Opening Words at the Launch of the First University Consortium Module

Julie Newton Opening Words

Opening Words at the Launch of the First University Consortium Module

Dr Julie Newton
St Antony's College, University of Oxford

What are we,  the University Consortium, about? We are about listening in order to understand. We are about engaging with each other in order to build meaningful dialogue. We are about improving understanding among academic communities across the Euro-Atlantic area from America to Russia.

In this new era of confrontation between Russia, the United States and Europe, all parties are operating under highly distorted narratives about the sources driving each other’s behavior. Whatever the differences between us – and those differences are indeed real and profound – the high degree of distortion and misconception exacerbates those differences and reduces chances for solutions. The lack of experts on all sides – experts who are capable of nuanced and sophisticated understanding of relations between Russia and West – is glaringly obvious.

For me and many others in my generation, this confrontation borders on tragedy. I remember sitting in this very room during the heady days of the end of the Cold War when we genuinely thought we would wind up with a Euro-Atlantic community with Russia on the inside. George HW Bush’s phrase, “Greater Europe from Vancouver to Vladivostok” expressed our real belief. It was unthinkable that 25 years later, we would be back to confrontation as adversaries.  And none of this was inevitable. How did it happen?

This question is so important, the answers are so contested and the confrontation is so worrying that we academics from six leading universities –the Harriman Institute at Columbia, the Davis Center at Harvard, St Antony’s at Oxford University, Freie Universitat Berlin, MGIMO and HSE in Moscow - have formed a unique partnership to pool our strengths and train a new generation capable of enhancing understanding among critical international players in North America, Europe, and Russia.

Our mission stresses innovative training, intensive dialogue and policy outreach about Euro-Atlantic problems or issues that affect relations between our regions. We are deliberately academic, not policy, oriented. We are not concerned with policy advocacy per se. That is because we believe, as Deana Arsenian from the Carnegie Corporation rightly says, “before we get the message out, we have to get the message right.” And we academics will be the generators of that insight.

So, getting that message right – that is, unpacking, understanding and explaining the deeper sources of each other’s message – goes to the heart of our mission at the University Consortium.

Some might counter that academic exchange or genuine mutual understanding has little chance of changing the relationship between Russia and the West today. Some might say we are too optimistic to think that we could even pull this start-up consortium together. And it’s about here that I am supposed to say that I hope we can make it work.

But I don’t have to just hope. Our Consortium is already working. I could point to numerous examples of how all six institutions have shown determination, optimism and energy over the last year of building our start-up. But I’ll just point out two. Alex Cooley at Harriman immediately raised his hand to say, “We believe in this and we want to be first to hold a Module.” His energy, ideas and can-do attitude have brought us here today. Thank you, Alex.

And Dmitry Suslov from the Higher School, pushed his way forward and said, I want to be the first visiting professor and will do whatever I can to begin genuine dialogue. Dmitry is teaching a full load, in addition to offering office hours to any one of you. Thank you, Dmitry.

And we have four outstanding Consortium Fellow students – Assya, Ivan,  Matt and Ola– who have come from our member institutions to listen and exchange ideas. It’s a great start.

So how does this program work in practice? Here’s an overview of its four parts.

First is our Consortium Module program, like this one hosted by Harriman this week. A professor from one of our institutions comes to a host institution. He or she is accompanied by four selected Consortium Fellows, each representing a member university. We did we choose the Module idea? It’s the best way to expose students to different cultures, countries and most importantly, ideas. Modules offer everything from jointly taught classes, new research opportunities, and student webinar workshops where our Fellows can learn from peers in Russia, Europe and America. The next Module is at Harvard’s Davis Center in February. And after that, Modules will be in Berlin and Moscow.

Second are the Annual Conferences. This is our policy-outreach dimension. All of us come together to share our ideas and learning with invited policy officials and elites for an intensive exchange. The first Annual Conference will be in Moscow next September and our annual theme is about unpacking the competing narratives explaining how we got to this point.  

Third is a Joint Research Fund. If in the course of all these exchanges, you meet a peer in one of our member institutions whose research coincides with yours, you can apply for a grant to meet up and write a joint article, discussing or debating a topic of direct relevance to the Euro-Atlantic area.

Next comes our Internal Lecture series. This program brings great speakers on Euro-Atlantic problems to each of our campuses and is meant to supplement the great work you are doing on euro-Atlantic problems or issues directly affecting the Euro-Atlantic area.

Finally comes our Website. It will be launched this week and will be our most important meeting place. There is a public blog where you can post your analyses and a totally private discussion forum –called the Consortium Forum --where UC members can discuss substantive Euro-Atlantic issues with each other or continue their exchanges from Modules and conferences in the privacy of our network. The website provides extraordinary opportunities to talk with and learn from your peers across our 6 universities about substantive Euro-Atlantic issues. We are on our way to becoming an important academic network.  

Finally, I come back to my question: What are we all about? As Bob Legvold said, the broader importance of what we are all doing is potentially profound. Unlike any other educational enterprise, we aim to train your generation to have a much deeper understanding of one another and the challenges in relations among your countries than your predecessors did. I mentioned earlier the energy and passion that a whole host of people have already put into this initiative. My objective here is to turn everyone of you into passionate advocates for the University Consortium, which is ultimately about our future. Your future. Thank you very much.

10 November 2015

Harriman Institute, Columbia University