By Tara Bannow, Iowa City Press-Citizen
If University of Iowa students ever feel like they don’t have a voice, here’s proof that they do.
After much clamoring by students, faculty, staff and community members against the impending closure of UI’s Center for Human Rights, university officials announced Wednesday a new permanent home for the center in the College of Law beginning July 1.
Adrien Wing, UI’s Bessie Dutton Murray Professor of Law, will take over as the center’s director under the new structure. Wing has been a professor in the college for 25 years, and human rights has been the focus of much of her teaching and research. She currently teaches courses on international human rights, sex discrimination and law in the Muslim world.
It’s critical that students and faculty understand how human rights issues cross-cut other disciplines such as history and medicine, Wing said. International and domestic human rights issues show up daily in the media, and they’ll continue to be of great importance, she said.
“It is critical that a university have an emphasis within it that pulls together a focus on human rights,” Wing said.
Plans were floated to salvage components of the center — which will keep its office in the University Capitol Centre — within several areas of the university, but center supporters said they feared a fragmented approach would diminish its strength. Wing, a current member of the center’s Executive Board, said the center’s administrative home in the College of Law will help it maintain its multidisciplinary approach.
“We’re going to be stronger now,” Wing said. “We’re going to be bigger than what we were.”
An advisory board will be formed to coordinate other center activities.
Current center Director Greg Hamot, an education professor, said he’ll likely oversee the center’s undergraduate certificate program in human rights.
Meanwhile, Nathan Miller, senior fellow for human rights and social justice in the College of Law, will take over the center’s internship program, Law School Dean Gail Agrawal said.
As for the center’s speaker series, the College of Law already hosts many speakers and programs, but they’ll be more targeted toward human rights, Agrawal said.
The center’s current staff, which includes Associate Director Amy Weismann, Administrative Services Coordinator Joan Nashelsky and — in a half-time capacity — a graduate assistant, will be retained, Hamot said.
The center, currently located in International Programs, has for years struggled to maintain enough funding to stay open because it was not located within a specific college of the university. International Programs is not a college or school but more of a unit designed to support the university’s international students and scholars.
After Downing Thomas, associate provost and International Programs dean, announced the center would close in September 2012, students, alumni and community members rallied to keep it open by circulating petitions, writing letters and hosting demonstrations.
About that time, Agrawal said she and others within the College of Law sent a proposal to the Provost’s Office to take over the center’s operations and appoint Wing the new director. It was accepted.
The College of Law is committed to social justice and has long been engaged with the center, Agrawal said.
“It’s true that not every human right is a legal right, but certainly law is very concerned with and focused on securing and protecting human rights,” she said. “It seems very much like a natural fit for us.”
UI Provost P. Barry Butler wrote in an email that his office will provide a recurring annual budget of $90,000 to the center, which Agrawal said will be supplemented with funding from the College of Law. The funding commitment represents a change of tune from Butler’s office. Last fall, Thomas told the Press-Citizen the office would stop funding the center June 30.
Although the outpouring of support helped, Hamot said Butler, President Sally Mason and key members of the center’s current Executive Board are responsible for keeping the center open.
“Instead of it being a contentious situation, they collaborated to come up with this idea, which is terrific,” Hamot said. “That’s the way universities should work, and Iowa has shown that they are good at doing it.”