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Inside Higher Ed
Elizabeth Redden

In an urgent effort to save a critical mass of scholars unlike any initiative undertaken since World War II, the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund is finalizing plans to rescue hundreds of Iraqi professors beginning in the coming months.

“We consider it to be the first large-scale effort of its kind since the 1930s, when IIE’s Emergency Rescue Committee rescued over 300 senior European scholars and brought them to safety in the United States,” said Jim Miller, director of strategic partnerships for the Scholar Rescue Fund (which also awards renewable, one-year fellowships to scholars from all over the world when they can’t safely stay in their home countries based on an application process).

IIE — which has a history of rescuing scholars that can be traced back to the Russian Revolution — is aiming to award two-year fellowships to 200 senior scholars, most of whom are professors, to teach and conduct research at institutions in Jordan and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Through the use of distance learning technologies, the professors will be able to connect with their students back in Iraq while working with students from the respective host countries and displaced Iraqis living throughout the region. The specific number of scholars to be assisted may change, as logistics are still being worked out. But the rescue effort, in focusing on a large group at once, represents a dramatic departure from IIE’s previous efforts to offer international fellowships to individual Iraqi scholars — 41 so far — on a case-by-case basis.

And arguably not a moment too soon: IIE’s president and CEO, Allan E. Goodman, said Friday that the institute has been in communication with the Iraqi minister of higher education, who has identified hundreds of scholars with specific death threats against them. That cooperation is part of what is unusual about this initiative — such efforts often focus on helping professors in conflict with their governments. But Iraq is obviously facing a unique and more urgent predicament: some estimates put the number of Iraqi professors killed since 2003 at around 300, although Goodman said that number is likely deflated as hundreds more are missing or kidnapped.

“The Iraq situation is the closest we’ve come to the Holocaust” in terms of systematic attacks on professors, Goodman said. “The terrorist groups seem to be trying to wipe out the intellectual capital of what was once Iraq.”

IIE receives more requests for assistance from Iraqi scholars than from others located anywhere else, said Sarah Willcox, director of program operations for the Scholar Rescue Fund, which has provided 134 scholars from 37 countries with fellowships since its founding in 2002. “Iraqi scholars by sheer numbers are the most threatened in the world.”

The Scholar Rescue Fund hopes to place as many professors as possible in neighboring Jordan, although IIE officials are looking more broadly to the entire Middle Eastern and North African regions, and may also work with American or European universities with connections to specific scholars. An April 2007 Human Rights Watch publication estimates that Jordan is home to about 800,000 Iraqi nationals, the vast majority of whom are refugees (though few are officially recognized as such). By teaching in Jordan, a country that in many ways has been strained by the influx of refugees, the professors will ideally be able to work with the Iraqi diaspora, IIE officials said, and will still remain close to home so they can return should the conflict end.

Some of the concerns surrounding the relocation of Iraq’s educated elite involve the tension inherent between the need to ensure their immediate physical safety, and the benefit they could potentially bring to any rebuilding effort should they stay.

“We’re simply preserving intellectual capital person by person,” said Goodman, “and keeping them in the region so they can return home when the conflict is over.”