The Board of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies on Tuesday released a “detailed clarification” of its controversial decision to reject an offer by Professor Stephen F. Cohen, his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, and the KAT Foundation to fund a dissertation research fellowship program named for Cohen and his late mentor, Robert C. Tucker, which expands on a previously issued briefer clarification. In essence the Board offers three explanations for its decision to reject a contract previously prepared by the association’s executive director and approved unanimously by its executive committee.
1) The clarification notes concerns about the Association’s lack of a formal gift acceptance policy. Surely it is good practice for organizations like ASEEES to have such a policy, although the lack of one did not stand in the way of accepting previous gifts, including acceptance of a gift from the KAT Foundation that presently funds a Cohen-Tucker dissertation prize. The clarification notes that such a policy was prepared and approved by the Board in November at an open and public meeting. What is not mentioned, however, is that the membership was not informed about this issue in advance nor was it ever clearly indicated that adoption of this policy was prompted by the controversy over the proposed Cohen-Tucker fellowship program. In light of that information, some members have since raised significant questions about some of the content of the policy, which hopefully will be addressed in the future. Nonetheless, a policy is now in place so that neither the lack of one nor the current policy’s content should offer any further obstacle to an agreement to fund the program.
2) The clarification also mentions concern over a stipulation in the contract “that final approval of the Selection Committee would be made jointly by the KAT Foundation and ASEEES.” This is a legitimate issue, to be sure. In general it is not advisable, and may be a violation of academic freedom, for donors to unduly influence, even indirectly, the selection of scholars to benefit from their donations. However, the clarification fails to reveal that this provision had initially been in the contract prepared by ASEEES and offered to the Foundation. More important, the clarification does not mention that when Cohen and vanden Heuvel were asked if they were willing to eliminate this provision they readily agreed to do so.
3) This leaves the final concern, which has all along been the central issue here. As the clarification puts it, some board members “considered that we should not proceed so rapidly at an exceptionally tense time in our region with a named gift that could potentially generate divisions in our Association.” And as if it were not clear enough that the sole remaining issue is the simple use of Professor Cohen’s name, apparently controversial because of his views on Russian-Ukrainian relations and U.S. foreign policy, the clarification explains that after the November board meeting the President and Executive Director were asked to “enquire whether it was possible to remove the clause suggesting any involvement of the KAT Foundation in selecting committee members and to rename the fellowship program in a way with which the donors would be fully comfortable.” As previously mentioned, Professor Cohen and his wife quickly agreed to the former condition, but the clarification does not acknowledge that the only alternative names for the program deemed acceptable involved the removal of any reference to Stephen Cohen.
The irony, of course, is that the “divisions in our Association” feared by the Board are exactly what have emerged in the wake of their actions. Had the Board simply agreed to include Cohen’s name on the fellowships, the agreement would surely have been revived and the Association could maintain its longstanding neutrality on the many political and other disagreements that necessarily engage its members. Having declined to accept Cohen’s name, however, the Board has in effect taken sides in a political debate for which it should instead be providing a neutral scholarly forum.
The detailed clarification offers members of the Association an opportunity to submit comments, and I would encourage them to do so. More important, there still remains, I believe, an opportunity for the situation to be corrected. The Board should reach out once again to Cohen and vanden Heuvel, thank them for their generosity, and invite them to resubmit their offer for a program to be named in honor of Professors Cohen and Tucker.