The Association of Slavic, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) has become embroiled in a row over a proposed donation by historian Stephen Cohen. Elizabeth Zolotukhina says there is a need for ASEEES to be honest about the reasons for its mishandling of the negotiations surrounding the gift.
By now, the steps leading to ASSEES withdrawing plans to name a new dissertation fellowship after Professor Stephen Cohen are well-known known. On August 11, 2014, after the commencement of the Ukraine crisis, Cohen’s wife Katrina vanden Heuvel (KvH) signed a contract – drafted by ASEEES officials – intended to establish the Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Fellowship program. The document was to commit her KAT Foundation to an initial $413,000 over three years, with the possibility of an endowment. If implemented, “the gift would have almost entirely replaced key State Department grants [Title VIII] that had ended in 2013.” However, this was not to be.
Professor Cohen and his wife subsequently rescinded the offer to establish the program after learning of the concerns of “a very strong majority” of ASEEES board members. The issues raised included proceeding “so rapidly at an exceptionally tense time in our region with a named gift that could potentially generate divisions in our Association…, the absence of an ASEEES Gift Acceptance Policy… and [with] the stipulation [in the draft agreement] that final approval of the Selection Committee would be made jointly by the KAT Foundation and ASEEES.” Each of these objections is without merit. More worryingly, ASEEES officials have been disingenuous about key issues both with the stakeholders and the public.
The Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Fellowship program would not be the only ASEEES program named after Professor Cohen. In fact, as ASEEES admits, the Association has been administering the Robert C. Tucker/Stephen F. Cohen Dissertation Prize since 2006. Neither the absence of a gift policy, nor Professor Cohen’s well-known and controversial views on crises including the one in Ukraine has prompted ASEEES to suspend the Dissertation Prize. Such a move would be the logical conclusion if the Association was in fact concerned broadly with the potentially destabilizing effect of named gifts on the region. In fact, Cohen has asked the Association repeatedly as to the “difference between my name on the existing ASEEES Tucker-Cohen Dissertation Award and my name on the proposed PhD fellowships,” but apparently has not received a satisfactory answer.
“Divisions” within a multidisciplinary scholarly community are part of its raison d’être. Conformity cannot and should not be expected. Academics, as Joshua Sanborn writes, “are perfectly capable of criticizing one another – scholar to scholar… This role should not be played by ASEEES.” Further, while controversial, Cohen’s views on Ukraine have been endorsed by some fellow academics as “factually sound” and are reportedly shared by “at least two Ukrainian academics.” Therefore, ASEEES’ depiction of Cohen as capable of “[generating] divisions in our Association” is unwarranted.
Furthermore, divisions cannot be sown if the majority of rank and file members are unaware of the facts being disputed. In fact, “board members agreed not to speak to the membership.” As with the first objection, Cohen “asked for an explanation of the Board’s concern about [divisions,] but I did not receive one.”
The ASEEES Board’s third objection, the involvement of the KAT Foundation in approving the recommendations of the Selection Committee, was addressed when Cohen and KvH agreed to the removal of the clause from the contract. The Board’s public concerns with the proposed fellowship program stand in contrast with privately expressed sentiments.
As ASEEES informed Cohen, and many have surmised, the Board “strongly objected to having [Cohen’s] name on the fellowships. Their objections, Cohen and his wife were told informally, had to do with Cohen’s public criticism of U.S. policy regarding the Russian-American confrontation over Ukraine in 2014.” This is problematic for at least two reasons. First, as Hank Reichman argues, the decision represents a “chilling if clumsy effort to impose a broader orthodoxy” on a body ostensibly founded to promote unhampered and civilized debate. Second, the Association failed to be forthright as to their aims with either the principals, or with the broader membership. ASEEES pursued this course of action because it wanted to and because it could. For those reasons Cohen and his wife were correct in withdrawing their offer to fund the fellowship program. Perhaps another organization can succeed in financing academic research where ASEEES has floundered.