The University of Iowa

Stromquist: On saving the Center for Human Rights

November 27th, 2012

The following commentary by Professor Shelton Stromquist, Chairman, UI Center for Human Rights Board of Directors, appeared in The Daily Iowan

University of Iowa President Sally Mason, in her recent interview with the DI editors, discussed the future or, more precisely, the elimination of the UI Center for Human Rights as we have known it.

She spoke of the university's budget difficulties and suggested that closing the center would "save some money." She also argued that the provost's plan to parcel out a couple of the center's programs to other academic units was "perfectly appropriate" and would enable the work of the center to continue "in a different capacity."

The center operates with the equivalent of two full-time program- and support-staff positions. With a modest budget (the equivalent of one-half the salary of a single assistant football coach), it has had an enormous impact. It has brought honor and recognition to the UI as one of the premier university-based human-rights programs in the country.

UI central administrators have significantly underestimated the breadth of support the center enjoys among students, faculty, staff, and the wider community. A broad-based student organization, UI Students for Human Rights, has gathered more than 2,000 signatures on a petition appealing for the administration to reverse its defunding decision, and a faculty/staff petition is gathering substantial support. Iowa alumni, former student interns with the center, and the national and international community of human-rights activists are expressing their shock and dismay at the administration's decision.

The center has been a highly visible presence at the university since its founding in 1999. It has been the catalyst for innovative programming in human rights that has strengthened the undergraduate curriculum across the disciplines; it has received major grant funding from the Department of Labor, the Department of Justice, the Climate Legacy Initiative, the Commons Law Project, and the Stanley Foundation totaling at least $2.2 million; it has sponsored and supported distinguished interdisciplinary research.

The center has also functioned as a point of civic engagement for students, faculty, and staff in the areas of child-labor education, human rights in war zones, the rights of undocumented immigrants in Iowa communities, and the impact of climate change on human rights.

Let's get our budget priorities straight and invest the small amount that is required to keep the Center for Human Rights a vital part of the UI.