Open Society President Aryeh Neier engages students with reflections on his life’s work

An audience of 30 students was captivated on Thursday, November 11, during an intimate talk with Aryeh Neier, president of the Open Society Institute, as part of the Executive Programs lecture series. Wagner student Daniel Shershen, the associate director in OSI’s Office of International Operations, introduced the former executive director of the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, who was interviewed by Professor David Elcott.

Neier spoke of his “mostly happy” childhood as a refugee in England, having fled Nazi Germany, and the influence this experience later had on his career of fighting for justice. Neier attributed his passion for working for the rights of the institutionalized to his intense dislike of a hostel for refugee children, in which he stayed during this time.

He reflected on the challenges still facing the developmentally challenged when asked which initiative of his long career he might like to “do over.” While at the NYCLU, Neier worked to close Willowbrook, a large institution for the mentally disabled on Staten Island, and to replace it with smaller community residences. He notes, however, that many mentally handicapped fell through the cracks and ended up living on the streets. Nevertheless, Neier remembered a man he knew from Willowbrook who was unable to dress and clean himself at the time. Years later, living in a supervised apartment, the man was able to take care of himself and even had a job.

The challenge inherent in achieving civil justice was a recurring theme during the evening’s talk. Neier, who has also been instrumental in advancing the rights of women, the gay community, and juveniles, agreed with Professor Elcott that his work had often been controversial. A particular example was the ACLU’s position in the case of the National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie. Neier assured the audience that, though many ACLU members threatened resignation over the case, the ACLU never wavered in its position of supporting the right to free expression.

In response to audience members’ questions, Neier made the distinction between civil rights versus economic and social rights, noting that intervention on behalf of the latter in developing countries is not always appropriate. He also described worldwide variation in laws that protect freedom of information. Upon concluding the interview, Professor Elcott invited students to chat informally with Neier, noting that the future president of Human Rights Watch or OSI could be in the very room.

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