Thirty million dollars. Less than 10 cents for every person in America. That is how much President Obama’s new budget cuts from the Fulbright Scholars Program, the globally recognized international education program launched by Senator J. William Fulbright and President Harry Truman nearly 70 years ago in 1946. In all that time, the program has never faced a cut in funding like it confronts today. Unless scholars and citizens pressure their elected leaders, more than ten percent of the funding for the Fulbright program simply goes away.
Why should we care? For academics, I hardly need to make the case. The Fulbright program is the largest and most prestigious program of its kind in the world. It provides a priceless opportunity for academics and scholars from the United States to teach and do research in other countries. It also brings foreign scholars and academics here to the United States, enriching the teaching and research of the institutions they visit. The benefits for social and political scientists are crystal clear. For IR and Comparative Politics scholars, direct observation of how other polities and societies operate is often critical to theoretical breakthroughs and empirical research. Even for political theorists and scholars of American politics, the opportunity to interact directly with scholars from other countries holds the promise of richer ideas about political processes both generally and specific to the United States.
The Fulbright program is conscientiously meritocratic and egalitarian. Thus, scholars from across the United States and around the world have a fair shot at receiving an award. That means that Jamaine Abidogun from Missouri State University can travel to Nigeria to do research on women’s rights and education in Nigeria. Helena Addae from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater can travel to Ghana to do research on organizational behavior in Sub-Saharan Africa. Eileen Cashman from Humboldt State University can research the feasibility of small hydroelectric energy projects in Brazil. It means you do not have to be a big fish at a hyper-elite university to make a contribution to our shared understanding of how the world works.
What about the public, whose taxpayer dollars fund a large part of the program (but not all of it—the United States receives funds from private organizations as well as partner countries to the tune of a combined $100 million per year)? The case there is, if anything, easier to make. The Fulbright Scholars Program is a fundamental piece of America’s higher education infrastructure. Universities and colleges in the United States are in a sense America’s think tanks. They work to build foundational knowledge to help our society and our policymakers to understand the operation and complexity of the physical and social worlds and address the ever-changing challenges that arise out of that complexity. Unlike Washington D.C. think tanks, however, America’s think tanks do not have a political agenda; they are in service not to particular politicians or special interests but rather to Americans past, present, and future. The Fulbright program provides a critical opportunity for our collective braintrust to build the intellectual capital upon which our society relies.
Our colleges and universities are more than think tanks though. Because the faculty members teach, they thereby share their knowledge with the next generations of Americans and build toward a better future. The Fulbright scholars program is thus central to everything colleges and universities do for our society. It supports faculty from all over the U.S.—red states, blue states, and states in between—to travel abroad in an effort to build connections with other societies and bring those connections and experiences home to their students and communities. It also brings the world into the classrooms of our children by funding the research and teaching of scholars from other societies visiting American colleges and universities. And as I mentioned before, the Fulbright enriches the entire United States, from small colleges to regional universities to nationally recognized research institutions. It brings and sends scholars from across the intellectual spectrum, from business to biology, into our communities and out into the world. You do not have to take my word for it; go look for yourself at Fulbright’s Web site. In very many ways, the Fulbright program embodies the United States: an ambitious, diverse, globally connected program aimed at moving forward and at the forefront of taking on the difficult challenges that our societies and the world faces. And so preserving the Fulbright program is in a sense preserving who we are as Americans in the 21st century.
I speak on the subject as more than just a disinterested observer. Two years ago I received a Fulbright Award to travel with a small group of American colleagues to Europe in an effort to understand the social glue that binds Europeans together. I cannot say we figured out the answers to all the questions we were asking, but I can say that I came back with ideas that continue to push forward my research and inform my teaching. Specifically, I have developed insights on the role of neoliberal economic norms in shaping European Union policy on integration, particularly the reliance of European elites on economic processes as a basis for building a European community. The fraying of the community in the Euro Crisis suggests that—contrary to neofunctionalist theory—economic integration does not provide a sound basis for building a political community. It leaves aside elements of identity that are crucial for building a sense of shared community. This line of thought has larger ramifications, notably with regard to the pacific effect of economic interdependence. Some of these ideas have appeared in a special forum in German Studies Review and form the basis of a longer article project exploring the construction (or lack thereof) of shared identity in Europe.
What I saw on my Fulbright also reinforced for me the importance of identity in shaping dynamics between states, a subject I address in my recent book, “Constructing National Security”. All of this means I can talk to my students about Europe now in a way I could not before, imparting ideas and raising questions that they will carry with them as they venture out into their lives and the world. My wife, Janelle Knox-Hayes, has also been chosen for a Fulbright award, allowing her to research and teach in Iceland as part of her work on understanding how societies around the world manage the environmental impact of modern economic systems. I can think of no more pressing issue for Americans or the world as we contemplate the long-term viability of our way of life. Fulbright makes that possible. I hope you will join me in telling the Obama administration and members of Congress that the Fulbright program represents an American ideal, and to preserve its funding. I close with how Senator Fulbright himself described the program that carries his name:
“The Fulbright Program aims to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.”