The Fulbright program: Too remarkable to be cut



The greatest international-exchange program for students and scholars in the world, the Fulbright Program, is in danger. President Obama’s proposed budget calls for cuts of more than $30-million in the program, seriously harming its ability to fulfill its critical international mission of peace through education. I believe everyone in higher education has a duty to oppose any decrease in resources for this cost-effective and highly valuable program.

At this point, it’s unclear where the proposed cuts would be made. What is clear is that $30-million is a substantial sum of money, and cutting it would very likely affect thousands of potential Fulbright scholars and students, either eliminating their scholarship opportunities altogether, or drastically shortening the length of their study abroad. It could also damage relations with participating countries, which contribute more than $80-million to the program and may feel compelled to make a similar financial retreat.

The Fulbright Program was conceived in 1945 by Sen. J. William Fulbright after careful consideration of the wreckage wrought by World War II. The United States and the Soviet Union were already inching toward the Cold War. Senator Fulbright recognized that the United States was not an island and that international cooperation and understanding were essential to our prosperity as a nation—indeed, to the prosperity of all nations. He knew that you did not make war on your friends, and the more interwoven nations became, the greater the likelihood of peace. As Senator Fulbright himself said, “In the long course of history, having people who understand your thought is much greater security than another submarine.”

The number and caliber of participants in the Fulbright Program—more than 325,000 since it started—have been impressive. These participants include 122,800 from the United States and 202,600 from other countries. The Fulbright Program now sends American students and scholars across the globe to do research, provide technical assistance, and serve as English teaching assistants, usually in underserved communities with limited access to native speakers of English. At the same time, thousands of undergraduate and graduate students from more than 155 countries enter colleges and universities across the United States every year.

The alumni of the program are remarkable, not only because of their commitment to international understanding but also because of their accomplishments beyond the program itself. So far, 53 participants from 13 countries have won the Nobel Prize, 28 have received John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowships, 80 have received the Pulitzer Prize, and 29 have served as heads of state or government. Clearly, the program serves as a proving ground for leaders, thinkers, scholars, and other drivers of global progress.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have both a professional and personal stake in this program. Senator Fulbright was a previous president of the University of Arkansas, and our college of arts and sciences proudly bears his name. The generous spirit of Senator Fulbright resides at the core of our study abroad and sponsored student programs. I also had the good fortune to be a Fulbright scholar in Oxford, England, in the early 1990s—a life-enriching opportunity for which I am deeply grateful, and an experience I am committed to providing others. Whether our American students pursue a Fulbright scholarship abroad, or an international student comes to the United States, it is the opportunity of a lifetime.

There are more than 325,000 stories to tell in favor of the program, but what immediately comes to mind are the Indonesian graduate students who came to U.S. universities on Fulbright scholarships following the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 173,000 people in the province of Aceh. Former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush championed the program, and they were instrumental in raising the millions of dollars needed to support these 75 students. Presidents Bush and Clinton realized that a full relief effort for Aceh would involve much more than rebuilding roads and bridges—lost human and social capital would need to be rebuilt as well. Education would be critical for the future of the tsunami survivors. Fortunately, the Fulbright International Exchange Program, in association with the Institute of International Education, provided a pre-existing framework for the administration of this new program. It has had an enormous impact on the lives of the participating students, recently chronicled in the documentary After the Tsunami.

I fear that decreasing funding for this successful and prominent program would send the wrong message to the international community, reducing the tremendous work that these scholars are accomplishing around the world. And I firmly believe that mutual understanding, like that engendered by the Fulbright Program, must remain at the core of our nation’s efforts to create a safer world.

Author Bio: G. David Gearhart is chancellor of the University of Arkansas.