If you ask James Waller what he’s most proud of in his career, he won’t mention the six books he’s written, or the dozens of articles he’s published.
He won’t talk about the journals he’s edited or the 100 colleges where he’s lectured as an eminent scholar of the Holocaust and genocide studies.
He won’t tell you that one of his books is not only used as a textbook for courses about the psychology of those who commit genocide, but that it also inspired an international best-selling novel and an award-winning documentary film.
He doesn’t mention how he’s led trainings for U.S. military commanders and security sector personnel from the FBI and the CIA on genocide prevention and perpetrator behavior.
He won’t bring up how he helped to launch the nation’s first and only undergraduate major in Holocaust and genocide studies at Keene State College in New Hampshire.
Or the multitude of awards he’s won.
Or the fieldwork he’s conducted in places like Germany, Rwanda, Colombia, the former Yugoslavia, and Northern Ireland.
In fact, if you ask Waller what he’s most proud of, he doesn’t actually talk about himself at all.
Instead, he’ll tell you about his students.
“I think I always go back to students as kind of the first thing,” he says. “I think of the students who I’ve had in courses who have gone on to do some remarkable things that I always look back on with pride, that I was at least a starting point for some of what they would be interested in.”
He’ll tell you about two undergraduate students at Keene State who were so motivated in part by what they learned in his introduction to genocide studies course that, when they realized New Hampshire did not have a state-recognized day to acknowledge victims of genocide, took matters into their own hands to change state law.
“Keene State was home to the only undergraduate major in Holocaust and genocide studies, but New Hampshire didn’t have a state-recognized day,” Waller says. “Three years after those two students took the course, we sat on campus and then-Governor Maggie Hassan came and signed into law a bill that said every April was Genocide Awareness Month. And that was because of two students who were inspired by something they had learned in a course of mine and then, on their own, went and did that incredible work.
“I’m always proud when students put the things they study into practice.”
UConn students will have a chance to learn from Waller – and perhaps find their own inspiration to do incredible work – this coming academic year.
In August, he officially joins UConn’s faculty as the new director of Dodd Human Rights Impact and as the first Christopher J. Dodd Chair in Human Rights Practice – a unique blend of roles combining classroom with practice as he leads the University’s human rights outreach and advocacy efforts, with joint faculty appointments to the Gladstein Family Human Rights Institute and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages.
And despite a packed agenda this fall, what Waller most looks forward to is joining UConn’s interdisciplinary human rights team – and, of course, teaching.
“Never Grew Out of Asking Questions”
For Waller, the opportunity to lead Dodd Human Rights Impact came at a point in his career where he was ready to join a larger institution and to stretch his own wings as a scholar of human rights.
But he wouldn’t have taken on the role, he says, if it didn’t involve teaching.
“That’s always been what I pride myself on and what I love doing,” he says, “and so, the fact that this position included teaching was a big draw for me.”
Learning has been a career-long process for Waller himself. He was a first-generation college student who grew up in the south and went to college to play basketball.
Like many first-gen students, he didn’t walk onto a college campus for the first time knowing what he wanted to do, or that he would ultimately become an educator and a scholar.
“I had no idea what college was about, no idea if I’d ever make it through,” he says. “I’d been born and raised in the Deep South, and I still remember as a young kid asking my parents questions about why there were still segregated drinking fountains or restrooms when you go on these back roads through Alabama and Mississippi. And I think in some ways, I just never grew out of asking those questions.”
Waller earned his bachelor’s degree from Asbury University in Kentucky, and went on to earn his master’s from the University of Colorado and his Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Kentucky. In graduate school, he never stopped asking questions about race relations, but he didn’t start actually studying the Holocaust until he participated in a faculty exchange program during his first faculty appointment at a small college in Washington state that sent him to teach in Germany for two summers.
“I was teaching courses on intergroup relations,” he says. “The Berlin Wall had come down, and students from Eastern Europe were flooding in to take these type of courses, and in their projects, a lot of them were focusing on the Holocaust as their example of intergroup mis-relations.
“I was struck by their papers. I had never studied the Holocaust at all. I was living in Germany for those two summers, and started to do a lot of touring, speaking with people who were archivists in museums and elsewhere, and then came back to my home institution. Two years later, I taught what I think was the nation’s first course on the psychology of the Holocaust.”
In learning about the Holocaust and other instances of genocide, Waller found an area where he, as a social psychologist, believed he could uniquely contribute scholarship.
Those beginnings in Germany kicked off a career in researching and teaching about genocide and especially the psychology of those perpetrators who commit genocide.
“In Holocaust studies you could, at that time, read a book on the history of the Holocaust, about victims and survivors and bystanders and the architects of genocide,” Waller says. “But if you said, ‘OK, I’m looking for a few pages on the people who actually pull the triggers, the people who actually did the killing,’ people just didn’t study that. My field of training, social psychology, focused a lot on people’s misbehavior in those type of settings, so I was fortunate to have a disciplinary lens that could add something to a conversation that was just starting to hit the ground in Holocaust studies.”
“A Sense of Responsibility”
The community of human rights scholars within the United States is pretty small – everybody still knows everybody, Waller explains. So, Waller – who spent most of his career working at smaller liberal arts colleges – knew about UConn’s reputation as a leader in human rights education.
When the opportunity arose to come to UConn, he was eager to see how his work might fit into a bigger picture.
“I’ve been working in the field of genocide studies and atrocity prevention for 30 years or so,” he says, “but within that, I’ve always had an interest in connecting that work to the broader issues of human rights. I think my vision for what I wanted to see for the last chapter of my career was more broadly within the field of human rights and understanding genocide studies as one piece of that.”
And he’s found that opportunity as the new leader of Dodd Impact.
The outreach and engagement arm of human rights at UConn, Dodd Impact Programs works to develop and support initiatives that seek to directly impact local and global communities by helping them meet their human rights challenges.
It’s part of UConn’s Gladstein Family Human Rights Institute, one of the top human rights academic and research programs in the country, and housed in The Dodd Center for Human Rights, which serves as the hub of human rights at UConn.
Established more than 25 years ago, The Dodd Center also houses Thomas J. Dodd’s collection of papers and letters from his time prosecuting Nazi War crimes as executive trial counsel at the historic Nuremberg Trials.
Throughout his career, Waller has taught about Nuremberg and transitional justice and at times used Thomas Dodd and other Nuremberg prosecutors as examples in some of his teaching. He sees a lot of himself and his own professional experiences in the way in which Dodd Center and human rights at UConn have evolved into world leaders in the field over time.
“I love the fact that, in some ways, this position mirrored my own development in the field,” Waller says. “The archives really started with the Nuremberg Papers and Thomas Dodd’s involvement in post-Holocaust justice, and then that grew and expanded into this larger field of human rights. And that really has mirrored my own trajectory in the field as well.”
The opportunity to serve as the first Christopher J. Dodd Chair in Human Rights Practice comes with its own recognition, but also special responsibility, Waller notes.
Named for Thomas Dodd’s son, Connecticut Senator Christopher J. Dodd, a human rights champion in his own extensive career in public service and a major supporter of human rights at UConn, the chair was established in 2020 with the support of nearly 100 donors. According to the UConn Foundation, endowed chairs and professorships are essential to the University’s recruitment and retention of faculty talent and the overall enrichment of the academic experience.
“There’s an honor anytime you hold a position as an endowed chair, and it’s an honor to be the first Christopher Dodd Chair in Human Rights Practice,” Waller says. “I think it’s a recognition of the work you’ve done to receive that type of position, but it’s also a recognition of the work you’re expected to do as well. I take it with a sense of responsibility that I’m very willing to embrace.”
That responsibility, says Sen. Dodd, is to work to enact awareness and change, while also continuing to develop scholarship and empowering the next generation to find their place in the world and make a difference.
“The creation of this endowed chair is a testament to decades of human rights engagement, outreach, academics and research at The Dodd Center for Human Rights,” he says. “UConn has earned a reputation as a leader in human rights education and practice both in and out of the classroom and generous donors have stepped up to support human rights at UConn.
“Thanks to the leadership of President Radenka Maric, the Board of Trustees, and UConn faculty and staff, this endowed chair will help expand this truly important work at home and abroad. I am pleased to welcome Dr. Jim Waller, whose breadth of experience, scholarship, and community engagement will enhance and strengthen human rights at UConn.”
‘That Would Be Remarkable’
Despite his deep love of teaching, Waller won’t be in a UConn classroom in the fall 2023 semester.
Instead, he’s laser focused on his first major responsibility as director of Dodd Impact: the inaugural Human Rights Summit at The Dodd Center for Human Rights.
The three-day summit kicks off on Wednesday, October 25, at The Dodd Center with the awarding of the 2023 Thomas J. Dodd Prize in International Justice and Human Rights to the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Entitled “Human Rights and the Global Assault on Democracy,” the Dodd Summit will bring together scholars, activists, policymakers, artists, students, and business leaders from across the world to examine the key human rights challenges of our time and generate new ideas to promote social justice and human dignity globally.
The summit will include a mix of high-profile lectures and keynotes and roundtable discussions, serving as a critical venue for sharing insights, building relationships, and inspiring action.
The summit comes at an important time, according to Waller, as more than 50 percent of the world’s population currently lives in a country led by an autocratic or authoritarian regime and as even functioning democracies around the world are struggling with what it means to be a democracy.
“We live in a world in which we are becoming increasingly identified not just by who we are, but by who we’re not,” Waller says. “We have a world in which division is almost the rule, and when division is the rule, it means that some people who are not in positions of power are going to suffer more than other people, and that’s where human rights matters.”
While the summit intends to attract notable figures in the field, and to take on some of the most pressing topics of modern times, a main metric of its ultimate success for Waller and the Dodd Impact team will be student engagement in the summit.
The summit will conclude with a workshop designed around student participation and what it means for us here at home in the U.S., and even on campus at UConn, to sustain democracy.
“Democracy is not automatic,” Waller says. “It has to be sustained with effort and will. If we can get a lot of students in who get that message and start to recommit to that, to me that would be our big success. It won’t matter the names who have come. It will be that students can leave the summit and say, ‘Yeah, democracy doesn’t just flourish on its own. It takes work to do it, and we need to be part of that work.’ That would be remarkable.”
UConn students will find Waller in the classroom this coming spring, though, where he’ll be teaching the undergraduate 2000-level Introduction to Genocide Studies course. He says that whenever he steps into the classroom, his students can expect him to be fully present and ready to engage – he hopes they will be, too.
Like the summit, the course is all about empowerment and giving students the support and the tools they need to go out and make a positive impact in their communities and in the world.
“It is a course that will challenge them to think differently about the world they’re in and will challenge them to fulfill a sense of duty and responsibility that they have as citizens in that world,” he says. “I want them to understand the content, the history of genocide, where the concept came from, the cases we struggle with.
“But if at the end of the semester, that’s all they’ve gotten, I’ll feel like I failed them. I really want them to understand what are your points of leverage that you have to make a difference in your dorm and your apartment communities, and the cities and towns that you come from. I hope they leave the course feeling transformed and feeling empowered to make a difference.”
For more information about human rights education and advocacy opportunities at UConn, visit humanrights.uconn.edu.