IWU activists become first students to aid Scholar at Risk


By Mary Nicholas, News Editor

Illinois Wesleyan University students are working to assist scholars such as Guangcheng Chen, a Chinese man suffering at the hands of his government for publishing incriminating evidence of the nation’s forced abortion policy.

The organization these students are acting through is called Scholars at Risk (SAR). Illinois Wesleyan was a founding member of this program in 2001, represented on the board at the time by Associate Dean of Faculty and Professor of Educational Studies Irv Epstein.

“The SAR Network, which consists of over 150 universities around the world, is dedicated to helping scholars whose lives are in danger because of the ideas that they communicate, while also working to promote the protection of academic freedom in all of its dimensions,” Epstein said.

So far, the IWU Department of Political Science has hosted two scholars at risk, one from Cameroon and the other from Ethiopia. Others from Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and Georgia have visited to present lectures.

In April, IWU expects to accommodate another scholar from Iran who will bring his expertise on his nation’s political situation to the campus.

SAR and Chen

The Illinois Wesleyan students working to assist the Chinese scholar Guangcheng Chen are the first college students to attempt the intense research and advocacy inherent in the SAR mission.

And they are doing it without the added incentive of classroom credit.

Professor of political science William Munro said, “this initiative began in the Peace Fellows Program, and has been spearheaded by senior Megan Thompson.”

She recruited other members to the cause primarily from IWU’s Renegades for Peace and Amnesty International (AI).

“I think that the dedication and passion that the members of this group have brought to the project is representative of the larger IWU student body in that we dedicate ourselves to the causes we believe in,” Thompson said.

Both an IWU Peace Fellow and the second president and chapter coordinator for the IWU branch of AI, Thompson is a passionate advocate for human rights.

The SAR project is an appealing cause to Thompson because “it angers me to know scholars are wrongfully imprisoned and tortured for their efforts to expose injustice and demand change,” she said.

The IWU student SAR team is currently working with the organization to “investigate and lobby for the release of Chen,” according to Epstein.

“We have only been working on the project since the beginning of the spring semester, and yet I feel we have accomplished a lot and I am proud of where we are going,” Thompson said

IWU’s adopted scholar, Chen, is a human rights lawyer and activist. He is also blind.

Chen has been targeted in his country for publishing research and filing a class action lawsuit. Both acts drew public attention to the 130,000 abortions and sterilizations the government had forced in one year due to China’s One Child Policy.

Though a lawyer rather than the typical scholar, SAR is still interested in his welfare since “his freedoms of speech and association—freedoms that are crucial for the discovery and use of ideas and knowledge—have been violated,” Munro said.

Chen has already served a four-year prison sentence for “organizing a mob” and “disrupting traffic,” according to Thompson. “But it is clear these charges were manufactured as justification for imprisoning him,” she said.

After his lengthy sentence, Chen, his wife and daughter were placed under house arrest for no published reason. They have since been denied food, medical attention, and communication.

Relatives and friends who have attempted to directly visit Chen “have been beaten, tortured, and some have disappeared,” Thompson said. American actor Christian Bale even attempted to use his celebrity status to visit Chen and explore his situation, but was forced by Chen’s guards to flee.

“Chen remains under house arrest, has been tortured and we believe his condition is fragile,” Epstein said.

To investigate Chen’s dire circumstances, the Illinois Wesleyan SAR team is “compiling a research document of everything we know about his situation, and we will be sending it to various human rights organizations and other contacts who we think might be willing to take on this case,” Thompson said.

Epstein hopes these efforts will create additional support “in pressuring the Chinese government to release Chen.”

The team also intends to visit Chicago at the end of the semester to speak with lawyers at the Chicago Bar Association who may be able to directly and effectively pursue Chen’s freedom.

Overcoming obstacles

But the SAR students’ research journey has presented them with many obstacles. Many websites containing information about Chen gathered within China have been blocked by the Chinese government. The students also must accurately translate the little information they can find into English.

In addition, “our students not only have to read and analyze newspapers, blogs, and information from U.S. government and non-government sources, they have to place that information within the larger context involving Chinese repression of free thinkers,” Epstein said.

And even if all of the above is accomplished, “helping a scholar is difficult, and the chances of success are low,” Munro said.

But this unique student SAR team has continued to hope the odds are in their favor. They impress SAR supporters not just at Illinois Wesleyan but also on a national level.

“The Board of Directors at Scholars at Risk was incredibly excited that we were doing this and even happier to hear that we were doing it on a volunteer basis,” Thompson said.

Munro also finds the student initiative IWU has shown to be, “admirable and encouraging, especially since they receive no credit for it.”

“When so many college students are derided as being grade conscious and career oriented only, IWU students are proving that undergraduate students understand how important it is to support those who give their lives to the free expression of ideas,” Epstein said.

How others can help

Students not directly involved with SAR can still aid in the process by “signing the formal letter the Scholars at Risk students will formulate, and suggest additional avenues for its distribution,” Epstein said.

Munro is looking forward to future advocacy opportunities as the SAR initiative is set to still continue next fall.

“Hopefully we will always have students eager to promote the cause of human rights with their time, effort, and skills,” he said.

Epstein notes with pride the influence of Thompson’s initiative outside of Illinois Wesleyan.

“Our school has established an advocacy model for students that can be emulated across the country and even internationally,” he said.