December 2008 marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Across Columbia the teaching, research and advocacy of human rights is not a historical commemoration, but an active, growing and increasingly central organizing principle for a wide range of University programs inside and outside the classroom.
By the middle of the last century, Columbia became a leading center in the battle for civil rights in the United States; more than a half-dozen law school professors and alumni worked on the pivotal 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case that desegregated the nation's public schools. Since then, the University pioneered scholarship and action to promote human rights globally. Starting in the 1960s with the hiring of faculty members who had worked in the field and expanding, in 1978, with the creation of the Center for the Study of Human Rights at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia built a broad, multidisciplinary strength in human rights issues.
Today, the teaching and practice of human rights is threaded throughout the curriculum at multiple schools, centers and institutes; promoted in law and health clinics; and carried out in the field both within the U.S. and in many nations abroad. The University has about a dozen degree and non-degree programs in human rights. Those seeking to turn learning into action can apply for internships and fellowships, or work at one of the many University centers and institutes that promote and protect the rights of children, mothers, migrant workers, prisoners, refugees, low-income tenants and patients. As the archive for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the University now houses one of the world's largest collections of human rights documents.
To President Lee C. Bollinger (LAW'71), it makes perfect sense for an institution built on the core value of academic freedom to make human rights a focus.
"My scholarly field of freedom of speech and press has taught me that all human rights are individually important and importantly interdependent," says Bollinger. "That's why Columbia plays a unique role in the advancement and protection of human rights globally. From the special archive in our library to the experienced faculty in law, international and public affairs, social work, the arts and sciences, journalism and public health, there's a breadth and depth of engagement in both thought and action on human rights that is profoundly impressive."
In a globalized society that has seen the expansion of democracy and intensified repression; better living standards for some amid deepening poverty and inequality for others; there remains, alas, ample opportunity for Columbians to find new and effective paths to promoting human rights.
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