Prof. Tom Ginsburg Teams Up with Undergrad for Groundbreaking Research in Iraq

Meredith Heagney
Law School Office of Communications
March 18, 2013

Professor Tom Ginsburg is about to embark on first-of-its-kind research into the effect of 30 years of war and international sanctions on the professors of Iraq. His research partner is an 18-year-old University of Chicago freshman majoring in history named Matthew Schweitzer.

If you told Ginsburg that sounded like a mismatched research team, he’d be the first to tell you: This remarkable project emerged from Schweitzer’s own research. Because it’s such a great one, Ginsburg is throwing his extensive international knowledge and expertise behind it. Academics at Brown University and the London School of Economics and Political Science are lending support as well. The University of Chicago Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society is supporting Ginsburg’s project as one of its inaugural initiatives uniting scholars in interdisciplinary research into “powerful new ideas in humanities and social sciences.”

Another inaugural project – there are 18 – involves Law School Professor Bernard Harcourt, who is teaming up with faculty from the sociology and history departments for a project called, “The State as History and Theory.” The Law School website will provide more information on that project when it launches next month.

Read more about the Collegium and its projects at UChicago News.

Ginsburg’s project, “Iraq’s Intelligentsia Under Siege: 1980-2012,” will consist of oral histories and articles detailing the plight of Iraqi academics, starting with the war with Iran in 1980 and continuing with the first Gulf War, years of United Nations sanctions, and the U.S. invasion in 2003. As many as 100 interviews with these academics, many of whom have been exiled to other countries, will provide the material.

“They had such a powerful domestic intellectual class up until the late 1980s," Schweitzer said. "Today, Iraq’s universities are shadows of their former selves. Iraq has lost nearly 30 percent of its academic staff and researchers, destroying two generations: those of the intellectuals and their students."

Schweitzer got the idea to approach Ginsburg for the Iraq’s Intelligentsia project while doing work for his website,, which looks at the end of U.S. military operations in Iraq, and looks toward the end of the war in Afghanistan. Schweitzer has landed some big interviews for his blog posts, including the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, and many international journalists from outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and Al Jazeera.

Last summer, he interviewed Saad Jawad, a prominent Iraqi professor who now teaches at the London School of Economics, about teaching under Saddam Hussein’s rule. As he got to know Jawad, he found out that the professor had to leave his home country in 2008 because conditions were so dangerous, particularly for academics. Schweitzer learned about the demise of Iraq’s once-great universities due to war, poverty, and sanctions on items such as books and lab equipment. Professors in Iraq have been frequent victims of targeted killings and other violence.

Schweitzer wanted Ginsburg, who works around the world writing constitutions for developing countries, to lead the project.

“Tom Ginsburg provides the perspective of looking at this issue, which is really a human rights issue, from a legal perspective,” Schweitzer said.

Ginsburg said he was impressed by the advanced proposal Schweitzer had put together, but cautious to say yes; he doesn’t study Iraq, and he’s already in the midst of writing three books and several journal articles, all while teaching and traveling.

“I said, it’s not my area, but I’ll take a look,” Ginsburg recounted. Then: “Wow, this thing’s really good.”

Ginsburg also saw the chance to work on a topic that has been largely overlooked.

“The country’s been decimated in so many ways. But this particular issue I don’t think has gotten much attention. What’s the role of intellectuals in reconstructing shattered states, but also what are their obligations in wartime?”

Even the most basic facts about the suffering of academics are unknown, Ginsburg pointed out: How many have been killed in targeted killings? Who did the killings? As for those in exile, where are they?

“We’d like to tell the collective biography of these scholars who were trying to cope with, and were sometimes victims of, Iraq’s long decimation,” he said.

Schweitzer is grateful for Ginsburg’s constitutional expertise; part of what he wants to do with the project is show how the Iraqi Constitution is a deeply flawed document in part because academics were not permitted to participate in its drafting. 

To support their work, Ginsburg and Schweitzer have built an impressive network, evidenced by the project’s advisory board. It includes Jawad, who will help them find their interview subjects, and Catherine Lutz, a Brown University professor who co-directs the Costs of War research project in the Watson Institute for International Studies. Three University of Chicago academics are advising the project: Political Science Professor Iza Hussin, Professor McGuire Gibson of the Oriental Institute, and Daniel Meyer, Director of Special Collections for the library. Dahr Jamail, a journalist who has covered Iraq extensively since 2003, is on the board as well.

The project will begin this summer, with Ginsburg and Schweitzer interviewing exiled professors in Europe. They will then travel to the region to train scholars – Jawad’s former students, incidentally – to interview professors still in Iraq.

These oral histories will be archived at the university, Ginsburg said, so that they can be accessed by generations to come. The hardships of the scholars of Iraq have been overlooked in the present, but they will not be forgotten in the future.

Read more at: 

"Iraq ten years on: ivory tower under siege," by Matthew Schweitzer, in Le Monde Diplomatique

Home page photograph by Salam Pax.

Tom Ginsburg