Scholar at risk gets fresh start at U of G

Just months ago, the academic career of Evren Altinkas was in tatters.

Forced to resign from a Turkish university and blacklisted from teaching in any state-run university in his home country because of his political views, he believed that his lifelong dream of being a professor was lost.

Thanks to the University of Guelph’s support of the international Scholars at Risk program – which protects persecuted academics around the world – the historian is now free to teach and conduct research as a visiting professor of history at U of G.

Up until the final moments before boarding a plane at the Adnan Menderes Airport in Izmir, he wondered whether he would be allowed to leave Turkey. An airport police officer had already stamped passports for his wife and two daughters, meaning they had crossed the symbolic line to freedom. But something about Altinkas’s documents had triggered an alert.

“Finally, the officer looked at me, stamped my passport and said, ‘OK, go.’ His hand gesture was like: ‘Go! Get the hell out of this country and let us be rid of you.’”

Early in his academic career, Altinkas studied the treatment of minorities in Turkey, including women, members of the LGBT community and other groups such as Kurds, Armenians, Greeks and Jews.

“My focus was also to provide a chance for my students – who considered themselves to be members of these minority identities – to express themselves in my classrooms and civil society organizations.”

Near the end of his career in Turkey, Altinkas faced increasing pressure to resign. His salary was cut, and he was assigned to teach unfamiliar courses. His wife, a painter and academic, endured similar pressure, he says. They were told that all investigations and allegations against them would be dropped if they resigned – and so they did.

Philosophy professor Monique Deveaux, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Ethics and Social Global Change, was the driving force to make U of G an institutional member of Scholars at Risk.

“It is about academic freedom and freedom of speech, but also the protection of scholars that are at risk,” says Deveaux. “I feel it is just our duty to try to help fellow academics whose careers are derailed because of government repression.”

Coming to Guelph and to U of G has rejuvenated Altinkas.

“I’m happy I can do my scholarship,” says Altinkas. “I have a lot of time to conduct my research at the library. I’m able to spend a lot of time with students, who come and ask me so many questions about the Middle East and other issues in the world. I’ve never experienced this level of acceptance in a society before.”