Why Save the Fulbright Program?
I began this blog in September 2012 as a way of keeping family and friends informed during my four-month stay in Lisbon, Portugal, where my husband had a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship. Were it not for this generous Fulbright grant, two-thirds of which was paid for by Portugal and the European Union, I would have never learned Portuguese, translated songs by Portuguese and Brazilian musicians for “Los Vientos del Pueblo” and a beautiful picture book due out next year from Enchanted Lion Press, or written a series of blog pieces that people traveling to Portugal have found entertaining and useful.
Occasionally, I’ve used this blog to call for action–for instance, to write public officials in New York City to ensure adequate funding for public libraries, and to urge readers to bypass the corporate hype and give small press published books a chance. This is another of those posts, as I call on readers to support the funding and independence of the Fulbright academic exchange programs.
The Obama administration has sent a budget to Congress that calls on a cut of $30 million dollars to the Fulbright program as well as a redirection of the program’s focus to Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Although the Fulbright program is slated for cutback, the entire budget for international academic exchanges is not; in fact, the administration wants an overall increase of 1.6%.
The issue is one of control. The administration wants to give additional money to programs under the direct control of the State Department and USAID (United States Agency for International Development, under the auspices of the State Department). The remaining Fulbright monies may be similarly earmarked, as the administration envisions a Fulbright University in Vietnam, a Young South-East Asian Leaders Initiative, and a Young African Leaders Initiative. As established in 1946 and reaffirmed in 1961, the Fulbright was designed to be independent of political parties and whims, receiving funding from both the U.S. government and governments abroad in varying ratios (the European governments paying the largest share for their programs), and governed by an independent Board of Directors. Earmarking funds threatens this independence, while cutting the Fulbright in favor of other State Department academic exchanges weakens this respected independent program.
It is important to have a program like the Fulbright that doesn’t take orders from the administration in power for a variety of reasons, including continuity and a buffer against corruption and ideological manipulation. A university committed to academic freedom in Vietnam and young leaders programs in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are also laudable aims. However, it is hard not to be suspicious of U.S. government-directed programs because in past decades the U.S. government has supported regimes abroad that crushed freedom of expression and carried out genocide.
In addition, while programs with limited aims and quantifiable goals are useful, so are more open-ended programs like the Fulbright (or the Peace Corps), where the benefits may be unexpected and far-reaching. I am not, technically, a Fulbright alumna, though I have considered applying for the English Language Assistant program that is now slated to be cut. (When I was in Portugal, the English Language Assistant, a bright and eager young ESL teacher from Minnesota taught Portuguese university students who were hoping to become professional translators, where they might benefit a variety of U.S. businesses.) However, the Fulbright program has benefited me and helped me to provide useful information to travelers, educators, and their students.
What can you do? Some folks involved with the Fulbright program in Austria have created a short PDF of action plans, based on whether you are a Fulbright alum from the U.S. or from another country, or are considering applying to the program. The deadline for contacting your Senator or Representative (if you’re in the U.S.) or the U.S. ambassador in your country (if you’re a citizen of another country) is April 4. And to make things even easier, some Fulbright alumni have put up an online petition here. Let’s make sure other people can continue to take advantage of this worthwhile program!