A story in the Chronicle of Higher Education last month noted that the Obama administration's talk about the importance of academic and cultural exchanges is not matched with action. India, Indonesia, Brazil, and China were the examples given. Two other places can be added to this list: Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Named in honor of the former senator's contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process, the George J. Mitchell Scholarships were created more than a decade ago to introduce a next generation of American leaders to the island to which 36 million Americans claim an ancestral tie. Every year, 300 Americans, irrespective of ancestry, vie for a coveted 12 post-graduate scholarships that recognize records of leadership and service as well as academic excellence.
The US-Ireland Alliance, the nonprofit organization responsible for the program, recently learned from the Department of State that it has eliminated all funding for the program. If that decision is not reversed, we will not be selecting a class in the fall.
As the founder of the US-Ireland Alliance, I have been asked if we were surprised by this development. The answer is yes and no. I created the Alliance in 1998 after serving as Sen. Ted Kennedy's foreign policy adviser, recognizing that the island would largely fade from political attention as Northern Ireland's 'Troubles' receded and Ireland's Celtic Tiger had made it a place which no longer required remittances from abroad. Our objective was—and is—to shift the relationship away from problems and toward possibilities, particularly in the areas of education, culture, and business. We have always maintained, and still do, that the long-term viability of this relationship will be determined by whether or not there are enough Americans and Irish who can imagine a different relationship and are willing to contribute to it.
But, in the short term, we rely on US government support. Regardless of one's politics, it is fairly safe to say that Democrats are historically better than Republicans about funding education. So it was a surprise to find a Democratic administration eliminating a scholarship program that the previous Republican administration did not, especially a program named after the man who worked tirelessly for President Bill Clinton to bring peace to Northern Ireland and who just finished serving President Barack Obama as Middle East envoy.
The State Department told us it wants to eliminate the Mitchell because it has other priorities in the world and Europe just isn't one of them. Other scholarship programs have also been eliminated. It is therefore valid to question the administration's commitment to its stated objectives.
In the president's Cairo speech in 2009, he said: "We will expand exchange programs, and increase scholarships, like the one that brought my father to America, while encouraging more Americans to study in Muslim communities." Regardless of the administration's views about Europe, it should recognize that the Mitchell is preparing American leaders for the places and relationships it does consider priorities. (Many Mitchell Scholars have gone to Ireland/Northern Ireland to study conflict resolution and bring these skills to priority areas like the Middle East and Gulf Region. Indeed three Mitchell Scholars are working in the State Department using their Arabic skills.)
The first lady said, when speaking about the president's plan to dramatically increase the number of Americans studying in China, spoke specifically about the shared challenges of climate change, terrorism, economic recovery, and the spread of nuclear weapons. Mitchell Scholars are working in all of those areas—one is doing his Ph.D. in climate change; another is a U.S. Navy officer who wrote his dissertation on international law and nuclear weapons; another who will study in Dublin in the fall is currently at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, where he works on nuclear materials security and U.S.-China nuclear relations; two others have worked in the New York Police Department's counterterrorism department; and several are working domestically to eliminate poverty. The first lady also spoke of the need to make the opportunity to study abroad more widely available, more diverse. The Mitchell Scholarship has one of the best rates of minority representation of any competitive scholarship.
In his 2011 State of the Union address and again three months ago, Obama said that before we take money away from our schools, or scholarships away from our students, we should ask millionaires to give up their tax breaks. The tax breaks are still there but the administration is taking money away from scholarships.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rightly laments the fact that only 1 percent of American students are studying abroad and she encouraged more to do so. We hope she will not undercut her own objectives and will reconsider this decision. We welcome the fact that many in Congress are encouraging exactly this.
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