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Despite Calls for HKS Dean Resignation, Harvard President Bacow ‘Absolutely’ Has Confidence in Dean’s Leadership

University President Lawrence S. Bacow praised Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf's public reversal of a decision to block a fellowship to the former head of Human Rights Watch during a Tuesday interview.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow praised Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf's public reversal of a decision to block a fellowship to the former head of Human Rights Watch during a Tuesday interview. By Julian J. Giordano
By Miles J. Herszenhorn and Claire Yuan, Crimson Staff Writers

Despite two open letters demanding the resignation of Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf this year, University President Lawrence S. Bacow said he “absolutely” still has confidence in Elmendorf’s leadership during a Tuesday interview.

Elmendorf drew widespread backlash in early January for blocking former Human Rights Watch head Kenneth Roth from serving as a fellow at the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights, a move Roth said was due to his past criticism of Israel. Elmendorf reversed his decision to block Roth from the fellowship amid faculty criticism and an open letter calling for his resignation that garnered more than 1,000 signatures.

Elmendorf faced a second round of calls to resign in early February after The Crimson reported that the dean is forcing out online misinformation expert Joan M. Donovan from her role at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and ending her research project, according to three HKS staff members with knowledge of the situation.

Bacow praised Elmendorf for publicly reversing his decision to block Roth’s fellowship and for being “willing to accept responsibility,” which Bacow called “worthy of both respect and support.”

“I think Doug did something which is all too infrequent in society these days,” Bacow said. “In the face of new information, he was willing to change his mind. He announced that publicly, and then basically apologized for not having reached the right decision before.”

“Nobody bats 1000,” he added.

Roth said in a Wednesday interview that he is not aware of any “new information” that arose about his fellowship candidacy that may have influenced Elmendorf’s decision aside from a Jan. 17 “emergency meeting called of the faculty” to discuss his case. Elmendorf reversed his decision on Roth’s fellowship two days later.

“My understanding is that not a single faculty member spoke in favor of Elmendorf’s decision. Everybody thought it was a mistake,” Roth said. “Those were not ‘new facts.’ Those were just a complete repudiation of what Elmendorf had done.”

HKS spokesperson James F. Smith declined to comment on the Jan. 17 faculty meeting, pointing to Elmendorf’s statement earlier last month saying that he “made an error” in his decision.

“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 wrote last month. “The broader faculty input I have now sought and received has persuaded me that my decision was not the best one for the School.”

Roth said on Wednesday that he is requesting an inquiry into Elmendorf’s initial decision to block his fellowship.

“That’s the best way to avoid something like this happening again,” he said. “Even if Elmendorf wants to hide behind this ‘partial confidentiality’ of the appointment process, that should not preclude an internal investigation.”

Bacow said during the interview that the University is not conducting an official investigation into Roth’s initial rejection from a fellowship at the Kennedy School.

Roth also reiterated his call for the University to publicly affirm the academic freedom of affiliates to discuss issues related to Israel and Palestine, a demand Roth also articulated during his appearance at an Institute of Politics JFK Jr. Forum earlier this month.

Roth said he met with University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 and Bacow’s Chief of Staff Patricia S. Bellinger ’83 while he was on campus, but Garber did not agree to issuing a public statement that specifically defended academic freedom when discussing Israel and Palestine.

“He said, in essence, ‘No, because there are lots of controversial issues out there and I don’t want to single out Israel and Palestine,’” Roth said.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton wrote in an emailed statement that Harvard is “committed to being a place that embraces academic freedom and freedom of speech, and the engagement in discourse around ideas and views.”

“This commitment is fundamental to our community’s values, among them the belief that our differences in backgrounds and views enrich the campus and academic experience for our students, faculty and staff,” Newton wrote. “Any suggestion that this commitment does not include views on Israel-Palestine is inaccurate.”

The Crimson interviews University President Lawrence S. Bacow three times per semester during the academic year. Click here to submit a question for consideration in our next interview.

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.

—Staff writer Claire Yuan can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @claireyuan33.

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