Letter to the Editor: The facts about the cancellation of the UNESCO Chair

Dear Editor,

UConn has a long tradition of supporting human rights and global partnerships worldwide, and is gratified by our campus community’s support for these programs.

In recent weeks, significant misinformation has been circulated about the cancellation of the UNESCO Chair in Comparative Human Rights, a faculty-held position at UConn since 2001.

Recent coverage in the Daily Campus rightfully questioned how and why a deadline was missed to provide information that UNESCO requested to renew the chair. The professor who held the position, Amii Omara-Otunnu, said he was never notified and publicly blamed the university for the UNESCO chair lapsing.

But the facts show something quite different: According to documents provided by UNESCO, the organization contacted Dr. Omara-Otunnu directly more than a year ago to ask if he wished to renew the chair. According to UNESCO, he never responded. Neither the president’s office nor another other office or individual at UConn was contacted by UNESCO regarding this matter.

The Daily Campus said in its Feb. 27 editorial that the campus community deserves clear answers as to how this occurred, and we agree. Here are those facts, as supported by publicly available documents and email messages:

The President’s Office was notified on Dec. 20, 2016, that the UNESCO chair was being terminated because UNESCO received no response to an earlier request for renewal information. The president’s office never received such a request and reached out several times to UNESCO by phone and email to seek clarity, but received no response.

The vice president for global affairs contacted Dr. Omara-Otunnu on Dec. 20 to brief him and ask if he had received prior communication from the organization; he responded that he had not. They also later met to discuss the matter.

On Feb. 22, 2017, the Daily Campus published a piece (“UConn UNESCO Chair Position Dismissed”), in which Dr. Omara-Otunnu said he had never been contacted by the vice president or others, which the public record contradicts.

In light of the conflicting information in the Daily Campus, President Herbst wrote personally on Feb. 23 to UNESCO to request a copy of the correspondence that it referenced as being sent last year without response.

UNESCO forwarded the email it had sent to Dr. Omara-Otunnu in February 2016. He was the only individual from UConn to whom the message was sent. The e-mail explained that the organization was setting four-year terms on the chair at UConn and other chairmanships that lacked end dates, and it set a deadline by which Dr. Omara-Otunnu needed to respond in order to renew the chair.

Professor Omara-Otunnu never responded, according to UNESCO.

In a follow-up message to the President’s Office early Friday morning (March 3), UNESCO’s higher education section chief wrote that Dr. Omara-Otunnu’s lack of response was not the only factor that went into their decision to terminate the chair. From the text of the UNESCO e-mail:

“This decision was also made taking into account the fact that since the Chair was established in 2001, it has never reported on its activities (a requirement under the terms of the Agreement). Neither did it respond to survey of Chairs carried out in 2011 or respond to messages sent in 2012 and 2013 inviting them to send us progress reports.

In addition, the Focal Point in our Social and Human Sciences Sector (which oversees the work of this Chair) has reported that they have had no contact with the Chair holder in ten years.”

This situation is unfortunate on multiple levels, including the fact that Dr. Omara-Otunnu provided the Daily Campus with erroneous information on more than one occasion and that it was accepted as factual despite public records to the contrary.

It is disappointing and surprising that Professor Omara-Otunnu would attempt to assign blame for the loss of the UNESCO chair to others at the university, when in fact the cancellation of the chair was a direct result of his own inaction.

But certainly the most unfortunate outcome is the loss of the UNESCO chair at UConn, which was the first U.S. institution awarded such an honor when it was established in 2001.

However, our students and campus community can be assured that UConn will continue its Student Ambassadors program and remains deeply invested in supporting human rights and dignity as an academic, social and moral imperative.

Sincerely,
Stephanie Reitz
University Spokesperson