Difference Maker

People making a difference: Robert Quinn

When scholars face threats, this global networker finds them safer places to do their work.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    An Indian professor meets with Robert Quinn, founder and executive director of Scholars at Risk, in New York.
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Robert Quinn has a plane to catch. He also has to write a speech for a conference in the Netherlands. But first he has to help a student from Azerbaijan get to a safe place. Because that's what Mr. Quinn does: He saves scholars from danger.

"I just help the people who are helping other people," says Quinn. As founder and executive director of Scholars at Risk (SAR), Quinn and his small staff match scholars with a network of more than 200 universities and colleges in 26 countries. The goal? To find a place where academics can work free from threats to their physical, emotional, and professional safety.

The SAR team takes threats to scholars seriously. For example, in September 2001, Prof. Dayan Dawood, dean of Syiah Kuala University in Aceh, Indonesia, spoke publicly about the university's need to provide neutral space to discuss peaceful resolution to the political violence in his country. Four days later, he was assassinated.

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"We're trying to build a better world through promoting respect for knowledge and the free exchange of ideas," Quinn says.

As in the case of Taslima Nasrin, who first had her life threatened in 1994 in her native Bangladesh. Her crime? Writing about women's rights. Later, in 2008, while living in her adopted country, India, she again had her life threatened by religious fanatics when she continued to write and speak about women's freedom. She cannot return to either country. Now a SAR scholar at New York University (NYU), she says, "SAR came to my aid by helping me to survive in a new land."

Universities must operate freely because they stand on the front lines of change, Quinn says. For any society to progress, scholars must have the freedom to come together with thinkers from other countries to exchange ideas and discoveries, he says.

But sometimes those advanced new ideas threaten entrenched regimes. Consequently, those with the ideas must either go silent or face persecution.

Recognizing the urgent need to help scholars find havens, Quinn began work on his project in 1999. With seed money from the MacArthur Foundation, he officially launched SAR as a nonprofit in 2000. Today SAR operates from offices at NYU. The university hosts the headquarters and has become active in bringing scholars such as Ms. Nasrin to campus.

Scholars at Risk focuses on two areas: First, it works to help individuals who face threats ranging from harassment to death. Ideally, SAR tries to help people remain safely in their own countries. If that can't happen, then SAR either matches them with a position as a professor or lecturer at a university or helps them enroll in a relevant academic program.

"For lack of a better word," Quinn says, "we call this our 'sanctuary work.' "

The second part of SAR's efforts focuses on finding long-term solutions. Through research, workshops, and forming partnerships around the world, SAR looks at the root causes of why some groups in a society (not just governments) want to prevent the free exchange of ideas. The reasons might include cultural divisions, commercial interests, gender prejudice, or religious differences. (Think of the Taliban throwing acid at young girls walking to school. Or the imprisonment of hundreds of professors following the elections in Iran.)

Sometimes, governments themselves will partner with SAR. In Colombia, for example, when paramilitary groups targeted certain scholars, the government couldn't help them, but SAR could.

Those applying for aid, Quinn says, must meet two simple criteria: They must be scholars and be at risk. "To me, education is the silver bullet," he says. "When we defend these scholars, we tap into the power of education to transform the world for the better."

After majoring in politics at Princeton University and graduating from Fordham Law School, Quinn knew he wanted to work on behalf of human rights.

"I grew up in a relatively privileged environment," he says. "But by the time I got to university, I saw a big disconnect between simple lessons like the golden rule that my parents instilled in me and the injustice I saw all around."

Quinn says he didn't have any thunderbolt moments of insight about his future. Rather, he just knew that "basically, I couldn't pretend I didn't see the disconnect. I had to do something."

The "something" that Quinn pursues changes lives. "I always say, 'It is a big difference to be at Harvard than to be in prison in my home, Syria,' " says Prof. Radwan Ziadeh, now a fellow at Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. "SAR has given me the atmosphere to continue my research. I've completed my book, which will be published next year. And I've participated in more than 25 conferences and workshops, nationally and internationally."

If Professor Ziadeh tried to return to Syria, he would face a warrant for his arrest.

"These scholars keep going when most of us wouldn't," Quinn says. "Which is why I think of us as people making a difference to people making a real difference. They're courageous, extraordinary people."

Today, SAR manages between 50 and 75 cases a year. Even after 10 years, its caseload never shrinks. No sooner do Quinn and his team find placement for one scholar, when another threat or need arises.

The applicant might come from Burma, Zimbabwe, or Pakistan. But one thing's certain: A desperate call will come. And when it does, Quinn and his team will find the right place for that imperiled scholar somewhere in the world. Before the clock runs out.

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