The Right(s) Stuff: How Students Advocated for a Greater Focus on Human Rights at CLS

NU0D1073Nolan Thomas / Morningside Muckraker
A student studies for fall semester exams in the Arthur W. Diamond Law Library.

Few 3Ls will be able to forget the weeks leading up to the Human Rights Town Hall in late-April 2013. Even the most unplugged students, the ones who kept themselves off most student mailing lists, saw a few e-mails about human rights sneak into their inboxes. Every organization urged its members to attend, touting its cause—property rights, constitutional rights, even New Englanders’ rights—as a human right. There were supportive but tongue-in-cheek jokes (SALDEF, trying to get students to attend the Town Hall, said, “human rights affect animals too!”), and there were equally cheeky jokes with different motivations (Facebook posts unrelated to the Town Hall, saying that “Subletting your room is a human right!” sometimes followed by those same people “liking” the Town Hall’s page on Facebook).

But the audience at the event was far from ambivalent. JG 104 filled up—not to the brim, but still impressively for an end-of-semester event—as students listened to a panel of faculty speakers. Then-Dean David Schizer pointed to the school’s hard-earned successes in attracting new faculty members, including a year-long visit from public international law legend Harold Koh, as well as the full-time hire of Professor Anthea Roberts, a rising star in the same field. Professor Sarah Cleveland, whose work focuses on human rights law in particular, highlighted the impressive range of faculty and courses available in fields relating to international law and social justice, all of which, as the lead-up to the town hall had emphasized, addressed human rights.

One by one, students each gave their reasons why these efforts weren’t enough. There were concerns about lack of inclusion and accessibility: Could Spring Caravans and semester externships become more financially accessible? Was the human rights field as a whole sufficiently open to people of color? There were also concerns about hiring more faculty: Why were there not any new faculty members with non-governmental field experience? Why did none of the new additions to the faculty have experience specific to human rights, instead of international law more generally? And there were the cultural concerns: Was human rights being conflated too much with public interest as a whole? Would that even matter, considering the law school’s increasingly “corporate” reputation? Audience members applauded in solidarity as each student spoke his or her piece.

About a month after the event, a follow-up meeting took place between nine faculty members and eight students. One of the attendees, Bassam Khawaja, a current 3L and editor-in-chief of the Human Rights Law Review, noted that faculty members at the meeting were willing to engage with students on the issue, but that they also told students that the school was under some familiar constraints. One limiting practice raised was that CLS, along with most of its peer schools, hires new faculty members by the overall quality of their research, as opposed to their specialties.

But still, there was room for change, and some have come in. Since then, the human rights program underwent several changes as a response to student feedback at the Town Hall and its follow-up meetings. The school has hired a new clinic director and new adjunct career advisors at SJI, and has also increased the available experiential learning and mentorship opportunities. These hires are at the forefront of a larger conversation on experiential learning opportunities at CLS, though they remain the most concrete changes so far.



After Louis Henkin started teaching and publishing as a Columbia professor in the 1960s, he was credited with the creation of human rights as a field of study for law students. With the founding of his Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, he cemented the University’s and the Law School’s reputation as pioneers in the field.

Yet in the 2012-13 academic year, many signs pointed to stagnation in this arena at CLS. Peter Rosenblum, an experienced advocate and long-time professor in the human rights clinic, resigned in the middle of the year. The law school also saw Olivier de Schutter leave, an adjunct professor and U.N. Special Rapporteur who had enriched the curriculum with his unique insight into the intersection of government, international organizations, NGOs, and grassroots organizations. Additionally, the human rights program needed more experts in specialized areas such as women’s rights and children’s rights. And despite the law school’s impressive interdisciplinary expertise, Professor Cleveland was the only remaining full-time faculty member devoted specifically to teaching lecture classes in human rights.

Students most concretely felt this stagnation in the technical and funding issues they faced. A student at the 2013 Human Rights Town Hall noted that she was unable to receive credit for a semester externship because her externship was in the spring, but credit for outside externships was only available through Professor Suzanne Goldberg’s Advocacy in Theory and Practice class offered only in the fall. Another found that it was difficult to register for classes outside the law school, since the Registrar did not always know how to complete the registration. And because full-time, non-clinical faculty members generally were the only people who could allocate most of their time to scholarship, students found that Professor Cleveland, one of the only remaining full-time human rights faculty members, was the only option for a note supervisor who would be available all year.

As these logistical issues mounted, the perceived delay in hiring a director for the human rights clinic, along with the clinic’s narrowing in focus from global to U.S. issues, became the final straw. Bassam noted that the clinic and other types of experiential learning were particularly important to human rights students. “What’s somewhat different about the human rights field is that access to practitioners, access to skills, is very important in terms of careers after law school, in some ways more important than lecture coursework,” he said. The school needed to change course, and so, a coalition of student groups called for the 2013 Human Rights Town Hall; the third one in just as many years.

Behind these concerns, there was the familiar existential dread. Dean Schizer alluded to it at the town hall, when he said, “for five decades or more, this school has had a reputation as a school that has an expertise in business law.”[1] Students at the town hall took that argument further, saying they were worried the school had an exclusively “corporate” image that could harm the human rights community. When students talk about efforts to include more corporate internships in the curriculum, a recurring joke is that a robust support structure already exists for private-sector-oriented students—it’s called Columbia Law School.


Since the 2013 Human Rights Town Hall, human rights has been one of the areas with the most visible changes to the curriculum. SJI hired new adjunct faculty to help guide students through the human-rights-related job search, and an SJI program now connects students to practicing human rights lawyers who can serve as one-on-one mentors. In addition, Professor Sarah Knuckey was hired as the human rights clinic’s new director, officially joining the faculty on July 1, 2014.

Professor Knuckey brings an interdisciplinary approach with an emphasis on critical thought and a blend theory and practice. This is particularly well-suited to students entering a field that values, both concrete skills and high-level strategic planning, as much as it does educational prestige. According to Professor Knuckey, the human rights clinic can strengthen the human rights community through four pillars: by teaching students how to be strategic, effective advocates; by making meaningful contributions to social justice through clinic projects; by linking its human rights work to academic scholarship; and by inspiring students to think critically, both of their own skills and of the field as a whole.

Still, there are areas where progress remains to be made. For example, despite the new clinical and adjunct hires, there have not been any new full-time faculty members hired to teach traditional lecture courses in human rights, which remain a key component of a legal education.

“We have excellent adjuncts because we’re in New York City and can bring in practitioners working with major NGOs, but you don’t get the same access you do with full-time faculty,” Bassam said. He added that it would be ideal if the school could create a comprehensive vision of its human rights course offerings, to see where there are gaps and to hire faculty accordingly.

Whatever the future holds for hiring full-time human rights faculty members, Professor Knuckey noted that a robust offering of lecture courses is complementary to a strong clinical education. “It’s going to be hard for anyone to do human rights lawyering without having taken foundational classes, especially classes in public international law,” she said. “The history, laws, and analytical and critical skills obtained in lecture courses are crucial for practice, and at the same time, the work of practitioners contributes to relevant and accurate analysis.”


As demands for greater experiential learning spread beyond the human rights context, the emphasis on human rights does not have to detract from other fields. “Some of these goals are especially pertinent to human rights, because of the way those experiences and skills are relevant to that job market, but I think the point is that the benefits are not limited to students interested in human rights,” Bassam said.

Considering the support at the 2013 Human Rights Town Hall, at least some students may agree.

[1] Dean Schizer also noted that faculty members were “incredibly proud to be strong in so many fields” and that many of the faculty hired in the past several years did not do corporate-related work.


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