University News

Amid upheaval, Watson examines mission

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Watson Institute for International Studies is reevaluating its mission as it seeks to hire a new director, narrow its focus areas for research and clarify its role in undergraduate teaching.

This debate is not new — the Watson Institute has questioned its direction and purpose since the Cold War ended. But the March resignation of Michael Kennedy, the institute’s current director, the February redesign of the international relations concentration and  an external review last fall have reinvigorated the debate.

Discussions between the University and the Watson Institute over the next two years will “redirect staffing and develop a clearer idea of specific goals,” President Ruth Simmons told the Undergraduate Council of Students earlier this month, according to UCS meeting minutes.

The institute is in “serious trouble,” said Abbott Gleason, professor emeritus of history, who directed the Watson Institute between 1999 and 2000. Gleason worked at the Watson Institute’s predecessor, the Institute for International Studies, when it was originally established in 1986.

“It’s lost its way,” he said, adding that “neither the students nor the faculty know any longer what they want.”

Unclear aims

The University is legally bound to align the Watson Institute’s goals with those expressed in an agreement with the Watson family, which dates back to when the institute was originally endowed with gifts from the Watsons and other donors, Simmons told UCS.

Lucinda Watson P’03, a member of the institute’s Board of Overseers and daughter of its namesake, Thomas Watson Jr. ’37, does not have that founding agreement and does not know what it outlines, she said. Still, she believes Simmons is “dedicated” to restoring the Watson Institute’s original mission and “hanging on” to the document. The Herald was unable to access a copy of the document, which is not stored in the University archives.

The institute’s mission has “gotten foggy” in the years since it was founded, Watson said. “Most of us who are involved with the institute would like to see the direction … clarified.”

People have discussed what the Watson Institute’s purpose should be “since the end of the Cold War,” Gleason said. One of Thomas Watson Jr.’s goals in founding the Watson Institute was preventing conflict between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

Specifically, the Watson Institute is examining its areas of focus for research — a discussion that came out of an external review last fall, said David McKinney P’80 P’82 P’89, chair of the Board of Overseers. Such reviews are normal for academic institutes and departments, he said.

The review committee, which consisted of evaluators from Princeton, Boston University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was “complimentary” of the institute, McKinney said. But the committee also said the University could get more “leverage” by focusing on a few areas, McKinney said, rather than spreading itself over many and not making a “significant contribution” to any.

The Watson Institute might have lost sight of its focus because of its academic nature, Watson said. “I think that what happens is if you are in academia and you are always wanting to examine every possible area of interest, often you lose the specific focus of what the institute started being about in the first place,” she said.

Newell Stultz, professor emeritus of political science who worked at the Watson Institute when it was founded, called this period of reevaluation a “good moment” for the Watson Institute.

“A new vision will be laid down and will be considered as it hasn’t been in the past,” he said. “The future will owe much to what is about to occur or what is already occurring.”

Watson, a history

The Watson Institute resulted from a union between the Center for Foreign Policy Development and other existing centers for international studies, Stultz said.

Originally called the Institute for International Studies, it was renamed in the late 1980s for Thomas Watson Jr. upon then-President Howard Swearer’s request.

Though located on campus, the Center for Foreign Policy Development was not “actually part of Brown,” Stultz said. It focused mostly on preventing nuclear war, while international studies at the University was a “modest” activity. The international relations concentration, for instance, had virtually “no budget at all,” he said.

Stultz said he was inspired by a visit to Yale’s international studies institute, which compiled its international programs in one place. He brought the idea to Swearer, and the discussion bore the Council for International Studies in the late 1970s and the Watson Institute a decade later.

But Stultz said the institute’s mission has changed over time.

“Frankly, when this thing began — what is it now, 25 years ago — the principle was to put more resources in the pockets of units that were already in existence,” he said. Over time, “ambitions developed to create in the institute its own independent research agenda.”

Gleason agreed that the Watson Institute has grown since its “intellectually carefree” days, when there was a small staff and “hostility to disciplinary barriers.”

“The institution has become less successful and driven with intellectual schisms and faculty infighting and lack of leadership,” he said. He attributed this change to the institute’s natural maturation, but also to a “series of unsuccessful appointments,” though he did not specify which appointments he considers unsuccessful.

Recent upheaval

Much of the institute’s research structure was “dismantled” under Kennedy’s predecessor, David Kennedy ’76, said Patrick Heller, professor of sociology and international studies. David Kennedy served as the institute’s interim director between 2008 and 2009.

When David Kennedy came in, Heller said, the institute had four research programs with a “long tradition,” a core faculty and an established faculty governance structure and budget. But David Kennedy wanted the institute to grant tenure to professors — a motion blocked by University faculty — and to bring international legal scholars to the institute.

“David Kennedy came and had a very different vision of what this place was,” Heller said.

David Kennedy also attempted to implement a legal studies program at Watson, a move unpopular with faculty and administrators, The Herald reported in 2009. Faculty members critiqued David Kennedy for his desire to establish a law school at the institute, according to the article.

David Kennedy resigned in June 2009 and was succeeded by Michael Kennedy, no relation, who announced in March his intention to step down at the end of this academic year.

“The Watson Institute has seen four directors step down over the course of six years. This suggests the importance of attending to some structural issues leading to so many changes,” Michael Kennedy wrote in an email to The Herald. “My resignation allows the University administration and Watson’s Board of Overseers to focus on those longstanding challenges.”

Lucinda Watson  suggested Michael Kennedy resigned to give the Watson Institute a fresh start. “I think he felt that the institute was at a crisis point, and the best thing might be to have a new slate,” she said.

But once the Watson Institute clarifies its mission, a new director may have less freedom to define the institute.

“If there’s a fresh start with a clear vision created and with everyone feeling a consensus, we’ll be able to go forward with a leader,” Watson said.

New areas of focus

There is an “emerging consensus” that the Watson Institute needs to maintain a sense of independence even while remaining “embedded” within the existing research initiatives at the University, Heller said.

In particular, he sai
d, it is “difficult to conceive” of a Watson Institute that does not emphasize security as one of its major areas of strength in research. Security, one of the Watson Institute’s historical emphases, is mentioned in the institute’s first-ever annual report, issued for the 1989-90 academic year.

Though McKinney said having three or four areas of focus for the institute “makes a lot of sense,” he cannot know what they should be until the Board of Overseers examines the institute, talks to faculty and names a new interim director.

But Watson said the institute must define its vision before finding a new director.

The Watson Institute also has a strong program in researching inequality, McKinney said. Current issues could also be selected as areas of study, and McKinney added that a new director should be interested in focusing on India and China.

Heller said security and development are two areas of focus in which “everyone” thinks the institute should continue to invest, but that other potential focuses — if the institute should even have more than two — are less clear.

The University’s role

Though the Watson Institute has its own endowment, the University exercises ultimate oversight. The Board of Overseers makes recommendations about how the institute should be structured, but all final decisions lie with the administration and Corporation.

“The institute is a part of the University,” McKinney said. “They are the fiduciary, responsible (party).”

Watson expressed a similar sentiment, saying the institute is “representative of international relations at Brown.” She expressed confidence that the University would do a good job deciding the institute’s ultimate focus.

“I have faith in President Simmons’ ability to work things out,” she said.

Members of the Board of Overseers will work with University administrators to outline potential reforms, Simmons told UCS.

But Gleason warned that the administration should be careful as it reexamines the institute.

“The administration has to find its way between leading too directly and leading not directly enough, and sometimes that’s a tightrope,” he said.

 

The undergraduate experience

The institute is also examining its role in undergraduate life.

“The Watson isn’t really a department— it’s a research institute,” Heller said. “So there is a debate about the appropriate role for how Watson should be in supporting Brown’s teaching mission.”

The question of how active the institute should be in undergraduate life is a “very political” one, Watson said.

But the institute should “clearly” play a role in undergraduate academics, McKinney said. The size of the international relations concentration, he said, demonstrates a campus need for “something like the institute.” In 2010, 119 students graduated with concentrations in international relations.

The institute has drawn criticism for not doing enough to reach out to undergraduates. Reva Dhingra ’14, who plans to concentrate in international relations, said though she is happy with her experience thus far, she has seen people drop the concentration because they were discouraged by introductory classes taught by graduate students.

“They should definitely talk to the freshmen way more,” she said.

The international relations concentration has at least one adviser per track and one central adviser — Claudia Elliott MA’91 PhD’99, associate director of international relations. Dorothy Lutz ’13, who recently declared her concentration in international relations, said that after hearing that the Watson Institute’s advising was poor, she was surprised to have a “pretty positive experience” when declaring her concentration.

At the same time, though, Lutz said she does not believe the Watson Institute’s primary interest should be undergraduate education.

“Ultimately, the Watson Institute should be geared towards research — grad students and faculty — because there’s some pretty awesome people who work there,” she said.

Stultz said any institute that wants to be a part of the University “has to relate” to undergraduate life.

“I’m not anxious to see Watson isolate itself at all from the undergraduate mission,” Stultz said, but “that doesn’t mean that’s all it has to do.”

Identifying what role Watson should play in undergraduate life is “tricky,” Heller said.

“Teaching takes away from research time,” he said. “With the proper design and the proper arrangements, it’s possible to make that a win-win proposition as well. But it’s challenging. There’s no doubt that it’s extremely challenging.”