An Interview with Dr. Gordon “Nick” Mueller
by Hannes Richter
Some 30 years ago Dr. Gordon “Nick” Mueller launched the University of New Orleans Summer School at the University of Innsbruck, which contributed significantly to a close cooperation between the universities and cities of Innsbruck and New Orleans. Dr. Mueller, also current President and CEO of the National World War II Museum - one of New Orleans’ main attractions - talked with Austrian Information about the different stations of his career, his current responsibilities in New Orleans two years after Hurricane Katrina and his strong ties with Innsbruck, Austria.
One of the greatest contributions to transatlantic cooperation in the field of education are overseas summer school programs like those you have launched between the University of New Orleans and Innsbruck, Austria. How did your close connection with Austria and Innsbruck in particular begin?
Both my parents were German and emigrated to the U.S., where I was born in 1939. My father was a theologian and church historian. In 1953, he took a sabbatical and went back to Germany and Austria and he took me with him; I was 14 years old at that time, and it was my first time in Innsbruck, Austria. The city and university made an impression at the time. In 1960, I returned to Austria, where I attended the University of Vienna Summer School in Strobl am Wolfgangsee. It was a beautiful setting with famous professors and the intellectual experience was outstanding. It was unusual for Austria, because it was set up as an American summer school, and 50% of the students had to be American. Ultimately, this experience led me to a decision to pursue a Ph.D. in European History, and later as a young professor at the University of New Orleans, that Summer School experience shaped my own vision for a summer school in Austria. So the Vienna Summer School served as a model for the future summer schools I created first in Munich and after 1976 in Innsbruck.
Before that, from 1963 until 1965, I lived and studied in Europe again and ended up working for the public relations department for IBM in Innsbruck. This was the year the Olympic Winter Games were held in Innsbruck. Back then, IBM was a sponsor and the headquarters were located behind the old main building of the University of Innsbruck. And what then was the press headquarter for the Olympics is today the University’s student dorm; the Internationales Studentenhaus. So now you can see why I was already familiar with Innsbruck and Austria. After I started teaching European Diplomatic History at the University of New Orleans in 1969, I began planning for an international summer school in Europe, something similar to what I enjoyed in Strobl am Wolfgangsee.
But the summer school was not originally established in Innsbruck. When did you begin to forge ties between the University of New Orleans and Innsbruck?
When we started the program, Munich was hosting the Olympic Games in 1972, and the name of the city and olympic television coverage was important to our early success. Everybody knew Munich and it became a popular tourist destination. So it was easier to market it as a destination for potential students. In 1976, we moved the University of New Orleans Summer School to the University of Innsbruck and the program became one of the great success stories in international education; more than 8,000 students have participated. Since the early days, we kept formalizing and enlarging the relationship between our two universities. In 1983 I formed an official friendship treaty between the University of New Orleans and the University of Innsbruck with Rektor Andreae. Based on that foundation we have been enjoying a year-round flow of exchanges between the universities, both on the student and faculty level, and those exchanges are now complemented by art exchanges as well. Things really continued to shape up; the Center of Austrian Culture and Commerce at the University of New Orleans was established in 1997 and the Austrian government endowed a million dollar chair in Austrian Studies. As Vice Chancellor and Dean I am very proud to have founded the University of New Orleans Division of International Education and to see the strong relationship between the two universities culminate in a formal Sister City Agreement between New Orleans and Innsbruck. And it all began with the University of Vienna program in 1960 - your country’s educational gift to me. The Innsbruck success story was later followed by new University of New Orleans international education programs in other countries like France, Costa Rica and Italy.
Since you just returned from Innsbruck, can we assume that your ties with Austria remain active?
After over thirty years, you don’t really walk away, even though I am now retired from the University of New Orleans. I was presented with a very nice surprise in 2005 at the 30th anniversary of the cooperation between the Universities of New Orleans and Innsbruck. Tyrol and Innsbruck named a stipend after me, so now every year a student in any discipline can be awarded a “Nick Mueller Fellowship” to come and study at the University of New Orleans for a year. I was very pleased and flattered that Innsbruck Mayor Hilde Zach and Governor Herwig van Staa recognized me with such a meaningful gesture.
Since you retired from the University of New Orleans after a 34-year career, you now serve as the President and CEO of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Two years after Hurricane Katrina, how do you evaluate the city’s comeback?
I have always said that the reconstruction of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina will not be completed in just one or two years. I believe it will take five to seven years to get the city back to normal; we are looking at the year 2010 or maybe 2012; I believe that would be a realistic expectation. But do not forget, this is a tough city, and it has had its challenges in the past, including hurricanes, with Katrina of course being the worst disaster so far. I think we and this city are coming back, no doubt. This is the nation that rebuilt Europe with the Marshall Plan. Don’t you think we can restore this great American city? Of course we can.
The Museum has embarked on a $300 million expansion. That is a massive investment in a city which some claim has an uncertain future. How, if at all, has Hurricane Katrina affected your fundraising efforts and expansion plans?
The disaster initially created many doubts and skepticism about our future, also within our own Board of Directors. Should we remain committed to the expansion in new Orleans after Hurricane Katrina? I reminded the Board not to forget that this Museum has been named and designated by the United States Congress as America’s official museum for World War II, we have an obligation to tell the whole story of the war. We presented the Board of Directors with several different scenarios after Hurricane Katrina, from abandoning the expansion entirely to stretching the timeline for the completion of the expansion from 2011 to 2014. At the same time, there was also considerable skepticism regarding the ability of the city to come back. My response is that this is America. We can do anything with will, power and commitment. We do not find ourselves in an easy situation, but it is not as tough as being in World War II; we are not being shot at. This institution celebrates the American spirit when Americans come together to overcome great obstacles. It is this spirit that won World War II and in this tradition we will continue our work here.
The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, brainchild of historians Gordon “Nick” Mueller and Stephen Ambrose, opened its doors to the public as the National D-Day Museum on D-Day, June 6, 2000 with worldwide acclaim. A military parade was held and many notable supporters like Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen were in attendance. Designated by the U.S. Congress as America’ s National World War II Museum, the institution is in the process of a massive $300 million expansion. As one of New Orleans’ premier attractions, it is expected to attract over 700,000 visitors annually.
Dr. Gordon “Nick” Mueller, President and CEO of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, looks back at a 34-year career as Professor and Administrator at the University of New Orleans. Following his appointment as Professor of European Diplomatic History, he held several administrative positions at the university, including Director of International Education, Vice-Chancellor of Extension, and President of University of New Orleans’ Research and Technology Park, leading its development from 1990-1997.
Dr. Mueller launched the university’s first overseas programs in Germany and Austria. For his contribution to international education in Austria, Dr. Mueller was honored by the Austrian government with the Great Silver Cross of Honor and the Cross of Honor First Class, awarded by the Federal Ministry of Science and Research.
Hannes Richter, a native of Innsbruck, Austria, lived in New Orleans from 1997 to 2005, where he pursued graduate studies in political sience and taught American Government at the University of New Orleans. From 2005 until 2007, he served as Deputy Director of the Austrian Press an Information Service in Washington, D.C.