Thursday, July 31, 2008
SMU’s new program places emphasis on human rights
Dr. Rick Halperin shares vision of how a human rights education program can prepare students for global citizenship.
There are two things you notice immediately after you step into the office of Dr. Rick Halperin, director of SMU's Human Rights Education Program.
First, one can hardly navigate the triangular space through the various stacks of books. Completely filling the bookcase along the far wall, numerous texts on human rights, peace, Rwanda, etc. are stacked on the floor behind and in front of his desk, on his desk, on chairs, and nearly spilling out in the hallway of SMU’s historic Dallas Hall.
Links for Furthering Your Human Rights KnowledgeSMU Human Rights Education Program
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
UHR Index of UN Documents
Despite the physical obstructions, Halperin is surprisingly accessible, which is the second thing you notice right away. Speaking with a sometimes-heavy Alabama-bred accent, he can proceed to discuss any number of human injustices, but what you hear is his hopeful predisposition, as opposed to an end-of-the-world rant.
In July 2006, Southern Methodist University began organizing its Human Rights Education Program. Perhaps redefining some people’s perceptions of this private, Dallas university, it is one of only 14 such programs in the U.S.
Before the program came to be, Halperin, a history professor at SMU since 1985 and Amnesty International USA board member, would yearly visit Holocaust sites in Poland. As he explains, “Every December, I would take a group of anybody who was interested – faculty, staff, community - anybody.”
On the 2005 trip, one graduate student was particularly moved by her experience. It happened that she was the daughter of J. Lindsay Embrey, who in 2003 gave $7.5 million to SMU’s School of Engineering, after giving more than $6 million to the school and athletics program in years prior. “In February of ‘06, she [Lauren Embrey] and her sister [Gayle] approached me and said that they wanted to give money to create a human rights program at SMU. I was flabbergasted,” Halperin remarks.
“I always wanted to work in a program. I just never thought I would get the chance to do it. So I knew immediately that one the primary goals would be to create, initially, an interdisciplinary human rights minor.”
The Human Rights Education Program has achieved this first phase of development, the human rights minor. In May 2008, less than a year after implementation, the program graduated its first six students. Currently, the program has 53 students enrolled and has begun attracting students to SMU who chose the university specifically for the minor.
Halperin’s vision for the minor was that an education in human rights could benefit any number of career interests. Students who enter the program are required to choose six courses from a list spanning a number of departments, including anthropology, history, art history, political science, and sociology.
From there, all students working towards their human rights minor must complete community service or participate in one of the group trips. In addition to Poland, they visit other areas of the world where egregious human rights violations have recently occurred, including Rwanda, Cambodia, and South Africa. On Friday, a group departs for Buenos Aires where they will work with mothers of “the disappeared,” environmental rights activists, and others. Upon their return, the students will complete a substantial research paper.
Phase two of the Human Rights Education Program will be a degree granting, interdisciplinary human rights major. “We are in that process now and I am very optimistic that we’re going to have it no later than 2011.” The final phase will be a graduate program.
As a graduate of the human rights minor at the University of Connecticut, I often faced the following query: why does one need a degree in human rights? So I asked him the question. Halperin had no difficulty with his response.
“Part of the mission statement of this university is to prepare students for global citizenship… These young people aren’t here to graduate and make money as a lawyer. That may happen, but the real job is to make a world without torture, terrorism, genocide, hate crimes, crimes against women, crimes against refugees, crimes against gay people. The time for that kind of craziness is over. Or it should be over. So I hear that a lot. Why do you need a major? You need this kind of major around our country to have a better world.”