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Reflections on Fulbright University Vietnam: How Should We Engage With Other Asian Liberal Arts Institutions?

All PostsOpinionReflections on Fulbright University Vietnam: How Should We Engage With Other Asian Liberal Arts Institutions?

story | Ai Huy Luu, Guest Writer

photo | Jeannette Ickovics

In April 2019, a delegation of Yale-NUS College faculty members were present at Fulbright University Vietnam’s (FUV) inaugural conference titled “New Approaches to University Education in Asia”. As one of the more established liberal arts colleges in the region, Yale-NUS sharing best practices with the newer kids on the block makes perfect sense. In many ways, FUV resembles Yale-NUS. Both schools position themselves as global-minded learning communities located in Asia. Beyond that, these schools also bring the liberal arts tradition to places that have prioritized technical skills. In challenging local perceptions of what universities should and can be, both FUV and Yale-NUS seek to inspire pedagogical innovations that disrupt conventional classroom dynamics.

Yet, it is important to note that Yale-NUS and FUV exist in very different contexts and have their own unique institutional dynamics. The problems with FUV go beyond the usual “liberal education in illiberal regime” critique levelled against liberal arts colleges in Asia. It would be reductive to view liberal arts institutions in the region through the same paradigm.

America’s legacy in Vietnam — both its violent and benevolent manifestations — besets FUV’s founding. FUV is a product of the Vietnam War, and now functions as a site through where American foreign policy interests continue to unfold. Admittedly, there is much to be said about American cultural power and Yale-NUS, however, FUV bears a much more direct relationship to the workings of American foreign policy through the support it receives from the U.S.  Department of State. My criticism is aimed at the American politicians and administrators involved in FUV, and I am in no way criticizing FUV’s students and faculty members.

The FUV grew out of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, which is a center for public policy research and teaching in Vietnam affiliated to the Harvard Kennedy School and funded by the U.S. Department of State. FUV is also partially funded through a debt repayment program between U.S. and Vietnam. The current Vietnamese regime inherited debt obligations towards the U.S. from the South Vietnamese regime. Rather than forcing the Vietnamese government to repay these debts, Vietnam war veterans in the Senate instead channelled the funds towards educating Vietnamese students. This information casts doubt on America’s involvement with the FUV — are the intentions as altruistic as they sound?

On May 23 2016, Barack Obama formally announced that FUV will begin operation in Fall 2016, after the Vietnamese government granted the school its license to operate. Subsequently, the school was officially launched a few days later by then-Secretary of State John Kerry. Besides the school’s funding, FUV also received immense political support from war veterans such as John Kerry and Bob Kerrey, as well as the Obama administration at large. During the launch, Kerry hailed the school as a symbol of U.S.-Vietnam reconciliation, saying it represents “the next big step forward.” Yet, the school’s biggest controversy thus far puts this claim to the test.

Despite Bob Kerrey’s involvement in a civilian massacre in Thanh Phong village as a Navy SEAL officer during his time in Vietnam, he was appointed Chairman of FUV’s Board of Trustees. Even as his appointment triggered much public outrage in Vietnam, Kerrey refused to step down, maintaining the belief that he was doing his best to help bring about a better future for Vietnam. Thomas Vallely, a senior adviser at the Harvard Kennedy School, was surprised by the backlash and considered Kerrey’s involvement in Thanh Phong an “asset”. He even hailed Kerrey as a “hero” because of how he handled the Thanh Phong revelations “with moral fiber,” thereby “offering experience that no one else can.”

While Kerrey eventually did quietly step aside, his immediate response and those of his peers speak volumes about how the American side perceives FUV — as a feel-good display of American goodwill towards a former enemy. The discourse of reconciliation has revolved around the moral redemption of American veterans, while ignoring the Vietnamese victims who continue to suffer from the war’s legacy. Thanh Phong’s villages never received direct compensation for the massacre. This episode was a missed opportunity for the American side to redress painful wartime legacies and bring about restorative justice. Instead, all that was expressed was a disingenuous non-apology.

Beyond the Kerrey debacle, it is unclear which country or institution “owns” FUV. Who will bear responsibility for FUV and see to its success? It is not a partnership between the two governments, neither is it a collaboration between the two institutions. Publicly available information suggests that FUV is not the product of an equal and collaborative partnership. As two members of the Fulbright team say, the Vietnamese government sees it as a “U.S. government project, even though it is nominally independent and private.” However, given that the project received strong support from the Obama administration, the school’s fate is unclear under the Donald Trump administration. U.S.-Vietnam relations improved rapidly under the Obama administration under the “Pivot to East Asia” strategy, while the current administration no longer takes the same level of interest in the region. The Trump administration has undertaken policies that are jeopardizing U.S.-Vietnamese relations, including attempts to deport Vietnamese refugees, many of whom were fleeing political and economic persecution after the fall of the South Vietnamese regime, which was supported by America. Ted Osius, former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, announced his resignation 6 months into joining FUV as Vice-President in June 2018. He previously left his post as U.S. ambassador over his disagreement with Trump’s plans to deport Vietnamese refugees. This might not be the smoking gun that proves FUV’s precariousness, but it still points to the school’s uneasy relationship to American foreign policy agendas.

Since I do not have enough information to present the perspectives of faculty members present at FUV’s conference, I want to focus on how we can approach this as a collective community. While I do not know what the future relationship between Yale-NUS and FUV will look like, I do hope that going forward, Yale-NUS can engage with FUV more carefully. Beyond my personal anger at the Bob Kerrey debacle, FUV’s claim as an independent institution is also rather questionable. Do we want to engage with an institution that is complicit in perpetuating America’s imperialistic foreign policies in Vietnam? We have done some pretty extensive self-reflection on our institution and the power dynamics at play. Hence, I hope we can extend the same reflexivity to our future interactions with FUV. This is not because Yale-NUS has some sort of moral high ground, but because we take pride in being critical thinkers who are vocal about the inequities and injustices that we witness. We do a disservice to ourselves and to others if we assume all liberal arts institutions in Asia share the same experience.

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