Harvard University’s Kennedy School reversed course on Thursday and said it would award a fellowship to a leading human rights advocate it had previously rejected, after news of the decision sparked public outcry over academic freedom, donor influence and the boundaries of criticism of Israel.
The controversy erupted earlier this month when The Nation published a lengthy article revealing that last summer, the university’s dean, Douglas Elmendorf, had overruled a proposal by the university’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy to submit a proposal to Kenneth Ross. An offer for a one-year fellowship, the recently retired executive director of Human Rights Watch. At the time, Elmendorf told colleagues he was concerned that Human Rights Watch was perceived to be biased against Israel, according to two faculty members.
The revelation drew sharp condemnation from prominent free speech groups; a joint letter signed by more than 1,000 Harvard students, faculty and alumni criticizing what it called the “disgraceful decision to blacklist Kenneth Ross” ; and private complaints from faculty and staff.
In an email to the Kennedy School community on Thursday, Elmendorf said his decision was a “mistake” and that the school would extend an invitation to Ross.
Elmendorf, the economist who served as CBO director from 2009 to 2015, also disputed allegations that donors influenced his original decision, made in the Nation article and in Roth’s public statement reiterated.
“Donors do not influence our consideration of academic matters,” he said in the statement. “Nor is my decision intended to limit the Kennedy School’s debate on human rights in any country.”
He did not specify why he turned down Mr. Ross’ scholarship simply says it is “based on my assessment of his potential contribution to the school.”
As for Ross, who accepted an offer from Penn after his Harvard turnaround and is now a fellow at the Perry World House, Elmendorf said, “I hope our community can benefit from his extensive experience in a field. broad human rights issues.”
Rose, who was reached by phone after the reversal was announced, said he was pleased with the decision, which he called “overwhelming.” Faculty attention, he will use the fellowship to write a book about his decades of human rights advocacy. But he also called for more transparency.
“Dean Elmendorf said he made the decision because of people who were ‘important’ to him at the university,” Ross said, referring to the report published by the faculty. “He still refuses to say who those people who are important to him are.”
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He called on Harvard to make a stronger commitment to academic freedom, including those unable to mobilize public opinion.
“Punishing people who criticize Israel is not limited to me,” he continued. “What does the Kennedy School, and Harvard more broadly, do to show that this episode conveys a new commitment to academic freedom, and not just special treatment for a prominent figure?”
The incident is the latest flare-up in an ongoing debate about when criticism of Israel morphs into anti-Semitism, and when accusations of anti-Semitism are in turn used to shut down criticism.
During the interview (and on twitter), Roth, a Jew whose father fled Nazi Germany as a child, said Elmendorf’s initial decision reflected the influence of those trying to legitimize Human Rights Watch, which monitors 100 Abuse in multiple countries. He described it as “donor-driven censorship,” though he said he had no proof.
“It’s clear that it’s donor influence that undermines intellectual independence,” he told the New York Times in an interview last week.
(A spokesman for Harvard University said the university and its president, Lawrence Bacow, had no comment.)
The influence of donors can be murky, with details of closed-door conversations seldom surfacing. But Israel has been a particular flashpoint in recent years, as some donors, concerned about what they see as anti-Semitism or anti-Israeli trends in academia, have sought to reverse donations or influence hiring decisions.
In 2020, the University of Toronto stopped hiring Valentina Azarova as director of its law school’s human rights program after a major donor contacted an administrator about her academic work criticizing Israel’s human rights record. (After a public outcry, the university offered Azarova the job, with protections for academic freedom, but she declined.)
Last year, the University of Washington returned a $5 million gift after a donor to an Israel studies program told a professor who joined other Israel and Jewish studies scholars to sign an open letter criticizing the Israeli government’s behavior toward Palestinians and Arabs. Dissatisfaction with the country and the Palestinian territories. According to the university, the donors demanded that the donation agreement be amended to prohibit speech “deemed hostile to Israel” by academics supported by the donation.
Comprising 12 centers and dozens of other initiatives, the Kennedy School is one of the nation’s leading public policy schools. It is also no stranger to controversy, often not from its regular faculty but from its more than 750 visiting scholars, including prominent figures from politics, government and the media.
In 2017, Elmendorf canceled the scholarship of Chelsea Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst who faced criticism from then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo and others in the intelligence community , leaked an archive of military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. In 2019, the appointment of former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder sparked backlash on social media, with students citing his role in the Flint water crisis and withdrawing from fellowships.
As for partisan voices in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the school has hosted fellows in recent years, including retired senior Israeli general Amos Yadlin and Saib Ehre, then chief Palestinian negotiator and secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization Carter.
Carr Center Director Mathias Risse recruited Ross for a fellowship, which did not include teaching duties. In an email to Carr Center students, faculty, fellows, alumni and others after the Nation article was published, Risse called him “one of the preeminent human rights leaders of our time” and said the rejection of the fellowship was ” One of the worst moments” of my career. “
In the Times interview and emails, Risse and another faculty member, Kathryn Sikkink, said Elmendorf cited Human Rights Watch’s “biased” view of Israel in explaining his rejection of Ross. He told them he became aware of the issue after discussions with people at the university who asked not to be named, they said.
Donors were not named, they said. But they said a 2021 report by Human Rights Watch concluded that discussing Israel’s policy toward Palestinians in the occupied territories, which the law defines as “the crime of apartheid”.
Whether Human Rights Watch is being fair to Israel has long been a bone of contention both inside and outside the organization. In a 2009 opinion piece in The Times, one of the group’s founders, Robert Bernstein, accused its criticism of Israel of “helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.”
In 2019, Israel expelled the group’s Israeli and Palestinian directors and lead researcher and author of the 2021 report, Omar Shakir, under a law prohibiting foreign support for boycotts of Israel or its territories. At the time, Shakir denied that he or Human Rights Watch had called for a mass consumer boycott of Israel or its settlements.
With its 2021 report, “Crossing the Threshold,” Human Rights Watch became the first major international human rights organization to apply the term “apartheid” to Israeli practices. Six months later, Amnesty International followed suit in its own report. (In 2022, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic published a similar but less-watched report.)
Sarah Leah Whitson, former Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said the name “apartheid” came after a “painful” internal debate.
“We had to work for years to build confidence among the senior leadership of the organization that this was an important place for us to go,” said Whitson, now executive director of the Democratic Organization for the Arab World (DAWN). There’s a fear that “if you cross those red lines, they’re going to try to decapitate you as an effective advocacy group.”
The Human Rights Watch report was attacked by Israel, which Israel’s ambassador to the United States said bordered on anti-Semitism. The American Jewish Committee called it a “hoax” and accused Ross of being personally “hostile to Israel.” Some progressive Jewish groups who expressed concern about the “vital attacks” in the report also said they disagreed with the term “apartheid”.
The report did not describe Israel as an “apartheid state” as some, including some Israeli groups, did. It uses the term not to refer to the character of the Israeli government, but to a specific discriminatory policy in the occupied territories, which it says is the definition of the “crime of apartheid” set out in an internationally ratified legal ban adopted by the United Nations and the United Nations. International Criminal Court.
Ross said the focus of the report, which he “personally spent a lot of time editing,” was not to equate Israel with South Africa’s racist former regime, but to apply legal definitions. This, he said, reflected the reality that the peace process was “dead”.
“There is no evidence that what happened today will go away,” he said. “That’s what made all of us realize that we have to change our paradigms.”
For some on campus, the problem was not so much Ross or Human Rights Watch as the balance of discourse on campus.
“From a free speech standpoint, yes, he should be eligible for a fellowship if the Carr Center deems it appropriate to invite him,” said Natalie Kahn, a Harvard senior and co-chair of Harvard Israel’s students . “I do think, though, that with so many people at Harvard espousing anti-Israel views, we don’t really need another one.”
Ahmed Moor, a 2013 Kennedy School graduate who helped organize an open letter from Palestinian alumni protesting Elmendorf’s original decision, noted that the school hosted Israeli General Yadlin, but also “people like me”.
“It’s a good fit for that kind of institution” because representing a multitude of views is part of the purpose of a “prime public policy program.”
Of the original decision, he added, “this is where the current dean screwed up.”