Analysing Fulbright’s legacy offers a learning moment for IE

Higher education in the United States has multiple race problems. Some of these problems include a significant racial participation gap in education abroad programmes and reoccurring hostile political discourse, sometimes fuelled by geopolitical tensions. Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic, increased anti-Asian racism targeting Chinese and other international students has emerged as another challenge.

Despite these problems, the United States has remained attractive as an academic destination, as the recovery in international student enrolments illustrated in the 2022 Open Doors data makes evident. However, in the United States, internationalisation continues to be over-reliant on incoming mobility, and revenue considerations often guide the interest in international student recruitment.

The United States, as an academic destination, and US universities benefit from having strong and resilient brands. The Fulbright Program is one of the most visible brands associated with US academic mobility.

Honouring a segregationist

The College of Arts and Sciences of the University of Arkansas is named after J William Fulbright, one of the most prominent Arkansans in the state’s history, and his statue is prominently displayed on the campus, where he also served as university president.

In 2020, a group of black students at the university demanded the removal of his name from the College of Arts and Sciences, and of his statue, given his well-documented record opposing the integration of African Americans in schools and public spaces in the United States.

These student protests were reminiscent of movements making similar demands of the University of Oxford and in universities across Africa, which honoured the colonist Cecil Rhodes. The Rhodes Scholarship is one of the most prestigious awards for academic mobility. J William Fulbright was a Rhodes Scholar, the first one in his home state’s history, and it is believed that this experience inspired him to create an academic mobility programme in the United States.

At the University of Arkansas, a commission debated what to do in relation to Fulbright’s legacy and recommended the removal of his name and statue. However, the University Board of Trustees decided instead to keep both, citing state legislation prohibiting the removal of monuments from public spaces.

In contrast to the vigorous and open debate led by students at the University of Arkansas, the international education community in the United States seems to have taken little notice of the student protests and the findings of the commission at the university. There have been no public discussions among the international education professional organisations or public statements made regarding this issue.

The website commemorating the 75th anniversary of the programme has removed all references to J William Fulbright, and a website of the US Department of State acknowledges that “his voting record on civil rights contributed to the perpetuation of racism and inequality in the United States”. While accurate, this statement does not suggest any implications.

Not only a woke problem

In a past issue of International Higher Education, Carel Stolker discussed the perils of wokeness in academia and argued against a so-called cancel culture.

Regarding the issue at hand, it is important not to confuse critical analysis grounded in historic evidence with cancel culture. Exploring honestly and transparently the legacy of J William Fulbright does not constitute an attempt to cancel him. Rather it provides an opportunity to face not only his ‘mixed legacy’, but also that of the professional field of international education, along with potential contemporary complicities with racial injustice.

In short, analysing Fulbright’s legacy is much more about our professional field’s values than his.

The official brand and visual identity guide for the Fulbright Program focuses on “Building Lasting Connections for a More Peaceful World” as the programme’s core brand formula, but it lacks any meaningful reference to J William Fulbright or his controversial legacy.

This, along with his disappearance from plain sight on the 75th anniversary website, which instead highlights prominent black figures like Maya Angelou, Nelson Mandela (not a Fulbright recipient) and even United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the first non-white head of government in that country, amounts to an effort to paper over or whitewash a complex reality that merits, if not soul searching, at least critical analysis.

A recent article described the current brand status of the Fulbright Program as having moved away from Fulbright and towards Fulbrighters instead.

Of course, honouring diverse Fulbrighters, whose legacy should not be undermined due to the programme founder’s character shortcomings, is appropriate. However, in making this transition, an important step is to acknowledge not only Fulbright’s personal legacy, but also the programme’s early history, which largely ignored the Global South, especially Africa.

Learning about Fulbright’s vision

This article is not a call to remove Fulbright’s name from the flagship academic exchange programme in the United States. Doing so would likely whitewash the racial injustice that Fulbright used his senatorial office to uphold.

Given the surprise that seems to characterise those who learn about Fulbright’s segregationist background, even among international educators and Fulbright recipients, a first step, and one consistent with academic values, is learning about Fulbright’s vision of the world, which also included insightful discussions of American arrogance when engaging with the world.

A good place to start is for scholars and practitioners of internationalisation, and for international education academic and professional associations, to learn from, and disseminate, the evidence and analysis collected by the commission that recommended removing Fulbright’s name and statue from the University of Arkansas.

Also important is to hold discussions about student movements like #RhodesMustFall and more broadly about decolonisation of the university. A very practical consideration would be to consider the perils of naming programmes and buildings after individuals, a common practice in higher education.

Finally, despite some dark aspects in its past, the Fulbright Program has a diverse alumni network, which has organised around informal groups like Fulbright Noir, for black scholars, and Fulbright Latinx. Supporting these groups and bridging existing participation gaps by race should become priorities for the work of this academic exchange programme.

Gerardo Blanco is academic director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States. He is also a Fulbright Specialist, with a completed assignment in Colombia in 2021. E-mail: blancoge@bc.edu. This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.