Hannes Richter

Fulbright Austria: Transforming Lives

Hannes Richter
Fulbright Austria: Transforming Lives

Top Photo: Signing of the inaugural Austrian-American Fulbright Agreement on June 6, 1950 in Washington, D.C. (Left to right) U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Senator Fulbright, Austrian Plenipotentiary Ludwig Kleinwächter. Fulbright Austria

65 Years of Academic Exchange

By Lonnie Johnson

This year marks the 65th anniversary of Fulbright Austria. Over 2,400 U.S. citizens and 3,600 Austrian citizens are proud to be alumni of the Austrian-American Fulbright program, which claims 360,000 alumni in 150 countries worldwide (for details on the opportunities associated with Fulbright Austria consult its recently relaunched website at www.fulbright.at).

In order to understand the background of Fulbright Austria, one has to take a closer look at the biography of its intellectual father and namesake, U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright (Arkansas). Fulbright was born in 1905 and raised in Fayetteville, in northwestern Arkansas, where he attended the University of Arkansas. He came from a well-to-do family, was a good athlete and a good student, and he applied for and received a Rhodes Scholarship to attend Oxford University from 1925 to 1928. This was a profound and a transformative experience for Fulbright, which informed his ideas concerning the establishment of what became the flagship academic exchange program of the United States after World War II.

The Fulbright-Vienna Connection

It is a little-known fact that Fulbright spent six months in Vienna after he left Oxford: much of the time at Café Louvre – a hangout for English and American journalists as well as journalists writing for British and American papers. Among them was also a Hungarian, Mikhail “Mike” Fodor, who took Fulbright under his wing, mentored him on Central European politics, and took him along on a tour of the Balkans. According to Randal Bennett Woods, author of the standard biography of Fulbright, Fulbright’s experiences with Vienna and with Fodor “constituted an education in itself ” and were “his introduction the real world of international politics.” The importance of this point ultimately is that the two most formative institutions for Fulbright were the classrooms of Oxford and the coffeehouses of Vienna. Austria also played a role in his thinking about international education.

Legislative Achievement

The Fulbright Program was based on a simple but absolutely ingenious idea. In 1946, Fulbright proposed an amendment to a piece of legislation that had nothing to do with educational or cultural exchange: the Surplus Property Act of 1944. The so-called Fulbright Act authorized the Secretary of State to use proceeds from the sale of surplus war property outside the United States after World War II to finance the exchanges of students, teachers, and professors. The Fulbright Act was not even two pages long, but it sketched out the architecture of the program in four brief points. It called for the conclusion of “executive agreements” between the United States and participating partner governments.

These agreements established bi-national commissions capable of receiving funds, making policies, selecting grantees, and disbursing grants designated for students and scholars participating in bilateral exchanges. Finally, it created a ten person Board of Foreign Scholarships – consisting of leading academics and university executives – to be appointed by the President of the United States, who were responsible for articulating the organizational details of the program. The idea and the architecture of the Fulbright Program was also informed by Fulbright’s convictions as a liberal internationalist: He believed in partnerships and shared sovereignty.

Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961

When the initial funding from the sales of war surplus materials ran out after 15 years, it became necessary to provide for regular funding for the Fulbright Program from the federal budget, and this was secured by the Fulbright-Hays Act which John F. Kennedy signed into law in June 1961. This consolidated various pieces of previous legislation pertaining to educational exchange programs funded by the U.S. government, and it provided a new basis for the program to promote “mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchange.”

The Act reaffirmed the importance of bi-national commissions, broadened the reach of the program by establishing over twenty new ones, and gave partner governments and other organizations an opportunity to contribute to the program – either in terms of governmental co-funding or private donations. Partner country cash and inkind support for the program went from zero in 1961 to over $100 million dollars today with an annual U.S. appropriation for the program of around $236 million, i.e. roughly a 1:2 ratio.

However, it is important to recognize that many countries with bi-national Fulbright commissions, like Austria, have come to contribute more to the program than the U.S. government. The average partner government contribution among those 23 countries in Europe with Fulbright commissions is $2 for every $1 U.S. dollar.

Part of the First Class of Austrian Fulbrighters (51-52) on the U.S.S. Constitution Departing from Genova for New York City in September, 1951.
Photo: Fulbright Austria

The Success of Fulbright Austria

The Republic of Austria’s commitment to and generous support for the Fulbright Program is exceptional. Furthermore, the programs of Fulbright Austria also enjoy the support of many partner organizations. One prominent example is the fact that Austria has the seventh-largest program for U.S. Fulbright Scholars in the world. With 23 annual awards, it ranks behind India, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Japan and ex aequo with Canada.

This is not only because of collaborative and cofounding agreements with many Austrian universities, museums, and research centers, but also because it works closely with American organizations, such as the Dietrich Botstiber Foundation and the Craig and Kathryn Hall Foundation. It also has an annual collaborative award for an Austrian Fulbrighter at the University of Minnesota under the auspices of its Center for Austrian Studies.

Fulbright Ripple effects

One is tempted to ask at this juncture why the Center for Austrian Studies is located at the University of Minnesota. It is related to what can be called the “Fulbright ripple effect”: namely the relationship between Fulbright grants and long-term impacts. In 1976, the Republic of Austria decided to endow an institution in the United States with a million dollars to establish a Center for Austrian Studies as a bicentennial gift to the United States.

But how did the Center for Austrian Studies end up at the University of Minnesota? Some observers have conjectured that former Minnesotan Senator Walter Mondale, who was then serving as Jimmy Carter’s vice president, convinced the legendary Austrian Federal Chancellor Bruno Kreisky that the Minnesota Democrat Farmer- Labor Party was the closest thing you could get to Austrian Social Democracy and still be in the United States. However, that theory is speculative.

 In reality, the University of Minnesota came up with the best proposal for hosting the center based mainly on the background and expertise of a professor of history, who had a lot of experience in international education: William E. Wright. Bill Wright had been a Fulbright student in Austria in 1954-55 and a scholar in the early 1960s, and ever since then the Fulbright alumni have accompanied the Center for Austrian Studies in so many ways. Bill Wright’s successor as director, David Good, was a Fulbright student in Vienna in 1969- 70, and David’s successor, Gary Cohen, had a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research grant that brought him to Prague and Vienna in the early 1980s.

Howard Louthan, the newly appointed director of the Center for Austrian Studies, taught in the U.S. Teaching Assistantship Program the Fulbright Commission manages for the Austrian Ministry of Education in 1987-88. Furthermore, Gerry Kleinfeld, the legendary co-founder of the German Studies Association (GSA) in the U.S. in 1976, and who also served as its executive director for 30 years, was an 1959-60 alumnus of the Austrian Fulbright Program, and not the German Fulbright Program, so in some respects the GSA can be seen an outcome of the Austrian Fulbright Program, too. Joe Patrouch, recently appointed director of the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies at the University of Alberta, was a Fulbright student in Austria in the late 1980s and a scholar in the late 1990s.

Guenter Bischof, director of the Center Austria at the University of New Orleans, and co-editor of 24 volumes of Contemporary Austrian Studies; however, was not a Fulbrighter. He is an alumnus of another legendary American exchange program. A native of Voralberg, his first exposure the United States as a teenager was as an AFS student in California. It is noteworthy to observe the extent to which you will find Fulbright alumni and participants of the Austrian U.S. Teaching Assistantship program everywhere where Austrian studies have been institutionalized – and the same applies to German studies or other national area studies, too.

Fulbright Students and Scholars from the UNited States Arriving at the Bombed-Out West Train Station in Occupied Vienna in September, 1951.
Photo: Fulbright Austria

For example, the editor and book review editor of the Austrian History Yearbook, Pieter Judson and Maureen Healy; Hillary Herzog, coeditor of the Journal of Austrian Studies; or Kathleen Giustino, Heather Morrison, John Swanson, and Joe Patrouch, who have served or are serving as editors on H-Net’s HABSBURG platform. By the way, Christine Moser, director of the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York City, was a Fulbrighter at Smith College, and Hannelore Veit from the Austrian Broadcasting’s (ORF) Washington office, was one at Notre Dame.

Fulbright Austria did a short online survey of the members of the German Studies Association and the Austrian Studies Association this summer and managed to identify 58 GSA members and 37 ASA members who were alumni of Fulbright Austria programs – mostly in departments of history or German – at institutions large and small all over the United States. One can extrapolate on these numbers a bit. They account for the authors of hundreds of dissertations and books; thousands of articles; and teachers of tens of thousands of students, who are actively and professionally mediating the interface between Austrian and American cultures by teaching and doing research on things Austrian.

And as everybody in the profession knows, Austrian Studies is a tough way to make a living, too! Fulbright Austria in 2015 Finally, Fulbright Austria is commemorating its 65th anniversary with a new website and a new design, reaching out to alumni to ask them to help document their achievements as this will underscore what this program does so well. The new website therefore has a subdomain called Fulbright Forever, specifically designed to facilitate longitudinal tracking and story-telling.

Why is this important? The representatives of the taxpayers of the Republic of Austria in the Austrian parliament and the United States of America in Congress, who are to be thanked for their generous support, need to be reminded that the Fulbright Program is a great investment in cultural diplomacy: one of the most credible soft power tools that the U.S. has, because it is an academic exchange program and as such is committed to the principles of the freedom of expression and the freedom of inquiry. The Fulbright Program transforms lives and institutions, makes us better citizens, is cost-effective, and has longterm impacts in so many different ways. We need to advocate for the program more effectively sustaining it in the future, and alumni can help us to achieve this, too!

Dr. Lonnie R. Johnson, a native of Minnesota, has lived and worked in Austria since the 1970s. He has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Vienna, is the author of books and articles on Viennese, Austrian, and Central European history, and has served as the executive director of the Austrian Fulbright Program since 1997.