It was with great dismay that I heard the news today that the US Department of Education has cancelled the 2011 competition for the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad program. In a terse statement on its website, DoE announced that no new awards would be granted this cycle because its expected $5.8M budget was simply not forthcoming. There are PhD candidates around the country whose hearts have just sunk through the floor, as if the rest of academic news isn’t depressing enough.
Many people don’t know what the Fulbright-Hays program is, and confuse it with the more popular Fulbright program run by the State Department. The Hays provides fantastic funding for dissertation research in understudied areas of the world, thus excluding North America and Europe. The program has typically funded 10-20 graduate students per hemisphere per year for pure dissertation research in the humanities and social sciences. The intention of the program, which dates from the Cold War, is to improve our understanding of area studies, conceived broadly.
Ten years ago, as newly minted ABD, I applied for and eventually won a Fulbright-Hays for my dissertation research in Quito, Ecuador. It was a career changing moment for me personally. I was able to spend 10 solid months working in the National Archive of Ecuador in 2002 and 2003. Because of that period, I was able to write a dissertation that helped me get my current job at the University of Tennessee, publish my first book, and hopefully next year get tenure. Fulbright-Hays paid a living wage for that work too, unlike my colleagues who were in Ecuador on a traditional Fulbright. The difference was on the order of thousands of dollars across the academic year.
But of course, Fulbright-Hays isn’t simply about the individual careers of its recipients. It has been, for example, the only nationally competitive funding source that I know of that will support research in Cuba, which it did for a grad school colleague of mine. If you work in historical and social scientific literatures on Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, or Latin America, and you read acknowledgements when you read a book, I guarantee you that a significant portion of the really good work out there will acknowledge this program. Much of this work is on contemporary issues as well, and provides the specialist knowledge needed to confront the complex historical processes that face our world today. Rather than confront our challenges in Asia (be it China’s economic ascendency or the mess around the Khyber Pass), Africa (from the AID’s crisis to endemic poverty and underdevelopment), Eastern Europe (and, say, challenges to nuclear security and social stability in former Soviet satellite states), and Latin America (where some of our leaders fear, but don’t understand, the “pink tide”) with the big stick foreign policy of the past decade, why not go for more understanding.
The budget that DoE was hoping for to fund the program in its current cycle represents just 0.00015% of the total federal budget proffered by Obama for 2011. Do we value knowledge and understanding that little?
Christine Beresniova has links to a few possible avenues of action on this front at the bottom of her post here. I would encourage you to consider expressing some outrage. This is part of a whole series of much larger problems in our social commitment to higher education. Above all, it depresses me more than it does anything else.