By MARTY LEVINE
When Hatice Simten Coşar joined the University Center for International Studies (UCIS) faculty in January under the new Scholars at Risk program, the phrase “at risk” had quite a different meaning than it might now.
“The risk that I had been facing was really different” from an international pandemic, she says.
In January 2016, Coşar was one of more than 2,000 academics in Turkey to sign a statement protesting her government’s military actions against the Kurds in Turkey.
“Immediately, we started to be a target of death threats,” Coşar says. “We started to be accused of treason.”
By July 2017, she had been forced to retire from her state-run university. Many others who signed the statement fared far worse — they were fired or jailed.
“It was a bit difficult to read and write … and to continue to focus” on her academic work, she says.
Coşar eventually faced criminal charges for “not conforming to the activities of a civil servant”
but was acquitted, she says. She still awaits the outcome of a disciplinary investigation by her own university.
Thus began her effort to continue her work as a feminist political theorist outside of Turkey, first as a visiting professor in a Canadian university, then to Cornell for two years, and now to Pitt this past January.
Although the University’s new Scholars at Risk program worked with a New York University-based organization of the same name to identify Coşar as Pitt’s first scholar, and Pitt half a decade ago had several adjunct professors from the international version, Pitt’s own Scholars at Risk program is a bit different, says program creator Michael Goodhart, director of the Global Studies Center in UCIS.
Goodhart says the program will be the start of Pitt’s effort to bring more scholars here more often. Thanks to a partnership with City of Asylum on the North Side, which will house the scholars in conjunction with its exiled writers-in-residence mission, and funding from the provost’s office, Pitt scholars will be required to do less teaching and will have the chance to create more programming around the post. The aim is to create fresh ways for students to see current challenges to academic work around the world and to gain first-hand knowledge from scholars about topics of international impact.
Coşar was just getting started with events that brought her together with students when she began to isolate herself due to COVID-19. She had recently taken part in a discussion with another visiting scholar, from northern India, about violence against indigenous people and women, hosting a conversation with students in Posvar Hall on a topic “that they only get to read about in textbooks or articles,” notes Goodhart.
“Being at risk is a risky thing, because it turns out to be your essential identity in the places you are to visit,” Coşar says. She has long thought of herself as a political scientist, and while her new label “is not wrong at all, I’m not only a scholar at risk.” She looks forward to the time when circumstances allow her to more freely communicate and collaborate with her new Pitt colleagues and students.
Right now, Coşar is hoping to participate in programming online and, in the fall, to teach and do more in-person events with students.
She also hopes to see more of the city, having only explored the South and North Sides, not yet the East and West Ends. But Coşar has already observed that Pittsburgh is a city of sharp divides among neighborhoods, in geography for starters, and in race and class as well.
But she also has noticed that Pittsburghers are more open to a stranger’s questions than she has experienced elsewhere in the United States: “People are nice. They don’t refrain from talking to you when you ask something, just from passing by. Other parts of this country, people evade you when you ask them something on the street.”
Until she can get out again, she is also watching the effect of COVID-19 on her native country. “Friends and family, they are all trying to self-isolate in Turkey.” But the majority of population isn’t aware of the virus’ seriousness yet, she believes. “They are all in the street. It is kind of worrying.” One comfort: Coşar’s mother was visiting when Coşar began her isolation, so her mother has remained with her.
Concludes Goodhart: “We really hope that this program, for the scholars, will be a bridge for them to find stable, longer term academic positions … and that it gives them a community to get fully involved in. That is hardest — the loss of community for risked scholars.”
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.
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