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University’s human rights efforts now comprehensive program

by Sherry Fisher - March 19, 2007

When the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center was dedicated in 1995, the ceremony inaugurated a year-long series of events devoted to the theme of human rights.

Today, the University has a comprehensive human rights program, with a flourishing Human Rights Institute, and is becoming a nationally recognized center for research, teaching, and outreach.

Building the program
In 1999, the University signed a partnership with South Africa’s leading anti-apartheid organization, the African National Congress (ANC).

The partnership, under the leadership of history professor Amii Omara-Otunnu, included an agreement to deposit copies of ANC archival records at the Dodd Center.

The following year, the Marsha Lilien Gladstein Visiting Professor of Human Rights was established, bringing leading human rights scholars to the campus for one semester a year to teach and give public lectures.

And in 2001, an interdisciplinary human rights minor was created in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Also in 2001, the UNESCO Chair in Comparative Human Rights was established, with Omara-Otunnu as chair-holder.

Several years later, thanks to an endowment from Gary and Judi Gladstein, a permanent endowed Chair of Human Rights was created.

Richard A. Wilson, a social anthropologist, was appointed to the chair, and he established the Human Rights Institute.

“When I came to the University in 2003, the University had already laid the groundwork for building an interdisciplinary human rights program,” Wilson says.

“It has been a wonderful opportunity for me to help bring these projects and initiatives together.”

The Human Rights Institute, which annually hosts a major international human rights conference, coordinates the study of human rights at UConn, and promotes multidisciplinary research on human rights issues.

“When the Human Rights Institute was planned, we knew that in order for it to succeed, it had to be an integral part of the research, teaching, and outreach missions of the University,” says Veronica Makowsky, vice provost for undergraduate education, who was a member of the Gladstein Committee at the time Wilson was recruited.

“It has accomplished those goals through tenured and tenure-track faculty who focus on human rights in their research, teaching, and outreach. The conferences, speakers, symposia, and publications emanating from the Institute add luster to our reputation as a research extensive university.”

Establishing a minor
The University started offering human rights as a minor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in the fall of 2001.

About 80 students now minor in it, up from about 45 students last year, says Richard Hiskes, a professor of political science who directs the minor. He expects the number to continue growing.

“The students taking it are remarkable,” Hiskes says.

“They have a strong interest in human rights on all levels. They’re full of energy. A lot of them are very idealistic; many are pragmatic. They re-energize me.”

The minor, open to students in all schools and colleges, offers interdisciplinary instruction in theoretical, comparative, and historical perspectives on human rights through classroom courses, and practical experience in the human rights field through a supervised internship.

Students may intern with a human rights-related agency, group or organization.

Hiskes says faculty from a wide range of academic specialties have been “eager to help develop and teach courses in human rights.” There are about 30 courses offered as part of the human rights minor.

Courses are offered in history, anthropology, economics, philosophy, sociology, political science, English, allied health, Puerto Rican and Latino studies, and women’s studies. A labor rights concentration within the minor has recently been established.

Fifteen credits of course work are required.

Richard Wilson, right, Gladstein Chair of Human Rights and director of the Human Rights Institute, listens to a presentation by Mary Robinson, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Richard Wilson, right, Gladstein Chair of Human Rights and director of the Human Rights Institute, listens to a presentation by Mary Robinson, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, during the inaugural conference of the Human Rights Institute, held in the Nafe Katter Theatre in 2004.
Photo by Peter Morenus

Offering a human rights minor was the first step in making human rights a significant academic component of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Makowsky says, noting that “internships through the minor in human rights have helped undergraduates integrate what they have learned in the classroom with real-world experiences.”

For their internships, several students are creating four days of human rights events on campus, from April 9 through 13.

Activities will include a Fair Trade fair and fashion show, and a rock concert.

“The study of human rights promotes two of the University’s major goals,” Makowsky adds:

“The Provost’s Academic Plan stresses that UConn should become an international institution, and one of the three major goals of the Undergraduate Education Strategic Plan is developing global citizens.”

Ross MacKinnon, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says the human rights focus is “one of the success stories of the institution. We are now one of the leaders in having an academically-oriented human rights program.”

The Journal of Human Rights, a major international scholarly publication, is now based at UConn, with Hiskes as editor.

Graduate certificate
One of the most recent developments planned for the Human Rights Institute is offering a graduate certificate in human rights.

The certificate, a joint effort between the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the School of Law, would be geared toward legal inquiry and social science and humanities research.

Wilson says the certificate, which will require a minimum of 12 credits, “is unique because it’s interdisciplinary and taught in both the law school and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.”

He says it will help market the human rights program as a center of excellence in human rights research, and will enhance job possibilities for graduates.

“More and more teaching positions in diverse areas of higher education are including human rights as an area of specialty,” he says.

“A graduate certificate will separate them from other job candidates.”

Hiskes says, “To the extent that the human rights program proceeds here, the entire University benefits. There is a general global effort in support of relatively new approaches to social justice. The more that UConn becomes known for its human rights efforts, the better off everyone is at the University.”

He adds, “What I love about the program is that it operates at every level: There are undergraduates involved, a large number of faculty are doing human rights research, there’s a journal, and an archive at the Dodd Center where it all began. The one piece we’ve been needing is a graduate certificate.”

New internship
The Institute is now in the process of selecting a UConn senior graduating in May with a human rights minor for the Richard Goldstone Internship at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Goldstone, former chief justice of the Supreme Court of South Africa, who is a member of the Board of Governors of the Human Rights Institute, endowed two six-month internships, the first taking place this year.

The internship, in The Hague, Netherlands, will provide supervised working experience in the research unit of the Office of the Prosecutor.

The internship comes with $5,000 funding toward accommodation and travel expenses.

Says Hiskes, “It’s a wonderful opportunity for anyone who wants a career in human rights.” 

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