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Remarks from our Faculty and Staff

Professor Eliot COHEN

Strat, SAIS and the World, 1990-2023
Strategic Studies Alumni Dinner
4 October 2023
John asked me to speak – briefly! – about how SAIS has changed since I came here in 1990, and how the world has changed with it.  I will do that, but I also want to add something else.

I want to talk about why the guy who created Strategic Studies ended up leading changes that would disestablish it as a department, though not as a living community.

I wanted to add that because this is my first opportunity to speak to Strat alumni and explain something that was difficult for me, and probably inexplicable to many of you. And actually, this story is linked with the other two.

Let me begin with it, in fact. In June 2019 I was serving as the school’s executive vice dean. I was surprised, to put it mildly, when I got a phone call from President Ron Daniels informing me that in three weeks time I would become Dean for two years. There was no would you consider, or could we ask you. Rather, it was an assignment that required an exception to the Board of Trustees’ normal rules. He had already secured that. He was in no mood to offer me a choice, and in his position I probably would not have been either.

SAIS was in crisis. The financial problem was acute: we were in a deep and structural deficit. Our acceptance rates of new applicants were embarrassingly high, while our yield rate (the percentage of students who accepted admission) was embarrassingly low. Our online education program had stalled, with six courses in the works but none actually live. And while the quality of Strat students had never been higher and their numbers greater, other departments and concentrations were in trouble. And I could go on.

In two years, working with a terrific team that I had the good fortune to find and build, we were able to reverse that and cope with COVID too. Part of that was a major reform that abolished all departments, bringing us closer to the practice of many professional schools, to include the Kennedy School and leading business and law schools. 

Now, Strategic Studies as a separate department had not existed for my first decade at the school, but this was still a wrench. It meant saying goodbye to the department, though not to any of the courses, extracurricular and co-curricular activities, and above all, the community that had been created over the years. This gathering is testament to that.

It was a question of putting the good of the whole institution ahead of my feelings about what was to my mind the best and most flourishing part of it. It was hard. 

But it wasn’t the hardest thing. The hardest, in the middle of a lethal pandemic, was meeting one on one with a lot of staff who had done nothing wrong and telling them their jobs were going away. It was having to tell a lot of adjunct and non-tenure track faculty who had given an enormous amount to the school that their contracts would not be renewed. 

That, my friends, was brutal. Nothing in my academic career had prepared me for it. But unfortunately, it too was necessary. 

So how did we end up in that fix? Well for that, we have to revert to the story of this school, and of the world that made it.

SAIS was, as you know the brainchild of two then young men, Paul Nitze and Christian Herter – one a Democrat, the other a Republican – in the midst of World War II. They foresaw that the United States would, in the aftermath of the war, be engaged globally in ways and at a level without precedent. They saw the need to train a new generation for those challenges, and so they created SAIS in the middle of World War II. They did that on a shoestring, and with an entering class of only a few dozen students.

SAIS remained an independent institution for seven years, so as a result, it was a bit like Texas, marked permanently by a period of being on its own. In 1950 it became part of Johns Hopkins, but it was a bit of an isolated oddity in the university, an outpost in Washington DC, and of course later on Bologna and Nanjing as well. From an administrative point of view it was still held together with duct tape and baling wire, being rescued from the odd financial crisis by a check written by Paul Nitze. That mom-and-pop delicatessen feel was part of the school’s charm and spontaneity; they were also a long term problem.

I first encountered the old SAIS in the mid-1970’s as a graduate student, serving as a rapporteur for a faculty seminar conducted by my mentor, Samuel Huntington, and Robert Osgood, one of the leading figures here and a former Dean as well. I remember thinking, “this is the place I would like to end up” – and so I was thrilled when that happened a bit more than a decade later.

Bits of the old SAIS were still around when I joined the school in 1990. Intellectually, SAIS was a product of the postwar period but also of the Cold War. Its central subjects were American foreign policy, European politics with a somewhat grudging nod towards Asia as well as, of course, economics.

The SAIS of the early 1990’s had adapted to the world, but in a characteristically haphazard way. There had been a flowering of regional studies – Professor Roett in Latin American studies, for example, Professor Ajami in Middle Eastern studies, but there was a lingering sense that SAIS was about “high foreign policy” – American foreign policy, NATO, and national security issues, as well as a very traditional kind of international relations theory. It made for entertaining if not entirely comfortable snide remarks by the opposing sides at faculty meetings.

From an administrative point of view, we were part of Johns Hopkins, although you had to look pretty closely at the stationery to see that name. As long as Hopkins provided our pensions, healthcare and interlibrary loan there was not all that much unhappiness about Baltimore being thirty miles away.

Underneath, of course, a lot of things were changing. International students, for example: they were about a quarter of the student body when I arrived. New fields of inquiry, including, in an increasingly serious way, international development as well as conflict management, and then later, in a more hesitant way, environmental issues. And gradually, an increasing administrative burden as entirely new functions like information technology came along.

Then the world changed momentously, with the end of the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact, and the Soviet Union itself. For a time the school was unclear about its mission. Some faculty and alumni worried about SAIS becoming a kind of Wharton for international finance and business, but with a few more political and cultural awareness classes. Soon enough, however, it became clear that the world was going to pose an array of challenges, from the rise of China, to climate change, to terrorism, to civil war and beyond that we would have to incorporate into the curriculum.

As that world became more complicated and more difficult, our subjects became less easily divisible between “domestic” and “international,” “economic” and “political,” “transnational” and “traditional,” SAIS also began to run into the limits of its haphazard organization. It had half a dozen big problems:

  • It had a haphazard administrative infrastructure for a school that had more and more moving parts, and that faced increasing demands for services, from health care to internet access, career counseling to recruitment. That infrastructure had been patched together on our own, without a master plan and without much notice from central Johns Hopkins.

  • It had paid for improved services and new office and classroom space by recruiting more and more students, which meant that systems that had once made sense – a joint oral exam in a field and economics for all students – were no longer workable. That steady growth in the student body created a kind of clogging of the academic arteries.

  • SAIS was increasingly, if painfully, integrating itself into the rest of the university, a process which is still very much underway, but for which there was no road map, and not always a great deal of appetite among the faculty;

  • We were justifiably proud of our history, but had never benchmarked ourselves against other schools – and in fact, we were unaware of just what a tough competitive environment we faced, and how some of our unique advantages had eroded.

  • We were running into the fact that not all students wanted a two-year common in-residence degree, and so new degree programs had begun to grow up, further balkanizing a school that at the end had nineteen different departments.

  • And above all, we had a faculty model that no longer worked.

SAIS, one of your number once said to me, is like Afghanistan. Every valley has its own warlord. When I came to SAIS I became one, and quite a happy valley we had, large, fertile, rich with plunder and administered with severe but impartial justice. 

But in truth, the model of having a full professor willing to serve for thirty years as, in effect, a kind of department chairman, conscientiously taking on a permanent administrative burden while also teaching and publishing, was breaking down. 

The late David Calleo was willing to do that. Riordan Roett and Fouad Ajami were willing to do that. I was willing to do that. Younger academics today are not willing to do that.

What had worked for a faculty of nineteen tenured faculty when I joined it – by the way, all but one male, and all of them white – no longer worked for a faculty almost twice that size, with a considerable stable of tenure-tracked professors to boot.

And on top of it all, we faced a demographic crisis common to many universities, as faculty tenured in the 1960’s and 1970’s lingered on, crowding out younger talent.

It’s not surprising that the school encountered a crisis, even as it sought to renew and expand its faculty. I am glad that I was able to help us come out of that crisis with a balanced budget, new concentrations and courses, and an organization that is, as the Brits like to say, fit for purpose.

The change will not end there. 

Winston Churchill famously said, First we make our buildings, and then our buildings make us.That will be true of 555 Pennsylvania Avenue as well. The SAIS that has its home here, in a Johns Hopkins building, rather than the three decrepit – and I do mean decrepit – SAIS buildings on Mass Ave. will be different. 

The university has announced that it will create a public policy entity at 555; I should not be surprised if that entity, which may become a school, merges with SAIS, even as we see more students in our classrooms who are co-enrolled at Krieger, Carey Business School and the other divisions of the university. 

SAIS will evolve as an institution. And please understand that while I am so very fond of the SAIS I knew, and even nostalgic for some parts of it, I favor that. I’m just glad I don’t have to be the guy to carry it forward, that’s all.

This is head spinning stuff about just this school, I know.

On top of that, consider all that is happening in the outside world – from the January 6th riot down the street, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to the eruption of AI on the world scene, to climate change as a palpably disruptive force in the world, to the rise of India and the demographic explosion of Africa – these developments and many more should also make our heads spin.

But that, in fact, makes me believe that the SAIS mission of raising a new generation of leaders to tackle the world’s problems is all the more important and all the more relevant.

In an age when too many academics have retreated into pedantry and disciplinary obscurity, I believe that a SAIS scholarship that is deeply engaged with the world of practice is critical. We have the responsibility not only to teach about the world as it is, but to give our students the skills to operate in it.

And I think that many of the old things – the deep but eclectic mix of history, political science, psychology, anthropology and yes, even economics that SAIS has always offered is, if anything, more valuable than ever before.

When I came to SAIS I changed the Strategic Studies curriculum in what was then a very small sub-program numbering sixteen people (only one of them female, by the way). I got outraged letters from alumni who thought that it was a terrible mistake not to stay focused on superpower arms control negotiations. I ignored those letters.

Today, I think I am leaving behind a curriculum that remains disturbingly relevant. I periodically take out my copy of Clausewitz On War and think, He has a lot to teach us about Ukraine. And where that curriculum is not relevant, there is a large group of faculty who will cheerfully modify it, supplement or even supplant some of it. And that’s fine too.  

Well, within reason, that’s fine!

Most of all, though, I believe that the sense of community that all of us built together, and that we all cherish, will survive, because so many of the experiences remain – demanding courses, remarkable speakers, staff rides and field trips, all driven by student interest, student curiosity and student initiative and supported by engaged faculty.

It is very rare in life if you are part of a great institution like Johns Hopkins University, to be able to conclude a career saying with confidence, I made a difference. But I think I can, although only because I had such good fortune in working with so many outstanding faculty, administrators and students over the years.

And with that, I want to conclude by expressing gratitude to just a few of those whose joint labor this was.

Thayer McKell, the warm and gracious heart of the program. For decades, if Strategic Studies was a welcoming place to be, if we could juggle more activities than other departments combined, it was because of her. She made those offices a home for all of us.

Andy Bacevich, Tom Keaney, and John McLaughlin, three deeply experienced, completely committed and profoundly wise mentors who not only took care of the program, but were always my trusted counselors and guides. And who, let us remember, served this country in war with courage and honor.

All of the adjunct faculty who have contributed to our offerings, many of them here tonight, and administrators like Marie Foster who have carried on the detailed work. 

The donors, particularly the Merrill Family and Fuhrmanns, whose support has been so generous and so indispensable.

All of the deans from George Packard to Paul Wolfowitz, Jessica Einhorn to Vali Nasr and now Jim Steinberg who created an environment that encouraged innovation and experimentation, and who made it easy for me not only to build this program, but to engage in public service as well as an academic career.

During all of my career Judy, who put up with a lot of camping trips, decades of mass student brunches on Mother’s Day, and some pretty strange adventures and house guests.

And above all, you. 

Surprising as it may sound, I in no way regret bringing my formal teaching career to a close, but that is because what I had was so wonderful for over three decades. I am grateful for what you taught me and each other, for what you have done, and for the way that you continue to inspire me.

And for those who say I should have kept going, I will just say that I am very glad as well, that I will never overhear any of you saying to a new student, I know, I know, but you should have seen the Old Man in his prime. I hope you will be glad of that too.
So finally, thank you, my friends. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Professor Thomas G. MAHNKEN

When I think of Strategic Studies at SAIS, I think of three things: the classroom experience, the experience our students have learning outside the classroom, and the experience of being part of a larger Strategic Studies community that includes both students and alumni. As I recently told the Strategic Studies Alumni Council prior to the Strat Alumni Dinner, Strategic Studies is thriving in all three areas. 
First, I could recount any number of classroom experiences from recent years, but the one that strikes me the most occurred on February 24th, 2022. I was scheduled to teach a session of a new intelligence course that John McLaughlin, Thomas Rid, and I had developed, and the topic that I had chosen for that day was “Intelligence and War”. I had assigned classic readings by Michael Handel, John Keegan, and others, but on the evening of the 23rd it became apparent that I would have to throw away my lesson plan and start anew. What ensued that day was one of the most incredible teaching experiences of my career as we all grappled with the Russian invasion of Ukraine – what we thought we knew and didn’t know 24 hours prior, what we now thought we knew and didn’t know, and how things might evolve from there.  It was a shared experience the students and I will never forget.
Second, I could similarly discuss any number of enriching experiences that occurred outside the classroom, but since staff rides have been so central to the SAIS Strategic Studies experience for so long, let me recount an incident on a recent staff ride that involved Tom Keaney and myself. We were looking at the Richmond/Petersburg campaign at the end of the Civil War. One of the students was from Syria - in fact, he had just returned from his war-torn homeland to participate in the staff ride. At one point we came to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and this student asked the sort of simple yet probing question that recurs time and time again when we seriously contemplate history: “Why didn't the North seek vengeance on the South for killing Lincoln?” It was a great question, and the discussion that followed demonstrated once again how powerful staff rides can be as educational tools. 
Finally, let me say something about the SAIS Strat community more broadly, to include us alumni as well as future alumni. At the end of last summer, my son, who is a senior at the College of William & Mary who is studying international relations and history, asked me what the new building was like. He had some treasured memories of the Rome and Nitze buildings, and he wanted to know what 555 Penn was like. After he repeated the questions two or three times over the course of days, I decided to take him to the new building to show him. 
We headed out fairly late on a hot, humid August night, and the building was anything but complete. As a matter of fact, when we arrived, there was a full crew working hard to get the building into shape for the beginning of classes the following week. We walked through the building, exploring the common spaces, examining the classrooms, and sizing up my office. I had my own views, but I didn't want to inflict them on him. I've learned as a parent that there are times when it's best to just keep one's mouth shut, and this was one of those times. 
We spent probably about an hour exploring the new building, walking on the terrace, and taking in the skyline. As we pulled out of the parking lot to head home, I finally asked him, 
“What did you think of it?” He responded, enthusiastically and unhesitatingly, “I think it's great!” And then it hit me: he was the same age that I was when I first walked into the lobby of the Nitze Building and fell in love with SAIS, and if he liked the new building that was all that mattered to me. If his view is indicative, then we have a very bright future as a Strategic Studies community.

Mrs. Thayer McKELL

​​I want to thank the Alumni Advisory Committee for the opportunity to express my sentiments for the time I spent at SAIS and to thank you for the recognition I received, along with Dr. Cohen, at the 2023 Alumni Dinner. 

The twenty-two and a half years at SAIS were truly a wonderful experience for me and one I will always cherish. It gave me the opportunity to interact with students with young impressionable minds from all over the U.S. as well as many foreign countries. Also, the opportunity of working with some of the most distinguished and knowledgeable faculty members in their respective fields. 

After you entered SAIS as first year students, some were terrified and concerned whether you would make it to graduation while others were confident that the journey would be challenging but they were up for the task. 

Watching students receive their first marked Strategy and Policy papers which contained the red sharpie notes made by the professor. The look of disappointment and disbelief on many of your faces was priceless. Quite often you would come to my office and ask for help with reading some of the comments, and then, the next question was when does Dr. Cohen have an opening for an appointment. I can happily say after many visits to the office, all of you completed the course with feelings of accomplishment and strong confidence in your writing abilities.

Together we have done some twenty-one international staff rides and approximately forty plus domestic staff rides. Let us not forget the Speaker Series, the Film Series, Quantico and trips to various military bases, the CIA, APL, and many other events. Our military students taught me so much about what military life is like, and I will always have fond memories of their “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am” responses. 
I also want to thank the members of the faculty that I have had the privilege of working with and receiving your tutelage. They are one of the most distinguished, knowledgeable, and outstanding faculties at SAIS who always put you, their students, first. 

As you became graduates it was always a pleasure to have your return and give us an update on your careers. As I learn, and in some cases, read about your accomplishments I am always proud that I hopefully help in a tiny way to your success.

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