USC Dornsife professor blends academe and activism
Scholars with the Middle East Studies Association of North America, including USC Dornsife’s Laurie Brand, craft letters advocating for academic freedom and opposing injustice in the region. (Composite: Dennis Lan. Image source: iStock.)

USC Dornsife professor blends academe and activism

Laurie Brand of Middle East studies and international relations at USC Dornsife advocates for freedom — academic and otherwise — with the Middle East Studies Association. [3 min read]
ByWayne Lewis

Every morning, Laurie Brand scans more than a dozen news sites based in the Middle East and North Africa. Some stories will feed her research into the politics of the region. Others will plant seeds of activism.

Brand defends the rights of faculty and students near and far through her work with the Middle East Studies Association of North America, or MESA, a scholarly organization for which she has chaired the Committee on Academic Freedom since 2006.

“Part of it is just fighting injustice,” said Brand, Robert Grandford Wright Professor and professor of international relations and Middle East studies at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “I’m lucky to work with a stellar group of MESA members who are deeply committed to this work.”

The Committee on Academic Freedom’s main work is drafting letters — currently about 50 per year — that MESA sends primarily to governments and universities. The letters advocate for scholars whose academic freedom or right to an education has been violated. In more serious scenarios, Brand and her colleagues call for the release of those imprisoned for their views by repressive regimes.

“We understand that a single letter from us probably isn’t going to make or break a case,” she said. “But along with letters from other scholarly and human rights organizations, the cumulative effect can be significant.” 

MESA letters, as part of broader efforts, seem to have made impact in a number of cases.

In Turkey, based on reports from the scholars involved, one academic was released from pretrial detention, another was freed from threats of prosecution, and a third had a travel ban lifted. MESA was also among the chorus advocating for Matthew Hedges, a doctoral student from the United Kingdom who was pardoned and released by the United Arab Emirates after receiving a life sentence in November 2018 for alleged espionage.

The Committee on Academic Freedom also has a North America wing, and one focus of its work involves writing to colleges on behalf of students or faculty in the United States and Canada whose reputations have been smeared for their views and activism on topics related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Importantly, Brand and her colleagues contact the subjects of their letters, or those people’s families, to make sure that their writing will help rather than harm. 

Laurie Brand of international relations and Middle East studies. (Photo: Peter Zhaoyu Zhou.)

“In the Middle East, sometimes people appreciate the moral support but feel that there actually could be more jeopardy if we write a letter,” Brand said.

In recent years, the Committee on Academic Freedom has ramped up its activity to provide resources for scholars. The deteriorating political situation in Turkey, which has led to widespread university closures and faculty firings, inspired the committee to produce a set of documents aimed at helping Turkish academics seeking employment or grants abroad.  

In the wake of the Hedges case in UAE and the 2016 murder in Egypt of Cambridge University Ph.D. candidate Giulio Regeni, the Committee on Academic Freedom worked with the MESA board to issue research warnings that caution faculty and students contemplating travel to these countries.  

Others are taking notice. Scholarly organizations in international relations and political science have consulted with Brand and her committee, aiming to undertake similar activism. The committee’s work also has caught the attention of United Nations special mandate holders and on one occasion led to the committee’s being consulted in preparation for an official visit to one of the countries it monitors.

For Brand, though, it’s all about making an effort.

“We could all be completely overwhelmed with the dreadful circumstances that our colleagues face, or we can try to make a difference,” she said. “As long as we’re acting, it’s a strong statement that we will continue to fight injustice and repression—in the Middle East as well as here at home.”