Letter to the Editor: Response to the letter published on March 5 regarding the UNESCO chair

Dear Editor,

I write in response to the letter of March 5, 2017 by Stephanie Reitz, the University of Connecticut’s spokesperson, about the cancellation of the UNESCO Chair in Comparative Human Rights. The selective use of facts by Stephanie Reitz might amount to either deliberately or negligently misstating the case.

From the outset, let me make it clear that I have never questioned the administration’s authority or blamed it, as a matter of policy, to make whatever decision it deems appropriate regarding the status of the UNESCO Chair. What I have questioned is the unfair manner in which I have been treated, after more than twenty-five years of loyal service and distinguished record of contributions to the internationalization of education at the University of Connecticut. Among some of my contributions to the internationalization of education at University are the following:

  • Founding the Center for Cotemporary African Studies in 11991;
  • Negotiating and establishing a partnership between Nelson Mandela’s and South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) and UConn in 1999;
  • Negotiating and establishing international linkage between Nelson Mandela’s alma mater, the University of Fort Hare (UFH) and UConn in 1999;
  • Writing and submitting a proposal to United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) for the establishment of a Chair in Comparative Human Rights at UConn, which was approved and I was appointed the first UNESCO Chair in USA in May 2001.
  • Founding of the Coalition of Human Rights Organization in New England (CHROME) in 2004.
  • Because of my devoted commitment to the university, I would prefer a cordial discussion with relevant people in the administration; but sadly, to date, I have not been approached by anyone in the administration, including Stephanie Reitz, for a constructive dialogue.

Before I address the facts given by Stephanie Reitz, the public should understand and appreciate that the manner in which the issue of the UNESCO Chair has been dealt with has not been in isolation of other decisions. The fact of the matter is that the way I have been treated even before and then after the cancellation of the UNESCO Chair raises a lot of questions.

The relevant decisions made at about the same time are sketched out below. In the summer of 2016, while I was on a trip to South Africa that Vice President Dan Weiner asked me to undertake, I received a letter from the chair of history department, Professor Christopher Clark, that Dr. Dan Weiner had informed him that he would not support my release time from the department where I have been tenured. And when I came back from South Africa, Vice President Dan Weiner sent a committee of four people to discuss with me the possible transfer of the UNESCO Chair Student Ambassadors programme to either the Human Rights Institute or another unit within the University. Both these actions indicate that certain people in the administration were already planning for a post-UNESCO Chair era.

I turn to the facts of the termination of the UNESCO Chair in Comparative Human Rights that Stephanie Reitz focused on in her letter.

Since the cancellation, it has been brought to my attention, post facto, that indeed in February last UNESCO Headquarters sent a letter to my faculty email address rather than to the official UNESCO Chair email address we had used for official purposes since the establishment of the Chair in 2005. The letter asked UNESCO Chairs to provide information that would more or less be used for pro-forma continuation of the Chairs. Unfortunately, I did not access the letter; and I take full responsibility for not accessing the letter. Although I did not see the letter from UNESCO Headquarters and I did not provide the necessary information, it did not materially affect the status of the Chair, apparently until the University’s administration made inquiry about its validity.

Indeed, the letter forwarded from the President’s Office by the Vice President for Global Affairs, Professor Dan Weiner on December 20, from Dr. Quian Tang, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Education, directing immediate termination of the UNESCO Chair, reference was not made about the letter sent to me early last year. Instead, the letter, in relevant part states that: “I refer to our email communications [with the president] regarding the validity of the Agreement signed between UNESCO and the University of Connecticut in 2001 that established the UNESCO Chair in Comparative Human Rights and the invitation to request its renewal if of interest to the University.” I am not privy to the communications and therefore do not know what transpired in the email communications between the administration and the UNESCO. For the purpose of transparency, perhaps the administration would like to divulge the communications for review?

But as I mentioned above, the pattern of my treatment before and since the cancellation of the UNESCO Chair suggests that my dedicated service and contributions to the University were targeted for elimination in a ruthless manner. A few examples should illustrate the point.  A couple of days after the letter of termination of the UNESCO Chair, Vice President Weiner gave an order that the website of the UNESCO Chair be dismantled forthwith, despite my objection on the grounds that the website should be left to serve as historical record of what the UNESCO Chair accomplished, even though the UNESCO Chair itself might no longer be operative. The removal of the website in effect erased internet-based evidence of the Chair’s achievements during its existence at the University of Connecticut.

Then on January 25, 2017, during a meeting with Vice President for Global Affairs, Professor Dan Weiner, I was hit with another bombshell. He informed me that although the University values the partnership with the African National Congress of South Africa (ANC) and the linkage with the University of Fort Hare, he no longer wanted me to be involved in activities with the two institutions. Despite my having negotiated and established both institutional linkages, Vice President Weiner did not give me any reason why he did not want me to be involved.  

The decision to bar me from engagement with the African National Congress (ANC) and the University of Fort Hare (UFH) are at best perplexing, for two main reasons. In the first place, I was the one who negotiated and established the UConn-ANC Partnership and the UConn-UFH International Linkage in 1991. And, it was on the basis of work with the two South African institutions that, with the critical support of President Philip Austin, I submitted a proposal to UNESCO Headquarters in Paris for the establishment of UNESCO Chair in Comparative Human Rights at the University of Connecticut.  UNESCO awarded the UNESCO Chair in May 2001. Without our prior work with various South African institutions, it would have been difficult if not impossible to get the UNESCO Chair.

In these circumstances, I find myself asking why Vice President Weiner would issue a directive that would adversely impact and curb my academic freedom as a scholar? Why would a senior University official effectively try to ban me from interacting with my institutional colleagues at Fort Hare University as well as members of the ANC, an organization that I have supported since it led the fights against gross human violations under apartheid. How is such a ban consistent with the University’s educational mission?

As a colleague and dedicated member of the University community for more than a quarter century, I have been shocked that up to now, no one in the administration has called me for meaningful dialogue about all these issues. Surely, at a minimum due process and simple decency would counsel that I should have been consulted and a reasonable opportunity be given to me to make any constructive suggestion for the way forward?

In the course of this rather sad saga, young students who probed the issues and made a principled not expedient stand dictated by their consciences have immensely inspired me.  And, my hope has been kept alive for human decency by messages of solidarity from colleagues and people from all over the world that know my work, ass they expressed astonishment at the way I have been treated.

I am at peace with myself and I do not regret the sacrifices I made on behalf of UConn, as I was fortunate to work with some outstanding and ethically grounded leaders at the University. And in the right circumstances I shall still be committed to continue to contribute to the greater good of the university community and beyond. But I find it difficult to continue to make sacrifices for the university when I am treated in a manner that violate my dignity and due right and when the criteria for decisions that affect me as a dedicated member of the university are not clear.

Whatever mistakes I might have made, given my more than 25 years of devoted and distinguished service to the University, I deserve better than the shabby treatment meted out to me. I pray that others who have demonstrated loyal service to the university will not be subjected to similar fate that has befallen me. My request to relevant people in the administration is that they ponder the meaning of what Confucius said centuries ago: “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.”

I hope that the use of selective facts to manipulate the public does not disillusion our young students who are often driven by a focused sense of purpose and practical idealism. As a dedicated human rights teacher and practitioner, I find it a tragic irony of our time that the cause of human rights is often undermined by those who market its rhetoric but do not translate the ethical principles that animate it into reality.

-Amii Omara-Otunnu, D. Phil. (Oxon.)
History Department.