Letter to the rector of la Sapienza University concerning the honorary degree awarded to the Tunisian president

Letter to the rector of la Sapienza University concerning the honorary degree awarded to the Tunisian president

Professor Antonella Polimeni

Rector, University of Roma La Sapienza

Madam Rector

Dear Colleague

We take the liberty of writing to you to alert you to a worrying situation concerning your university. A senior politician, who was awarded an honorary doctorate by La Sapienza, has openly committed serious abuses against sub-Saharan African migrants residing in or transiting through his country, including students and refugees. This is the President of the Tunisian Republic, Mr. Kaïs Saïed.

On February 21, 2023, during a meeting of the National Security Council, he described sub-Saharan migrants as “hordes of illegal migrants” and accused them of being responsible for “violence, crimes and unacceptable acts”, insisting on “the need to quickly end” this immigration. He further argued that this clandestine immigration was part of a “criminal enterprise hatched at the dawn of this century to change the demographic composition of Tunisia”, in order to transform it into an “African only” country and blur its “Arab-Muslim” character. These racist and xenophobic remarks by President Saïed triggered an unprecedented wave of violence against black Africans residing in Tunisia. Groups took to the streets, attacking black people indiscriminately, whether migrants, students or asylum seekers. The police forces arrested and expelled many individuals from these communities.

More recently, the city of Sfax, in central Tunisia, has witnessed great tension between the local population and sub-Saharan migrants. Tunisian residents campaigned for the departure of African foreigners, which led to attacks on black people and clashes with Tunisians. A Beninese was killed in May and a Tunisian on July 3. Tunisian police, national guard and army have carried out raids in and around Sfax, arbitrarily arresting hundreds of black African foreigners, including students, asylum seekers, children and pregnant women. They forcibly expelled or transferred, without any respect for legal procedures, up to 1,200 people, divided into several groups, to the Libyan and Algerian borders. These people were forced to walk in the desert without sufficient food or water, pushed back by Tunisian, Algerian and Libyan security forces. Several of them said they were beaten and assaulted by members of the national guard or soldiers during their deportation; a 16-year-old girl, in particular, claimed to have been sexually assaulted. These abuses were condemned by United Nations experts and by several human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch, which published a detailed report, and the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.

This murderous violence cannot leave your University indifferent. While climate and political changes are increasing the number of refugees of African origin, you have publicly expressed your concern to preserve their lives and their dignity by joining the UNICORE project (University Corridors for Refugees), promoted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Far from pushing them back into a desert where they are exposed to thirst, hunger and heat, you are thus offering refugee students from African territories the possibility of continuing their studies in Italian universities.

And yet, on June 16, 2021, the same year that La Sapienza University joined the UNICORE project, it awarded Mr. Saïed an honorary doctorate in Roman law, theory of legal systems and private market law. Barely a month later, he triggered a coup against the young Tunisian democracy. Since then, he has taken a series of measures aimed at concentrating power in his hands, undermining essential institutional foundations for human rights, including undermining the independence of the judiciary and the right to freedom of expression. On July 25, 2022, President Saïed organized a referendum for the adoption of a new constitution that he drafted himself. This text repealed the 2014 constitution, which you praised in your speech during the honorary doctorate ceremony, and established a new constitutional order which strengthens the executive power (in particular the powers of the President of the Republic) to the detriment of the legislative and judicial powers. This led Italian colleagues to ask you in January 2022 to withdraw the honorary title conferred to President Saïed, considering that his actions already contradicted the fundamental principles that your institution represents.

It seems inconceivable to us that Mr. Saïed can still boast of the title of doctor honoris causa in law from La Sapienza University. After the coup, the ratonnades. After the establishment of an authoritarian regime, a racist and murderous campaign against black people because they are black. And we may not have seen the worst yet: Mr Saïed has just concluded a memorandum of understanding with the EU under which the European Union agrees to grant Tunisia development aid in return for controlling migratory flows. We note in particular “technical assistance” from the EU intended to allow “effective border management, the development of a system for the identification and return of irregular migrants already present in Tunisia to their countries of origin”. When we see how migrants are currently treated, we can only worry about the multiplier effect that this “technical aid” will have. The international organizations for the defense of human rights were not mistaken, and unanimously denounced this agreement.

There have always been dictators who come to power by overthrowing the constitutional order and who maintain it by stirring up the lowest instincts of the population, such as racism. What is exceptional in this situation is that a reputable university grants him an honorary doctorate, in law moreover, in full knowledge of the facts. Maintaining this title associates La Sapienza with an authoritarian and racist regime, and legitimizes its abuses.

Mrs Rector, the worst dictators die one day, but universities do not. They are institutions of knowledge and education, whose purpose is to sustain these values through the ages, and they have a reputation to maintain. Almost fifty years ago, in 1975, the University of Nice granted an honorary doctorate to Nicolae Ceausescu, president of Romania. He is long gone, but the memory of his crimes is not, and the good name of the University of Nice is tarnished forever by its association with him. We do not wish such a fate to La Sapienza.

We call on you to reconsider the honorary title granted to Mr. Kaïs Saïed.

Respectfully yours

Academics are invited to add their signatures to the letter by completing the form here.


Ahmed Abbes, CNRS, France

Ibrahim Abdullah, University of Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone

Martine Adrian-Scotto, Université Côte d'Azur, France

AbdelOuahid Akil, Ecole nationale d'agriculture Meknès, Maroc

Mateo Alaluf, Professeur Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgique

Paul Alliès, Université de Montpellier, France

Charles Alunni, École normale supérieure de Paris/Scuola normale superiore di Pisa, France/Italie

Omid Amini, CNRS, France

Massimiliano Andretta, Unipi, Italy

Armando Angrisani, Sorbonne Université, France

Fatin Arak, Université Mohamed V, Morocco

Cesare Giuulio Ardito, University of Manchester, United Kingdom

Marie-Claude Arnaud, Université Paris Cité, France

Karel Arnaut, KU Leuven, Belgium

Philippe Audebaud, Computer scientist (retired), France

Elsa Auerbach, University of Massachusetts Boston (Emerita), USA

Bertrand Badie, Sciences Po Paris, France

Amadou Bah, Columbia University, New York, USA

Jean Claude Bajard, Sorbonne Université, France

Viviane Baladi, CNRS, France

Luca Barbieri Viale, Università degli Studi di Milano, Italia

Demva Barry, USTTB, Mali

Giuseppina Barsacchi, Università di Pisa (retired), Italy

Arnaud Beauville, Université Côte d’Azur, France

Pierre Begmann, Chargé de Cours Honoraire, ULB, Belgium

Anna Bellavitis, Université de Rouen, France

Sana Ben Achour, Professeure d'université en droit, Tunisie

Roberto Beneduce, University of Turin, Department of Cultures, Politics and Society, Italy

Susan Bernofsky, Columbia University, United States

Emanuel Bertrand, ESPCI Paris-PSL, France

Mireille Besson, CNRS & Aix-Marseille Université, France

Sadiq Bhanbhro, Senior Research Fellow Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom

Federico Binda, University of Milano, Italy

Susan Blackwell, Universiteit Utrecht, Netherlands

Francine Bolle, Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgique

Manon Boutin-Charles, La Sorbonne Nouvelle, France

Bob Brecher, University of Brighton (Emeritus), UK

Haim Bresheet-Zabner, Prof. at SOAS University of London, UK

Fabienne Brion, Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium

Michel Broniatowski, Sorbonne Université, France

Michel Broué, Professeur émérite, Université Paris Cité, France

Erica Burman, University of Manchester, UK

Sandro Busso, University of Turin, Italy

Judith Butler, UC Berkeley, United States

Claude Calame, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, France

Guillaume Carlier, Université Paris Dauphine, France

Alessia Carnevale, Università di Macerata, Italy

Fabrizio Catanese, Universitaet Bayreuth - KIAS Seoul, Germany-Korea

Francesco Cavatorta, Université Laval, Canada

Nadine Celotti, Università degli studi di Trieste, Italia

Rinella Cere, Sheffield Hallam University, UK

John Chalcraft, LSE, UK

Benoit Challand, Associate Professor, The New School (NYC), USA

Aimé Charles-Nicolas, Professeur émérite des Universités, France

Monique Chastanet, CNRS, France

Claire Chatelain, CNRS - CRM, France

Karine Chemla, CNRS-Université Paris Cité, France

Bruno Chiarellotto, Università degli studi di Padova, Italia

Yves Chilliard, INRAE, retraité, France

Yacine Chitour, Université Paris-Saclay, France

Giulia Cimini, University of Bologna, Italy

Eric Corijn, Free University Brussels / Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium

Michel Crézé, Professeur émérite, Université Paris Centre, France

Andrew Crosby, Brussels Interdisciplinary Research centre on Migration and Minorities (BIRMM-VUB), Belgium

Serena D'Agostino, Vrije Universiteit Brussel , Belgium

Francesca Romana d'Ambrosio, Università degli Studi di Salerno, Italy

Sophie Dabo, University of Lille, France

Frans Daems, Universiteit Antwerpen, Belgium

Marc David, Universiteit Antwerpen, Belgium

Herman De Ley, Emeritus Professor Ghent University, Belgium

Hugo De Man, Emeritus Professor KU Leuven, Belgium

Patrick Deboosere, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium

Marielle Debos, University of Paris Nanterre, France

Pascal Debruyne, Dr. Of Social and Political Sciences, lecturer & researcher Odisee University of Applied Sciences, België

Gianni Del Panta, Università di Pavia, Italia

Antonio Del Rio, PhD, Italy

Francis Delannay, UCLouvain, Belgium

Adrien Deloro, Sorbonne Université, France

Marc Delrez, Université de Liège, Belgium

Dr Jacky Desbiolles, University of South Australia, Australie

Pierre Desmarez, Professeur émérite à l'Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium

Philippe Devillé, Professeur émérite, Belgique

James Dickins, University of Leeds, United Kingdom

Roel Dieltiens, Professor Em., Switzerland

Pascal Dingoyan, Sorbonne Université, France

Daniel Disegni, Université d'Aix-Marseille, France

Ngalla Djitte, Université Gaston berger de Saint Louis, Senegal

Violette Doublet, Uppsala University, Sweden

Paula Duque, Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência, Portugal

Sam Durrant, University of Leeds, UK

Ivar Ekeland, Emeritus Professor and former President of Paris-Dauphine University, France

Philippe Enclos, Université de Lille, France

Jan Engelen, Prof. em. at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Louvain), Belgium

Maria J. Esteban, Emerita senior research at CNRS, France

Jules Falquet, Professeure de Philosophie, Université Paris 8 St Denis, France

Wolf Feuerhahn, CNRS, France

Mathieu Florence, Sorbonne Université, France

Marilyn Frankenstein, University of Massachusetts/Boston (retired), United States

Javier Fresán, Professor, École polytechnique, France

Michele Frigerio, Laboratoire Charles Coulomb, CNRS, France

Paola Gandolfi, University of Bergamo, Itay

Julien Garric, Aix-Marseille Université, France

Carlo Gasbarri, Université de Strasbourg, France

Jean-Luc Gautero, Université Côte d'Azur, France

Vincent Geisser, Président du Centre d’information et d’études sur les migrations internationales (Scalabrini), France

Michel Gevers, Professeur émérite, Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium

Pierre Gillis, Université de Mons, Belgique

Véronique Ginouvès, CNRS, France

Terri Ginsberg, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada

Gilles Godefroy, Directeur de Recherches au C.N.R.S. (Emeritus), France

Lydia Goehr, Columbia University, United States

Catherine Goldstein, CNRS, IMJ-PRG, France

Davide Gori, Sapienza University of Rome, Italy

Pierre-Henri Gouyon, Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, France

Gustavo Gozzi, Alma Mater Professor - University of Bologna, Italy

Julien Grivaux, Sorbonne Université, France

Michel Gros, Université de Rennes, France

Laura Guazzone, Dept. Italian Insititute of Orientale Studies, Sapienza University of Rome, Italy

Nacira Guénif, Professor at University Paris 8 Vincennes - Saint-Denis, France

Jeanne Guien, Chercheuse indépendante, France

Abdelali Hamidine, Science politique, Université Mohamed V à Rabat, Maroc

Dyala Hamzah, Université de Montréal, Canada

Sabine Hark, Technische Universität Berlin, Germany

Michael Harris, Columbia University, USA

Samuel Hayat, CNRS, France

David Heap, University of Western Ontario, Canada

Charles Heimberg, Université de Genève, Suisse

Frédéric Hélein, Université Paris Cité, France

Barry Heselwood, University of Leeds, United Kingdom

Vincel Hoang Ngoc Minh, Université de Lille, France

Heinz Hurwitz, U.L.B., Belgique

Andreas Huyssen, Columbia University, United States

Pascale Janot, Università di Trieste, Italia

Mieke Jans, Universiteit Hasselt, Belgium

Hassan Jijakli, Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium

François Jouve, Université Paris Cité, France

Baudouin Jurdant, Université Paris Cité, France

Raphael Kaplinsky, Emeritus Professor, University of Sussex, United Kingdom

Ghada Karmi, Former research fellow, University of  Exeter, UK

Bernhard Keller, Université Paris Cité, France

Robin Kelley, UCLA, United States

Bie Kentane, Lecturer Artevelde Ghent, Belgium

Chris Kesteloot, Emeritus Professor, KU Leuven, Belgium

Assaf Kfoury, Boston University, USA

Mana Kia, Columbia University, USA

Frederick Kingdom, Professor, McGill University, Canada

David Klein, Professor Emeritus, California State University Northridge, USA

Demir Köse, Teaching assistant, Belgium

Patrick Lacor, VUB, Belgium

Pierre Lannoy, Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgique

Guillaume Laplante-Anfossi, The University of Melbourne, Australia

Mathilde Larrere, MCF Université Gustave Eiffel, France

Sabine Lauwers, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium

Marc Lavergne, Directeur de recherche émerite CNRS/université de Tours, France

Guy Lebeer, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgique

Joel Lebowitz, Rutgers University, USA

Michelle Lecolle, Université Paris 3 Sorbonnne nouvelle, France

Séverine Leidwanger, Université Paris Cité, France

Riccardo Leoncini, Università di Bologna, Italy

Véronique Leoni, Université de Lille, France

Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond, Professor Emeritus of the University of Nice, France

François Loeser, Sorbonne University, France

Roland Lombard, Dir. Recherche CNRS retraité, Suisse

Paul Lookman, Geopolitiek in context, Belgium

Françoise Lorcerie, CNRS, Aix-Marseille Université, France

Chiara Loschi, University of Bologna, Italy

Fred Louckx, Em. Prof, Free University of Brussels ( VUB ), Belgium

Anne Lovell, INSERM, France

David Lurie, Columbia University, USA

Madeline Lutjeharms, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium

Bernard Maitte, Université de Lille, France

Corine Maitte, Université Gustave Eiffel, France

Jean-Paul Malrieu, Université Paul Sabatier, Toulouse III, France

Monica Marks, Assistant Professor of Political Science & Arab Crossroad Studies, New York University Abu Dhabi, UAE

Serge Martin, Professeur émérite Université Sorbonne nouvelle, France

Barry Mazur, Harvard University, USA

Achille Mbembe, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

Samuel McDermott, University of Chicago, USA

Nicola Melis, Università di Cagliari, Italy

Yves Meyer, Académie des Sciences, France

Michel Mietton, Université Lyon 3 J. Moulin, France

Gian Giacomo Migone, Prof. Ordinario, Unito (a riposo), Italy

Haynes Miller, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA

Jamal Mimouni, Université Constantine 1, Algérie

David Mond, University of Warwick, United Kingdom

José-Luis Moragues, Université Paul Valéry -Montpellier III- (Retraité), France

Anne Morelli, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgique

Giuseppe Mosconi, Università di Padova, Italia

Enver Motala, Nelson Mandela University, South Africa

Clément Mouhot, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

Daniela Musina, Scuola Normale Superiore, Italia

Cinzia Nachira, Docente, Italia

Mary Teuw Niane, Professeur titulaire à la retraite, Sénégal

Ides Nicaise, KU Leuven, Belgium

Stéphane Nonnenmacher, Université Paris-Saclay, France

Joël Noret, Professor at Université libre de bruxelles, Belgium

Mojubaolu Okome, Brooklyn College, CUNY, United States

Fabrice Orgogozo, CNRS, France

Noria Ouali, Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgique

Viola Pacini, Università di Bologna, Italy

Silvia Paggi, Université Côte d'azur, France

Christine Pagnoulle , Université de Liège, Belgique

Boris Igor Palella, Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, Italia

David Palumbo-Liu, Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, Stanford University, US

Rose Parfitt, Kent Law School, University of Kent, UK

Ian Parker, University of Manchester, UK

Carlo Patti, Universidade Federal de Goiás, Brazil

Marie-Anne Paveau, Université Sorbonne Paris Nord, France

Daniel Peraya, Professeur honoraire Université de Genève, Suisse

Alain Perronnet, Sorbonne-Université Retraité, France

Gregory Pflugfelder, Columbia University, USA

Gregory Philo, Professor emeritus University of Glasgow, United Kingdom

Alain Pique, Université de Bretagne occidentale (en retraite), France

Sheldon Pollock, Columbia University, USA

Ibrahima Poudiougou, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Norway

Nicola Pratt, University of Warwick, UK

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, University of New Hampshire, USA

Dominique Prochasson, Université Paris Cité (retraité), France

Catherine Quinet, Sciences Po Lille, France

Ali Raiss-Tousi, Birkbeck, University of London, United Kingdom

Anandi Ramamurthy, Professor in Media and Culture, Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom

Norma Rantisi, Professor, Concordia University, Canada

Roshdi Rashed, CNRS, France

Marwan Rashed, Sorbonne Université, France

Kamran Rastegar, Professor, Tufts University, United States

Alessandra Renzi, Concordia University, Canada

Giuseppe Riccio, DII - Università di Napoli Federico II, Italia

Vincent Rivasseau, Université Paris-Saclay, France

Paola Rivetti, Dublin City University, Ireland

Chris Roberts, University of Manchester, UK

Marc Rogalski, Collaborateur bénévole à  Sorbonne Université, France

Jonathan Rosenhead, Emeritus Professor, London School of Economics, United Kingdom

Michel Rueher, Université Côte d'Azur, France

Pieter Saey, Prof.Em. Université de Gand, Belgique

Simone Santorso, University of Sussex, UK

Marta Scaglioni, Cà Foscari University, Italy

Pierre Schapira, Sorbonne University, France

Rita Schepers, KU Leuven, Belgium

Hedwig Schwall, KU Leuven, Belgium

Lionel Schwartz, Université Sorbonne Paris Nord, France

Irna Senekal, Nelson Mandela University, South Africa

Iris Seri-Hersch, Aix-Marseille Université, France

Brian Shuve, Associate Professor, Harvey Mudd College, United States

Sara Skandrani, Université Paris Nanterre, France

Christophe Soulé, IHES, France

Michel Staszewski, Chercheur invité - Université libre de Bruxelles , Belgique

Lucienne Strivay, Université de Liège, Faculté de philosophie et lettres, Belgique

David Suber, University college london, Italy

Élio Sucena, University of Lisbon, Portugal

Pietro Sullo, Brunel University London, UK

Annick Suzor-Weiner, Université Paris-Saclay, France

Ted Swedenburg, University of Arkansas, USA

Benoît Tadié, Université Paris Nanterre, France

Tim Tait, University of California, Irvine, United States

Nozomi Takahashi, VIB-Ghent University, Belgium

Simona Taliani, University of Turin, Italy

Fabrizio Tassinari, European University Institute, Italy

Andrea Teti, Università di Salerno, Italy

Michael Thaddeus, Columbia University, USA

Chris Tilly, University of California Los Angeles, USA

Simone Turchetti, University of Manchester, UK

Salim Vally, Professor, University of Johannesburg, South Africa

Erik Van der Straeten, Professeur émérite, België

Martine Van Geertruijden, Sapienza, Italia

Raf Van Laere, Royal Academy for Archaeology and Art History of Belgium, Belgium

Wim Van Neer, Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Belgium

Willie van Peer, Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich, Germany

Thomas Van Riet, KU Leuven, Belgium

Gie vandenBerghe, University of Ghent, Belgium

Marc Vandepitte, Philosopher, Belgium

Dominique Ventre, Telecom Paris, France

Aviel Verbruggen, University of Antwerp, Belgium

Marie-France Vigneras, Universite Paris Cité, France

Cédric Villani, Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1, France

Marina Vishmidt, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK

John Wilkins, University of Exeter, UK

Harco Willems, Professor emeritus of Egyptology, KU Leuven, Belgium

Julian Williams, University of Manchester, U.K.

Yves Winter, McGill University, Canada

Susan Witte, Columbia University, United States

Gwendolyn Wright, Professor emerita, US

Valentina Zagaria, University of Manchester, UK

Cecilia  Zagaria, Wageningen University, The Netherlands

Brigitte Zanda, Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, France

Federica Zardo, Danube University Krems, Austria