Former Fulbright scholars are not the type to shy away from a fight. Their ranks include dozens of Nobel and Pulitzer prizewinners, geniuses recognized as MacArthur Foundation fellows, and almost 60 foreign Fulbrights who went on to become heads of state.
Now, the program’s funding is facing what its alumni association calls an existential threat from a 47 percent cut proposed by the Trump administration, one of many sharp reductions in the State Department budget. And over 100,000 former Fulbright scholars, among them several members of Congress, are being asked to lobby for not only full funding but also a small increase.
“A 47% cut would devastate the Fulbright Program, forcing the elimination of many grants and damaging our relationships with host countries,” says the appeal, which also asks alumni to take to social media using the hashtag #StandForFulbright. “The program as you know it, which changed your life and makes the world safer and more peaceful, would be diminished beyond recognition.”
The Fulbright alumni are part of a growing parade of individuals and organizations heading to Capitol Hill in coming weeks to persuade lawmakers to reject the administration’s proposed cuts. Next week, for example, more than 500 leaders in business, retired military, nonprofits and faith groups will urge lawmakers to provide more money for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Few carry the pedigree and credentials of the Fulbright scholars.
The program was the brainchild of Sen. J. William Fulbright, who proposed it in the wake of World War II as an expression of the U.S. commitment to democratic values and soft power.
“It is a modest program with an immodest aim — the achievement in international affairs of a regime more civilized, rational and humane than the empty system of power of the past,” he said of the program, signed into law by President Harry S. Truman in 1946.
Over the past seven decades, 370,000 people from 165 countries have received Fulbrights to study abroad, both Americans going overseas and foreigners coming to U.S. universities.
During the current budget year, the U.S. government has provided a little more than $235 million to finance study abroad for about 8,000 scholars. The Trump administration wants to slash that to $125 million — less money than other governments, universities and businesses contribute separately. The Fulbright Association wants it increased to $240 million.
“We’re dismayed,” said John Bader, executive director of the Fulbright Association, predicting the economic impact would be immediate. “People will lose jobs, people will be hurt, and American universities will suffer. Because suddenly the scholars they were expecting to come to town won’t.”
Previous administrations have tried to pare back the Fulbright budget but never succeeded, in large part because it enjoys broad bipartisan support in Congress.
“President Trump’s budget is a blueprint,” said a statement by Sen. John Boozman, a Republican from Fulbright’s home state of Arkansas who supported a funding increase the program received this year. “Congress has the power of the purse and I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Budget and Appropriations Committees as the FY18 process gets underway.”
Among the more effective lobbyists for the Fulbrights are the three members of Congress who themselves are alumni.
“The symbolism of what the Fulbright program has meant over many years, decades now, is something we need to hold on to and preserve,” said Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who studied law and politics in Greece on a Fulbright scholarship and signed a letter urging House appropriators to keep its funding strong.
“One of the important ways of exercising soft power is public diplomacy. Within the public diplomacy realm, you can’t find a program that is more critical, more successful or more respected than the Fulbright Program.”