Around July 26, 2022, the dean of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government (HKS) vetoed a one-year fellowship offered to Kenneth Roth, the former director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), apparently based on his past work and public statements on Israel-Palestine. On January 19, 2023, following an outcry from within and outside the Harvard community, the dean reversed course and announced that HKS would offer the fellowship to Roth.
In April 2022, the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, a center hosted at HKS, approached Roth about pursuing a fellowship following his announcement that he would retire from HRW, where he had served as Executive Director since 1993. By June 9, Roth had agreed to a formal proposal centered on his authoring a book about his time at HRW and human rights movements. The Carr Center’s Executive Director then submitted the proposal to HKS Dean Douglas Elmendorf for his approval, a step described by those involved as a formality.
During a July 12 introduction video call, Elmendorf allegedly asked Roth if he had any “enemies.” Roth told Elmendorf that he did and that this was the nature of high-profile human rights work; he mentioned a number of countries with governments that he believes hold disfavorable opinions of him, including Israel. Two weeks later, Carr Center leadership informed Roth that the dean did not approve of the fellowship offer. At the time, Roth was not given a reason for Elmendorf’s decision.
On January 5, 2023, Elmendorf’s vetoing of Roth’s appointment was reported in an article published in The Nation, based on interviews with Roth, Mathias Risse, the Carr Center’s faculty director, and Kathryn Sikkink, a professor affiliated with the center (other outlets would later confirm the reporting). According to these accounts, Elmendorf, in explaining to Risse and Sikkink his decision to veto the fellowship, raised a perception that HRW is “biased” against Israel and cited a 2022 HRW report that described the Israeli government’s actions in Occupied Palestinian Territory as having met the legal definition of “apartheid” and Roth’s social media posts regarding Israel. According to The New York Times’ reporting, “Elmendorf told them he had become aware of the [bias] issue following discussions with unnamed people within the university.” Risse and Sikkink said that Elmendorf did not mention “donors;” however, Risse noted in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education that “The point wasn’t so much that Doug Elmendorf thought that [Roth was biased], but that ‘some people in the university’ who mattered to him did.” Sikkink told The Nation that she attempted to rebut concerns of an “anti-Israel bias” by sending Elmendorf an email detailing other government and non-government institutions, including the US State Department, that have reported findings similar to HRW’s research regarding Israel’s human rights record; however, Elmendorf told her that he would not reconsider his decision to veto Roth’s fellowship.
News of Elmendorf’s veto prompted public statements and letters from major human rights and free speech advocates, as well as faculty and students at Harvard and beyond, who denounced Elmendorf’s veto and called on HKS to reverse course and approve the fellowship offer.
On January 9, Harvard’s student newspaper, The Crimson, reported that an HKS spokesperson “did not deny Roth’s specific allegations and declined to provide details about his fellowship candidacy.” Two days later, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that an HKS spokesperson wrote that Elmendorf “decided not to make this fellowship appointment, as he sometimes decides not to make other proposed academic appointments, based on an evaluation of the candidate’s potential contributions to the Kennedy School.” Elmendorf later made a similar pronouncement and said that his decision was not influenced by donors.
On January 19, following sustained national criticism, HKS announced that it reversed course and would offer Roth the fellowship, which he has since accepted. Elmendorf told The Guardian that he “made an error in [his] decision not to appoint [Roth]” and that he was later “persuaded to change his mind by hearing from the ‘broader faculty.’”
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the effective rescission of an offer of a position in a higher education institution, based not on the quality of the candidate’s past work, but on political sensitivities about that work. Higher education administrators should respect academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and the integrity of such decision-making processes by basing their approval on academic merit. Even when such decisions are reversed, as was the case here, they may negatively impact academic freedom and university autonomy at the institution in question and beyond.