of a school.

Think, as well, of the famous “Lost Boys of Sudan,” many of whom came to America as children, received an education, and have since returned to build the new South Sudan, only to experience, in recent weeks, the assault of ethnic violence. We do not need—nor can we accept—another lost generation in Sudan and South Sudan.

At the start of the century, in the year 2000, all the countries of the world came together—as they rarely do—at the United Nations to agree on a set of landmark goals, one of which was to guarantee access to primary education for every boy and girl. In the years since, we have made significant progress, with primary school enrollment rates now reaching more than 90%. Still, more than 57 million school age children do not have the opportunity to spend their days learning in a classroom, and fifty percent of those who do not have this privilege live in areas that have been ravaged by conflict.

And as we turn now to negotiate new international goals for after-2015—goals that will shape the development agenda in the years to come—we cannot forget the importance of making education, a quality education, available to all. Those of us blessed everyday to see our kids’ faces shine with the light of recognition and pride that comes with new learning owe it to mothers and fathers everywhere to do what we can to give their children access to schooling.

More broadly, we have a stake today in resisting what has become a massive global crackdown on civil society and in fighting back against those anywhere in the world who employ the instruments of coercion to curtail free expression, incite hate, and impose their own definition of truth. In this day and age, universities are but one source of knowledge generation and fresh ideas. Journalists, activists, philanthropists—indeed, anybody with access to a blog, a twitter account, or a computer—can make their voices heard. But today’s free debate and freedom of assembly are under attack from a sophisticated, well-resourced effort to inhibit civil society’s right to organize, to speak freely, and to advocate peacefully for change.

Within the past five years alone, literally dozens of countries have enacted new laws or regulations aimed at restricting the activities of civil society. Some use Soviet-style euphemisms to equate legitimate dissent with subversion or treason. Some demand that non-governmental organizations be registered and then they delay acting on the applications. Some ban foreign non-governmental groups from operating and then criminalize contact between a domestic NGO and a foreign funder. Some use government-controlled media to vilify a whole sector of non-governmental organizations, such as those working on behalf of democracy, LGBT rights, women’s empowerment, or a marginalized religious or ethnic group. And some governments simply arrest civil society leaders, fabricate evidence, rig the trials, and send innocent people to jail. You have heard of sharing best practices, what we are seeing all around the world now is a very, very sophisticated sharing of worst practices.

President Obama has urged us to contest this crack down all over the world. And each day, American diplomats make known our backing for the right of people to express themselves freely in the classroom, in academic and research journals, in the books they publish, and the speeches they give. This is seen in the reports we publish each year on human rights practices, in public statements that our diplomats make, in student exchange programs that we sponsor, in the meetings that senior U.S. officials arrange when we travel, and in the bilateral pressure we put on other governments, including friendly governments. Some of our initiatives are highly visible; others take place behind the scenes; some are statements of broad policy; others may be no more than a tweet calling attention to a particular scholar, an activist, an organizer, or a journalist at risk. All are motivated by our core belief in the fundamental importance of freedom of expression, at the university and well beyond it.

Of course we here at home also have to practice what we preach. We have to help students in America develop a comfort with complexity, a commitment to civility even in the face of heated debate and polarized politics, and a reverence for the voyage of discovery that extends to the last breath of life.

It was for that purpose of preserving the right of independent inquiry that the New School was founded and the University in Exile created. It is by that means that democracy is deepened and human progress sustained, and it is to that end that we pledge this afternoon the full measure of our continued devotion.

Thank you so much.

- Cross posted from the U.S. Mission to the UN

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