Abcarian: Two universities that tried to squelch academic freedom have backtracked. Here's hoping that's a trend

FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2018, file photo, a gate opens to the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass. Harvard President Lawrence Bacow announced Tuesday, April 26, 2022 that the university is committing $100 million to study its ties to slavery and create a "Legacy of Slavery Fund." (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)
Harvard University made a mistake but hasn't publicly apologized to the person harmed. (Charles Krupa / Associated Press)

I thought my mind was playing tricks on me when I first read that Kenneth Roth, who led Human Rights Watch for three decades, had been disinvited to a fellowship at Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights.

That cannot be right, I thought: A man who has spent his adult life crusading against human rights abuses was judged to be a bad match for an institution devoted to advancing human rights around the world?

But yes, as it turned out, after Roth had accepted an invitation to a yearlong fellowship at Harvard during which he planned to write a book, the Kennedy School’s dean, Doug Elmendorf, nixed the arrangement.

Why? Because, according to people who spoke with Elmendorf, Human Rights Watch has an "anti-Israel bias." The Nation, which broke the story, said it was unclear who exactly had raised objections to Roth’s appointment. The speculation is that deep-pocketed, pro-Israel donors had their thumbs on the scale, and Elmendorf folded. That would be a shame.

Human Rights Watch turns out reams of reports about repressive regimes — Sudan, North Korea, Iraq. It has criticized China, Saudi Arabia and, at times, the United States. In a 2021 report, the group declared that Israel commits the crime of apartheid against Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. A 2022 report by Amnesty International came to a similar conclusion.

Obviously, this angered some American pro-Israel groups, like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, which have accused HRW of antisemitism. (Last summer in the New York Times, Peter Beinart explored how Jewish groups have conflated criticism of Israel with antisemitism, which thwarts conversation about Israel's mistreatment of Palestinians.)

In any case, Human Rights Watch has also addressed abuses by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

And regardless of how you feel about criticism of Israel, or the painful roots of the world’s only Jewish state, repressing speech by withdrawing a fellowship offer is going to outrage those who value diverse viewpoints and academic freedom. The ACLU was among the many groups calling for Harvard to reinstate Roth's fellowship. “Few people have done more to advance human rights than Kenneth Roth," its executive director, Anthony D. Romero, said. "We urge Harvard to reverse its decision.”

Indeed, the loud outcry (which included calls for Elmendorf’s resignation) led Harvard to change its mind about Roth, a Jewish man whose father escaped Nazi Germany in 1938. He will be taking his talents to Harvard after all.

It’s a happy outcome, I suppose, although as Roth and others wondered, what might the outcome have been for someone less connected, less celebrated?

“Most academics, and certainly students, wouldn’t be able to gather as much momentum behind their cause,” noted the New Statesman.

That’s true. And that's why I'm encouraged to think this disturbing tide of reflexive censure may be turning just a bit.

An obscure art history professor who was let go from Hamline University in Minnesota recently after showing her students images of the Prophet Muhammad has become something of a cause célèbre after her case went public.

Adjunct professor Erika López Prater was well aware that some Muslims object to seeing images of the prophet, so she warned students in her class syllabus and during the class just before she showed what she described as two “reverential” images made by Muslim artists for Muslim patrons.

“I told my students if they didn’t feel comfortable engaging visually, they were free to do what made most sense to them,” she said in an interview that was broadcast on YouTube. “I tried to empower them.”

But one Muslim student, said López Prater, “thought that the warnings that I had provided to the class didn’t even matter because she believed that images of the Prophet Muhammad should never been shown, full stop, even if those are pedagogically relevant images that are primary source documents from history.”

After the student complained, the school's vice president of inclusive excellence declared that showing the image was “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.” He also said that “respect for observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.”

This generated a tremendous outcry both in academia and news outlets. The idea that López Prater had violated her duty to respect her students was outlandish, given the many warnings she gave.

According to a discrimination and defamation lawsuit that López Prater filed in Minnesota state court last week, an offer to teach another Hamline course next spring — which she had accepted — was revoked. (Shades of Harvard’s mistreatment of Roth.)

Just after López Prater filed her lawsuit, the school emailed a statement to reporters saying that it had made a mistake.

“Like all organizations, sometimes we misstep,” said the email, signed by Ellen Watters, chair of the university’s board of trustees, and Hamline President Fayneese Miller. “We have determined that our usage of the term ‘Islamophobic’ was … flawed.”

Just as in the case of Dean Elmendorf at Harvard, there have now been demands for Miller’s resignation. On Tuesday, the Sahan Journal reported, an overwhelming percentage of full-time Hamline faculty — 86% — voted to ask her to resign. “The reputation of Hamline was deeply tarnished,” the president of the Hamline University Faculty Council told the newspaper, a nonprofit digital venture that reports on immigrants and communities of color in Minnesota.

It’s sad that it took national outcries for Harvard and Hamline to reverse course on what were, in fact, terrible decisions.

As far as I can tell from voluminous coverage of both the Harvard and Hamline controversies, neither institution has actually issued public apologies to the professionals who were harmed. They really ought to, though.

Among the many rules of common sense that these institutions of higher learning seem to have forgotten in the rush to placate critics: When you are in the wrong, apologize to those you've offended or hurt.

@AbcarianLAT

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.