The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In reversal, Harvard offers fellowship to advocate critical of Israel

The Kennedy School’s decision not to hire Kenneth Roth, former head of Human Rights Watch, sparked a debate over academic freedom

Kenneth Roth, the former executive director of Human Rights Watch. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

The Harvard Kennedy School backtracked Thursday, offering a fellowship to a human-rights advocate who has been critical of Israel after an earlier denial sparked a debate over academic freedom.

Kenneth Roth, the former executive director of Human Rights Watch, has said that he was denied a fellowship by the school’s dean Douglas Elmendorf because of his views on Israel. A story published in the Nation on the issue earlier this month prompted an outcry from hundreds of students and faculty members, calls for Elmendorf’s resignation, and a heated debate over whether donors had influenced the decision and whether scholars could speak and write freely on polarizing topics at Harvard.

While many were critical of Harvard’s decision, some defended it and called Roth, who is Jewish, antisemitic for his criticisms of Israel.

Earlier this month Roth wrote in the Guardian that the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy talked with him about a fellowship, but Elmendorf vetoed it. “As best we can tell, donor reaction was his concern.”

Roth wrote that the dean had asked if he had any enemies, and he responded that as a human rights defender, he had many, including the governments of China, Russia, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia. “I also noted that the Israeli government undoubtedly detests me, too,” Roth wrote. “That turned out to be the kiss of death.”

On Thursday, Elmendorf wrote to the Kennedy School community, saying that he now believed his decision had been an error and that the school would extend a fellowship offer to Roth. He emphasized that his decision was not influenced by donors to the school.

“Donors do not affect our consideration of academic matters,” he wrote. “My decision also was not made to limit debate at the Kennedy School about human rights in any country. As a community we are steadfastly committed to free inquiry and including a wide range of views on public policy,” and appointments don’t serve as endorsements or refutations of an individual’s opinions.

He said he would ask a faculty committee to develop a faculty-driven process for evaluating such appointments.

In Roth’s case, he wrote, “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.”

Roth, who is a visiting fellow this academic year at the Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, said on Thursday that he was surprised and thrilled that the decision had been rescinded, and that he looked forward to spending time at the Kennedy School. He said he thought the attention put on his case had led to the reversal, but questioned what would have happened for someone less well-known.

“It’s a step forward,” Roth said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a total victory because how do we prevent this from happening to other people? … I would like to see a clearer statement of commitment to academic freedom from the Kennedy School and from Harvard than we have seen so far.”

Roth also said Elmendorf has not identified the “'people who matter to him'” whom he said were behind his original decision. “Greater transparency is needed here to make sure that it doesn’t just happen again,” he said.

Natalie L. Kahn, a senior at Harvard, wrote an opinion piece defending the dean’s veto in the campus newspaper the Harvard Crimson this week.Not everyone is entitled to a fellowship purely in the name of free speech,” she wrote, and, Our campus discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be nuanced and informative. Whining about not being able to add yet another voice to the anti-Israel echo chamber will not achieve that goal.”

On Thursday, Mathias Risse, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, wrote in an email that the faculty — including many who disagree with Roth on certain things — had spoken nearly unanimously about the issue. Risse, who had proposed Roth for the fellowship, said, “obviously I am very happy about this turn of events.”

Pippa Norris, a longtime lecturer at the Kennedy School, said she thought most faculty were pleased that the dean had listened to the concerns of students, faculty, experts in human rights and others and admired that he had the courage to say he had made a mistake, and take steps to correct it. She said she also appreciated the intention to create a faculty committee to look into the selection processes for visiting fellows.

“It would be good to settle the issue and to reduce the temperature,” Norris said. “Lively debate is great. And the fact that people are passionate about these issues, I don’t regard it as a negative necessarily, so long as they have respect for the other side and they can talk and debate about, ‘What do we want as a Harvard community? What do we want when we talk about the politics of the Middle East?'"