UNESCO chair termination displays communication problem

Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu speaks at a UNESCO award ceremony for Rigoberta Menchu Tum at UConn on September 11, 2012. (File Photo/The Daily Campus) 

On December 20, 2016, the position of the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Chair in Comparative Human rights was terminated. This position was established with the goals of international cooperation and networking to increase institutional capabilities through collaboration and knowledge sharing. Dr. Amii Omara-Otunnu, a UConn history professor and Human Rights activist, has served in this position since 2001 when he was appointed by the UN. The termination of this position greatly impacts the university, but communication surrounding it has been opaque at best.

Omara-Otunnu was only notified of the termination of his position from a scanned U.N. letter from the office of the Assistant Director-General for Education. This letter states that paperwork for the renewal of the position was not properly filed and therefore his position was terminated. However, Omara-Otunnu states that there is no need for the position to be renewed. He cites that the South African chair has not been renewed since its establishment in 1995. Despite this letter, UConn states that UNESCO made this decision. UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz states that the university is in the process of seeking more information to understand the decision, yet Omara-Otunnu states, “It is strange that it is not the U.N. who questions the validity of the UNESCO Chair, but the university.” This confusion must be clarified.

Much of the work that Omara-Otunnu accomplished in his time in this position will not go to waste. The Office of Global Affairs will continue a partnership between UConn and the South African National Congress. Also, the Student Ambassador Program, which was operated in partnership between UConn and UNESCO to train students in advocating for human rights, will continue through the Office of Global Affairs. However, as a well-educated and experienced professor and activist, Omara-Otunnu offered a lot to the university that will not continue. Through his position, Omara-Otunnu brought world leaders to the university such as the presidents of Ghana and Rwanda. He will continue as a professor at the university, but his UNESCO position will be missed.

The confusion surrounding the termination of Omara-Otunnu’s position is not good for the university. Omara-Otunnu likens it to the corruption he has seen in the third world. This position was invaluable to the university, and students deserve clarification for the reasons it was terminated. Better communication is also necessary in the future both with the people it directly affects, such as Omara-Otunnu, and with students, due to its impacts, both professional and academic.