Shruti Rana, a legal scholar, professor, and outspoken advocate for women’s rights, immigrant rights, and international human rights law, is the new assistant dean for curricular and undergraduate affairs at the Hamilton Lugar School. Popular among students for her passion for teaching and entrepreneurial spirit in creating new opportunities for students, Rana is the director of the International Law and Institutions Degree Program and has been professor of International Law Practice since 2016. She researches and teaches international law, focusing on gender, immigration, and corporate governance, among other subjects.
As a lawyer, she knows these are difficult times, particularly in her subjects. Recent years have seen Congress fail to renew the Violence Against Women’s Act, and states have restricted reproductive rights to the point that it is difficult for many women to access reproductive healthcare. In the area of human rights and displaced people, those seeking asylum have been treated inhumanely, and there has been a full ban on asylum-seekers entering the United States. This ban contradicts the US’s historical role, adopted after the horrors of the Holocaust, to admit those fleeing violence based on their identity.
“We’re fundamentally failing to fulfill our domestic and international obligations to refugees, and we’re doing it for no real reason other than xenophobia,” Rana says. “We’ve already determined that the American economy needs more people, particularly young people, we’ve already determined that the US can easily absorb a certain number of refugees, and we’re letting in far less than that number.”
The legal system broadly is under severe strain. As of June 2020, the American Bar Association has rated nine of the judges that President Trump formally nominated for lifetime judicial appointments to be unqualified to serve in this capacity, an unusually high number. One judge whom President Trump nominated refused to say during her confirmation hearing whether she supported the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education.
The ABA rated another “unanimously not qualified” due to the fact that she had never tried a case, taken a deposition, or argued a motion; she had, the ABA said, “the absence of any trial or even real litigation experience.” Despite what should have been disqualifications, the Senate approved both candidates to lifetime judicial appointments.
“Part of the erosion of the rule of law is that instead of choosing people to be judges based on their qualifications and legal skills, you choose them only for their views, and that’s part of what’s happening now,” Rana says.
Add to this situation the COVID pandemic and abuses of civil rights in the US, and a certain amount of cynicism or hopelessness might start to take root. But that is not Rana’s disposition. Instead, her personal experience with the law and with her students gives her hope about the future of international law and human rights issues.
“In my career I’ve seen international human rights norms increasingly embedded in domestic laws all over the world and in particular in the United States,” Rana says. “Respect for and compliance with human rights is increasing even if it doesn’t always seem like that in the moment.”
A larger view of progress in the areas of human rights and gender discrimination would take into account the rise of the Me Too movement, for instance, which combats sexual harassment and assault by providing a platform for survivors to share their experiences and get legal recourse. “People are speaking out and creating change,” Rana says. “Ending the culture of silence around sexual harassment in the workplace has created so much change in the past two years.”
At the local level, too, change is happening. In Monroe County, several Bloomington organizations are working to combat gender-based violence and provide resources and support to survivors. Middle Way House provides many services to survivors of domestic abuse and other forms of gender-based violence and harassment, including a crisis line, emergency shelter, permanent housing, and legal advocacy.
Organizations like Middle Way House are playing an increasingly important role across the world in providing services and shaping the ways we think about human rights and gender-based protections. There are “human rights problems happening all over the world, but these types of organizations and volunteers are increasingly speaking to one another and being connected,” Rana says. These connections are making it more possible for regular people and local groups to take part in international legal processes that then put pressure on governments to create lasting improvements through legislation.
Rana gives her students a first-hand experience of one of those legal processes by teaching a practicum in which students attend the UN Commission on the Status of Women annual session in New York City in March. In 2019 the class took part in a number of sessions as members of civil society and partnered with the Global Initiative for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. With students’ theoretical knowledge they wrote a human rights report and presented on a topic that they learned about while at the UN.
Students are deeply moved by the experience. One student who took part in the practicum, Nivedha Meyyappan, went on to work in the UN at the Office of Sexual Violence and Conflict after graduating from HLS.
Rana says that the school has “incredible students who in various ways just want to go out there and change the world,” so she asked herself, “How do we help them do that?”
This “entrepreneurial” drive to create new programs and services to promote international understanding will serve her well in her new role as assistant dean for curricular and undergraduate affairs. She will develop and strengthen curricular offerings; expand experiential and global learning opportunities; and oversee student recruitment and career services. She will also serve as the Hamilton Lugar School’s Diversity Officer.
Having lived and worked in Finland, Japan, Malaysia, China, and the UK, Rana brings an international perspective to her position that is fundamental to the mission of the Hamilton Lugar School. A passion for global engagement began early. “My parents traveled whenever they could, around the US and internationally, and my parents took us to India a number of times to meet relatives. And we had the chance to see all these really fascinating things,” she says, including the village where her grandparents lived and the traditions of the communities there.
“I love new and exciting things, and I think it’s so exciting to learn about various countries and cultures and history, and I just find that endlessly fascinating,” Rana says.
A career in international law was the next step, she says, so that she could “operate in the international sphere as a US lawyer.” She worked at a law firm in California, did a clerkship, worked on international law in a firm in Washington, DC, at the United Nations in New York, and just before coming to HLS grew the international law practice of a regional firm.
At HLS she developed the BA in International Law and Institutions, another entrepreneurial undertaking, which she says “was developed as a way for students to both understand the theories as well as the skills they need to engage with different forms of global governance.”
Students take the theoretical knowledge of their classes and put them to use “in a number of different fields where understanding international architecture [and] how law works and how legal systems work” is crucial. Students also immerse themselves in “regional and area studies as well as languages,” she says.
Undergraduate programs in law are rare, and ones in international law are even rarer, but the “unique areas of expertise that we have at HLS” make it possible.
Attending law school, working at an NGO or in civil society, and working in a national or international organization like the United Nations or the State Department are all paths that students in the program are interested in.
And last fall she helped organize Navigating the Backlash Against Global Law and Institutions, an international conference in partnership with the University of Maryland and Australia National University, which surveyed destabilizing global political developments and proposed potential solutions to those threats.
Despite all she’s accomplished and contributed to at HLS, Rana believes she still has more to learn. “Humility is the thing that’s most important in the work that I’ve done,” she says, adding, “I feel constantly like I have major shifts in my perspectives or how I approach things from learning how other people do things.”
The number of people working on these issues and their dedication is profound. “I’m constantly inspired by what I see,” she says.
So while the difficulties are significant, Rana knows they are not insurmountable. Having worked on international issues in NGOs, the UN, law firms, and the university, she says, “I see the tremendous potential for change.”
And HLS graduates will lead the charge.