Why Canceling Fulbright-Hays Matters

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The first responses to the announcement that the Fulbright-Hays program is cancelled have come from “area studies” scholars who have benefited–or hoped to benefit–from the program. This is understandable, since American researchers who need to work abroad are the most directly affected. But all scholars–and US residents–have a stake in this decision.

According to a post on H-Asia, the Ohio State University is collecting statements from faculty that will be passed on through the University’s government affairs office. In private emails and on Facebook, established scholars and grad students have acknowledged the utility of the DDRA program, and lamented its sudden departure for this year. But so far I haven’t seen much public comment, beyond this post, and an eloquent post on China Beat, in which Maura Cunningham makes the point that we can ill afford to lose area studies specialists at this geopolitical moment.

“By not providing the funding necessary to support this year’s crop of applicants, the government is implying that such work isn’t important, that we can exist in a global community but don’t need to understand it.”

This year’s cancellation is devastating to the research plans of a particular cohort of graduate students. Cruel as it is, the loss of one year of research will not cripple a field. But if the program is suspended for several years, or indefinitely, then scholarship that requires specific language training and long in-country research will be restricted to private universities with endowments to support such research.

I trained at a public university, and benefited from the Fulbright-Hays DDRA program for a year of work split between South Africa and the Netherlands, a trajectory I could not have self-financed, and that would not have been possible only with the support of the African Studies Center at UCLA. My research—and more importantly, my teaching of hundreds of undergraduates a year at a public university—would not be possible without the foundation I received in a year of overseas research as a graduate student.

While it is unlikely we can affect the decision to suspend the Fulbright-Hays program for 2011, concerned scholars need to let decision-makers in Washington know that this funding is crucial for what we do now as teachers and researchers, for how we can educate graduate students, and how we can effectively teach undergrads—who deserve to learn about places outside the US from people with a deep first-hand understanding of other cultures. Without ongoing new research, the significant body of knowledge created from the rich history of Fulbright-Hays grants will soon be out of date, and we will have no way to know it.

Urge your university to make a response. Contact your campus Fulbright-Hays coordinator and ask him or her to object (and to contact this year’s applicants so they don’t hear this news through the grapevine first). Write to your congressional representative and senators, letting them know there is a constituency for informed study and teaching about the world beyond America’s shores.

The global financial crisis is real, and its consequences grave. It should not, however, be reason for the US government to retreat from global engagement.

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