A Global System for Graduate Education?

An interview with the president of the Central European University, John Shattuck

John Shattuck in Bosnia, 1996 (Corrine Dufka/Reuters)

When John Shattuck first stepped out of the esteemed halls of Yale Law in 1970, even his wildest expectations could not have predicted the next four decades of his career. Whether it’s been Watergate, the Bosnian war or the Rwandan Genocide, he's made a career out of protecting civil rights both locally and abroad. Never one for stagnation either, he’s repeatedly switched lanes as well, giving him the kind of varied experience that he believes has led him on the path he’s on today.

Shattuck started as a civil rights attorney working specifically on the infamous Watergate scandal that would eventually lead to the impeachment of President Nixon. He would try his own hand at governance and international affairs, at times becoming a panacea of sorts for some of the biggest international crises in the '90s. In 1993 he was nominated by President Bill Clinton as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. He would eventually play significant roles in the U.N.’s formation of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia. He also worked on the negotiation of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which put an end to the war in Bosnia. Under Clinton he was also appointed as the U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic in 1998, working closely with the Czech government in their preparation for their ascension to NATO.

Now, he’s at the helm of the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. As president and rector—not to mention professor at its graduate school—he’s facing a new set of challenges with the same vigor and drive that’s made fighting for human rights such a core pillar of his career. Recently during his brief stay in D.C., Shattuck spoke to me about his career path, what’s missing in higher education, and how he gets shy students to say what’s on their minds.

Terrance F. Ross: You’ve had an extensive career that’s crossed many different fields—from fighting for civil rights, both here and abroad, to your work in government. Now you moved onto the field of education. How has your own education experience contributed to your growth?

John Shattuck: My lessons have come as much during my career as from the time I was being educated. I had a very fine education but the way in which I learned to put my education to work came more through two aspects of my career. First, as a civil rights lawyer I was actively involved in trying to help people whose civil rights or freedoms of speech had been violated. I happened to be starting my career at the time of the famous Watergate scandal. One of my earlier career activities was to make sure that civil liberties were not undermined. I represented some of the people whose telephones had been wiretapped, and we won the case against the government. That was a lesson in how to make law actually work to the benefit of the people. Later on in my career I was in government; as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights I saw the worst side of humanity as an investigator of the genocide in Rwanda. Also, I was the first international diplomat to reach the survivors of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia in 1995, so my view of how human nature works was very complicated by seeing those and many other examples. I wondered if law and education and policy could prevent human nature from getting into these horrific vices that I saw. Those experiences have helped me in my role as an educator.

Ross: So would you argue that your experience in foreign policy in particular had a large impact?

Shattuck: I would say so. I truly believe in bringing people together and giving them a common educational experience from many different backgrounds and points of view. I think this is the most stimulating form of education one could have. So we are building the Central European University (CEU) as the model for this kind of non-national, multiple-perspective education program.

Ross: You’ve moved around not only jobs but also industries throughout your career. Were you unfulfilled or just constantly intrigued by new opportunities?

Shattuck: Well I do think—and I teach my students the same as well—that it’s important to get out there, do a variety of things in the world, and do as well as you can while responding to the challenges that are presented to you. That’s what I’ve tried to do, and I think there was a natural progression from my interests in the rights of Americans to, ultimately, international human rights, where I started realizing that the United States is obviously only one part of the world, and it was important to raise my consciousness on a more global stage.

Ross: Let’s talk a bit about the CEU.  You started as president of the university in 2009 and you’ve spoken in the past about the university’s research arm. In fact, CEU is often described as a “research-intensive” institution. What exactly does this mean? And how does it differentiate from what other graduate schools do?

Shattuck: We are a university that specializes in social sciences, humanities, history, public policy, business, and law. All of our research is essentially directed at trying to find a resolution to public-policy problems. We have an excellent environmental sciences department that is doing research on global warming; six of members of our faculty were on the U.N. team at the annual assessment of the state of climate change. We have a school of public policy that is working with refugees in Turkey from Syria who are interested in figuring out how to rebuild their cities once the catastrophe is over. We’re very heavily aimed towards solutions. Much of our work is in problem-solving—that’s the kind of university we are.

Ross: How’s this research being implemented currently at the university?

Shattuck: We just announced a new initiative last month, and basically the concept is that democracy is in trouble in many parts of the world, including here in the United States and certainly in Europe. The constitutional framework of the American democracy is challenged right now in many ways—from the partisan nature of our politics, to the influence of money. And then when you look at the part of the world that I’m in—Central and Eastern Europe—you don’t have to look very far to see what’s happening in Russia. You have Putin claiming he’s a democrat because he was elected by the people, but he is an autocrat and is taking over various elements of the state. That model becomes attractive to others. What we are doing with our Frontiers of Democracy program is to look with a very open mind at all of the challenges that democracy is facing. Why is it attractive for the autocratic model to come to fruition on the population of a particular country? Why is constitutional democracy struggling in so many different ways? The extraordinary part of it is that the demand for democracy coming from grassroots all over the world is enormous—from what’s happening in Hong Kong today, to what’s happened in Kiev, and certainly the Arab Spring phenomenon. So the demand is huge. We are going to look at experiments in democracy and democratic governance that is actually working better in various places—new ways of doing things. For example, recently we had a visit from the president of Mongolia.  Here’s a country that’s caught between Russia and China, and one can’t imagine that it would become a democracy. But it has, because it’s experimenting with local ways of stimulating participation in public rights and politics. This is an example of an exciting new frontier of democracy.

Ross: Let’s step into the classroom. You still teach a course at CEU—what’s your experience like in that setting? Are there any unique challenges you’ve faced teaching such a diverse group of students?

Shattuck: Most international students have no sense of how the U.S. government works and that it’s really a government that’s divided almost by definition. There is a Congress, there is the presidency, there are courts, and there is the whole executive branch system. When there is a policy that’s evolving—for example, a policy which evolves slowly such as the Vietnam War, or the response to terrorism after 9/11—there isn’t a monolithic single “American response.” There are all these various elements. Of course the president takes a leadership role but he has to spend time with the Congress or he won’t get anything done. And Congress will often have some influence on presidential decision making. And the court systems in the United States, they don’t understand that the courts actually have a significant say in how American foreign policy develops.

Another thing I see from foreign students: they actually don’t know about universities that talk things through. They assume you are going to lecture to them and you are going to give them whatever they need to learn. And what we teach them is in fact that it’s not the case at all. We have a highly interactive classroom so we have teachers that are questioning the professor and questioning each other. And that’s, I think, a particularly American pedagogical contribution to education.

Ross: Expand a bit on that—do some of your students’ struggle to adapt to this “newfound” opportunity to be actively involved in the learning process?

Shattuck: Absolutely. You really have to draw them out. The way that I do it is that in my class—and I think this is fairly typical of all our faculty—is that I have them do a lot of role-play. Say we’re taking the issue of the Cuban missile crisis: I actually have the students play the roles of various of members of President Kennedy’s cabinet, asking of different ways of responding to it, an airstrike or an embargo or what have you. They prepare statements and debate the pros and cons. That draws them out even if they did not previously want to raise their hands.

Ross: So the CEU is taking a wholly international approach?

Shattuck: We want to be fully digital and accessible worldwide. We have a program that we are doing jointly with 12 other universities. What’s really interesting is that some of these universities are in countries that are highly repressive with very difficult political environments, and the participants can be a little more open when they are doing this online or through video than if they were in person. It’s part of a global network. I think there is a global system of education that’s beginning to emerge.

Ross: Is this where you see the future of graduate education worldwide?

Shattuck: Yes. And in a sense we are sort of the forerunners of that—both literally and virtually. We are the only university that I know that’s not only international but non-national. We have students from over 100 countries, with no dominant nationality. If you’re at the Kennedy School of Government you know it will be an international setting, and there will be a lot of foreign students, but that’s what you think of them—as “foreign students.” At our university everyone is “foreign.” There is no majority population, so that creates a physical environment of international and non-national exchange. I teach in the field of Law and International Relations—I have students from 22 countries in a class of 25 students—so you walk into a classroom and I get different opinions from everyone.

In my class I asked the students to give a solution to the problem: How can the world get out of this terrible bloodbath that’s going on in Syria? My best student last year wrote a brilliant paper which drew upon what he learned in class and how the U.S. is dealing with it. But then he brought in a Russian perspective and the pride of the Russian state in reasserting itself in the world, particularly in the U.N. Security Council. So he did a negotiating strategy for Russia and the United States and how they would work together to solve the problem.

Ross: What are some of the challenges that the CEU is dealing with in particular?

Shattuck: There are quite a number of challenges. There’s a demographic problem in Central Asia and Central Europe. There is a reduced number of students who are in the cohort or the age group that’s seeking education. That’s been a practical demand challenge. In contrast there is a surge in demand in applications from Africa, Latin America and certainly parts of Asia as well. I think that there’s also a challenge for some universities to teach students things that are going to be useful in their careers. How do we assure that we are giving them the skills that they need to be able to work in these areas? For example, we have excellent training in academic fields preparing people for careers as teachers, but we also give you skills that you need to have to be managers or to work with their colleagues. When you go into education now, you need to be able to deal with others. So I think a lot of universities, ours included, need to look hard to make sure their students have the skills.

Another challenge is that we are living in a time when so many basic ways in which we expected the world would be governed now are proving not to be the case. Terrorism is on the rise, we have disaffection from government in society, and huge disparities of wealth between the rich and the poor countries and within the rich countries. All of these issues need to be tackled in a direct way by our education systems. They are being tackled by individual faculty members often but not necessarily by whole institutions.

Ross: Would you say that addressing these global challenges, like terrorism and political freedoms, head on is the mantra of your university?

Shattuck: We teach our students to think critically, to question what it is that is happening in the world around them and to try to find solutions to those problems. That’s using intellectual freedom in a critical way. The university was founded in 1991 at a time when there was limited intellectual freedom in Central and Eastern Europe. This is part of the world that had been successfully dominated by fascism and communism, so there was basically this problem-solving approach ingrained in us and there was no intellectual freedom. Our goal is to bring critical thinking to bear on contemporary problems.

Ross: At the graduate-school level much of what is taught can be theoretical; sometimes the material may not even be applicable in a contemporary, real-world setting. Are graduate universities falling short in this regard?

Shattuck: I think all universities, if they are doing their jobs, are teaching people to think critically—that’s the whole point about education. There may be some, however, that are not sufficiently connecting the real world with the academic world, and I think that’s a challenge. One of the things that I think is not emphasized enough in many universities is teaching. We’ve made it one of the three pillars of our university, the other two being research and service. Excellent teaching is the way to developing critical thinking. We insist that all faculty members at the CEU emphasize teaching as much as the other things that they’re doing, and we give awards for good teaching. We also emphasize some of these role-playing and other types of pedagogical ways of engaging students in the classroom. We are highly interactive in our approach to education and I think that’s something that’s missing in other universities. We tend not to have any really big lecture courses.

In the end, the interaction between two people or a larger group of people is really what education is all about. Yes, there are topics and subjects, but it’s really about having an individual work with another or a group of individuals. Having them all engaged makes the difference, and having an exciting teacher, someone who knows a lot but can also bring a lot out of the student—that is the key. I can’t say we are always this way by any means, but that’s the goal. We have individuals in the classroom, and one just happens to be a teacher, and the others just happen to be students.

Ross: So what’s next on the frontier for international higher education?

Shattuck: We have a number of approaches to the future. We are developing partnerships with other universities. We expect to be the hub of a group of partner institutions that are engaged in critical thinking, democracy, human rights, and open society—which is really at the core of what the university is about. I think that’s the future of international higher education: Not so much these universities based in the United States that are building campuses overseas—that’s not my vision of the future. My vision is connecting different students and universities virtually. We’re also increasingly bringing to the CEU people with practical experience in addition to academic experience, so connecting up the theory and practice. Many members of our faculty have worked in organizations such as the World Bank and the U.N. international crisis group or local NGOs, so they have the current hands on experience that I myself had. Still, we are not distancing ourselves from the academics—on the contrary. We know that it’s important. We aim for careful, critical thinking drawn from the academic world as well as the practical one.