Stressing the centrality of human rights for American policy at home and abroad, President Joe Biden spoke in Storrs Friday at the dedication of The Dodd Center for Human Rights, which over 25 years has put the University of Connecticut at the forefront of academic scholarship and activism in the field.
“As we rededicate the Dodd center, let’s also dedicate it to future generations; let us dedicate and expand our shared understanding,” Biden told a crowd in the plaza in front of the Dodd Center. “Let’s dedicate it to the students here in the audience today, who may discover and defend human rights as the passion and purpose of their life. Let us dedicate it to expanding our shared understanding, also help to ensure liberty and justice for everyone. And let’s dedicate it to the unending fight to bring our own nation closer to a future where every human being is free to pursue their highest dreams and reach their full potential.”
Biden’s visit to Storrs was his second stop in Connecticut on Friday, following a visit to a child development center in Hartford. During his remarks, Biden praised former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd for his long record of human rights accomplishments, and shared anecdotes about their years of friendship. But the 46th president of the U.S. also used the opportunity to offer a ringing defense of the rule of law and democracy, and to condemn authoritarian forces he said are gaining strength around the world.
The United States should always seek to “lead by the power of our example, not the example of our power,” Biden said.
“Demonstrating that our commitment to human rights begins at home is one of the most powerful and persuasive tools in our foreign policy kit,” he said. “Leading by example means taking action at home.”
Biden’s visit was only the second time that a sitting U.S. president has visited the University of Connecticut. The first was on Oct. 15, 1995, when President Bill Clinton spoke at the original dedication of the Dodd Center, which was named for Thomas Dodd, the U.S. Senator and prosecutor of Nazi war criminals at the postwar Nuremberg trials whose son, Chris, followed him into the Senate.
Speaking Friday, Dodd described how his father’s experiences as a Nuremberg prosecutor shaped his understanding of politics and the rule of law. The founding of the center 26 years ago helped extend Thomas Dodd’s legacy, not only by preserving the memory of Nuremberg, but by connecting that moment to the global struggle for human rights that would follow.
As we rededicate the Dodd center, let’s also dedicate it to future generations; let us dedicate and expand our shared understanding. Let’s dedicate it to the students here in the audience today, who may discover and defend human rights as the passion and purpose of their life. — President Joe Biden
“Today we gather on the campus of a great American university, and at the entrance of its center for human rights,” Dodd said. “Here at this center, at this University, in this, our country, we will invoke the precedent and call upon the law that was made at Nuremberg 75 years ago.”
The dedication ceremony was also addressed by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy ’01 JD, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, Gov. Ned Lamont, Helena Foulkes, granddaughter of U.S. Sen. Thomas Dodd, UConn Interim President Dr. Andy Agwunobi, and UConn Board of Trustees Chairman Daniel Toscano ’87 (BUS).
“Life transformative education is UConn’s mission and we are thrilled to share that passion with our president,” Toscano said. “This occasion is not about a building or renaming, it’s about a mission: the mission of the Dodd Center is to promote human rights around the globe.”
In his remarks, Dr. Agwunobi emphasized the role the Dodd Center has played in making UConn a powerful force in the field of human rights.
“When the Dodd Center was founded in 1995, it was with the ambition to place UConn at the forefront of human rights scholarship and activism, both here in the United States and around the world,” Agwunobi said. “Today, we are proud to say that ambition has been rewarded by the research, teaching, and outreach that have made the Dodd Center synonymous with the cause of human rights. By helping to ensure that human rights are protected, human dignity is supported, and that our common humanity is recognized, we fulfill the highest aspirations of a world-class University. For 25 years, the Dodd Center has been essential in helping UConn meet those ambitious ideals, and I look forward to what the next 25 years have in store.”
Announced just days before, the visit generated a tremendous amount of excitement among members of the UConn community, with an avalanche of social media posts documenting everything from the landing of V-22 Osprey helicopters behind McMahon Residence Hall to the erection of a tent at the Dodd Center plaza. One video of the helicopter landings was titled “When it finally hits you that the President is actually coming to UConn.”
In the hours leading up to the event, students could be seen navigating around the closures necessitated by the presidential visit and searching for the best vantage points. Hundreds gathered on the sunny and warm afternoon to catch a glimpse of the President landing on campus and being escorted to the event, with a line stretching from the Dodd Center past the entrance to the Student Recreation Center and down Hillside Road.
Olivia DelBasso ’23 (CAHNR) and Jenna Abbruzzese ’22 (CLAS) were among those who watched the presidential helicopters land Friday afternoon.
“I think it’s something we all think is special,” Abbruzzese said.
DelBasso says it was exciting to be part of the historical event.
Irene Soteriou ’23 (CLAS), a cognitive science and statistics double major, said Biden’s visit is a testament to UConn’s leadership in human rights scholarship.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this event is one of great significance,” Soteriou said. “Given that, in the 140 years since its inception, the University of Connecticut has only ever been visited by one other sitting president, I feel uniquely fortunate to have the honor and opportunity to attend UConn at this historical point in time.”
Since the Dodd Center’s establishment, UConn has become a world leader in human rights research and scholarship. Soteriou said UConn’s legacy in human rights education and scholarship is something to be proud of.
“What truly sets UConn apart, in my opinion, is the emphasis that our university places on human rights scholarship extends far beyond the classroom and fundamentally shapes the experience of students outside of the traditional human rights academic path, in addition to those more immediately within it.”
Soteriou, a dedicated advocate for refugees and asylum seekers, is hopeful the visit will inspire bold action from the Biden administration.
“In light of last week’s Rally for a Peaceful Planet, if I had a chance to speak with the president, I would ask about the administration’s plans for refugees and immigration,” Soteriou said. “I hope that this visit inspires President Biden to consider both expanding the current cap on refugees and increasing the resources dedicated towards supporting refugees, asylees, and other immigrants once they arrive.”
Prakash Kashwan, Associate Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Human Rights Institute Research Program on Economic and Social Rights, echoed Soteriou on the importance of the visit in highlighting the interrelation between research, outreach, and policymaking for facing global challenges, such as climate crisis/change and climate justice, and global health inequities such as COVID vaccination inequalities.
“Institutions of higher education in general and research centers such as ours are important to study the relationships between climate crisis and human rights,” Kashwan said. “Sometimes it does seem that the connections and climate justice issues are pretty obvious, but they are not always so obvious. It requires research. The UN recognizes that the disasters related to climate crisis often lead to grave violation of human rights. We need policies that are designed right from the word go where somebody with the knowledge of environmental and climate justice is actively engaging throughout the process of the development of climate-related policies.”
Universities are also an important bridge between the research and education of the next generation of leaders and scholars, Kashwan said, and continued support and funding for education is vital. “Bringing in popular support requires being engaged with the young generation college students and even school-aged students. We hope that President Biden and Vice President Harris would continue to be strong advocates of higher education.”
Earlier in the day at Biden’s first stop, in Hartford at the Capitol Child Development Center, he spoke about his Build Back Better Agenda, a policy Kashwan said would be a move in the right direction in terms of climate action, environmental justice, and human rights in America.
“I think it’s fortuitous that Biden visited Connecticut to talk about Build Back Better and as part of the rededication of the Dodd Center because the two, human rights and environmental justice, are intricately related,” Kashwan said.
The agenda also includes provisions aimed at making America’s infrastructure more resilient, along with measures to lower health care and childcare costs – issues that Chris Dodd also championed as a senator.
“Too many folks in Washington still don’t realize it isn’t enough just to invest in our physical infrastructure,” Biden said. “We also have to invest in our people. Our infrastructure has fallen from the best in the world. Somehow along the way we stopped investing in our people. We’re the only country in the world that has consistently turned difficulty into opportunity. When I think climate, I think jobs, good paying jobs, union jobs, this is an opportunity.”
Mary Donegan, UConn assistant professor in residence in the Urban and Community Studies Program, saw the visit as an opportunity for the UConn community to reflect on its own values and priorities.
“President Biden has been clear that he supports organized labor and increased access to college education, and that he believes climate change is a pressing concern,” Donegan said.
Donegan also echoed Kashwan’s hope that the administration will put its weight behind meaningful climate action, such as seeing that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Build Back Better are passed by Congress.
At the end of his remarks in Storrs, Biden sounded a hopeful note, saying today’s UConn students will be among those who move the United States closer to realizing the promise of its founding ideals.
“So many of you in this audience are the people my grandchildren will be looking to,” Biden said. “There’s not a single reason why we can’t do this. It’s never been a good bet to bet against the American people.”