UTC students work on advocacy in real life by helping scholars at risk

Scholars at Risk is an international network of institutions and individuals whose mission it is to protect scholars and promote academic freedom. (Getty Images)

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› What: Film screening and discussion presented by students in “Scholars and Journalists at Risk” class› When: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 29› Where: Derthick 101, UTC campus› Admission: Free

photo Scholars at Risk is an international network of institutions and individuals whose mission it is to protect scholars and promote academic freedom. (Getty Images)

For some of the students in Dr. Jessica Auchter's "Scholars and Journalists at Risk" Honors College class at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the course was little more than a way to fulfill a credit need and get them closer to graduating.

Others saw it as a way to get a glimpse into the worlds of advocacy, freedom of speech and human rights in other countries. Some, like Mesha Seay, saw it as a way to do several things.

None, however, thought it would touch so closely to real life with actual life-and-death consequences.

For Seay, a junior, signing up for the course was about both getting needed hours and about studying something that interested her.

"I was intrigued because it was a field of study that I don't get to really experience with my choice of major, but that is what the Honors College is all about - taking the opportunity to learn about something you don't normally get to learn in your field of study.

"But (I took it) also because I've always been interested in doing advocacy work. It's something I think I want to get into in my field, which is health care, and also I want to go into health policies in my work, so the class makes sense."

About Scholars at Risk

“Scholars at Risk is an international network of institutions and individuals whose mission it is to protect scholars and promote academic freedom.”— scholarsatrisk.org

Auchter, a political science and public service teacher at the school, said she really didn't know how the course would play out when she conceived it last year or even when it first met back in August. She and the class of 20 students have been working with Scholars At Risk, an international network of universities and people that works to protect scholars and individual freedoms. It is based at New York University.

Auchter heard about Scholars At Risk from a Turkish colleague. Last year, the program helped to bring to UTC an at-risk Iranian scholar who had fled his country a few years ago. At-risk can mean everything from being fired to being imprisoned or even executed.

Auchter said the UTC Honors College encourages professors to create elective courses that are not part of the normal curriculum, and she came up with the idea for "Scholars and Journalists at Risk" at the end of last year.

In the class are communications, political science, health care and other majors. The class spent the first part of the semester studying free speech and human-rights issues around the world to get a sense of the history of the topics. They also began thinking about which of the nearly 300 scholars and journalists from around the world that Scholars At Risk has in their database that they might want to advocate for.

The fact that Iran doesn't have diplomatic relations with the United States currently was an issue, but Auchter said having an Iranian scholar on campus was considered a counter balance to that.

"We talked about some of the trade-offs for how to select the scholars," Auchter said. "There were obstacles for each of the cases we could have worked on. We had a full class discussion on just that."

They chose imprisoned Iranian scholars Jamid Babaei and Ahmadreza "Ahmad" Djalali, both of whom have been charged with conspiring against the Iranian government and blasphemy.

Auchter told the students they would be figuring out the course curriculum as they proceeded. In essence, the class has been broken into three segments. They started out in a traditional manner looking at past cases, then moved on to looking at the particular cases. Things took a turn about a month ago when they received word that Djalali had been sentenced to death. That's when the students began focusing on advocacy.

"That moment that we received the information made it a little bit more real for the advocacy work going forward," Auchter said. "After that, what we were dealing with really was a matter of life and death. It was a turning-point moment in the semester for most of the students."

Since then they have had 200 (100 each) buttons bearing the slogans "Free Jamid" and "Save Ahmad." They've also sent about 35 emails to local and state representatives.

"To date, we have gotten one automated response saying they had received the email, and that's it," Boehm said.

The class also broke up into four groups: media, event planning, political outreach and film. The latter has been working on an 8- to 10-minute film featuring students talking about the two scholars.

It will be shown on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. in Derthick 101 on the campus. It will include a discussion of the work and a question-and-answer period. The entire event, from lining up the room to designing the poster and pins to arranging for refreshments has been orchestrated by the students.

The class is currently a one-time offering at UTC. The students realize that one semester is not enough time to get everything done they would like to, but they feel like the class and their work have made a difference in not only their own lives but in the lives of Djalali and Babaei. Auchter said that Scholars At Risk has found from previous such classes that shining a light on the plight of the academics or journalists can help.

"Shame is a powerful thing," she said.

Their work will be provided to Scholars At Risk and hopefully picked up by future classes even at other schools around the world.

"Even though this class is just a semester, I would like to see this sort of project assigned for classes in the future," student Sylvia Shipman said. "Maybe in a political science class. I don't know where else it would be integrated. I would like to see the work carried on. I think it's important.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

Course description

This course will focus on considering the problem of human rights and free speech in the world today. It will begin with philosophical and practical questions governing free speech in democracies and the suppression of speech in authoritarian regimes. We will then discuss persecution of journalists and academics as a way to study the dynamics of human rights and speech. We will do so in two ways: first, case studies where we will examine the causes of and explanations for crackdowns on journalists and academics as a way of studying the degeneration of democratic norms and institutions in these countries. The second way we will approach these topics is through in depth study and advocacy work. Students will work directly on research and advocacy for scholars at risk (academics who have been threatened, fired, or arrested based on their support for human rights or protest of their own governments). We will work together to generate reports on the status of particular individuals and contribute to advocacy on their behalf. The class requires a commitment to participation in research work associated with active and ongoing human rights violations in these countries, analytical written work, and an openness to engage difficult subjects and conversations.