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In 1999, the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights, organized by Professor Burns H. Weston, Professor Rex Honey, and Dorothy M. Paul, grew from the programming efforts of Global Focus: Human Rights ’98. The initiative was led by Professor Weston during 1998-99 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. Global Focus: Human Rights ’98 took place mainly during the 1998-99 academic year. It represented the culmination of many years of work to advance the teaching and advocacy of human rights at the University of Iowa. The cross-disciplinary program featured speakers such as Nobel Laureates Rigoberta Menchú Tum, José Ramos-Horta, Archibishop Desmond Tutu, Lech Walesa, and Elie Weisel as well as other prominent figures, including Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, photojournalist Dith Pran, and legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin.

Founding of the UICHR: Remembered by UICHR Founder Gina Crosheck

Inspiring, challenging, groundbreaking, and surprisingly successful describe the early days of the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights.  Burns Weston, Professor of Human Rights Law, came forward in 1997 with a grand vision for the UI central administration to consider.  His vision of bringing five Nobel Peace Laureates to campus seemed untenable but with the support and help of numerous donors, grants and dedicated volunteers, “Global Focus ‘98” a Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, succeeded beyond everyone’s forecast.

Over the course of the year, the University of Iowa brought four Nobel Peace Laureates, including Bishop Tutu, to campus. The fifth Laureate, John Hume of Northern Ireland, came the following year. The excitement of these accomplishments along with an extensive series of other programs and classes focused on Human Rights energized the campus and the community.

Thus, when the “Global Focus ‘98” Committee met for the last time, it became clear no one wanted to put out the fire which had begun with Weston’s ambitious plan to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration for Human Rights.  Understanding that University Centers were often created by naming them, I suggested they continue the effort by establishing a Center for Human Rights.  All members loved the idea and the work began in earnest to build the UICHR.  Burns Weston, Rex Honey and Dorothy Paul took on the responsibility for the logistics, the day-to-day management and soliciting of support so the UICHR could become permanent.  As the UI administrator responsible for most of the Center’s grant and contract awards, I worked with numerous committed individuals over the years.  The UICHR remains a unique institution among Human Rights organizations with its integrated vision of looking at Human Rights from all perspectives – artistically, educationally, legally, and socially.

Campaign to Save the UICHR, 2012/2013: Remembered by UICHR founder
Shel Stromquist

The UICHR, founded in 1999, built a vigorous program through a combination of outside grant funding ($2.1 million from 2000-2012) and significant recurring funds from the Provost’s office and the Office of International Programs, as well as from direct funding appeals.  The center’s initial core funding from 2000-2005 came from a $1.2 million Department of Labor grant that made possible a multi-pronged research and educational “Child Labor Research Initiative.”  That funding also provided essential administrative support for the center in its earliest years.  The center’s activity broadened over subsequent years into other human rights areas—the legal rights of immigrants, anti-discrimination education, climate change, and conferences, public lectures, seminars, internships, and awards.  Courses with a significant human rights component proliferated across the university and eventually the center initiated an undergraduate certificate program in human rights.  Internal university funding for some of the UICHR’s administrative costs continued through annual renewals through the fall of 2012.

In September 2012, the Provost informed the center’s director that funding from his office would not be renewed and that the center must now become self-sufficient.  The university president and the provost argued that budget difficulties drove the decision and closing the center, as President Mason put it, “would save some money.”  They suggested initially that a few center programs might be parceled out to other units, particularly programs that “add value to students.”  They argued that the center must now become self-supporting.

The announcement came as a shock to the center’s board and supporters. Almost immediately undergraduate students, under the leadership of Zach Heffernen, formed UI Students for Human Rights organization and began an online petition to save the center that eventually gathered more than 2000 signatures.  Faculty and staff mobilized their own university-wide petition drive.  Op-ed columns and letters to the editor began to appear with escalating frequency in the Iowa City Press Citizen, The Daily Iowan, and Des Moines Register.  On December 4, the Iowa City Council issued a Human Rights Proclamation and called for continued university funding of the Center.  Several hundred people turned out for a public demonstration outside the President’s office on December 5.  And on December 10 a larger gathering read the text of the UN Declaration on Human Rights and gave personal testimony about the value of the Center’s work.

In the context of this public outcry discussions proceeded with the Provost’s office, and an ad hoc committee (Diana Cates, Carolyn Colvin, Jennifer Sherer, and Shel Stromquist) appointed by the UICHR board began negotiations over the center’s future funding.  The Provost welcomed a proposal from the College of Law to adopt the center and, with staffing support and faculty direction (Adrien Wing), to significantly transform the center’s programmatic direction.  Over the course of several meetings between the Provost, the ad hoc committee, and the full board of directors, a new proposal emerged that incorporated a substantial relocation of center programs and administration to the College of Law, but maintained in its existing location a significant UICHR presence with staffing and programs serving the general university community and beyond.  Under the new arrangement, which the UICHR board approved in February 2013, the Provost agreed to provide recurring financial support to maintain UICHR activity on the Eastside campus with office and staff in UCC, a half-time deputy director, a research assistant, and course-release funding for a faculty associate director.  With generous support from the Dean of the College of Law, the UICHR now opened an additional office in that college enabling significant expansion in the work of the center under the overall direction of Professor Adrien Wing.

Beginning in the fall 2013, the UICHR had a new lease on life and a more secure future to serve the university community and other constituencies across Iowa in areas of its established strength and with resources to undertake new programmatic initiatives.