In an open letter today to Serbian President Milutinovic, the Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom Committee, a group of internationally prominent scholars and academic leaders, protests a new Serbian law that the committee calls "an unprecedented assault on academic freedom and the autonomy of Serbian universities."

On May 26, 1998, the Serbian parliament passed a new law, the University Act, which gives government authorities exclusive power to appoint rectors, faculty deans, and governing boards at all public universities. The new law also requires that all faculty members sign new employment contracts, regardless of the terms and conditions of their existing contracts. Since the adoption of the new law, rectors, deans, and members of governing boards at universities across Serbia have been replaced with government appointees, many of them prominent members of the ruling political parties in Serbia; protests against the new law have been violently dispersed; and professors involved with opposition political parties or publicly opposed to the policies of Yugoslav President Milosevic have come under fire.

"The new law is a disastrous development for academics and for the future of public discussion and debate in Serbia," said Human Rights Watch academic freedom specialist Joseph Saunders. Noting the lack of attention paid by the international community to the crackdown on independent voices in Serbia, he added: "With international attention riveted on the conflict in Kosovo, Milosevic is tightening the screws at home."

The letter was signed on behalf of the committee by Yuri Orlov, senior scientist at Cornell University and founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and by Jonathan F. Fanton, president of the New School for Social Research in New York. The committee membership includes the presidents of Harvard University, Columbia University and over a dozen other universities in the United States, as well as internationally prominent academics such as Lord Ralf Dahrendorf of St. Antony's College at Oxford, Krzysztof Michalski of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, Ariel Dorfman of Duke University, John Kenneth Galbraith of Harvard University, and Fang Lizhi of the University of Arizona.

Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch is a nongovernmental organization established in 1978 to monitor and promote the observance of internationally recognized human rights in Africa, the Americas, Asia, the Middle East and among the signatories of the Helsinki accords. It is supported by contributions from private individuals and foundations worldwide. It accepts no government funds, directly or indirectly.

The Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom Committee
The Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom Committee aims to monitor, expose, and mobilize concerted action to challenge threats to academic freedom worldwide, and to foster greater scholarly and media attention to the critical role played by higher education in the development and preservation of civil society.

When teachers, researchers and students are harassed or imprisoned for exercising their rights of free expression and inquiry, when their work or research is censored, when access to educational institutions is restricted on discriminatory grounds, or when universities and schools are closed for political reasons, the committee responds by publicizing the abuses in the media and in the academic community, sending protest letters to appropriate government officials, and uniting concerned organizations in coordinated campaigns for effective international action.

The Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom Committee is composed of twenty-eight university presidents and scholars. Its co-chairs are Jonathan Fanton of the New School for Social Research, Hanna Holborn Gray of the University of Chicago, Vartan Gregorian of the Carnegie Corporation, and Charles Young of the University of California at Los Angeles.

Its membership currently includes:
Johnetta Cole, President Emerita, Spelman College;
Joel Conarroe, President, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation;
Lord Ralf Dahrendorf, Warden, St. Antony's College, Oxford;
Ariel Dorfman, Research Professor, Duke University;
Thomas Ehrlich, Stanford University Law School;
James O. Freedman, President, Dartmouth College;
John Kenneth Galbraith, Professor Emeritus, Harvard University;
Bernard Harleston, Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education;
Alice Stone Ilchman, President, Sarah Lawrence College;
Stanley N. Katz, Professor, Princeton University;
Nannerl O. Keohane, President, Duke University;
James T. Laney, President, Emory University;
Paul LeClerc, President, The New York Public Library;
Fang Lizhi, Professor, University of Arizona;
Walter E. Massey, President, Morehouse College;
Krzysztof Michalski, Professor, Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna;
Joseph A. O'Hare, President, Fordham University;
L. Jay Oliva, President, New York University;
Yuri Orlov, Senior Scientist, Cornell University;
Frank H. T. Rhodes, President Emeritus, Cornell University;
Neil Rudenstine, President, Harvard University;
George Rupp, President, Columbia University;
Judith R. Shapiro, President, Barnard College;
Michael Sovern, Professor, Columbia University Law School;
Chang-Lin Tien, Chancellor Emeritus, University of California at Berkeley.