Unique Academic Venture: the University Consortium

Julie Newton, University of Oxford (UK) 

The recent sharp deterioration of Russia-West relations prompted six universities in the United States, Europe and Russia – Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO), National Research University-Higher School of Economics in Moscow (HSE), St Antony’s College at University of Oxford, Freie Universität in Berlin, the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, and the Harriman Institute at Columbia University – to form a unique academic venture, called the University Consortium (UC). This exceptional program of academic exchange pools the strengths of its partners and jointly trains a new generation of students, future faculty and potential policy-makers across all three regions. 

Our inter-regional academic network promotes dialogue, research and policy outreach on Euro-Atlantic issues critical to addressing the crisis in Russia-West relations. Thanks to the vision and generosity of Carnegie Corporation of New York (our funding body) and to the logistical support of St Antony’s College, Oxford (our host institution), the University Consortium offers extraordinary educational, travel and research opportunities for advanced students and faculty. 

Together, our six institutions aim to build a new, distinct Euro-Atlantic network of students and faculty who will gain greater mutual understanding through intensive engagement with each other across our three geographic regions. Through our joint teaching, student and faculty exchanges, conferences and written output, the UC sheds constructive, new light on the competing narratives that divide Russia and the West, particularly on the sources (domestic and international, material and ideational) of those divisions. In the process, we seek to identify potential areas of common ground and generate innovative and accessible policy-oriented ideas to enhance prospects for renewed Euro-Atlantic cooperation that is indispensable for tackling the increasingly difficult global challenges of the 21st century. 

Harriman ModuleAs Columbia University Emeritus Professor Robert Legvold recently declared: ‘[The University Consortium] is not merely important as an enterprise for these [six] institutions…but as a collaborative enterprise, I think it is critical to our respective countries. In the United States and Europe…, there is now a deficit of expertise on Russia…and we are paying a price for that now. This is the single most important enterprise in addressing that problem.’ 

Seeking to help overcome confrontation between Russia and the West, the Consortium is also on the frontlines of addressing the crisis in Russian area studies. With this double objective in mind, the UC has devised four innovative ways to supplement traditional academic training for future generations of American, European and Russian academics, policy-makers, journalists and other elites. 

1. Consortium Modules  

This unique program is at the heart of the Consortium’s work. During each semi-annual Module, five selected Consortium Fellows (Master’s students in Russian/ Eurasian studies) travel to a host UC institution where they are joined by a Visiting Lecturer from another UC institution for one week. The five Consortium Fellows, along with students and faculty from the host institution, participate in short courses and seminars taught (or co-taught) by the Visiting Lecturer. In addition, UC Fellows participate in selected host-institution courses, and present their current research at the Consortium’s semi-annual Student Webinar, streamed live across our entire network. Finally, the Module offers each Consortium Fellow and Visiting Lecturer dedicated time for research and interviews at the host institution and its city. The net result of each Module creates an ever-expanding UC network of students and faculty across the Euro—Atlantic who have a much deeper understanding of one another and the challenges in relations among their countries than their predecessors did. 

Davis Module

Our Modules encourage students to ‘think big.’ Rather than focus narrowly on their own topics or puzzles, Consortium Fellows consider their research within the broader context of Euro-Atlantic relations. In this way, they can deepen our understanding of the causes and nature of the crisis between Russia and the West and identify innovative ways for overcoming it.  

2. Annual Conferences 

Annual Conferences bring together our six institutions, along with the European Leadership Network (ELN) comprised of policy elites, officials or law-makers and think-tank members from all three regions. Participants include UC Principals, UC Advisors, involved faculty, selected students, post-docs, ELN members and think-tank elites. Our conferences in Moscow (2016) and New York (2017) will consummate the year’s work and inspire further collective cooperation and publication. 

3. Internal Lectures and Seminar Programs

The University Consortium is committed to increasing the number of lectures and seminars at each of our member institutions on issues concerning Russia-West relations. These events, benefiting both students and faculty, supplement our universities’ regular curricula in order to support the work being done inside individual institutions, which in turn strengthens our joint work. New events will be scheduled throughout the year and across our network of member institutions.

4. Joint-Research Grant Program 

Grants are available to fund and facilitate research trips that promote joint – especially inter-regional–research projects (for publication and/or web posting) among our members, including UC faculty, graduate or post-doctoral students and policy-elites.

Activities to Date 

The University Consortium moves fast. In its first six months, it hosted three events: two Consortium Modules (last November at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute [read opening remarks here], and at Harvard University’s Davis Center in early February 2016) and an official Launch Conference (St Antony’s College, Oxford in February 2016). 

At the Harriman Module, Professor Dmitry Suslov of the Higher School of Economics delivered several lectures on Russian perceptions of relations with the West over the last 26 years and Russia’s understandings of the post-Cold War order. Offering firsthand exposure to Moscow’s side of the story, Suslov also co-taught a Master’s level seminar with Harriman Director Alexander Cooley and held daily office hours. This kind of intellectual immersion allowed students and faculty to grasp the real sources of each other’s foreign policies, correct the false narratives so prevalent in each of our countries, compare their countries’ disagreements, and identify points of commonality. ‘It was [an] amazing opportunity to get a more nuanced understanding of different arguments...’ (Ivan Loshkarev, MGIMO). 

The Harriman Module also held the UC’s first ‘Student Webinar,’ at which our Fellows shared their research and connected online with peers across our six other institutions. As UC Fellow, Ola McLees (Oxford), said about the Webinar, ‘I was quite amazed by the degree to which incorporating technology expands both the number of parties involved and the quality of debate.’ By the Module’s close, UC membership increased by 300% over original projections. 

Three months later, our second Module at the Davis Center presented lectures by MGIMO Professor Andrey Sushentsov. Five Consortium Fellows from MGIMO, HSE, Freie, Oxford and Columbia joined Dr. Sushentov for an intensive week of seminar courses, one keynote address, and a multitude of addresses by outside speakers. As a new initiative, the Davis Center and the UC invited five other students (from Stanford, Indiana University, and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) to attend the Module. These ten students, along with the Davis Center’s students, created a critical mass, generating lively, in-depth discussions. An historian, Dr Sushentsov offered lectures, stressing historical sources of Russia’s ambivalent identity and age-old vagaries in its perceptions of the West. Inother lectures, he assessed Russia’s current confrontation with Turkey, Russian strategy in Syria, and its crisis with Ukraine. The Module also featured lectures by other speakers, including Professor Rawi Abdelal (Davis Director and HBS), Dr Alexandra Vacroux (Davis), Professor Tim Colton (Davis), Professor Robert Legvold (Columbia), Dr Sam Charap (IISS), Dr Yuri Zhukov (U Michigan), Dr Uval Weber (HSE) and Dr Vladislav Inozemtsev. Finally, the week highlighted the UC’s second Student Webinar, at which our five students presented their work to the Davis Center and those connected online in Moscow, Berlin, Oxford and New York. In short, students reported that the Module was an extraordinary experience, deepening Western students’ grasp of the complexities of Russian perceptions and interests, while also enhancing Russian students’ understanding of US (and European) interests and perceptions. UC membership continues to climb, while our students continue dialogue via the online ‘UC Forum.’ Our next UC Module will take place at Freie Universität in Berlin in November 2016. 

Third, the UC Launch Conference at St Antony’s College took place on 26-27 February: ‘A Wasted 25 Years? Russia, the United States and the EU: Patterns of Confrontation and Cooperation.’ Dr Julie Newton (UC Principal Investigator) set the scene by introducing the Consortium’s mission and vision, followed by Robert Legvold’s keynote address, entitled ‘False Stories and the Damage They Do.’ The next day, Dr Andrey Kortunov (RIAC), Prof Vladimir Baranovsky (IMEMO), Prof Richard Sakwa (U of Kent) and Prof Deborah Larson (UCLA) discussed misperceptions and missteps on the path to building Greater/Wider Europe over the last 25 years. Then, it show-cased the UC’s hallmark ‘Student Webinar,’ at which four students analyzed their research topics within the context of Euro-Atlantic relations and took Tweeted questions from Berlin and Moscow. The third panel, consisting of Prof Roy Allison, Dr Dmitry Suslov, Dr Natasha Kuhrt, and Dr Mikhail Troitskiy (in absentia) looked for ways to broaden the security agenda by identifying areas for cooperation and possible synergies for the future. Finally, Prof Legvold offered an elegant summary of the entire conference, which many participants praised as ‘unusually interesting’ and an ‘important’ call to arms for the UC and the next generation of students to promote serious dialogue, advance Russian studies, and ‘think big’. Our next major event will be the Annual Conference (Moscow), presenting our cumulative research on the theme, ‘unpacking competing narratives.’ 

During this period of Russia-West confrontation when our governments have closed off most venues for serious dialogue, the University Consortium has an important role to play. As a new forum for engaging scholars, think-tank elites, former officials and some current officials across the Euro-Atlantic area, the Consortium is distinctly policy-relevant. But as this article suggests, its main focus is academic. By working to train a new generation of scholars who better understand the sources of the other side’s behaviour, the Consortium will deepen area studies knowledge of each other which is indispensible over the long term for enhancing the quality and effectiveness of Euro-Atlantic policies in all our countries.

Julie Newton is Visiting Fellow of Russian and Eurasian Studies, St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford (UK). She is also an Associate Professor in the Department of International and Comparative Politics at the American University of Paris and Associate Professor for the graduate programme taught jointly by the American University of Paris and the Institut Catholique.