Fulbright University Vietnam – ‘Put this war behind us'
He received a Medal of Honor for heroism for his military service in Vietnam in the 1960s only to have his reputation tarnished decades later for his role in a combat raid that ended with the deaths of unarmed Vietnamese, many of them women and children.
In the 1990s, he supported the restoration of US-Vietnam diplomatic ties, drawing praise from some quarters but also the ire of scores of families of soldiers whose remains have never been returned to American soil.
In 2011, he left his post as president of New York's The New School following years of contentiousness, including a faculty vote of no confidence and multiple student protests.
Now, some critics are demanding he resign from his most recent appointment: as chair of the board and chief fundraiser for Fulbright University Vietnam, scheduled to open its doors in autumn of 2016 in Ho Chi Minh City.
Given his war record – a media investigation in 2001 revealed the troubling details of the events that took place that night so many years ago in a village in the Mekong Delta – his detractors say such a position is, at best, inappropriate.
University not in dispute
Not in dispute, it appears, is the idea of a US-backed university in Vietnam.
A focal point of President Barack Obama's agenda during his visit to the country in May, Fulbright University Vietnam or FUV aspires to become the first independent, private, non-profit university in Vietnam – and, importantly, a US-style university that is not under the control of the Communist Party of Vietnam.
The university grows out of years of planning and negotiation.
The US government to date has invested about US$20 million in it, primarily in the form of federal grants to the Trust for University Innovation in Vietnam, a US non-profit that was created in 2012 in support of the establishment of Fulbright University Vietnam.
As a condition of receiving the grants, the trust is required by US law to ensure that FUV meets three criteria that roughly parallel expectations for US universities.
The university must 1) achieve standards "comparable to those required for accreditation in the United States", 2) offer graduate and undergraduate level teaching and research programmes "in a broad range of fields, including public policy, management and engineering", and 3) establish "a policy of academic freedom" and prohibit "the censorship of dissenting or critical views".
Academic freedom and scholarships
That third provision has been a sticking point in Vietnam, where Marxism and Ho Chi Minh thought have long been a mainstay of the required undergraduate curriculum, a vestige of decades under the Soviet-style model of centralised control.
Since 1986, Vietnam has been shifting to what it calls a Socialist-oriented market economy model.
Vietnamese officials "understandably.... wanted to control the curriculum," Kerrey says. "The problem is, teaching undergraduates to remember everything that Ho Chi Minh ever did or said, there's not much of a market for that."
Education has been a central platform for the United States' soft power strategy in Vietnam in the 20-plus years since the two countries resumed diplomatic relations.
Two members of the Vietnamese Politburo received funding from the US State Department's Fulbright academic exchange programme to earn graduate degrees at US universities.
Since 2000, more than 600 Vietnamese have studied at US universities through a separate fellowship programme, this one championed by Kerrey while in the Senate. He was one of several prominent Vietnam war veterans to push for US legislation for the fellowship, with a goal of ensuring that repayment for wartime debts owed by South Vietnam to the United States would go toward educating Vietnamese students.
As that exchange programme draws to a close, excess funds are shifting toward the development of Fulbright University Vietnam, itself an offshoot of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, a Harvard-led project that opened its doors in 1994 in Ho Chi Minh City.
’Put this war behind us’
Looking back, Kerrey says there was never a grand plan to create a university. It came about "just as a result of a number of us saying, 'We've got to put this war behind us'," he says.
That sentiment is shared by key leaders in Vietnam.
In an opinion column published in the state-run Tuoi Tre newspaper, Dinh La Thang, the secretary of the Communist Party in Ho Chi Minh City, called FUV "a concrete symbol of the shared determination of Vietnam and the US to "set the past aside, overcome differences, pursue shared interests, and look to the future in a practical and effective manner".
The criticism of Kerrey's appointment "is understandable", he wrote, but only "if we ... look at its emotional side. ... When we reflect on a historical event, we must see it in relationship to the present. Therefore, emotional responses alone are inadequate."
Kerrey has apologised more than once for his actions in combat, most recently in May, and has offered to step down from the chairmanship if it were to become a hindrance for the university. But like Secretary Thang, he argues for perspective: "You need to broaden the controversy. The controversy over US involvement in Vietnam did not begin this year," he says. "It's been going on a long time."