The Trouble with Travel
How much have war and epidemic blocked international scholarship?


International crises of this kind have a major impact on the ability of scholars to collaborate.
Kathryn Yount, Associate Professor of Public Health


At the moment, I have to postpone the goal of performing this project in Java.
Steven Everett, Associate Professor of Music


Before you go
Emory resources for faculty travel

Travel and students
Unrest has affected student travel in varying degrees

 

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When Junqi He left his Emory laboratory for China on March 3, 2003, the war with Iraq had not begun and no one had ever heard of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). His job talk at Beijing University went well and won He, a post-doc in pharmacology, a job offer. Then he tried to return home.

“What was to be a two-week trip has stretched out for six months due to a backlog at the Office of Homeland Security, which now requires extensive background checks, particularly for foreign nationals and people with advanced training in biology,” says Randy Hall, professor of pharmacology. Junqi He was working in Hall’s lab on an nih-funded study on the regulation of neurotransmitters.

Last spring and summer, similar stories of stranded researchers echoed throughout labs at many major research institutions. “Tax-payers’ money is being wasted,” says Hall, as the branch of government concerned with security inadvertently stalls research funded by another branch. Although the State Department announced in July that foreign researchers whose work is funded by federal grants will no longer face visa delays, Junqi He’s visa has not yet come through. “This is a disaster for me and my family,” says He, “and a terrible
disruption to my research.”

While He’s colleagues and family awaited his return from China last spring, Professor of Pastoral Theology in the Candler School of Theology Rodney Hunter cancelled a trip to the region. The lectures he was invited to give in China and Japan, as well as the major conference in his field to be held in India, had to be postponed for a year.

As Hunter and He’s stories show, the war on Iraq and sars packed a one-two punch on travel for a wide variety of academics in 2003. Many disciplines engaged in international research may find themselves facing in the next few years something of what Iranian studies has reckoned with for the last twenty.

No Guarantees

Since the Iranian hostage situation in 1979 and the subsequent cut-off of U.S. diplomatic relations with Iran, western scholars of the region have faced a gauntlet of challenges. “Before the Iranian revolution, there were western archeologists, art historians, and anthropologists studying in Iran,” says professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies Frank Lewis. “But between 1980 and 1998, funding was severely cut and no institutional mechanism existed to support scholarly exchange between the U.S. and Iran.” In the past five years, the American Institute for Iranian Studies has attempted to bridge
that gap, but travel for scholarship remains extremely difficult.

At a recent international conference of the Society of Iranian Studies in Bethesda, only five of thirty invited Iranian scholars could attend, says Lewis. “While the possibility exists theoretically for Iranian scholars to come to the U.S. when they’re invited to an academic conference or to teach, in practice it’s very hard. Since there is no longer a U.S. consulate in Iran, they have to make several trips to a third country, like Turkey, to apply for a visa. Then, if they get a visa, they are subject to an additional security clearance that takes several more weeks,” says Lewis. “But there’s no guarantee they’ll get a visa.”

Even as geopolitical events affect travel for research, they also influence the subjects of research. Scholars of gender and family life
in the Middle East, for example, feel it is important to “acknowledge the international situation itself as a force of change” in their subject, says associate professor of public health Kathryn Yount. Similarly, the heightened interest in Muslim societies took law professor Abdullahi An-Na’im to Bali last summer for a meeting to discuss how to help Muslim societies organize their own resources to support social justice and human rights initiatives. And despite the havoc it wreaked for some, SARS offered epidemiologists like Jeffrey Koplan, former Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and current Emory vice president for academic health affairs, new research agendas.

Recent international crises may speed the efforts of many fields to come to terms with globalization. Coming to campus in November, for instance, is an international conference on religion and globalization. Hosted by the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, organizers hope to foster “more inclusive conversations by scholars of religion and practitioners from around the world who wish to go beyond the narrow vision of religion as traditionally defined by Western philosophy and history,” says conference co-director Gary Laderman.

Scholar-diplomats

International crises sometimes lead scholars to expand their understanding of collegiality. While many other international meetings were postponed, Yount rallied support for a conference on family change in the Middle East even as the war with Iraq began. “I felt a responsibility as a citizen of the United States,” she says, “to maintain
these collaborative ties at a time that’s been difficult for Americans and Middle Easterners alike.”

Though many international participants made that April meeting,
a few expressed concerns about bias against foreigners and fears of ill treatment. Despite the declared end of the war with Iraq, such worries persist. Turkish historian Murat Cizakca, from Bahcesehir Universi-ty, who plans to attend the religion conference at Emory this fall, almost declined. “I’ve heard such nasty stories of how colleagues were treated by American customs,” says Cizakca. “I get invited to enough international conferences that I can forego the ones in the U.S.”

A personal invitation from one of the conference conveners ultimately convinced Cizakca to file for a visa application. But many scholars coming to the U.S. share his concerns. “Things like being finger-printed
at the airport make some Iranian scholars and artists feel like they are being shunted into the category of criminal,” says Lewis.

American researchers seeking to travel to turbulent regions, like music professor Steven Everett, have their own reservations. After Indonesia’s Surarto regime fell in 1999, Everett cancelled a trip to Surakarta, Java, when he heard that rioters were burning the city.
He postponed another trip in 2001 when Islamic fundamentalists were rounding up Westerners at hotels in Jakarta and escorting them to
the airport. Though Everett has collaborated for eight years with Indonesian artists on a multi-media musical composition, increased
terrorist attacks in the region since September 11 have added further risks. “I just can’t go there and be visible as an American at a large arts festival. Plus, I can’t expose to danger the seven or so musicians I’d have to bring to perform the piece, or my colleague in Java to repercussions for working with us,” says Everett.

Despite all of these concerns, researchers seem to agree that travel will remain vital to many forms of scholarship. Emory faculty traveling with the Halle Institute for Global Learning, for instance, have been concerned about the war on Iraq, sars, and continuing terrorism around the world, says program director Peter Wakefield, but the number of applications has not dropped. And interest in international education seems to have risen among undergraduates because of recent crises, says Philip Wainwright, Director of the Center for International Programs Abroad. “More powerful than the threat of terrorism or spread of disease,” says former Halle Institute director Marion Creekmore, “are counter-acting forces like the growing im-pact of international developments on all our lives and the technological improveme
nts that make travel and living abroad easier.” A.B.B.