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Editorials

Kenneth Roth: The One that (Almost) Got Away

The Harvard Kennedy School, which houses the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, stands at 79 John F. Kennedy Street.
The Harvard Kennedy School, which houses the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, stands at 79 John F. Kennedy Street. By Karina G. Gonzalez-Espinoza
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

From “godfather” of human rights to Harvard reject: After nearly three decades of holding those in power accountable as the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth’s fellowship appointment at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy was vetoed by Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf. Why? Roth alleges that this decision was punishment for HRW’s coverage of Israel during his tenure, which included accusations that Israel was committing crimes of apartheid against the Palestinian people.

Even though Elmendorf has since reversed his veto, we cannot help but be struck by the enormity of this initial failure — the unconscionable dismissal of a man who transformed human rights from a fellowship at a center that studies human rights, which nearly consigned Roth to the eternal status of being the Carr Center’s “one that got away.”

In our view, this outrageous (and outrage-inducing) decision can be understood two ways, both of which place the blame squarely on Dean Elmendorf. In one version of events, Elmendorf heard criticisms of Roth, fundamentally misunderstood who he was and what he stood for, and pressed the red button. In another, Elmendorf knew exactly what he was doing as he rebuffed the world’s leading human rights expert because he lacked the courage to weather any blowback for Roth’s positions.

Either way, we worry about what this case says about the status of academic inquiry at a school like Harvard — one enmeshed in this nation’s headiest networks of power, where the risk of improper influence by outside actors on academic decisions may be uniquely high. This is especially true at HKS, which features strikingly close ties to government officials and the national security complex. Strolling through the annexes of 79 John F. Kennedy Street, it is not out of the ordinary to encounter a Congresswoman holding forth amid a gaggle of students or a former General with a star or four chatting it up over coffee. One can imagine without difficulty how such interpersonal proximity — not to mention the influence of the well-monied donors that support it — could create quid pro quo dynamics with which we should all be uncomfortable.

No price, personal or pecuniary, can approach the value of free academic inquiry at an institution dedicated to truth-seeking. Without exaggeration, one can say that the principles of academic freedom and free speech have made possible some of humankind’s greatest triumphs — its moon landings, its peacemakings, its Pulitzers, its democracies. Suffice it to say, the influence of donors within our institution should never be applied to suffocate academic freedom. Our University's leaders must have the courage to ensure that this is so.

Given everything, we ought to acknowledge that it is possible that these dynamics had the effect of curtailing academic freedom at Harvard even prior to the well-publicized case of Kenneth Roth. The reversal of Dean Elmendorf's decision is hardly the norm when it comes to hiring decisions based on reasons immaterial to the nature of a candidate’s work in the school. If this can happen to Roth, a venerable titan within a globally-renowned field, it can happen to anyone — and those without Roth’s connections or cache will be, and almost certainly have been, hard-pressed to hold the University accountable.

As we have previously argued regarding tenure, transparency is essential. While preserving appropriate standards of confidentiality in the hiring process, Harvard should take the opportunity to establish robust accountability measures regarding prominent academic placements across the University, including the incorporation of faculty committee oversight so as to insulate these decisions from any improper financial influence.

To his credit, Dean Elmendorf has agreed to bring faculty into the fellowship approval process; we expect that the University will clearly communicate the accountability structure of such a faculty committee to both our community and the public. In the same vein of transparency, we call on President Bacow to initiate an official investigation into why Dean Elmendorf rejected Roth’s fellowship and determine, among other things, whether claims of donor influence can be substantiated.

The best apology Harvard can give Roth is its improvement. We hope it will. We hope this incident will serve as an opportunity for Harvard to boldly and ambitiously double down on its commitment to academic freedom in hiring University-wide.

Until then, to Kenneth Roth: On behalf of a community much larger than its administration, we want to apologize and thank you for having the grace to come back. As students who hope to learn from your expertise, we’re glad you won’t be the one that got away.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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