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UB welcomes its first Scholars at Risk

Suleyman Demirci and Mihreteab Taye, UB's first scholars at risk.

From left: Suleyman Demirci and Mihreteab Tsighe Taye are the first scholars to come to UB as part of the university’s Scholars at Risk fellowship program. Photos: Douglas Levere


Published October 10, 2023

“The risk of persecution in Ethiopia manifests in several ways, particularly for those who advocate for human rights and engage in scholarly work that challenges the status quo. ”
Mihreteab Tsighe Taye, Scholar at Risk
School of Law

An internationally known scholar facing immediate persecution in his native Ethiopia. A former tenured professor of early modern Ottoman history who was harassed, taken into custody and put on trial by a threatening Turkish government apparatus. These two scholars are the first who have joined the UB faculty as part of the university’s Scholars at Risk fellowship program.

Ethiopian scholar Mihreteab Tsighe Taye has joined the faculty of the School of Law, where he is focusing his research on human rights law and international courts, specifically the African Human Rights Court and the East African Community Court.

“I’ll examine Tanzania’s and Rwanda’s engagement with these courts, shedding light on state behavior toward international human rights institutions and their impact on regional human rights protection,” Taye says.

Suleyman Demirci, visiting assistant professor in the Department of History who is known for his work on Ottoman Turkish taxation from the 1620s-1700, is examining the higher educational system in the U.S. with particular references to the SUNY system. 

“This will also help me in conducting research, enrolling teaching activities and writing up articles in a safe and secure scholarly environment,” he says.

UB’s Scholars at Risk program is open to any scholar of any country and any discipline with a terminal degree who has a documented record of scholarship that meets an appropriate standard in a field represented at UB, and who faces the risk of persecution in his/her own country. U.S. citizens and permanent residents, scholars with permanent residency in a third country, and scholars wishing to continue their studies at a U.S. institution are not eligible for the fellowship.

Residential fellowship appointments are for 12 months and may be renewed at the discretion of the dean based on an annual review. Residential fellows will normally have faculty appointments that entail research, teaching and service duties. As valued members of the UB community, fellowship recipients will contribute to the intellectual and cultural life of the campus and benefit from mentoring and collegial support from their host faculty.

The program allows them the opportunity to continue their research and teaching in a safe and supportive environment at UB.

“Scholars at risk have much to contribute to our university community and will help raise awareness at UB of the growing threats to academic freedom around the world,” says A. Scott Weber, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “I’m pleased that Professor Taye and Professor Demirci have joined us this academic year to launch our program; I’m confident they will find UB a welcoming community.”

Taye and Demirci were selected for the fellowship program through a process that involved UB’s Scholars at Risk committee, the Scholars at Risk (SAR) Network and the deans’ offices.

“We are very pleased to be able to host two excellent scholars at risk this year, thanks to the new fellowship funded by Provost Scott Weber and the deans,” says Nojin Kwak, vice provost for international education.

“My congratulations to the law school and the Department of History, College of Arts and Sciences, for welcoming Prof. Taye and Prof. Demirci. These faculty fellows have distinguished scholarly records and much to contribute to their host units and the university community; in addition, they will help educate the campus about critical issues of academic freedom in higher education around the world.”

Kwak also recognized the SAR Network for “working with us on scholar placement, and our UB SAR Committee for their help in vetting potential scholars.”

Both UB fellows come from environments that are dangerous to scholars exercising their freedom of speech, which often is contrary to existing government regimes. This grim reality underscores the critical importance of initiatives like UB’s Scholars at Risk program, which offers a safe haven for academics at risk and serves as a beacon of hope amid such challenges. Taye says. 

Risk of persecution

“The risk of persecution in Ethiopia manifests in several ways, particularly for those who advocate for human rights and engage in scholarly work that challenges the status quo,” he explains.

“Academics and researchers who address sensitive topics or expose human rights violations face threats to their personal safety and academic freedom. In the past two years, the risk of persecution has been deeply concerning, particularly regarding academics targeted based on their ethnicity, as seen during the conflict involving the Tigray region.

“The government’s military campaign against Tigray gave rise to alarming instances of discrimination, arrest, harassment and even loss of life among Tigrayan intellectuals and academics,” Taye says. “The conflict led to a distressing environment, where those of Tigrayan ethnicity, including scholars, were unfairly singled out and subjected to grave violations of their rights. Many were arbitrarily arrested, detained or worse, highlighting the severe curtailment of academic freedom and the broader erosion of human rights.”

Institutions like UB Law affirm the fundamental value of knowledge, dialogue and the unimpeded pursuit of understanding by providing a platform for persecuted scholars to continue their work, Taye notes.

Fighting for the rule of law

Demirci is an international scholar who says he has done nothing outside the law. “But I didn’t feel safe and secure, as I am pointed out or named as a ‘terrorist or traitor’ via social media and columnists,” he wrote in an email to UBNow.

He has been the subject of several government and related media attacks accusing him of being a traitor and danger to the existing government.

“I will take this opportunity to thank to University at UB and SAR initiative for providing me this academic position at UB that is threatened, de-legitimized and dehumanized in my own country,” Demirci said.

“Turkey and the Turkish people do not deserve all this. I hope that we can soon see a political environment where the rule of law prevails and constitutional rights are distributed fairly and equally to everyone; where mutual respect and brotherhood and the art of living together flourish again; and where commitment to democracy and democratic values ​​increases.”