Longtime UI law faculty member’s passion for human rights has resulted in humanitarian efforts close to home and across the globe.
In his almost 45 years at The University of Iowa, Burns Weston has significantly shaped the way the University promotes international studies and global human rights—and at 76 years old, he has no plans of stopping.
“I love it too much, what I do,” he says. “Why quit?”
The Bessie Dutton Murray Distinguished Professor of Law Emeritus, Senior Scholar, and UI Center for Human Rights founding director came to the University in 1966, and through his work has made an impact across the world.
Weston began his college career as a piano major at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and in 1956 graduated from Oberlin College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history. Later, in 1961, he graduated from Yale Law School with a specialty in international law. In 1966, after a stint at a Wall Street law firm in New York City and further doctoral study and research at Yale Law School, Weston began teaching at the University of Iowa College of Law.
“I went to law school mostly because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life,” says Weston, who to this day continues his research and teaches one course and one research seminar. “But I didn’t enjoy practicing law and I stumbled into teaching—it just happened.”
Although the Cleveland native originally didn’t plan to stay in Iowa City but for a few years, he decided for personal reasons to stay, and in the following years helped to initiate and revamp many programs at the University. Among his many accomplishments, including many books and articles, Weston founded the former Center for World Order Studies and the World Order Studies Program (known later as the University’s Global Studies Program), created and served as associate dean of the International and Comparative Law Program, and helped to found the UI Center for Human Rights (UICHR), currently in its 11th year.
While Weston has worked in many areas of academia, human rights have been his ultimate passion. When Weston was around 7 years old, he learned that his father had been kicked out of his fraternity in college because he befriended a black man.
“This was my first conscious anger at human inequality,” Weston says. Others followed.
But the real turning point came in college when Weston became heavily involved with his campus’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter, due in part to a good friend who happened to be African American. One day the two went to get haircuts and the barber wouldn’t serve Weston’s friend because he was black.
Weston’s anger toward human abuse and oppression also led to protests against South Africa’s apartheid and the Vietnam War. The war was a “big game changer” for Weston in terms of how he wanted to spend his career and life.
“I believe strongly in [human rights],” Weston says. “I’ve been witness to major human suffering. I’m driven by the notion that no one on the planet has a greater claim to life and human dignity than anyone else.”
Some of Weston’s humanitarian efforts have been close to campus—helping students protesting the Vietnam War to get out of jail, for example—but much of his humanitarian work has taken place across the globe. In 1985, Weston was a security guard for South Korea’s future president, Kim Dae-jung. Returning to Korea from exile in the United States, Kim needed escorts to prevent violence and assassination attempts on his life—acts that had plagued the politician for many years as he fought for democracy in his homeland. Weston and others got roughed up by officials of the then existing Korean dictatorship in the process.
“The extent to which people lay down their lives for an idea made me realize how important it is to teach about human rights,” says Weston, who has traveled to Cuba, the West Bank and Gaza, Kosovo, the Republic of Georgia, and elsewhere to work against “human wrongs.”
Weston currently is tackling environmental crises as a human rights issue. He says the world, especially the United States, is “asleep” when it comes to global warming and climate change—“probably the most consequential event ever to face humankind since the dinosaurs.”
In 2009, he completed a major policy paper issued by Vermont Law School’s famed Environmental Law Center and the UI Center for Human Rights titled “Recalibrating the Law of Humans with the Laws of Nature: Climate Change, Human Rights, and Intergenerational Justice.” Presently he is working on a major research project that seeks to advance worldwide a system of ecological governance that takes seriously what he believes to be the human right to a clean, healthy, ecologically balanced, and sustainable environment.
Aside from his studies and career, Weston proudly describes his family—wife, Marta, of 17 years; two children; four grandchildren; two stepchildren; and three step-grandchildren. In addition, Weston, a classically trained pianist, says music is his passion, and he can’t imagine life without it.
While Weston has countless accomplishments in his life—and even overcame a battle with oral cancer with which he was afflicted in 1998–99—he considers teaching students to be his biggest achievement and reward.
“Be ashamed to die until you have given of yourself to humanity,” he tells them, quoting the great American educator Horace Mann, a personal friend and colleague of his grandfather. “Many of them,” he notes happily, “do go forth and take that advice seriously.” He adds: “I learn as much from my students as they do from me.”
story by Ashton Shurson; photo by Chrisy Aumer, Daily Iowan