A Continuing Engagement with Endangered and Excluded Scholars

Confronting political barriers that hinder the progress of knowledge

Institutions can flourish by finding innovative methods to affirm the most admirable ideals articulated at their foundings. Some of IAS’s greatest ideals reflect its origins in the 1930s, at the time of the Great Depression and the emergence of totalitarian and other non-democratic governments around the globe. When, in 1933, Germany’s National Socialists passed a law excluding non-Aryans and political dissidents from civil service jobs, the ensuing cataclysm resulted in a flood of German university professors seeking positions abroad. Urged on by Faculty members such as Oswald Veblen, the Institute ultimately responded by supporting assistance projects to help scholars endangered by Europe’s political upheaval. These initiatives were, as then-Director Abraham Flexner conceded in correspondence, partly self-interested steps for an institution committed to developing, at the highest levels, not only mathematics but fields of humanistic studies, politics, and economics. IAS was poised to take advantage of the situation created by the political crises abroad, but pragmatism was accompanied by idealism, and a dedication to challenging political barriers that hinder the pursuit of knowledge, as well as to providing a haven for individuals confronting such barriers, played a decisive role.

Early in 2017, after the issuance in the U.S. of an executive order banning immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, a group of Members from across IAS formed the “History Working Group” to research these early moments in the Institute’s existence and to affirm its “founding ethos in our precarious present.” The essay of which the current article is an excerpt continues the work of this group, by surveying outreach efforts in the Institute’s recent history. Attention to the less distant past is helpful for understanding how to uphold its finest ideals going forward, and, notably, it reveals that the Institute’s endeavors to support individuals hampered in their work by political obstacles has extended not only to endangered scholars but to scholars confronting structural forms of bias—including bias that is gender-, race-, class-, and geography-based—and who are for this reason at risk of exclusion from the pursuit of knowledge. This commitment to excluded or underrepresented scholars dates to the institution’s first years. Documents from the early 1930s, such as the Institute’s Certificate of Incorporation, assert that “in the appointments to the staff and faculty as well as in the admission of workers and students, no account shall be taken directly or indirectly, of race, religion, or sex.” This longstanding devotion to non-discrimination is reflected in the Institute’s continuing efforts to meet the challenges of reaching out to underrepresented groups.

Among the most notable challenges are those related to gender and race. Of the 112 individuals who have been appointed to the Faculty since 1930, eight have been women. The first woman member of the IAS Faculty was the archaeologist Hetty Goldman (1936–47). Half a century later, Joan Scott (1985–2014) in the School of Social Science was the second. More recently, these appointments have been complemented by those of Danielle Allen (2007–15) in Social Science and by Patricia Crone (1997–2014) and Caroline Walker Bynum (2003–2011) in Historical Studies. In the past years, two out of four Faculty appointments in Historical Studies have been women, Sabine Schmidtke (2014) and Francesca Trivellato (2018), as is the newest appointment in Social Science, Alondra Nelson (2019). Allen was the first African-American to serve on the IAS Faculty, and, when Nelson arrives at the Institute in July, she will be the second.

Summer schools as steps toward inclusion

Some of the Schools’ most visible and successful initiatives have been summer programs like Women and Mathematics (WAM), a residential summer program with outreach objectives, which recently received the American Mathematical Society’s Award for Mathematics Programs that Make a Difference. Now in its twenty-fifth year, WAM was founded and, for many years, organized by Chuu-Lian Terng, a Member (1979, 1997–98) in the School of Mathematics, and Karen Uhlenbeck, a current Visitor in the School who first met Terng as a Member in 1979. Uhlenbeck is the recipient of the 2019 Abel Prize in mathematics, the first woman to win this prestigious award, in recognition of the fundamental impact of her work on analysis, geometry, and mathematical physics. WAM, the summer program she cofounded, originally grew out of the Park City Mathematics Institute (PCMI), itself an IAS outreach program that started when Phillip Griffiths, now Professor Emeritus in the School of Mathematics, was Director of the Institute, and it targeted, among others, secondary and post-secondary mathematics educators. The inspiration for WAM came partly from the fact that, at PCMI, the percentage of women undergraduate students, graduate students, and mathematics researchers was very low, especially when compared to the number of women high school teachers of mathematics.

Uhlenbeck explains that, when WAM started, it struck her that the number of women in mathematics had grown during the 1960s and 1970s but had stagnated since. She wanted to design a program with an atmosphere welcoming of interactions among women in the profession and of conversations about careers and work-life balance. From its inception, WAM has been committed to reaching out to candidates, especially undergraduates, from smaller universities and colleges, with an eye to honoring and assisting those with excellent promise from less privileged backgrounds. The program, which consists of lectures, colloquia, and panels that are organized annually around a core topic in mathematics, brings together research mathematicians and women studying math at undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral levels. Some participate more than once, resulting in significant community building. Having grown from an initial cohort of fifteen participants to more than seventy, WAM recently launched an Ambassador Program to extend the network. This program will annually fund up to three postdoctoral or advanced graduate “ambassadorships” and up to six graduate “ambassadors” to organize conferences. Additionally, as Uhlenbeck notes, “a large percentage of women mathematicians who receive recognition has been associated with [WAM] in some way either as participants or lecturers” (for details, see www.math.ias.edu/wam/news).

Outreach efforts aimed at regional diversity

With an eye to fostering regional diversity in particular, the Institute has supported a number of projects in the sciences. This includes the Science Initiative Group (SIG), established at IAS in 1999. Cofounded by Director Griffiths, SIG aspired to provide guidance for the Millennium Science Initiative (MSI). This project supported centers of scientific excellence in the developing world by helping to fund master’s and doctoral programs at regional, university-based networks in sub-Saharan Africa. Nor is SIG the Institute’s only contribution to regional diversity in the sciences. IAS provides support to initiatives such as the recent Institute for Theoretical Physics in São Paulo, and, earlier, it supported the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste. Since its founding in 1962 by the late Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam, ICTP has been a leader in efforts to advance scientific expertise in the developing world.

Some of IAS’s initiatives to overcome obstacles to geographic diversity have been launched by the School of Social Science under the guidance of Didier Fassin. Since his 2009 appointment as James D. Wolfensohn Professor, Fassin has been troubled by the disproportionate number of Members from North America and Europe. He has led the School in broadening its recruitment efforts, reaching out to scholars in Africa, the Middle East, and South America, with the result that, since 2015, the School has been able to host at least one scholar from each of the six major continents every academic year. But the success of the endeavor has been partial, and Fassin has taken seriously hurdles for scholars coming from the developing world, including a lack of funding for sabbaticals. He organized a more accessible Institute experience in the form of a summer program, inaugurated in 2015, with nineteen scholars from Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. The program—funded in major part by the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond—ran over three years, with the same participants meeting for two weeks, each time in a different location, from 2015–17. The Mellon Foundation has now agreed to fund the program for at least six more years, to be organized in three two-year cycles. In each case, the first session will be hosted by Fassin at IAS, and, for the second, the group will be split, with one set hosted by Sarah Nuttall at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, where the proceedings will continue in English, and a second set hosted by Mara Viveros at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá, where the proceedings will be in Spanish.

Endangered scholars at IAS today

The Institute’s programs for reaching excluded scholars have coexisted with the continuation of its historical commitment to endangered scholars. The School of Social Science has played a guiding role, recruiting Members whose livelihoods, or lives, are threatened by authoritarian and repressive governments. Under Fassin’s leadership, the School has hosted five at-risk scholars. Three were co-funded by the Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF), an organization run by the Institute of International Education (IIE) that provides fellowships for endangered scholars.

Since its founding in 1919, the IIE has provided assistance to endangered scholars from Europe, Russia, Asia, and Africa. In 1933, the IIE founded the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German (later: Foreign) Scholars, on which sat both Flexner, the first Director of the IAS, and Veblen, a founding Professor of the Institute, who were driving forces behind the institution’s outreach to endangered scholars. The Emergency Committee assisted 330 scholars in moving to the United States, including IAS Professor Kurt Gödel, Visitor Emmy Noether, and many other prominent academics, like Richard Courant, founder of the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University, and novelist Thomas Mann. In 2002, the IIE founded the SRF to formalize its commitment to endangered scholars. SRF awards fellowships of one to two years to threatened academics, providing funds up to $25,000 to cover scholars’ stipends. The SRF has awarded more than a hundred fellowships to Syrian scholars since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011. Before Trump banned the issuance of visas to Syrian nationals, more than half of these scholars used their funding to come to the U.S.

The first at-risk scholar in the School of Social Science was selected in 2015. Inspired partly by the fruits of this first experience, Fassin brought in a second scholar at risk in 2016. A year later, three endangered academics from, respectively, sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, and a former Soviet Republic followed. One was affiliated with SRF, and the other two were funded by the School of Social Science. Recognizing the success of this project, the School of Historical Studies admitted a scholar at risk in 2017. Both Social Science and Historical Studies have taken steps to bring in more endangered scholars.

Looking forward in light of the past

In surveying IAS’s legacy of dedication to excluded and endangered scholars, we should bear in mind that the individual Schools face distinctive challenges. It is true that a diversity not only of regional perspectives but of perspectives related to race-, gender-, and class-based social identity can internally inform the kind of understanding sought by social and historical researchers. Although structural features of the disciplines affect the way scholars in different fields approach issues of inclusion, IAS’s Schools resemble each other in being heirs to an eminent tradition of preserving scholars’ safety and combatting region-, gender-, race-, class-, and religion-based obstacles that derail the progress of knowledge. However proud we are to claim this heritage—and we should be proud—carrying it forward will require not only hard work, good judgment, courage, and an openness to risk, but also the humility to learn from missteps. 

Alice Crary, Johan Heilbron, and Ian Jauslin were members of the Institute’s History Working Group. Crary and Heilbron were Members in the School of Social Science in 2017–18, Jauslin in the School of Mathematics in 2016–18. Crary is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford and the New School for Social Research. Heilbron is Director of Research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and member of the Centre Européen de Sociologie et de Science Politique. Jauslin is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Physics Department at Princeton University. The longer version of this article is available here.