With the Fulbright program celebrating its 40th anniversary in Russia in 2013, its Director Joel Ericson talks about the latest challenges it faces in an exclusive interview with Russia Direct.

Fulbright Program Director Joel Ericson taking the floor at the celebration of Fulbright's  40th anniversary in Russia. Photo: Fulbright / Press Photo

The Fulbright program is celebrating its 40th anniversary in Russia in 2013. Annually, it sends about 140 Russians to the U.S. and about 70 American scholars, professors, and graduate students to Russia in all academic fields with the exception of business administration.

What are the most important achievements of the Fulbright program in Russia? Why have some exchange programs such as the Edmund Muskie program been suspended? How has Fulbright managed to cope with problems and keep afloat?

Russia Direct talks to Fulbright Director Joel Ericson to find out how educational exchanges between the U.S. and Russia have been evolving and what challenges Fulbright has been facing in Russia since the 1970s.

Russia Direct: This year the Fulbright program marked its 40th anniversary here in Russia. So, what are the most important achievements of the program in Russia?

Joel Ericson: First of all, since the historic meeting of our two leaders 40 years ago, when then-President Richard Nixon came to visit General Secretary of the USSR Leonid Brezhnev, you’ve seen a big acceleration in Fulbright and the program has now about 1,800 Russians who have been participants of the exchange and are now alumni of the program.

I think that the biggest and the first achievement is that this number of participants has been able to be a part of the program since 1973.

Another achievement is that, at first, the program was meant to support Russians who were interested in participating in the program in the fields of social sciences and the humanities. And now, for about 10 years, the program has enlarged to include other areas of study including hard sciences, physics, chemistry and other academic areas where Russians have always been strong.

Thirdly, we’ve created new programs. The major Russian universities have been making efforts to internationalize themselves and to create mobility opportunities for their students and so we have launched some projects like the Russian Educational Administrators programs that seek to take people who work in international departments at Russian universities and bring them to the U.S. to do an internship and do a really serious and in-depth investigation about what American universities are doing internationally and to develop cooperative agreement with those universities to focus attention into program development between the U.S. host universities and their Russian counterparts.

And this is a way of helping Russian universities to internationalize, bring American students to them, and also to witness and evaluate various program choices which they might like to select and use for themselves.

RD: Some exchange programs such as the Edmund Muskie program are reported to have been suspended recently because of cuts in funding. How does Fulbright manage to cope with this problem?

J.E.: It’s not really a problem because Fulbright has adopted the fields that Muskie once represented. In fact, some of that funding has actually been shifted over to the Fulbright program and, indeed, we are looking to include more finalists in areas that Muskie traditionally represented – social science areas like Law, Public Administration, Journalism - areas like that.

So, it’s not really a problem at all. I would say, in fact, it’s a kind of good because you have one very strong program under the organization of Fulbright which can add a lot of value to the exchange process due to its many years of experience and very large body of alumni in Russia.

RD: And nevertheless, there is a drop in educational exchange programs. What can you offer to tackle this program?

J.E.: Funding has been cut somewhat in certain programs. For example, Junior FacultyDevelopment Program (JFDP) is a program that doesn’t exist anymore per se but has become part of what Fulbright does now as part of the Fulbright Faculty Development Program. Meanwhile, Fulbright has evolved to include more aspects of Russian education programs.

I would say, even though overall numbers of participants have been cut, there are still, I would say, a lot of opportunities to go to the U.S. for graduate school, teaching, and research.

And another thing I should point out to your audience is that Russian universities are also internationalizing themselves and getting their funding from the Russian government or certain regional governments. For example, the government of Tatarstan has its own exchange programs that are funded by local authorities because Tatarstan is fairly rich in oil. And so, what we are finding too is that Russians are starting to pay for exchange programs as well.

Photo: Fulbright / Press Photo

RD: From your point of view, why do Russia and the U.S. need educational exchange programs like Fulbright in such a globalized world where IT technologies dominate, where everybody can instantly get in touch with each other, where distance learning is rising in popularity and where the world is actually flat?

J.E.: I thought you might say that the world is flat. And in many metaphorical ways it is. But I think the fact is that the world is round and always will be. And place still matters. What we are really finding is that the Internet and all the great things it brings doesn’t eliminate the need for our being together in physical places.

I can illustrate that in a couple of ways: the Internet and the importance of place – they really reinforce one another. And I would say that they accelerate and improve the work we do. We can work apart from each other either through distance learning or through great communication tools like Internet and Skype, but we still need to meet and be together. You wouldn’t have the Silicon Valley as still being an important place if it were really true that the world is flat.

You wouldn’t have Bangalore in India as an important place if the world were truly flat, if the Internet could replace the meaning and significance of physical space and authentic face-to-face interaction. Internet and bricks-and-mortar education – they just reinforce and improve each another.

RD: What new educational formats can Fulbright propose? How does it adjust to new formats of educational exchange?  

J.E.: One of my favorite programs is the community college administrators’ seminar. Every year we bring high-level community college presidents from the United States to visit Russia for a little over two weeks and go to one particular region. Last year, for example, and this year in April, we brought a group of community college presidents who visited Moscow and Tatarstan. Next April, the group will go to Northwest Russia.

And what we are doing this for is because American community colleges are internationalizing themselves. More and more students are seeing in the United States that the community college model is a really great entry point into four-year universities in the States.

At the same time, Russia is looking at the community college model with real interest because this is the first time in history when there are more places available in Russian universities than students to fill them.  So, it’s very exciting when we bring together community college presidents and they sign memorandums of understanding with Russian universities, they find many areas of co-interest, but it doesn’t just stop there – they come back.

RD: Since the 1970s, what types of challenges has Fulbright faced in Russia?

J.E.: The biggest long-term challenge has been to show Russia that Fulbright has never been about creating a brain drain. And, in fact, given 1,800 alumni of the Fulbright program who’ve come back to Russia – it has really been all about the goal of the program that has created mutual understanding between our countries.

And education is, probably, one of the greatest areas that America and Russia can work together to improve the world as we shifted through Cold War, as you’ve seen the collapse of the Soviet Union and its replacement by the Russian Federation, the country that has a great Constitution that are in many ways similar to our own, a country that has a strong presidential administration that wants to lead the country forward. Yes, of course, there are areas of conflict – sometimes we disagree. But there are so many areas where we can work together.

RD: Where, from your point of view, can we find common ground?

J.E.: Just a few examples: to start with, global warming. Russia is the largest country in the world. You have permafrost in Siberia that is critical for climate change and you have Russian scientists that understand this very well and they are doing great research in that area and have an exchange of knowledge and understanding about the permafrost layer with American scientists who are working in the same area.

We have the Arctic and the change in the Arctic reflects changes in the course of global climate, but also new opportunities, new areas of potential conflict and the U.S. and Russia have found a number of areas of co-interest in regulating the Arctic and being part of the group of eight countries that we call the Arctic 8 that are meeting regularly to discuss changes in the Arctic.

RD: Does Fulbright have any programs that deal with the Arctic?

J.E.: There are Fulbright programs in all of the countries that are part of the Arctic 8 group. I was recently invited to the Northern Arctic Federal University. And actually, it was the Fulbright alumna, who proposed this idea and asked: Why don’t you do a floating summer Arctic school?

And I found this idea pretty interesting and we are currently discussing that now with people at the U.S. Embassy. We want to consider gathering distinguished Fulbright professors from these Arctic 8 countries and would have a floating Arctic summer school on ship in order to do experiments and discuss the Arctic as an area of potential international cooperation.

Photo: Fulbright / Press Photo

RD: What other programs can you offer?

J.E.:  We’ve had one alumna who has been conducting a summer school in humanities at Moscow State University. Likewise, we have a summer school in sustainable regional development at Higher School of Economics – there are only 20 places for graduate students to participate in that program and we get over 200 applications to participate every year.

We also would like to do a summer school in Tomsk related to climate change. Just last week we opened a summer school here in Moscow on food safety, which is a very important issue and has the highest level of government support for work with U.S. universities and for us to work with the Moscow State University for Food Production to open the summer school for food safety at Moscow State University.

It’s a new area we are working in and we are really excited about that. And this can reinforce the degree to which the U.S. and Russia can really work together.         

RD: Why do American and Russian students, teachers and scholars choose this program, from your point of view? How can you account for their interest in Russia?

J.E.: Russia is a huge country, a multinational country. And in that sense, it appeals to Americans, because we also see ourselves as a large, important, multicultural place. There has been a rivalry with Russia. People who grow up in my age remember the space race.

Russia has a very interesting and sometimes very difficult history. And I think that Russians are people who survived these difficulties by having deep love of culture and very deep interest in the arts. For Americans who are interested in these things, there are a lot of great areas to become closely involved with Russia. Russia is too rich, too big, too interesting for Americans not to pay attention.     

RD: What factors U.S.-Russia differences or lack of funding can primarily hamper this interest (if at all)? Is there any correlation between the amount of students coming to Russia and these political and financial differences?

J.E.: When the Soviet Union collapsed, a lot of traditional interest dropped because a lot of the people who were coming over here to study before the collapse of the Soviet Union wanted to go into academia and become a professor of something related to the Soviet Union and others, maybe, came over because they were interested in the aspect of the Soviet-U.S. Cold War rivalry.

So with collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. universities shifted away from supporting as many professors in Soviet politics and Soviet history, and there was less in terms of career opportunity for many of us.

And also as the Soviet Union collapsed, the military rivalry between the Soviet Union and the U.S. evaporated in many ways. So, there was less demand for that kind of interest. The relationships have evolved and people who are interested in Russia for the cultural reasons have always been around. Yes there was the drop off in early 1990s, but interest has stayed fairly steady since then.

RD: With your experience of working in Russia, what do you think about Russia’s educational system and the rankings of its universities?

J.E.: Even though U.S. universities are ranked higher than Russian universities, what I know – and it’s an absolute fact – is that Russian graduate students that we recruit here as a part of the Fulbright program and send to the United States are absolutely excellent.

So, my feeling is that, maybe, your Russian university system has not done the things that American universities have done in order to achieve these high rankings. But there is a case to be made that Russian universities are much better than the world rankings show that they are. 

And one thing that Fulbright can really do to support great relationships is to work with the Russian educational system, to work carefully not just with the students that we recruit but alumni who come back to Russia for joint projects and reinforce the idea that Russia has great universities too.

Joel Ericson is Fulbright Program Director. Since 2009, he has designed and administered in-service teacher training, intensive EFL, professional leadership seminars, student exchange programs, and faculty curriculum and research development projects for Russian and United States universities. He is the former Regional Director for the Russian Federation for the American Councils of International Education and has over 15 years of research, business development, and U.S. Government funded educational exchange and research program management experience in Russia. His educational background, from BA to Ph.D., is from the University of California at San Diego, the University of Glasgow, the University of Rochester, and the University of Toronto.