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?