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Harvard dean reverses decision not to offer fellowship to human rights activist Kenneth Roth

In a statement on Twitter, Kenneth Roth, former executive director of Human Rights Watch, said he was “thrilled” by the decision.ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

After a groundswell of criticism, the Harvard Kennedy School on Thursday reversed its decision not to offer a fellowship to a leading human rights activist who contends he was rejected because of his past criticism of Israel.

Controversy had swirled on campus since disclosure of Kenneth Roth’s initial rejection for the fellowship surfaced earlier this month, buffeted by the national debate over academic freedom on college campuses. Hundreds of students and alumni signed open letters calling for the Kennedy School dean to resign and for Roth’s fellowship to be reconsidered.

“In the case of Mr. Roth, I now believe that I made an error in my decision not to appoint him as a Fellow at our Carr Center for Human Rights,” the dean, Douglas W. Elmendorf, said in a statement.

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Roth could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday. But in a statement posted to Twitter, he said he was “thrilled” by the decision.

“I am grateful to the Kennedy School faculty as well as many other faculty and students at Harvard and around the world for their overwhelming disapproval of Dean Elmendorf’s original decision,” Roth wrote.

Roth, who was executive director of Human Rights Watch for three decades, had been nominated for the fellowship by the Carr Center director, Mathias Risse, who said Thursday that he believes faculty input caused Elmendorf to reverse course.

“There was an enormous amount of [Kennedy School] faculty mobilization in support of having Ken Roth here as a fellow,” he said. “In fact, the faculty spoke pretty much unanimously in this matter, and this would include many who disagree with him on certain things. I am very happy about this turn of events.”

He added that Roth has accepted the Carr position and they are discussing details. After the initial rejection from Harvard, Roth accepted a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Roth has previously said that it was his understanding Harvard rejected his fellowship because his work included criticisms of Israel. Human Rights Watch has issued a number of reports claiming Israel appears to have committed war crimes against Palestinians.

In an opinion piece in The Guardian, Roth wrote that during a phone call last summer, Elmendorf asked if he had any enemies.

“I explained that of course I had enemies. Many of them,” Roth wrote. “That is a hazard of the trade as a human rights defender. I explained that the Chinese and Russian governments had personally sanctioned me — a badge of honor, in my view. I mentioned that a range of governments, including Rwanda’s and Saudi Arabia’s, hate me.

“But I had a hunch what he was driving at, so I also noted that the Israeli government undoubtedly detests me, too,” Roth added.

His fellowship was rejected two weeks later, he wrote.

In an op-ed in the Globe this week, Roth cited details from a report on the controversy in The Nation magazine to suggest that pressure from Kennedy School donors motivated the initial decision to veto the fellowship.

In his statement Thursday, Elmendorf flatly rejected that notion.

“Donors do not affect our consideration of academic matters,” he said. “My decision also was not made to limit debate at the Kennedy School about human rights in any country. . . My decision on Mr. Roth last summer was based on my evaluation of his potential contributions to the school.”

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Elmendorf said he had spoken with faculty members to hear their views on the matter and to “discuss a path forward” on Roth’s appointment and “broader issues” surrounding fellowships. A Kennedy School official said last week that the institution is seeking “a more consistent approach” for fellow nominations and fewer total fellows, while ensuring that they spend more time engaging with the campus community.

While Roth praised the move, he said the school had yet to be fully transparent about why his fellowship had been originally vetoed. And he said he worried about threats to academic freedom.

“Given my three decades leading Human Rights Watch, I was able to shine an intense spotlight on Dean Elmendorf’s decision, but what about others?” Roth wrote on Twitter.

Shraddha Joshi, an organizer for the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee, said Thursday that Elmendorf’s reversal is a welcome decision but that the issue “is a lot bigger than Kenneth Roth’s fellowship.” Her group believes Palestinian voices are often silenced on Harvard’s campus, with events canceled and efforts to include Palestine in the academic curriculum ignored.

“This isn’t just a neutral conversation about academic freedom, but a targeted bias Harvard has against Palestinian voices,” Joshi said.

But the decision to extend the fellowship to Roth prompted criticism from an Israeli watchdog group.

“During 30 years as head of Human Rights Watch, Roth has consistently singled out Israel uniquely for demonization and delegitimization, which contributed to the rise in antisemitism and discrimination, including against Jewish students on university campuses,” said the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, which reports on anti-Israeli bias.

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Kennedy School alumni Shai Kivity, who is Israeli and has served in the Israel Defense Forces for nine years, said he feels sorry the decision was reversed and said Roth has had problematic views.

Kivity, who graduated in 2020, said he feels the Palestinian cause and pro-Palestinian groups have a large voice on campus.

“Harvard Kennedy School is not a place you feel safe as an Israeli or Jewish person,” said Kivity, who now works for an Israeli tech startup. “You don’t feel that you can be yourself or speak your mind, or your opinion is accepted, if it’s not the right opinion.”

Kivity said he has met with Elmendorf to discuss diversity of opinion, and was outspoken about it.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t help me make a lot of friends,” Kivity said. “But I found that once you tell the truth, there are a lot of voices that are silent that appreciate you are brave enough to talk.”

Correspondent Claire Law contributed to this report.



Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Hilarysburns.