A Victory for Academic Freedom!

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of the controversy surrounding the decision last November by the Board of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies to reject a proposed fellowship program named for the prominent scholar Stephen F. Cohen and his late mentor and friend Robert C. Tucker, apparently because of Cohen’s views on Russian-Ukrainian relations and U.S. foreign policy.  (My previous posts on this may be found here, here and here.)  On Wednesday, the ASEEES Board issued the following statement, which is self-explanatory:

As announced on March 18, 2015, in accordance with its by-laws, the Board of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) held a special meeting on May 11, 2015 at which it reviewed representations from the membership relating to the Stephen F. Cohen – Robert C. Tucker Fellowship matter. These included the February 5, 2015 letter signed by Professor David Ransel and 121 other members of ASEEES and other scholars, comments sent by members to the ASEEES officers, and comments posted using two online forms. Over 150 communications were received. A substantial majority of these favored acceptance of the Cohen-Tucker Fellowships program, if the Kat Foundation were to re-offer the gift. Among the arguments made were that graduate students urgently needed funding and that Professor Cohen’s political views, while controversial with some, had nothing directly to do with the program proposal.  A minority, however, continued to express support for the initial decisions of the Board in November 2014 and argued against revisiting them at this time.

At the start of the meeting, the Board voted to remove from the Gift Acceptance Policy the clause requiring that all discussions of prospective donations be held in executive session. The original decision to include this in the Policy was made in good faith, so that those participating in a potentially sensitive discussion could feel comfortable about voicing their views.  The Board will continue to respect the confidentiality granted to its members who were present for that earlier discussion in November 2014. However, for the sake of transparency of Board actions and based on advice from legal counsel, the Board voted to amend the Gift Acceptance Policy. Accordingly, the special meeting was subject to ordinary minuting procedures and we draw here on the meeting minutes.

The Board began its discussion of the ASEEES members’ representations by affirming the non-political status of the Association. We acknowledged the challenges of remaining non-political when the region that we study is beset by political, and even military, conflict, but we also recognized that it is essential ASEEES be a community of tolerance and pluralism, where views with which some or many do not agree may be discussed in a collegial atmosphere. Considering the totality of the circumstances, the Board voted, by a substantial majority, to express its regret for the resolution made at the November 20, 2014 meeting to request that the donors consider a name change to the fellowship. In a second vote, the Board resolved by nearly unanimous majority to express its commitment to accept the Cohen-Tucker Fellowship as named, should the gift be re-offered. In a third vote, the Board resolved to return to the donors and inform them that, if they would be willing to re-offer the fellowship gift, ASEEES will agree to accept the August 2014 agreement with the proviso that ASEEES would have sole control over the naming of the selection committee. This resolution was also passed by nearly unanimous majority.

We wish to emphasize our respect for the views expressed by a minority of the Board and of the membership who chose to disagree with the proposal to try again to implement the fellowship program. These views were fully expressed and carefully weighed in our discussion and in the process by which we came to a decision.  Some members of the Board expressed their reservations about Professor Cohen’s views on contemporary Russia and Ukraine, while lauding his contributions to Soviet/Russian studies, and some were concerned that in the context of today’s geopolitical situation, a decision to revisit the Cohen-Tucker Fellowship offer might make certain members of ASEEES feel unwelcome.  However, all Board members expressed commitment to the principles of academic freedom and pluralism.  The Board recognized the donors’ generosity and commitment to support graduate students, whose need for research funding is indisputable. The Board was deeply impressed by the argument for that support in the members’ representations.  Overall, we have valued the process of discussion within the Board and with the membership at large and are satisfied that the decisions of the Board have been taken in a manner fully consistent with the Association’s mission and by-laws.

While the original action of the Board was not technically a violation of the principles of academic freedom as developed and defended by the AAUP since 1915, it was certainly a violation of the spirit of those principles.  Defenders of academic freedom and all scholars, especially scholars in Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, owe a debt of gratitude to Professor Cohen and his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, for their willingness to stand firm on principle.  A debt of gratitude is also owed to Professor David Ransel, who initiated and circulated a powerful statement against the original board decision, eventually signed by nearly 150 scholars in the field.

One thought on “A Victory for Academic Freedom!

  1. Pingback: ASEEES Announces Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Research Fellowship Program | The Academe Blog

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