The Troubling Case of Professor Stephen Cohen and the American Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies

Recently considerable attention has been paid on this blog and elsewhere to potential threats to academic freedom posed by the undue influence of outside donors on scholarship.  One thinks immediately, of course, of efforts by the Koch brothers at Florida State and elsewhere to fund academic positions that reflect their personal ideology and of the possible impact of donors on the University of Illinois’s decision to summarily dismiss Professor Steven Salaita.  But yesterday an article in the New York Times made public a quite different sort of donor controversy that has been brewing in the American Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), which also has quite troubling implications for academic freedom.

Stephen F. Cohen is a respected senior scholar of Soviet history and politics, having taught for most of his career at Princeton and New York Universities.  He is the author of several books, including a pathbreaking biography of Nikolai Bukharin, that have arguably been critical to shaping the field of Soviet studies over the past several decades.  He is also married to Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation magazine.  For several years vanden Heuvel’s KAT Charitable Foundation has funded, under ASEEES auspices, an annual dissertation award named for Cohen and his mentor and friend, the late political scientist and Stalin biographer Robert C. Tucker.  In the wake of serious cutbacks in government and private funding available for research in Russian and Soviet studies, especially the 2013 termination by the State Department of Title VIII funding for graduate student research in Russia, Cohen and vanden Heuvel entered into discussions with ASEEES Executive Director Lynda Park about potentially funding an additional program to support doctoral research in the field.

Last August, the three reached agreement on a contract committing the Foundation to fund, again under ASEEES auspices, six $22,000 doctoral research fellowships a year in Russian historical studies, for at least three years.  The program was to be called “The Stephen F. Cohen-Robert C. Tucker Dissertation Fellowship Program.”  As Cohen has stressed, “the funds were committed without any political conditions or intent.”  For the first three years the funds committed amounted to a total of $413,000.  Moreover, the Foundation agreed to consider an increase in the number of fellowships offered “if the quantity and quality of the applications merit an increase” and to “consider extending or endowing the program.”  The plan was for the program to accept its first applicants this academic year and a selection panel of three highly respected scholars was named.

This was definitely a big deal, an extraordinary investment by a widely respected and renowned senior scholar and his wife in the future of his field, an investment made without any strings attached beyond naming the program for Cohen and Tucker.  And therein lay the problem.  Soon after vanden Heuvel signed the contract on behalf of her Foundation, she and Cohen were informed that some individuals on the 24-member ASEEES Board of Directors objected to the presence of Cohen’s name on the fellowships.  A final decision was postponed until the annual board meeting in November, after which Cohen and vanden Heuvel were told that the board had voted “by a strong majority” to accept the funding as specified in the contract — but only on the condition that Cohen’s name not appear on the fellowships, a decision strangely presented as a “compromise.”

What’s the problem?  Well, Cohen is not only a well-known scholar, he is a prominent public intellectual and commentator on U.S.-Russian relations.  Recently he has criticized in print and on television U.S. and European policy in Ukraine.  This has led some journalists and “pundits” (but few, if any, scholars) to claim that he is “Putin’s American toady,” as The New Republic put it.  He has also been branded an “apologist,” a “useful idiot,” and a “dupe.”

Apparently, this was too much for some members of the ASEEES board.  Cohen has been given only a cursory description of the discussion in the board and the ASEEES membership has been told nothing so far.  (I am a member of the Association and only learned of the controversy via the Times article.)  But it seems that several members objected to Cohen’s involvement while others worried “that the announcement of this fellowship program in the current political climate could potentially lead to serious splits within the association.”

“It’s no secret that there were swirling controversies surrounding Professor Cohen,” outgoing ASEEES President Stephen Hanson, the vice provost for international affairs at the College of William and Mary, told the Times. “In that context, consulting with a wider community of scholars was the prudent thing to do.”  When informed that the naming issue would be discussed by the Board, Cohen “protested the intolerant politics involved” in the decision.  He also “objected to having my public commentary, my role as a citizen, in effect tried and judged at a Board meeting.”  Nonetheless, Cohen held out hope that the board discussion might go in his favor.  Only after he and vanden Heuvel were offered the phony “compromise” did they finally withdraw from the agreement.

To be blunt, this decision is simply an outrage.  Stephen Cohen is not only a respected scholar, he is a lifelong supporter of progressive change in both the U.S. and Russia.  As a letter circulating in his support (about which more shortly) notes, “he has defended Soviet dissidents, encouraged and advised Mikhail Gorbachev on his world-altering reforms, and offered thoughtful commentaries on post-Soviet developments, based on his deep knowledge of Russia.”  Moreover, while Cohen’s current views on Ukraine may be controversial, they are a logical extension of the compelling critique of U.S. policy toward Russia that he has been making for more than two decades.  And I might add it is a critique well worth heeding.  As Georgetown University historian Michael David-Fox told the Times, “I don’t agree with many of Cohen’s recent positions on Ukraine,  [but] it’s precisely because he is in a minority that this is an especially important case.”

In a lengthy and anguished memo to ASEEES leaders and members that has been circulating, but which Cohen prefers not be published, Professor Cohen expressed his “disappointment, anger, and disgust” with the Board ruling as well as his sense of deep personal insult, stressing that the board decision arrogantly dismisses his work of more than forty years as a professor and his many contributions, financial and personal, to the profession and to ASEEES.  The decision, he writes, expresses “political intolerance, a disregard for First Amendment rights and academic freedom, a preference for political orthodoxy (or political correctness) and a recommendation on behalf of (at least) self-censorship.”  As for the threat of “splits” in the organization, Cohen asks, “somewhat rhetorically” whether “the departed Soviet political system bequeath[ed] its fetish for ‘monolithic unity’ to the ASEEES?”

To be sure, a scholarly association, or for that matter a university, has every right to reject donations or to refuse to honor an individual’s request for naming rights.  Certainly, had someone donated money to the study of, say, African-American slavery, but insisted only that it be named for a noted Ku Klux Klan leader, a decision to reject that donation would be understandable.  But such is hardly the case here.  Stephen Cohen has clearly earned the right to place his name on this generous donation.  His views on Ukraine might be relevant were they hateful and bigoted, but they are scholarly and insightful, if controversial.  Indeed, there is no greater evidence of this controversy than that others who have questioned, even mildly, the current neo-Cold War orthodoxy — including such luminaries as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger, hardly Russophiles — have also been labeled appeasers and worse.

And here’s one irony:  it would surely be possible for one of the Cohen-Tucker dissertation awards to go to a student whose research seeks to debunk Cohen’s own views.  And were that the case, I’m certain Cohen would be the last to object.  (Here I might note that my evidence for this contention is that back in 1981 Cohen was on the selection panel and interviewed me for a different fellowship supporting research in the then-Soviet Union.  He probably won’t recall, but we argued at the time over my then-unorthodox views about Lenin.  It even got a bit heated.  But I got the fellowship and never feared that I would be judged by my personal opinions instead of by my scholarship.)

But, one might ask, what’s the big deal about his name?  Couldn’t Cohen just accept the “compromise” of removing his name from the program (but apparently retaining Tucker’s)?  Cohen, however, worries rightfully that the issue is not about him but about the spread of chilling if clumsy efforts to impose a broader orthodoxy, and in his memo recounts troubling reports of younger scholars intimidated from participating in discussions of the issue lest they be threatened.  “I have a family and I don’t want to cause troubles to anyone because of my opinions,” he quotes one young woman who withdrew from a scholarly panel for fear that her “too-sympathetic-to-Russia position” would place her in danger.  Moreover, one has to ask why, if Cohen’s name alone is the issue, ASEEES continues to award the Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Prize?

“It’s an obscenity,” Cohen told the Times. “This wasn’t just about me, or even primarily about me. These people were doing something very, very wrong. If I didn’t withdraw, this would fester and get worse.”

Fortunately, members of ASEEES have begun to speak out.  On January 26, David Ransel, Robert F. Byrnes Professor Emeritus of History at Indiana University and a former editor of the American Historical Review, wrote a blistering letter to ASEEES leaders which declares that the board’s decision “reeks of a censuring of public discourse and should be regarded by all decent people as a profound embarrassment to our association.”

Adds Ransel: “Many of our members express and publish views that others consider deeply flawed, but we do not deny them our respect and the opportunity to participate in the activities of the association or to name prizes.  We argue our different points of view in our publications and at our annual convention and regional conferences.”  Ransel’s letter had already won the endorsement of some 60 prominent figures in the field when it was sent, a number that had grown to 75 as of yesterday evening.  (I proudly added my own endorsement yesterday as well.)

One final aspect of this controversy should be noted: the secretive nature of the process and vague character of the charges.  Even Cohen does not know how many members of the Board opposed naming the fellowships for him, much less their identities.  And so far the 3,000-odd ASEEES members remain totally in the dark about how and why their Association threw away an extraordinary opportunity to advance research in the field.  As Earl Warren once wrote in a famous academic freedom case, “Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust.”

As Ransel’s letter concludes, ASEEES should reject this “effort to chill critical discourse,” implement the fellowship program “as it was originally established,” and apologize to Cohen and vanden Heuvel by “thanking them both for funding the Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Prize and now the proposed, and sorely needed, fellowships.”




52 thoughts on “The Troubling Case of Professor Stephen Cohen and the American Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies

  1. This case is a good example of an important point: Academic freedom belongs to everyone. It is not just the property of the faculty, but belongs to donors, too. Now, let’s be clear about what this means. If a donor demands ideological control because of a donation, that’s a violation of academic freedom. But if the faculty refuse to accept a donation because of objections to the name of the donor, even when the donor makes no ideological restrictions, this is also a violation of academic freedom. The key issue is that academic judgments, not political judgments, need to be the basis of decision-making.

  2. This is not an intelligent analysis of the situation. Cohen is a reputable scholar, but his writing on current events is not scholarly–rather, it is highly tendentious fact-picking bordering on an open apology for Putin’s territorial aggression and stealth war (Putin had to invade Crimea, he argues, as he was responding to NATO expansion). The quality of ideas in this context DOES matter: The author notes that it would be offensive for an academic society to accept a donation for the study of slavery bearing the name of a klansman.

    • 1) Cohen’s views are reasonable as far as I am concerned. If Cohen does not influence the award of the fellowship, I don’t see a problem.

      2) U.S. reporting on Ukraine has been delinquent. I am glad Cohen has been writing his articles, raising questions that are being ignored.

    • Ben, intelligence, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. What you say about Cohen’s views on Putin is just why academic freedom is so important and makes clear just why no one individual can be the arbitrator (as you try to be) of what is scholarly and what is not. The fact that Cohen is a “reputable scholar,” an opinion based on many, makes it necessary to respect what he says anywhere in relation to his field–and his views on Putin certainly fall into that category. You may disagree with him, and that’s fine, but you cannot dismiss the quality of his ideas simply because you disagree–which is part of the point Reichman is making.

    • Depends where you go to to get your source of information. I would prefer to listen to Professor Cohen’s views because they are backed up with solid evidence and not the ‘highly tendentious fact picking…’ you describe. What you have stated as an opinion, is to put it bluntly, just that – an opinion. Let’s hope you understand that and do not think it is fact. Why do you think the quality of your ideas is better? Because you read the strong propaganda of the Western newspapers? If you in fact undertook scholarly research you too may come to understand Professor’s Cohen’s voice. There are many sources you could go to for information, but you will not find them in main stream media or Jen Pskai’s press conferences.

    • I agree with Ben. I watched Cohen’s performance during the so-called debate with, among others, Gary Kasparov, and Cohen’s pro-appeasement rhetoric was plain all – and it lacked any serious base in scholarship.

      Furthermore, this situation is an example of the rights of any organization to manage its brand, and which in the modern era seems to have devolved into a dynamic where potential donors feel entitled to but and coopt the brand equity of any organization they choose to “contribute” to. There are two critical problems with this dynamic:

      1) Potential donors, in this case Cohen and his wife, act as if they are sampling offering philanthropic support with no strings attached when in fact they are proposing a joint marketing deal where the value of naming rights has been deemed to be worthless (even, if not especially, for tax purposes) when anyone involved in commercial naming rights deals (whether stadiums or the Kennedy Center) knows that there is a fundamental and material economic value to the naming rights. If Cohen is such a pure philanthropist, then he should be willing to make the same donation anonymously as he would requiring free advertising for himself at the expense of an organization’s brand that has far greater value than his own.

      2) In conjunction with the cooption issue above, the source of funds and intents of potential donors is often opaque, and as such naming rights and free media associated with large donations are particularly vulnerable to being exploited for nefarious purposes. The list of “good character references” that have been submitted to criminal courts on behalf of obviously guilty and ultimately convicted criminals who have strategically funded these same supporters with the proceeds of their crimes is longer than Santa’s annual register. This circular dynamic (if not a simple conspiracy), creates a corrupt relationship between purported philanthropic organizations and outright criminals & propagandists who are able (and do) purchase influence in the court of public opinion which is directly transferable to actual criminal courts when necessary.

      In short, Mr. Cohen’s overblown and unfounded sense of entitlement expressed by his own volition is all the evidence necessary to prove that he is not a reliable co-branding partner for ASEEES, and the board of ASEEES clearly acted in support of their obligation to protect the value of the organization which consists largely of its reputation. The fact that the dissertation award in Mr. Cohen’s name is unaffected supports the fact that this is not a case of persecution. That said, if Mr. Cohen’s continued support of Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine and facilitation (if not design) of the persecution of the Tatars in the region further embarrasses ASEEES, the board would be perfectly within its rights and would in fact be obligated to review the status of the dissertation award and remove reference to Cohen if necessary.

      If Putin’s actions around the world are ultimately viewed as comparable to those of Stalin or Hilter, a point which is already reasonably debated today, it would seem self-evident that no public organization would want to be associated with Mr. Cohen regardless of any amount of commendable work he may have completed in the past. As alluded to in the article, no amount of prior good work or reportedly virtuous character can offset truly reprehensible behavior (including acting as a shill for imperialists and war criminals), and in any case, it is the right of every person, corporation, and organization is a free country to decide who they choose to be associated with. In this case, Mr. Cohen has no one but himself to blame.

      • [Please ignore or correct the typos. In any case, I believe that the points are clear.]

    • I think its logical that ASEEES Board of Directors objected to the presence of Dr.Goebbels’s name on the fellowships. Disregarding his past scholarly accomplishments. Its highly commendable that ASEEES Board of Directors took a stand against against fascism while most of the world idly watched indulging itself in hypocrisy.

  3. As John and Aaron point out, whether or not one agrees with Cohen is beside the point. This is about open debate and tolerance of dissent. And it also doesn’t matter whether one deems Cohen’s interventions, either on television or in his many articles for The Nation, to be scholarship, journalism, or advocacy. It would be a sad state of affairs indeed if scholars could only criticize ruling orthodoxies within the cramped cocoon of academia. But for those who are interested in the substance of Cohen’s position, one place to start might be his September 2014 piece in The Nation, “Patriotic Heresy vs. The New Cold War,” which is his only printed reply to his critics. It is here:

  4. If education and academic research requires private donors in order to survive, then academic freedom will only mean the freedom to pursue of scholarship that produces opinions acceptable to private interests. Whether Cohen deserves it or not the heart of the matter, as it is doubtful that the basis of this matter is a philosophical confusion among some members of the ASEEES board.

  5. I would think that the ASEEES has the right, not to mention the academic freedom, to name the fellowships to be made under its auspices. The KAT foundation is free to create and fund fellowships bearing Cohen’s name. But it has no right bestowed by academic freedom to require the ASEEES to do so.

    • The explanation for the ASEEES decision is that Cohen’s views are unacceptable. That is a use of this right to suppress a point of view. How else does censorship work? ASEEES should be fostering discussions, not crushing them.

      I am persuaded by Cohen’s arguments. I may be wrong but ASEEES won’t convince me of this by barring Cohen’s name– from his own scholarship?? Rather this suggests to me that ASEEES is not open to intellectual inquiry and is a mouthpiece for U.S. policy. I honestly wonder how much the U.S. government has infiltrated academia, as it seems to have done with Human Rights Watch and PEN.

      I know the contents of Cohen’s articles are not the issue but we may end up in a war with Russia. The Ukraine policy jeopardizes our relations with Europe. Even with all this we still can’t have a public discussion on this subject.

      • “I honestly wonder how much the U.S. government has infiltrated academia”

        So you are now speculating, without any evidence, that ASEES has been paid off by government agents.

        “Intellectual inquiry”? You just make shit up.

  6. It seems to me the ASEEES rejection raises broader questions about Russia studies then just the fate of Cohen’s fellowship. If a graduate student wants to do research which supports Cohen’s views will this be allowed by his/her department? If a professor who shares Cohen’s views seeks tenure will there be a fair hearing?

  7. The real problem is the impression that Dr. Cohen is trying to buy back his respectability in academic circles by funding dissertation fellowships in his name, much in the same way as the Koch Brothers sponsor PBS programming in order to pose as being more moderate politically than they actually are. If Cohen is truly interested just in scholarship, and not in rehabilitating his own frayed reputation, he should agree not have his name attached to the fellowships. The fact that Cohen, vanden Heuvel and her Foundation are objecting to this idea reveals their true motivations.

    • Comparing Cohen and Koch is a little disingenuous. Cohen is not trying to influence the content of the dissertations that would be funded while the Koch brothers have actually tried to influence the content of what they fund–something they should be welcome to try, but that those who might be accepting the funding should resist. The naming is a vanity we all fall victim to (I would love to see a fellowship named for me–though I’ll probably be struck by lightning first) but it is not something we should object to or even try to change. Give the donor at least that much control.

    • How would the name of this fellowship influence Dr. Cohen’s respectability? Do you have evidence that this is his intention? ASEEES attempt to control the discussion about Ukraine seems to me the real problem and it is part of a larger picture of media distortion. When you state Dr. Cohen has lost respectability do you mean he has committed errors of scholarship or that he has taken an unpopular position?

    • that’s your impression, not the impression that i get. you also make comments that reveal what i see as your “true motivation” which is definitely not about academic freedom, but more towing a particular political point of view and whether one is right or not according to you.

  8. The acronym of the organization bent on slurring Prof. Cohen for his political views should be changed to “ASSES” –SOVIETICUS JR.

    • That’s really clever – does it take a PhD in Russian studies to make that ASSES
      joke? You academics sure do seem very entitled to other people’s money.

      Of course, there is academic freedom but Cohen’s incoherent ramblings do not entitle him to everyone’s ongoing stamp of approval, which is what he is effectively asking.

      Further, I am curious how many commenters here would have been “outraged” enough to write blog entries, if, say, Cohen decided to explore such “topics” as racial differences in IQs or, perhaps, the “Phylosophy and Thought of one A Hitler”.

      There is a current Macquarrie tenure question controversy going on but no one has weighed in on that – the stench of hypocrisy is smugness here is overwhelming.

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  12. I have never known of a more disliked scholar in the field. I don’t believe Ukraine is really the issue, it’s just that Stephen Cohen has very little personal capital left. He has, however, made real and serious contributions to the field, and I don’t know of any criticisms worthy of denying young scholars such generous support. It’s not as though other awards aren’t named after members with dubious track records in politics and sexual misbehavior. The reality is that most of the scholars on the board, I know most of them, have never had to claw and fight for funding in the way that is common today. It’s a shame, like many in the field, they are all-too-willing to close the door and pull up the ladders for the next people on board.

  13. Edgar J. Hoover dream-come-true. Horrid and miserable. A suggestion for Professor Cohen: Move your grant donation to the Association for the Studies of Nationalities.

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