Northwestern University struck a deal with Karl Eikenberry last year that he believed would be a capstone to his career as a global citizen with military, diplomatic and academic credentials. The retired three-star Army general and former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan would move from Stanford University to Northwestern to become the first executive director of a new global studies institute, backed by the largest single donation in the university’s history.
The deal, announced in November, fell through months later, after a surprising debate erupted about Eikenberry’s qualifications and his views on the value of the humanities and social sciences as elements of “soft power” in U.S. foreign policy. The dispute at the elite private university in Illinois reflected the power of faculty dissidents as a check on university administrators, as well as conflicting views on the value of military and diplomatic experience for advancement in academia.
Forty-six faculty members signed a letter in February describing Eikenberry as a “non-academic career military officer” who was a bad fit for the job. An online petition emerged to oppose Eikenberry’s appointment.
“An ex-U.S. general will likely think about international politics in terms of war and from the perspective of the U.S.’s interests, and the research agenda will be negatively skewed as a result,” wrote Charles Clarke, a Northwestern graduate student and one of the petition’s backers. “Instead, why not appoint someone who will encourage research that is less belligerent and tainted by U.S. bias?”
The Faculty Senate voted to support the appointment, but opposition proved so persistent that Eikenberry decided in April to pull the plug. He planned to return to Northwestern on Tuesday to give a speech on civilian-military relations.
Eikenberry told The Washington Post that he bears no ill will toward the university over an episode that proved a significant embarrassment for its leadership. But he took exception to the label “non-academic career military officer.”
“This is the worst stereotyping I can imagine and an affront to any veteran,” Eikenberry wrote in an email. “What is it about a military officer’s career that makes her or him unqualified to serve as the executive director for an institute of global studies? Their familiarity with leading large organizations, securing resources, directing strategic planning, and implementing institutional change? Their experience of living in diverse cultures abroad (in my case Korea – twice; China – three times; Hong Kong – twice; Italy; Belgium; and Afghanistan – three times)? Or their experience in the field of national security decision-making and international security issues?
“As for ‘non-academic’ – if no Ph.D. makes me ‘non-academic,’ then guilty as charged.” But he said two master’s degrees and a range of other experiences in the academic world “should offer some standing in the academy.”
There was no hint of the controversy to come in January 2015, when Northwestern President Morton Schapiro announced a record-setting gift of $101 million from Roberta Buffett Elliott, billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s sister. Her donation endowed what is now called the Buffett Institute for Global Studies, which aims to advance issues such as “the spread of democratic political systems, economic development in impoverished regions of the world, immigration policies and forced migrations, the impact of cultural exchanges on societies, global religious movements and global communications, media and technology,” according to a university news release.
To lead the institute, the university sought “a renowned expert in global affairs … someone with high-level experience in government and/or academia.”
Someone, Schapiro thought, like Eikenberry.
Eikenberry, now 64, graduated from West Point in 1973 and rose to become deputy chairman of the NATO Military Committee in Brussels and commander of the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. After he retired from the Army in 2009, he plunged into one of the most challenging diplomatic assignments in the world, serving two years as ambassador to Afghanistan under President Obama. He became known as a voice of skepticism about the Afghan government’s failings and the deepening U.S. involvement in America’s longest war.
Then he took a position at Stanford as a distinguished fellow at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. He is a “professor of the practice,” a title Stanford bestows on “exceptional practitioners” from business, government or other fields whose path into academia is outside the norm. Eikenberry does not have a doctorate, but he earned a master’s degree in East Asian Studies from Harvard University in 1981, and a second master’s in political science from Stanford in 1994.
In announcing his appointment on Nov. 23, Northwestern heaped praise on him. “He has played a highly visible role on the world stage with his frank and insightful ideas about some of the most critical issues of our day and will play a central role in taking the scope and impact of our global programs to an entirely new level,” Schapiro declared.
But even before the appointment was announced, some faculty members who heard of Northwestern’s interest in Eikenberry were expressing concerns privately.
“There were a number of extremely committed faculty that found it appalling this appointment had been made,” said Jorge Coronado, chair of the department of Spanish and Portuguese. “We were very concerned about the direction this meant for the university.”
Coronado said he had no qualms about Eikenberry’s military or diplomatic record. Instead, he questioned Eikenberry’s academic record. Why would the university cede control of a major research enterprise to a man without a doctorate and with what Coronado and others viewed as a thin portfolio of scholarly publication?
“It wasn’t because the guy was military,” he said. “That’s not the case at all. … He did incredible leadership working in his roles as ambassador and in Afghanistan. But that has little to do with running a research institute.”
Jacqueline Stevens, a political science professor, said it is essential for the institute’s leader to have a Ph.D. “It’s just all backwards, for somebody in that position to be calling shots when it comes to hiring scholars,” she said. She said she also was suspicious of why Northwestern would not release a formal curriculum vitae, or CV, for Eikenberry. (Asked about this, Eikenberry pointed to his biography page on a Stanford website.)
On Feb. 9, the critics went public with a letter published in the Daily Northwestern student newspaper.
“As faculty who are deeply committed to academic integrity, we believe that it would be irresponsible to remain silent while the University’s core mission of independent research and teaching becomes identified with U.S. military and foreign policy,” said the letter, which Coronado and 45 other professors signed. They were a small fraction of the 3,300 members of the university’s full-time faculty.
Schapiro and Provost Daniel Linzer responded with a letter the next day strongly backing their choice.
“Among the finalists, and consistent with our goal for this new position, Karl stood out in his global engagement and visibility; access to a broad array of scholars, government officials and world leaders; and ability to integrate the diverse backgrounds and viewpoints of the military, diplomatic corps, and academia,” Schapiro and Linzer wrote.
Eikenberry had bought a house in Winnetka, a Chicago suburb, getting ready to move from Northern California. But the debate continued. The Faculty Senate discussed the issue in March and then voted 30 to 5 on April 6 to support the appointment, according to the Daily Northwestern. There were nine abstentions. Opponents called that vote a “travesty,” saying they were given little advance notice.
Also in April, Stevens criticized a visit Eikenberry had made to a Rwandan defense college in early 2015, saying his reported praise of the Rwandan government and military during the appearance ignored “assassinations and civil rights abuses” in the African nation.
Eikenberry told The Post that he spoke at the invitation of the Rwandan defense ministry to a group of military officers and police officials from several nations on national security decision-making, civil-military relations and other topics. He said he received an honorarium of $1,120. He acknowledged that Rwanda’s current government has faced criticism over human rights violations, restrictions on political activity and extrajudicial murders, but he said the country has made impressive strides since the genocide of 1994. “To not engage with a state because it is flawed is not a wise precept,” he said.
Eikenberry said he withdrew on April 13, telling Northwestern officials the conditions weren’t right to take the position. He told The Post he is a stout advocate of the humanities, noting that he is a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. “I have spoken extensively across the United States and in the United Kingdom, expressing concern over the waning support for the arts and humanities in the United States,” he said.
Northwestern declined to comment on what lessons it drew from the derailed appointment.
What lessons did Eikenberry draw?
“When people are uncertain about their organization’s future, and conclude that they are not being consulted, they assume the worst and withhold their support,” he said. “This is widely known — not only by change management specialists – but to most who work in the world of institutions. Still, it is surprisingly easy to overlook.”
[Clarification: A previous version of this story reported that Northwestern professor Jacqueline Stevens criticized retired Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry’s appearance in Rwanda in early 2015. Stevens said her criticism focused on what Eikenberry said about Rwanda, not the fact that he made the visit. This version has been updated.]