Protocol and Committee Composition

The central mission of MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF) is advocacy for, and the defense of, the academic freedom and freedom of expression of members both of the North American scholarly community engaged in the study of the Middle East and North Africa, and of scholarly communities in the Middle East and North Africa, irrespective of academic affiliation or discipline. In its work CAF draws on the understanding of academic freedom articulated in the 1940 AAUP Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure and its amendments, as well as on the broader international human rights tradition embodied in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  

In its work defending scholars in both the Middle East and North Africa and in North America, CAF investigates a range of threats to, and violations or infringements of, academic freedom. The Committee comprises two wings, each of which focuses on one of those regions. The wing focusing on the Middle East and North Africa typically investigates actions by governments, universities or other institutions aimed at restricting or prohibiting university faculty, students and other scholarly researchers, as well as librarians and translators, from conducting research, freely disseminating their findings, teaching their students as they see fit, delivering academic lectures, taking up fellowships or academic residencies abroad, or traveling to conferences or scholarly meetings. The wing documents instances where professors, academics, researchers or students are persecuted for their peaceful professional or personal activities, particularly when engaged in activities related to their scholarly pursuits or to ensuring respect for human and civil rights, whether on or off campus. It also investigates actions taken against faculty or students that include government obstruction of the right to education, revocation of academic degrees, demotion or dismissal, arbitrary disciplinary proceedings, arrest, detention, disappearance and extrajudicial killing.

In the case of the North America wing, advocacy may involve protesting or expressing concern to the US or Canadian governments, or to state, provincial or local governments, regarding legislation, executive orders or official policies that directly or indirectly threaten or violate the principles of academic freedom. However, CAF’s interventions in North America most commonly focus on colleges, universities and other post-secondary institutions. Broadly speaking, the Committee seeks to ensure that institutions of higher education respect and defend the academic freedom and free speech rights of their faculty, students and staff. Its letters may thus address such issues as interference in faculty governance and in faculty control of what and how they teach, attempts to suppress or punish various forms of on-campus student activism, the prohibition or cancellation of scholarly programming, the violation by institutions of their own investigative and disciplinary policies and procedures, threats to the exercise by faculty of freedom of expression outside the classroom or in the public sphere, arbitrary suspensions or dismissals of faculty, researchers, students or staff, and direct threats and harassment, including doxing.

Committee members secure information on academic freedom violations directly from the concerned person or parties, from their colleagues, and/or from concerned third parties or media channels. Once sufficient case information is acquired, the Committee decides on the action to be taken. Its work most often involves writing letters of concern or protest to the relevant institution or authority, which may also be transmitted to other university, governmental, United Nations, European Union, and/or non-governmental officials and entities whose purview includes the scholars and issues involved. In some cases, the committee follows up with additional letters if new information becomes available or if, in cases of detention or imprisonment, it feels circumstances warrant raising the profile of the case. After their formal approval by members of the wing involved, the CAF Chair and the MESA President, letters are sent and then posted on the Committee’s web page. In rare circumstances, when CAF determines that a public/outward-facing letter may cause harm, letters may be sent to the relevant officials or entity without being posted to the website.  

In addition to its primary work of writing letters, CAF prepares materials to assist members of the scholarly community when they are attacked or threatened. One notable example is the resource guide to the defamatory website Canary Mission, produced by the North America wing. Another is a set of documents to assist Turkish scholars seeking placement abroad in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt, produced by the MENA wing. CAF contributes to efforts by MESA to support its membership and the broader Middle East Studies community by collecting and making available a range of supporting materials relating to freedom of speech and academic freedom, and threats to them.

CAF collaborates with academic freedom committees and initiatives established by other scholarly associations and with Scholars at Risk, a network of colleges and universities devoted to responding to attacks on academic freedom. It provides advice and support when appropriate, works together on projects and programs, and on some occasions issues joint letters.

The members of the Committee are appointed by the President of MESA upon the recommendation by the CAF chair and the approval of the Board of Directors. The Committee consists of a chair; two wing chairs (one for the MENA region, the other for North America); fifteen to twenty members covering the MENA region including one member of the Board of Directors ex officio; ten to twelve members focusing on academic freedom issues in North America including one member of the Board of Directors ex officio; and MESA's President and Executive Director (ex-officio). CAF members serve a three-year term, which may be renewed for one additional three-year term at the invitation of the relevant wing (NA or MENA) chair and the CAF chair. In exceptional circumstances, a member may, at the recommendation of the relevant wing chair and CAF chair, be granted a final term of up to three years. New members may be recruited out of cycle. In these cases, their initial term will end at the annual meeting following the completion of 3 years.

On occasion, members of CAF are elected by the MESA community to the MESA Board of Directors. In such an instance, the individual may opt, at the request of the MESA President, to serve as a representative of the Board on the relevant CAF wing. If another Board member serves as Board representative to one of CAF’s wings, the individual may continue as a regular member of CAF concurrently with their position on the Board.

The CAF chair, who is chosen by the MESA Board, and the wing chairs, who are chosen by the CAF chair with the approval of the MESA Board, serve initial five-year terms. After consultation with and the approval of the Board, the CAF chair may invite the wing chairs to renew their terms for additional five-year terms, or for a shorter term if so desired, up to three five-year terms. At the invitation of the Board, the CAF chair's term may also be renewed for additional five-year terms, or for a shorter term if so desired, up to three five-year terms. In addition, some former CAF members may, at the suggestion of the relevant CAF co-chair and CAF chair, be appointed by the Board to serve as consultants to the committee, without voting rights. CAF terms normally begin and end with the MESA annual meeting.

The appointment of a new CAF chair or wing chair may require a transitional period to enable the newly appointed chair/wing chair to assume the considerable workload of the position and become fully acquainted with the responsibilities and working procedures of the Committee. For this reason, the predecessor chair/wing chair may, as needed, continue to serve jointly in the role during a transitional year (even if it follows the expiration of the relevant term limit) while the succeeding chair/wing chair is on-boarded. Following this transitional year, the predecessor chair/wing chair will be eligible, at the suggestion of the succeeding CAF chair/wing chair to be appointed by the Board, to serve as a consultant to the committee, without voting rights. The predecessor CAF chair/wing chair may also be considered for a regular member position as a researcher on CAF with Board approval. Exceptionally, should there be difficulty identifying a successor chair/wing chair at the end of the term of the incumbent, the current chair/wing chair may have their term extended by approval of the Board for an interim period until the successor is identified and on-boarded.

The Committee convenes in a formal session once a year at the annual meeting of MESA; online meetings outside the annual meeting may also be convened periodically. Members of each wing remain in close contact throughout the year by e-mail or other electronic communication, as new cases arise regularly. Correspondence and administrative matters for the Committee are handled by the MESA Secretariat. The committee’s letters are signed by the MESA President and by the chair of CAF. When deemed appropriate, the Executive Director may sign for either the MESA President or the CAF chair.

Members of the Committee

  • Aslı Ü. Bâli (MESA President)
    Yale Law School

Covering the Middle East and North Africa

Covering North America

Consultants to Committee

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