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Stanford’s long history in supporting displaced academics during crisis, conflict

Halil Yenigun

One scholar who recently came to study and research at Stanford is the Turkish political scientist Halil Ibrahim Yenigün, who had to leave his home country because of a government crackdown against dissenting academics.

Mar 16 2021

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Research

Through the Institute of International Education, Stanford has hosted displaced scholars who have had to escape conflict or flee persecution because of their research, race or creed for nearly a century. Stanford Global Studies has been the academic home to many of these displaced scholars over the last two decades.

From escaping ethnic conflict in war-torn countries to fleeing oppression by autocratic regimes, there are scholars from around the world who have found their life, and their life’s work, in serious jeopardy.

“We find ourselves at a really challenging moment in history where the liberalization that we’ve seen around the world – freedom of speech, freedom of association, growing intellectual freedom – has really been put into reverse,” said Jeremy Weinstein, a professor in political science and director of the Stanford Global Studies Division (SGS) that has been the academic home to many of the displaced scholars to arrive at Stanford over the past two decades.For almost a century, Stanford has worked with the Institute of International Education (IIE), an independent not-for-profit organization, to provide some of these researchers a refuge from their dangerous predicaments.

The first scholar to come to Stanford through the IIE was renowned physicist Felix Bloch who fled Nazi persecution.  More recently, scholars have come to Stanford from countries including Belarus, China, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe – countries that have experienced civil unrest and conflict. These scholars receive funding from Stanford and also the Scholar Rescue Fund, a program IIE formally established in 2002 to place scholars who have faced or have recently fled from immediate, targeted threats to their lives or careers at institutions across the world.

“Globally, we’re seeing the rise of authoritarian leaders and the growth of populism that is silencing people’s independent voices,” Weinstein said. “Some of that really affects people who sit in university environments, which are really the bastions of free speech and intellectual debate and deliberation.”

Stanford as a safe haven

Stanford’s relationship with the Institute of International Education began in 1934 when renowned physicist, Felix Bloch, came to campus through the organization.

Bloch, who was Jewish, had been teaching in Leipzig, Germany, when Adolf Hitler came to power. Because of the rise of anti-Semitism and Nazism, Bloch jumped from country to country – Zurich, Paris, Rome and Copenhagen – as he figured out his next move.

Unbeknownst to Bloch, the mathematician John von Neumann added Bloch’s name to a list of German scholars threatened by the Nazi regime. The list was sent to the Academic Assistance Council in England where it was then passed onto a group IIE established at the time called the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars.

Through that list, Bloch received an offer from David Webster, the chair of the Physics Department at Stanford, to come to California and teach at Stanford. Bloch became the school’s first professor of theoretical physics. His scholarship on nuclear magnetic resonance, the science behind the MRI, resulted in a Nobel Prize for Bloch, an award he shared with Harvard physicist Edward Purcell, in 1952.

During World War II, Stanford also took in other European scholars facing persecution from the Nazi regime, including Hermann Fraenkel, a German scholar of early Greek philology and Gabriel Gábor Szegő, a Hungarian mathematician.

Suppressing government dissent

One scholar who recently came to study and research at Stanford is the Turkish political scientist Halil Ibrahim Yenigün, who had to leave his home country because of a government crackdown against dissenting academics.

In 2016, Yenigün signed a petition, organized by a group called Academics for Peace, that called for an end to the state violence against Kurds living in Turkey’s southeastern region. In the petition, signatories also offered to work with the government to create a roadmap to achieve lasting peace, as well as their services as human rights observers in the region.

Yenigün knew supporting the petition was risky but he felt he had to sign it. “The political situation and state of democracy in Turkey had started deteriorating and it became obvious to me that I had to do something,” he said.

A new wave of activism had emerged in Turkey following the Gezi Park protests. In 2013, environmental activists had staged a sit-in against the Turkish government’s plan to demolish Gezi Park, a city garden in Istanbul, and build a shopping center in its place. After demonstrators were violently forced out, people from across the country took to the streets to protest the rise of anti-democratic policies and the country’s strongman leader, president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

These events also led to more aggressive suppression against government dissent, Yenigün explained. So when Yenigün signed the Academics for Peace petition, he knew he was making a statement not just about Kurdish politics, but also about the rise of authoritarianism in his home country.

“Erdoğan was on a very clear track to establish one-man rule and we just felt like we had to stop him. We had to do anything we could,” Yenigün said.

Within hours of Yenigün signing the petition, President Erdoğan appeared on national TV condemning the scholars’ actions. And within days, Yenigün was suspended from his position at Istanbul Commerce University and eventually fired after a newspaper columnist targeted Yenigün not once but twice in their column.

Yenigün was one among many Turkish academics removed from their teaching posts. Some scholars had their homes raided by the police, others were criminally charged and sentenced to prison.

To continue his academic research, Yenigün had no choice but to leave Turkey. He found a one-year postdoctoral position at the Transregional Studies Forum in Berlin. It was then he connected with the IIE and the Scholar Rescue Fund where he was offered a two-year fellowship in the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies program in the Stanford Global Studies Division.

“The position helped me get back to my research,” Yenigün reflected, adding that being part of an academic community was incredibly valuable. At Stanford, Yenigün taught several courses, participated in workshops and spoke at various events.

After Yenigün’s fellowship ended in 2019, he was a lecturer at both Stanford and UC Berkeley during the 2019-2020 academic year. Currently, he is a lecturer in the Political Science Department at San Jose State University.

Precarious, vulnerable positions

While Yenigün was able to share his experiences with the wider public, other researchers who come to Stanford through the Scholar Rescue Fund are unable to speak up, said Jovana Lazić Knežević, associate director of the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies (CREEES), which has hosted more than half of the displaced scholars arriving at Stanford since 2002. Some must eventually return home to their country, Knežević said, and any public exposure would endanger their lives. Others worry that coming forward could put their families back home in a vulnerable position.

Knezevic noted that there is also another group of academic refugees: scholars who face persecution, not for their scholarship but simply for who they are.

For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, Stanford worked with IIE through their South African Education Program (SAEP) to bring Black students from South Africa who were denied education opportunities because of apartheid policies. One SAEP student was Jonathan Jansen, who studied at Cornell University before coming to Stanford for his doctoral studies. Jansen went on to become the first black president of the University of the Free State (UFS), a historically white-only institution in Bloemfontein, South Africa that was desegregated post-apartheid.

“There are scholars who are persecuted because of their ethnic or religious identities. Regardless of what their avenue of academic inquiry is – they don’t even necessarily need to be actively politically opposing a regime,” she said.

While scholars like Yenigün have found their experience at Stanford incredibly helpful, the Stanford community also benefits from their presence, said Knežević.

“One of the things that’s really valuable about bringing these scholars to Stanford is that we learn from them,” she said. “We benefit from the ideas they bring from different parts of the globe, but also from their experiences of what it’s like to live and work in a society that doesn’t afford them the same kind of freedom of thought and expression.”

The Global Studies Division is part of Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences. Stanford support for displaced scholars has depended on the collaborative efforts of staff and faculty in departments, centers and offices across campus.