The Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) reversed course on Thursday and announced it would offer leading human rights advocate Kenneth Roth a fellowship which had previously been rejected over his criticism of ‘Israel’.
Kenneth Roth – who retired as executive director of HRW in April after three decades running the organization – had been offered to become a senior fellow at Harvard by the university’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.
However, HKS dean Douglas Elmendorf reportedly vetoed the appointment over Roth’s criticism of ‘Israel’ during his work at HRW and in social media posts.
Elmendorf reportedly told Kathryn Sikkink, a professor of human rights policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, in July that the appointment was being withdrawn due to HRW’s “anti-Israel bias” and Roth’s social media posts.
The decision came two weeks after Roth was interviewed by Elmendorf over the position, during which he was asked if he had any “enemies”.
The HKS decision drew widespread condemnation, including from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other free speech advocates, and hundreds of Harvard faculty and students.
In a statement seen by The Boston Globe, Douglas Elmendorf, dean of the Kennedy School, said, “In the case of Mr Roth, I now believe that I made an error in my decision not to appoint him as a Fellow at our Carr Center for Human Rights.”
“I am sorry that the decision inadvertently cast doubt on the mission of the School and our commitment to open debate in ways I had not intended and do not believe to be true,” Elmendorf added.
Elmendorf said his original decision was “based on my evaluation of [Roth’s] potential contributions to the school” but he had been persuaded to change his mind by hearing from the “broader faculty”.
“Donors do not affect our consideration of academic matters,” he said in his statement. “My decision was also not made to limit debate at the Kennedy School about human rights in any country.”
In response, Roth said he was “thrilled” at the decision to lift the block, and thanked those at “Harvard and around the world for their overwhelming disapproval of Dean Elmendorf’s original decision”.
But Roth said that Elmendorf failed to say anything “about the people ‘who matter to him’ whom he said were behind his original veto decision”.
“Full transparency is key to ensuring that such influence is not exerted in other cases,” Roth said.
“Secondly, I remain worried about academic freedom. Given my three decades leading Human Rights Watch, I was able to shine an intense spotlight on Dean Elmendorf’s decision, but what about others? The problem of people penalized for criticising Israel is not limited to me.”
“How is the Kennedy School, and Harvard, going to ensure that this episode conveys a renewed commitment to academic freedom rather than just exceptional treatment for one well known individual?”