Center for Strategic Communication

Sound the alarm.  Call the troops to the battlefield of the annual budget wars currently underway in Washington. Here’s just one example: a poignant but less than fully historically accurate plea by a journalist on the program’s behalf. This year the venerable Fulbright program for academics and scholars is under threat of a 13% cut from Congress.  How can such a dramatic reduction be endured?

Chances are good that there will be a reduction of funds for the program but not by 13 percent because, you see, the Fulbright program benefits American scholars and students as well as foreign ones. American Fulbright alumni, their universities, the Board of Foreign Scholarships, the overseas Commissions, and IIE, the agency that operates the program under contract to the State Department here in the US, are being summoned to sound the clarion call to lobby Congress on the program’s behalf. 

The Key to Roll-Back

This US government supported program is one of the few international exchanges of people with dedicated and appreciative American alumni who can be reliably called upon to defend it before Congress time and time again. They are articulate, involved and concerned citizens. They also vote.

Yet a 13% cut, is not draconian – despite what its staunch program defenders argue.  The program has suffered far worse cuts in the past and survived – including a reduction of 28% in FY 1996 – after the US had decided that history had ended, it didn’t need to engage publics abroad, educate its own citizens about the world beyond its borders, or even have an agency that effectively administered US information and cultural programs overseas.

I remember it too well because I was Branch Chief for European Academic Exchanges in the then US Information Agency at the time. Not only was the European budget for Fulbright by far the largest Fulbright program budget in the world but European governments – especially, but not just Germany – were the most responsive in supporting the program with their own public and private sector funds – as I would guess and hope they still are.

Since far more Americans would prefer a Fulbright experience in Europe and European governments are the most financially and administratively supportive, it’s no surprise then that the European program has had by far the largest staff as well as budget for years.  I suspect that’s still the case.

The problem is, however, that as much as I support the Fulbright program, one that I defended and administered in the US and overseas throughout my 27 plus year Foreign Service career – particularly since Fulbright is a real exchange (not just a one way program for foreigners to come to the US and spend a few weeks touring the country and meeting their counterparts) – there are other factors that need to be considered and questions that need to be asked and answered in the context of the international exchanges budget in the bureau as a whole.

Let’s not forget that since 9/11, the budget for State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs (ECA) has increased substantially more than just making up for the draconian cuts of the 1990s.

Now as the federal budget is again in a period of decline, what percentage of that decline affects the ECA bureau’s entire budget (don’t panic it’s been firewalled off from the overall State Department budget so funds from the Fulbright program cannot be diverted for use elsewhere in the department – or if that is happening just let me know and I too will sign the petition)?  Assuming, however, this is not the case, I would like to know whether Fulbright is being unduly penalized to cover increases in other ECA programs.   And if so why and which ones are among the more favored?

What is an exchange program:  one way or two?

I also support international youth exchanges which, for my money, are more cost effective and just as influential as Fulbright.  I think youth exchange should equally benefit American youth as well as foreigners – although with the exception of the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (which I worked on in its formative years and which exchanges American and German youth for an academic year of study and family stays in each other’s countries) – have not benefited American teens as much as they should have because the emphasis for all but CBYX especially since the take-over of the Bureau by the State Department has been on bringing foreigners here – not also helping to send American teens to study and live with host families abroad. 

The numbers I’ve seen are terribly lopsided when, in my view, they should be roughly equal.  Let’s face it, far too few Americans have the foggiest idea of where Ukraine is – as a for example.  Yet there’s a major crisis bewing there as I write this. In 2004, way too many American university students couldn’t distinguish between Iran and Iraq on a map of the Middle East at the time of the ill-fated US invasion of the latter a decade ago.

So before I would even consider lobbying in support of any of my favorite international exchange programs administered by the State Department’s contract agencies including Fulbright, I’d like answers to those questions and others. I’d also like to see a proposal that mandates a better balance between US government support between one-way only  “exchanges” to exchange programs that benefit Americans too.

It is our taxes that support these programs after all.   If a better balance were to happen, then the Fulbright program would be financially secure for years.  Moreover, we would also increase the number of better educated citizens who have not only lived, studied and/or worked abroad but could also find Russia on a world map.