In Background, Russia

By Hank Reichman, published on The Academe Blog, Jan. 30, 2015

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.

Professor Stephen Cohen

Professor Stephen Cohen

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”.



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