Laura J. Mitchell
Guest Blogger

As interdisciplinary units and departments close in universities around the US, the impending closure of the African Studies Centre at the University of Cape Town—which claims for itself the position of a flagship institution for the continent—and news that the Africa Centre plans to  in London, one more piece of bad news about Africa-based scholarship hardly seems like news. But the quiet Friday afternoon web post on the US Department of Education’s website that the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad program  is cancelled for 2011 merits our attention. (The Fulbright program is named for the US Senator, William Fulbright, above in the photo with President Lyndon Johnson.)

According to a post on H-Asia , the Ohio State University is collecting statements from faculty that will be passed on through the University’s government affairs office. In private emails and on Facebook, established scholars and grad students have acknowledged the utility of the DDRA program, and lamented its sudden departure for this year. But so far I haven’t seen much public comment, beyond this post, and an eloquent post on China Beat, in which Maura Cunningham makes the point that we can ill afford to lose area studies specialists at this geopolitical moment. To quote: “By not providing the funding necessary to support this year’s crop of applicants, the government is implying that such work isn’t important, that we can exist in a global community but don’t need to understand it.”

This year’s cancellation is devastating to the research plans of a particular cohort of graduate students. Cruel as it is, the loss of one year of research will not cripple a field. But if the program is suspended for several years, or indefinitely, then scholarship that requires specific language training and long in-country research will be restricted to private universities with endowments to support such research.

I trained at a public university, and benefited from the Fulbright-Hays DDRA program for a year of work split between South Africa and the Netherlands, a trajectory I could not have self-financed, and that would not have been possible only with the support of the African Studies Center at UCLA. My research—and more importantly, my teaching of hundreds of undergraduates a year at a public university—would not be possible without the foundation I received in a year of overseas research as a graduate student.

While it is unlikely we can affect the decision to suspend the Fulbright-Hays program for 2011, concerned scholars need to let decision-makers in Washington know that this funding is crucial for what we do now as teachers and researchers, for how we can educate graduate students, and how we can effectively teach undergrads—who deserve to learn about places outside the US from people with a deep first-hand understanding of other cultures. Without ongoing new research, the significant body of knowledge created from the rich history of Fulbright-Hays grants will soon be out of date, and we will have no way to know it.

Urge your university to make a response. Contact your campus Fulbright-Hays coordinator and ask him or her to object (and to contact this year’s applicants so they don’t hear this news through the grapevine first). Write to your congressional representative and senators, letting them know there is a constituency for informed study and teaching about the world beyond America’s shores.

The global financial crisis is real, and its consequences grave. It should not, however, be reason for the US government to retreat from global engagement.

* Laura Mitchell is associate professor of history at the University of California-Irvine.

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.