Harvard’s Cave-In to Human Rights Watch Is Part of a Bigger Problem

Many quasi-research entities which have sprung up at universities across the country whose purposes are more causist than scholarly.

AP/Bilal Hussein, file
Human Rights Watch's executive director, Kenneth Roth, at Beirut on January 29, 2015. AP/Bilal Hussein, file

The decision  by the dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard to  reverse his veto of a fellowship for Kenneth Roth, the ex-head of Human Rights Watch, should dismay those long concerned by  the group’s disproportionate criticism of Israel.  One may have questions about Israeli policies, but Human Rights Watch is not one for nuance. 

In April 2021, it issued a 213-page report that Israeli authorities are committing “crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution against millions of Palestinians.” In contrast, the group, though harshly critical of Chinese policy toward Muslim minorities, does not go so far as to term them a crime against humanity.

Even if Dean Douglas Elmendorf of the Kennedy School (where I served as Director, Case Studies, between 1987 and 2006), had not yielded to public pressure to reinstate Roth, it would not have resolved the underlying problem represented  by groups such as  the Carr Center for Human Rights, the school’s center which proposed the  fellowship for Mr. Roth.

The Center is one of many quasi-research entities which have sprung up at universities across the country whose purposes are more causist than scholarly. The Carr Center cites its purpose as “research, teaching, and training in the human rights domain.”

In practice, this vague language leads to such publications as “Not My AI:  Towards Critical Feminist Frameworks to Resist Oppressive AI Systems” which aspires to “help us question algorithmic decision-making systems that may be racist and patriarchal, shifting to a future that is more focused on equity and social-environmental justice.” A worthy goal perhaps but hardly a detached and scholarly one.

The Carr Center, moreover, is far from alone in emphasizing advocacy over scholarship. Boston University is the home of the Center for Antiracist Research, led by Ibram X. Kendi, who is said to be “leading an antiracist movement for social change.” The Center says it includes “scholars, advocates, and thought leaders, all of whom bring to the table a relentless commitment to social justice.”  

Race in America is without doubt a proper focus of research for a range of academic disciplines. The Antiracist Center, though, is clear about distinguishing itself from such: the “Center fosters an interdisciplinary approach to identify comprehensive solutions beyond the reach of most academic institutions that primarily focus on research.”

There are, it should be noted, similar centers at American University (Antiracism Center); the University of Southern California (USC Race and Equity Center); Temple University (Center for Antiracism); the University of Michigan (Center for Racial Justice). 

To be fair, it is also the case that causes associated with political conservatives have their own academic homes. The Center for Education Reform, which has long championed charter schools and school choice more broadly, offers a “parental power index,” rating the extent to which “your state empowers parents and educators to foster the best education environment for students.”

One may well applaud such efforts  — I do ‚— but they still must be distinguished from, say, a professional school for future teachers or detached research. The list of advocacy centers in academe goes on. Princeton hosts the Eviction Lab, which “creates data, interactive tools, and research to help neighbors and policy makers understand the eviction crisis.” The key assumption:   that there is such a crisis.

Wake Forest hosts the  Center for the Study of Capitalism, where “we believe well-functioning free markets act as a force for positive change and progress.. .  .”
New York University has its “Center for Environmental and Animal Protection, a research unit to inform policy related to these linked societal and scientific concerns.”

“The nexus of animal agriculture, climate change, and conservation represents one of the most pressing and least understood threats to a sustainable future and will be a main focal point of the Center’s activities,” says Dale Jamieson, the Center’s founding director.  It’s a long way from being an agricultural extension service for farmers. 

Dean Elmendorf is facing criticism that he has been influenced by donors with Zionist leanings. All the Centers above, though, have their donors with their own favorite causes, all looking to have the stamp of university approval.  The BU Antiracism Center, say,has been backed by the Open Society, Ford, Gates and Casey Foundations. 

The Gates, Ford, and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative all support Princeton’s Eviction Lab.  The Carr Center reflects the fact that an individual donor — tech mogul Greg Carr — can establish a Center at Harvard to further his world view. Whatever one’s views of these various causes, they all reflect advocacy over scholarship. Their presence is, what’s more, not unrelated to debates about free speech on campus.  When university-approved centers are established with explicit goals, students must inevitably think twice about criticizing them. It’s a  long way from John Stuart Mill.

Correction: The Center for Education Reform is based at Washington, D.C. An earlier edition misstated the Center’s institutional affiliation.

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