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FIRE criticizes Harvard for rescinding human rights champion Ken Roth’s fellowship

The school cited his “anti-Israel” views. Roth is the second controversial figure to be disinvited from Harvard’s Kennedy School in recent years. It happened to military whistleblower Chelsea Manning in 2017.
Harvard Kennedy School sign

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The dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School has refused to approve the fellowship of the man — hailed as  the “godfather” of human rights work — because he disagrees with his stance on Israel. 

HKS, one of the top public policy institutions in the world, has violated Harvard’s clear commitments to free expression by denying former Human Rights Watch executive Kenneth Roth a fellowship because of his purported “anti-Israel bias.” As always, FIRE is neutral on Roth’s views on Israel, as well as the underlying Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has defended individuals on every side of the issue.

Harvard’s human rights experts reportedly sought Roth for the job after he announced he was stepping down as executive director of Human Rights Watch. Sushma Raman, executive director of HKS's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, invited Roth to join the center as a senior fellow. Roth and Raman agreed on terms, and the fellowship was set to be confirmed, but when it was elevated to HKS Dean Douglas Elmendorf, he refused to approve the deal.

FIRE wrote Dean Elmendorf today to urge him to approve Roth’s fellowship, explaining that the school violated Roth’s expressive rights by denying him the fellowship because of his views.  

As we wrote:

But the Kennedy School undermines its laudable commitment to intellectual diversity and free inquiry when it rescinds a fellowship offer based on the candidate’s viewpoint or speech. Specifically, the Kennedy School fails to promote “an atmosphere that welcomes new ideas” when it denies a fellowship to an accomplished human rights advocate and widely-acknowledged leader in the field over disagreement with some of his views.

The Nation speculated that the Kennedy School refused the fellowship because of fear of upsetting donors and defense and intelligence officials who oppose Roth’s previous comments or his work at Human Rights Watch. 

Pressure and backlash based on a fellow’s viewpoints, or purported viewpoints, from those inside or outside of the campus community cannot be the basis for refusing to grant a fellowship. And if pressure is indeed to blame for Elmendorf’s decision, it wouldn’t be the first time. In 2017, he personally rescinded a fellowship invite to whistleblower Chelsea Manning after CIA head Mike Pompeo criticized the move.

Institutions committed to intellectual diversity and curiosity should welcome those with differing views. As PEN America wrote, “[w]ithholding Roth’s participation in a human rights program due to his own staunch critiques of human rights abuses by governments worldwide raises serious questions about the credibility of the Harvard program itself.”

Because of its prestige, Harvard’s Kennedy School is a model for institutions that hope to emulate its programs, and its distinguished graduates are sought after. But this episode suggests the school may be blocking student exposure to certain viewpoints.

As we told HKS today, the “appropriate response to Roth’s criticism of Israel by those who disagree with it is to offer ‘more speech’ in the form of reasoned criticism or debate.  More speech serves the principles of free expression and Harvard’s foundational interest in the pursuit of truth.”

In 2021, FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff said,  “Academic freedom is in the worst position of my career, and perhaps the worst condition it has been in decades — perhaps since the Red Scare.” When top institutions violate the expressive and academic freedom rights of their faculty, other institutions believe that they may do so as well. But, in this case, other institutions should not follow Harvard’s model: They should strive to be better.

We call on the Harvard Kennedy School to accept Roth’s fellowship and publicly reaffirm that Harvard is committed to respecting free expression and academic freedom.

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