In 1997 the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln created a new interdisciplinary area of excellence: Human Rights and Human Diversity. Dr. David Forsythe, University Professor and Charles J. Mach Distinguished Professor of Political Science, served as the founding director. From 1997 to 2002, the program was supported by a Ford Foundation grant, during which time the program increased its presence at the university and earned a national reputation for being a center of human rights teaching and research.

Since its founding in 1997, the human rights program has benefited from the leadership of Robert Hitchcock (Anthropology), Brian Lepard (College of Law), Jay Johnson (Geography), Jeff Spinner-Halev (Political Science) and Ari Kohen (Political Science). The interdisciplinary nature of the program's leadership over the years reflects the broad and diverse University of Nebraska community involved in human rights teaching and research.

During its twenty-year history, Nebraska's human rights program has grown our dynamic, hands-on undergraduate minor to reach over 100 students, created a graduate student certificate, and produced cutting-edge research. Faculty in the human rights program have collaborated and continue to work together on research projects around topics such as transitional justice in post-conflict societies, human security, human rights and water security, and Holocaust and genocide studies. As of the fall of 2019, our faculty have published 25 academic books and 238 peer-reviewed journal articles on human rights-related topics.

The program was renamed in 2010 to honor the career of David Forsythe and in recognition of the generous financial contribution made by the Forsythe family to the University of Nebraska. Dr. Forsythe's goal, for UNL to be counted among the leading universities in the study of human rights and humanitarian affairs, informs the teaching and research goals of the program today, just as his scholarship and teaching on international human rights and humanitarian law led to its creation and development.