A rare constellation of tragedies throughout the world, all aimed at suppressing democratic aspirations and the intelligentsia that gives them voice, provides Yale, albeit tragically, with a unique chance to give real substance to its recent slogan: “For Humanity.”

Scholars and intellectuals at-risk trapped in many countries face arrest, imprisonment, torture and death for daring to speak, write, sing, paint and tweet in defense of an open society with democratic freedoms. Many have been murdered. Many have been imprisoned and many are in hiding or have fled the country to seek asylum. Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, occupied Ukraine, Russia, Sudan, Iran, Egypt, Tibet, Xinjiang do not come close to exhausting the list of places where democratic expression is often met with lethal force. 

This crisis for democratic institutions and movements presents Yale with an opportunity to institutionalize a commitment to liberty of conscience and expression worldwide by creating a hub that will provide safety, support, and academic and professional resources to intellectuals at risk. A Center for Refugee Intellectuals and Democracy would create an international community of scholars united by similar aspirations. They would continue their work for an open society at home by research, writing, artistic production, film, documentation and policy work. In doing so, they would greatly enrich the intellectual life of undergraduate and graduate education while benefiting from the intellectual resources that a major research university can offer.  As I and others envision it, the Center would welcome several prominent intellectuals at risk from two or three countries in turmoil who would collaborate in crafting democratic strategies, documenting human rights abuses and both promoting and embodying an inclusive democratic culture in their work. The Center would hopefully become widely known as a bastion of temporary asylum for democratic intellectuals.

A university-wide committee, first conceived by President Salovey last March, has been considering initiatives for scholars at risk. Now, eight months later, it appears that a report to Salovey is imminent. One hopes it will be expansive and bold rather than minimal and timid. There are historical reasons to be pessimistic. From the mid-19th century to the mid-20th,, for example, there were at least two major pulses of refugee intellectuals from Germany to the United States that helped shape higher education in America: the refugees from the 1848 revolutions and the intellectual refugees, Jews and non-Jews, from Nazism. The former was instrumental in shaping mid-Western land grant universities as well as public culture — music, museums, libraries, parks, newspapers, etc. The latter pulse, of course, completely reshaped large parts of science and humanities curricula. Yale, to my knowledge, played little to no role in welcoming these intellectuals. In the case of Jews, it was just beginning to come to grips with its own history of institutionalized antisemitism. Nor, more recently, did Yale play a notable role in offering temporary intellectual sanctuary to scholars fleeing the military regimes in Chile, Brazil and Argentina

In my 45 years of teaching at Yale, I have come to think of this institutional lack of agility in terms of the adage attributed to the New England farmer: “Never be the first one to try something new, nor the last.” 

Here’s a historic opportunity to seize the initiative, and in doing so both enrich Yale immeasurably and make a signal contribution to the defense of democracy.


JAMES C. SCOTT is the Sterling Professor of Political Science, Anthropology and Environmental Studies.