Lost Opportunity in Russia

Ford Foundation explores how American philanthropy may have erred while spending $1 billion trying to aid post-USSR academe.
January 31, 2007

It's not up there with the Long Telegram, but there's a semi-secret report circulating in Washington and among foundation officials that tries to explain Russia and why American institutions -- despite a sustained period of generosity -- aren't achieving their aims there and may have failed to fully comprehend the country.

The report is an in-depth analysis of a 10-year effort by the Ford Foundation to encourage serious reforms in Russian higher education, and the report's conclusions have implications that go well beyond that foundation.

Ford's efforts in many ways are similar to those of other top American foundations that have spent nearly $1 billion since the fall of the Soviet Union to try to reform academe there. And while the report documents notable successes, it concludes that a shift in foundation priorities -- away from supporting individuals and toward supporting institutions -- had a terrible impact. And the report provides an unusually up close look at Russian higher education, down to the classroom level, explaining why some disciplines are in full recovery (economics) and others (political science) are for all purposes non-existent.

The frankness of the report -- and the fact that there was a public discussion of it Tuesday -- is highly unusual. Stephen Kotkin, the author of the report and director of Russian studies at Princeton University, said in a talk at the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars that this is the fourth time he has produced a book-length study of the impact of American or international foundations on higher education in the post-Soviet Union.

But this is the first time he has ever discussed any of the studies. And although the Ford Foundation, which commissioned the study, is calling it a draft, and may never release it to the public, it gave its blessing to his talk, and to his giving the report to some of the foundation leaders and Russia experts who gathered for the session -- a degree of public exposure for such sensitive topics that he and others here said was notable. Some in the audience said that Ford was probably only able to be so open because last year it ended its efforts to reform Russian academe.

Kotkin stressed -- in the opening of his talk and at the end, after realizing that he had described some rather large failures -- that Ford and other foundations has accomplished a lot in Russian universities. Much of that good he attributed to relatively early efforts in the period he studied (1995-2005) in which Ford and others awarded grants to individuals for research and educational projects, and attempted to build academic networks of talented individuals. There is no shortage of talent in Russia, Kotkin said.

And he explained that he didn't just take program officers' word for that, but traveled throughout the country, tracking down professors who had received grants, talking to their students, looking at their syllabuses, reading their journal articles, etc. -- trying to figure out if people who had been helped were making a difference -- and he said that they were.

But starting around 1997, and with more intensity in the years that followed, foundations shifted gears, Kotkin said. They started looking for the "mega-project" and wanted to make grants that would lead to "institutional shifts." The view was "let's try to affect the state system as a whole," and that meant awards focused on individuals were out, and awards to institutes or departments were in. It was a "huge shift," he said.

The larger projects largely failed and did not result in the large-scale societal changes that Ford and others wanted to encourage in higher education, Kotkin said. And the "tragic element" is that the embryonic efforts to create Russian-based ways to provide merit awards to academics died out -- while many millions of dollars were spent on programs that didn't accomplish much. "There's nothing there now," he said. "It was done and it was lost."

Others at the discussion said that this miscalculation was all the more tragic because of the huge sums of money spent by foundations and the reality that Russians and Russian experts "on the ground" advised against the shift at the time. Blair A. Ruble, director of the Kennan Institute, said that the report pointed to "a misfit" between philanthropic decision making and what Russia needed. Foundation leaders have "a desire to make claims about the system's transformation" and so they gravitate to larger projects, regardless of whether they will succeed, he said.

"There's a natural drift to a big fix," he said.

John A. Slocum, co-chair of the Russian Higher Education Initiative of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, said part of the problem is that foundations "see themselves as transformational" when there are times that they do more good by moving ahead in relatively small steps. Slocum -- who joked about how the Ford Foundation was seen as a large foundation in the pre-Gates Foundation era -- said he worried that the "trend toward gigantism" in the foundation world would lead to more situations like the one described in Russia.

Steven Solnick, the Ford Foundation's Moscow representative (although it ended its higher ed programs, it has several other initiatives in Russia), said that amid all the talk of the glories of "new philanthropy" (in other words, the Gates Foundation), there was much to be said for the traditions of "old philanthropy." And although he said Ford hated being thought of as "old philanthropy," he said there is "a lot to be said for stable philanthropy" where you think less about "reinventing" everything and more about "protected zones" for efforts that need time.

Pieces of the Pie

Kotkin said that there were many factors in play. And he said that foundation officials weren't just "being foolish," but confronted difficult situations. For instance, he said that each time a foundation supported an individual academic, it created resentments among all of that academic's colleagues (and superiors) in a department or university. "Each one creates a lobby group saying: Where's my money too?"

Amid all of this "pushing and shoving for a piece of the pie," astute department leaders would come forward to foundations, and promise that the qualities that led a foundation to support one individual could be seen exponentially if only a larger grant would go to the department. "If you are in a foundation, you want to size it, you want to be right in a big way," said Kotkin, so these requests sounded sincere (even if many of them were not).

Of the various success stories in Russian academe, Kotkin said that there were clear disciplinary patterns. He said that he was most impressed with the progress of economics. While the outstanding programs are relatively few, the top economists in Russia have become part of the global economics world, Kotkin said, sponsoring their own journals and having articles accepted in top international peer-reviewed publications.

This may be surprising, but shouldn't be, Kotkin said. While Russia's economy is far from any pure economic model, "it is a market economy, where prices matter," so it's natural that economics should thrive.

Sociology, he said, has more pockets than economics, and some scholars are doing excellent work, although not on the level of the economists.

Kotkin said his study focused on social sciences, because they had been a particular interest of the Ford Foundation's, out of the belief that these disciplines would help build a civil society. Other social science fields are faring poorly, he said. Gender studies now exists, but it has "a movement quality" and "is not an academic pursuit."

Political science, which received an "enormous investment" from Ford and others, is "a failure," he said. He said that he could not find a peer-review quality journal in political science in Russia and that the work he saw by political scientists isn't real academic work by international standards. Of real political science in Russia, he said: "You just can't find it."

So with some individual successes but many institutional failures in Russia, what is to be done?

Kotkin said that foundations still in Russia could do much good by abandoning big reform efforts and focusing on merit grants to individuals, helping scholars form Internet networks and create journals, and building a local peer-review system (again, to strengthen the process of providing grants to individuals).

He also said that to the extent there are small-scale programs that warrant support, foundations need to work to make them "truly independent" rather than just seeming to be independent. Hundreds and hundreds of books have been written about the impact in Russia of the lack of property ownership on most members of society. But Kotkin asked why foundations and others didn't follow the implications of the books and make sure that small research centers actually owned their buildings and had a level of independence they now lack.

The most surprising idea Kotkin raised was a strategy he offered for foundations that are still intent on transforming entire universities: "go native." By this he suggested that American foundations take a look at Russia under Putin, which isn't so different from centuries of Russian leaders: "You have a guy on the top, his clients on the floor below, and their friends everywhere." It's classic patronage system, with no emphasis on merit.

But what if, Kotkin asked, "patronage" was viewed as a good thing -- with the stipulation that people who'd been selected based on merit selected others based on merit, and so forth. A big stumbling block for reforming Russian higher education so far, he said, has been that expected retirements of old-style academic leaders have been slow in coming, but that can be delayed only so long.

The goal for foundations, he said, should be to have their grant recipients and those they have taught or worked with -- all people selected on merit -- be "everywhere," just like friends of Putin are everywhere now. If Russian society is based on interlocking relationships, "there are ways to use the society's fundamental aspects" to promote worthy change, he said.

Ford and others should be looking at Moscow State University and thinking: "We need our people there. Our alumni." But in terms of foundation money, he said, give it to individuals and then spread the individuals around to help out one another and promote their agenda.

"Who would think to use Putin's strategy like that?" he asked.


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