It’s an unfortunate rarity these days to see people in powerful positions admit their mistakes, apologize, and reverse course. But that’s what Douglas Elmendorf, the dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School, did on Thursday when he acknowledged that he had erred in denying a fellowship at the school to Kenneth Roth, the former longtime head of Human Rights Watch. And for that, Elmendorf deserves credit.
The dean’s rejection of Roth received a great deal of criticism, including from this page, after The Nation reported that Elmendorf’s decision was based on his belief that Roth had an anti-Israel bias. As this editorial board argued last week, Elmendorf’s move to deny a well-known and widely respected human rights advocate a fellowship on those grounds sent a chilling message, suggesting there were limits on academic freedom and free speech at Harvard. Specifically, it raised concerns that academics could face professional consequences for criticizing Israel’s actions too harshly.
“I now believe that I made an error in my decision not to appoint [Roth] as a Fellow at our Carr Center for Human Rights,” Elmendorf said in a public statement. “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.” He added that he decided to correct his mistake by making amends and offering Roth a fellowship at the Kennedy School.
In a statement posted on Twitter, Roth indicated that he plans to take the dean up on his offer, saying that he looks forward to spending time at the school. That’s welcome news, and Roth should continue to bring attention to issues like academic freedom, Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, and human rights more broadly. Of course, academic freedom runs both ways, and human rights groups are not above criticism. The Roth brouhaha has brought to the surface real concerns about such groups’ practices — such as when Human Rights Watch accepted a donation from a Saudi businessman on the condition that the money couldn’t be used to advocate for LGBTQ rights — and Roth should use his time at the Kennedy School to engage with his critics in good faith.
As for what Harvard should do next, Elmendorf announced that the Kennedy School will revamp its process for appointing fellows. The current process is relatively unstructured and without much transparency, if any at all. In his statement, the dean suggested that he will ask a committee to develop a “faculty-driven process” for fellowship appointments. That’s a good step.
But the about-face at Harvard leaves some questions still unanswered. As Roth told The New York Times, “Dean Elmendorf has said he made this decision because of people who ‘mattered’ to him at the university,” but, “he still refuses to say who those people who mattered to him were.” Indeed, it would have been better for Elmendorf to make a fuller explanation as he shifted course in order to truly put the matter to rest, and he should still open himself up to legitimate questions. But he ultimately made the right choice and showed a refreshing openness to criticism and willingness to change course. And if the whole imbroglio leads to a more transparent hiring process, Harvard will come out the stronger for this episode.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.