UPDATED: January 20, 2023, at 2:04 a.m.
In a reversal, Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf announced Thursday morning that he would name human rights advocate Kenneth Roth to a fellowship after previously vetoing his appointment.
Elmendorf’s email, sent to HKS affiliates, explained that the original decision to block Roth’s appointment was based on the “evaluation of his potential contributions to the School” and not influenced by donors.
Earlier this month, The Nation reported allegations that Elmendorf vetoed Roth’s appointment to a fellowship at HKS’ Carr Center for Human Rights Policy due to his criticism of Israel. The decision has since drawn widespread backlash from students and faculty, including calls for the dean to resign.
“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,” Elmendorf wrote on Thursday. “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.”
In the email, Elmendorf also announced his plan to create a faculty committee devoted to evaluatingI fellowship appointments to “draw more on the insights of the Kennedy School faculty as a whole.”
Elmendorf wrote that he reversed his decision after discussions with faculty members.
“I hope that our community will be able to benefit from his deep experience in a wide range of human rights issues,” he wrote.
HKS faculty voiced support for offering a fellowship to Roth during a faculty meeting Tuesday afternoon. Mathias Risse, the director of the Carr Center, wrote in an email that HKS faculty “pretty much unanimously” support offering Roth a fellowship.
“From where I stand, it is because of this faculty input that the dean changed his mind, to the point of acknowledging that he had made an error earlier,” he wrote. “I was responsible for proposing him as a fellow in the first place, and so obviously I am very happy about this turn of events.”
After the faculty meeting, Risse offered Roth the fellowship, which he accepted.
In a tweet, Roth wrote he is “thrilled” by Elmendorf’s decision to reverse course on blocking his fellowship but called on Elmendorf to offer more transparency regarding the original decision to veto.
“He still has not said anything about the people ‘who matter to him,’” he wrote, referring to faculty members’ accounts that suggest Elmendorf’s decision was linked to others at the University. “Full transparency is key to ensuring that such influence is not exerted in other cases.”
Roth added he remains “worried about academic freedom” for less prominent figures who have criticized Israel.
“The problem of people penalized for criticizing Israel is not limited to me, and most scholars and students have no comparable capacity to mobilize public attention,” he wrote. “How is the Kennedy School, and Harvard, going to ensure that this episode conveys a renewed commitment to academic freedom rather than just exceptional treatment for one well known individual?”
Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on Elmendorf’s reversal or concerns regarding academic freedom.
The Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee criticized Elmendorf’s email for “doing little to ensure full academic freedom and protection for Palestinian students and scholars at Harvard,” in a statement on Instagram released Thursday afternoon.
“Elmendorf’s statement suggests that the spurious attack on Roth’s reputation will likely not be the last time Harvard attempts to silence legitimate criticism of Israel,” the statement reads. “Roth’s presence on campus will be of great value to Harvard Kennedy School students and broader human rights discourse, but Harvard’s administration must also do more to actively center Palestinian voices and perspectives.”
Following Elmendorf’s decision to block Roth from the fellowship, hundreds of Harvard affiliates demanded his resignation. The HKS Palestinian Alumni Collective, the first Harvard-affiliated group to advocate for Elmendorf’s resignation after Roth's fellowship denial, reiterated calls for the dean to step down in a statement Thursday.
HKSPAC co-convener Ahmed A. Moor said Elmendorf’s original decision revealed that his values “don’t align with those of the institution.”
“The crisis of faith still exists, the crisis of leadership still exists,” Moor said.
Moor called Elmendorf’s plans for a faculty committee to evaluate potential fellows a “good move in the right direction,” but echoed calls for greater transparency over Elmendorf’s original decision.
“We need transparency on how decisions are made. We need transparency on who’s got input into the decision,” Moor said. “This isn’t a campaign. It’s not a corporate environment where shareholder prerogatives reign. It’s an academic institution — a different set of principles apply.”
—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn contributed reporting.
—Staff writer Asher J. Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @asherjmont.