Education Trends: SMU Announces Human Rights Degree | KERA News

Education Trends: SMU Announces Human Rights Degree

Dallas, TX – Southern Methodist University has announced a brand new undergraduate major in Human Rights. KERA's Bill Zeeble has more on why the school will become just the 5th university in the nation to offer this rare undergraduate degree.

For years, veteran SMU professor Rick Halperin worked for a Human Rights degree program. He taught his first human rights course here 21 years ago, before many of his current students were even born. He has served as Chairman of the Board for Amnesty International USA. Five years ago, SMU established a Human Rights minor for undergraduates. The school joined 11 others at the time offering such a program.

Halperin: We just don't talk about human rights in general in this country. We don't go K through 12 to talk about these things. I blame it in part on culture. It's a clear failure from one end of this country to the other.

Halperin set out to change that culture. Students signed up for the minor and his required course, America's Dilemma: The Struggle for Human Rights.

Halperin: We have become the fastest growing program within SMU.

Halperin says that rapidly growing student popularity is one reason SMU officials approved the Human Rights undergraduate major. SMU's board also said it would prepare students not only for human rights activism and non-profit work, but give them a world-wide perspective that would enhance their preparation for graduate programs and professional schools in arts, education, engineering, law, medicine, politics, and theology. Halperin says his one course already gets students thinking.

Student: In Pakistan, Taliban forces attacked a school bus and four children were killed.

Thirty students filled this weekly, Tuesday evening class. Each session, including this one, opens with students citing some human rights violation from the past week.

Student: Nineteen other people were injured. And a Taliban spokesperson said this was another beginning of their attack on civilians.

In this night's class, Halperin then focuses on slavery's beginnings in the United States. To encourage thought and interaction, he brings up the 1960s film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. A young white woman introduces her parents to the Black man she wants to marry. The movie was controversial then, and still is to some. To explore cultural and racial changes through the generations, Halperin asks each student how their parents and grandparents might react to the same scenario.

Student: My parents were born in the 1950s in the south but then became Hippies so I really don't' think they care.

Student: My parents are from Mexico and they were also born in the 50s and I do not think they would be ok with it.

For some students, this class fills an undergraduate requirement. But for others, like sophomore Emily Mankowski, SMU's Human Rights major is exciting. She says she came here, in part, because of the Human Rights minor.

Emily Mankowski, Sophomore: I am very interested in service work, going abroad. I'm pre-med so I'm hoping to get involved in something like Doctors Without Borders and having Human Rights as a major is, feel like it could help me a lot with my future.

John Potts, a Junior in Mechanical Engineering, is impressed the school has okayed a degree in Human Rights. He says the school is seen as a conservative school not too open to change. He says this is a good progressive step for SMU and its students.

Potts: I think the class is very interesting. It's a lot more discussion- oriented. It's good for us to raise issues that make us uncomfortable like we did today discussing our parents' opinion of race and our partners.

And now, thanks in part to Halperin, SMU students can not only study and pursue tough issues and their interests in Human Rights, but can major in it, beginning this Fall. Halperin says his next goal is to establish a graduate level Human Rights Program.

Email Bill Zeeble