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Conference on Area Studies in the Future of Higher Education

A Conference at Indiana University February 26-28

Sponsored by the Provost and Executive Vice President Karen Hanson and Vice President for International Affairs Patrick O’Meara, and hosted by the Russian and East European Institute in Cooperation with other IU Area Studies Centers

The purpose of the conference is to mark the 50th anniversary of the Russian and East European Institute and the lesser decennial anniversaries of other Indiana University area studies programs and to look to the future. The area studies approach emerged after World War II and was promoted by scholars who had served in the Office of Strategic Services and other government agencies during the war and who understood the need to arm Americans with a knowledge of the languages and societies of other world regions if we were to fend off the ideological challenge of communism. The programs usually started with university and private foundation support and then received major government funding beginning in 1959 under Title VI of the National Defense Education Act.

The conference asks what area programs that originated in the Cold War era have to offer in an age of globalization and in the context of such developments as the rise of universalist analytical models in the social sciences, the massive retreat of Americans from mastery of foreign languages, and the progressively more instrumentalist approach of the Department of Defense to language training. Area studies programs also increasingly collaborate with professional schools and furnish professionals-in-training with the perspectives of the humanities and social sciences. Accordingly, we ask how such programs can be best aligned or articulated with changing national needs and evolving university structures that emphasize professional specialization and corporate financial models.

Secondarily, we wish to consider how the expertise represented by the area studies programs at Indiana and other universities can be most effectively applied to the education of our undergraduate students. Although our political leaders have continued to support the Title VI area studies centers, the training provided in them has focused on graduate-level expertise. At the request of Congress, the National Research Council studied the area studies programs and two years ago issued a report that argued for redesigning these programs to educate a broad range of college students in addition to the current emphasis on high-level specialists. The American Council on Education has likewise demonstrated the failure of most American institutions of higher education to provide their students with minimal competency in foreign languages and international knowledge. Only 9 percent of college students study a modern foreign language and only a fraction of these study languages other than Spanish. Indiana University is exceptionally well endowed with international expertise in the College of Arts and Sciences and, to a lesser extent, in our professional schools. What can be done to furnish our student body more broadly with global competency, including knowledge of the history, politics, and economics of other world regions, understanding of cultural differences, and mastery of foreign languages (especially the critical but less commonly taught ones)?

The conference opened on Thursday evening with a reception that included the unveiling of a portrait of IU alumnus and former ambassador to Russia, James F. Collins, and a 30 minutes video presentation of recent IU area studies graduates who are currently working in business, government, NGOs and academia.

David RanselDavid Ransel, former director of the Russian and East European Institute, kicked off the evening by by noting that the “conference is intended, in part, as a celebration of Indiana University’s pioneering work and longstanding leadership in area studies. Our great president Herman Wells initiated these programs in the 1940s, and they have produced thousands of specialists, many of whom, like our guest tonight Ambassador James Collins, continue to occupy prominent positions in American national life.

“However, the vintage of these programs and their emergence as an artifact of the Cold War raises questions about their utility today and in the future. Challenges have come from theory-driven social science, the retreat of Americans from learning foreign languages, and the business model of university administration.”

“With respect to our programs at the Russian and East European Institute, the demand for our master’s and doctoral degree candidates continues to be robust. In just the past 5 or so years, 8 of our graduates have entered the Foreign Service and now work in Washington and throughout Eurasia, a remarkable record. All told, we have sent about 100 graduates into government service in the past 10 years. Hundreds of others have gone to work for non-governmental organizations engaged in development and international exchanges, and into teaching, libraries and museums, information science, media, and business—and you will meet a few of these former students in the video collage to be shown later.”

“Despite the past success of IU’s area studies programs, we want the conference to focus on the current state of these programs and their future prospects at IU, and, by extension, elsewhere in the country. That is our task at the panels tomorrow and Saturday. And we have gathered a strong group of scholars, professionals and administrators to consider these matters.”

Schedule of Events

Friday, February 27

8:30-10:00 - Session 1. Balance between Universalist Models and Theories in Social Science and Area Knowledge and Language (Podcast)

Jean C. RobinsonChair:

Associate Dean Jean Robinson
College of Arts and Sciences
Indiana University


Eric Hershberg (Simon Fraser Univ., Pres. of LASA)

Stephen Hanson (U of Washington, Vice Provost for Global Affairs, Dir., Ellison Ctr for Russ., E. Euro. and Cent. Asian Studies; C.V.)

Patricia McManus (IU Sociology and WEST; C.V.)

Stephen HansonStephen Hanson offered a précis of his recent essay “The Contribution of Area Studies,” in which he traced the debate between theory-driven social scientists and area studies advocates back to the early twentieth century. The debaters in each era used different labels, but the essence was the same. “It is my contention…,” Hanson wrote there, “that the puzzling longevity of the area studies controversy itself provides an important clue as to its nature and possible resolution.  Specifically, I argue that the area studies debate reflects a deeper confusion among political scientists of all stripes about how to combine deductive and inductive reasoning in social research.  To transcend this debate will require scholarly agreement on some difficult and fundamental questions about how to develop scientifically fruitful typologies of regime type—agreement that is highly unlikely in the absence of mutual intellectual respect between self-professed area specialists and comparative politics generalists….a careful examination of the long history of the area studies controversy helps to invalidate several common stereotypes about area studies in the political science discipline: first, they are not merely a product of Cold War policy concerns; second, they are unlikely to disappear as a result of increasing political and economic globalization; and finally, they are more frequently the source of new general theory than an obstacle to it. I will then turn to a critique of area studies that has substantially greater merit: namely, that the conventional definitions of world “areas” are arbitrary in ways that inhibit, rather than promote, theoretical cumulation.  While there is some truth to this claim, I argue that rival “theoretical” categorizations of regime types are at least as arbitrary.  Indeed, …the typical geographic divisions utilized in contemporary area studies programs do tend to highlight many important structural, institutional, and cultural variables that are shared among countries within various world regions.  Hence area studies tend to sensitize political scientists to the limited scope conditions of supposedly “universal” models and theories developed in the context of a single world region such as North America.  [A] heightened awareness of the deeper theoretical complexities of the area studies controversy—by advocates of deductive theory and defenders of regional expertise alike—might promote a more tolerant and fruitful interrelationship between the two camps.”

Eric Hershberg Eric Hershberg added that for a time after the end of the Cold War and collapse of Soviet communism, area studies was regarded as unnecessary. But 9/11 changed that attitude and “reintroduced the security rationale for supporting area studies.  This impacts different area studies differently (it has little utility for Latin Americanists, for example), but if one is seeking support to train people to understand Central Asia it’s a significant shift.”

“We have come to understand,” Hershberg continued, “that, contrary to Thomas Friedman, the world isn’t flat, but rather filled with mountains and valleys, fault lines and barriers of various sorts, and that globalization is i) not all encompassing and ii) not generative of uniformity.  Quite the contrary: some processes of globalization elude some parts of the world, impacts others unevenly, and where globalization is relevant it is as often a source of greater heterogeneity as it is of uniformity. [Furthermore,] scholars working in the area studies tradition have come to see region as much more contingent, as a heuristic device rather than as an immutable category.  Important currents of area studies research now question the boundaries of region’s as traditionally constituted – many Latin Americanists now undertake work that encompasses the “Americas,” plural, to cite just one example.  Similarly, there is far greater openness today than there was a decade or so ago to the sorts of cross-regional research that are required in order to understand the contemporary world.

“The single minded search for parsimony at the expense of complexity has” Hershberg argued, “less salience in leading US universities.  For the most part the disciplines remain insufficiently skeptical of their preferred ways of understanding the human condition, insufficiently attuned to the insights to be derived from methods preferred by other disciplines -- or from multiple methods and interdisciplinary work – but there is greater openness to the notion that no single approach offers all the answers. And in a world that clearly is heterogeneous and in flux, today it is more difficult than it was a decade ago to impose an epistemological preference for what I call ‘the view from nowhere’ over the ‘view from somewhere’ that area studies represents.”

Although Hershberg observed more openness now in core social science disciplines to area knowledge, he believed that resistance to place-based research continued to be strong in economics and to a somewhat lesser extent in political science. He thought that we needed schools of international studies to overcome this resistance and stated that his home institution of Simon Frasier had such a school with its own economists. At the same time, he advised area studies specialists against shunning the disciplines and said that they could enrich disciplinary scholarship if they take the right approach.

Finally, Hershberg contended that “area studies programs can provide the point of access in American universities for currents of scholarship emerging in other parts of the world.  In so doing, they have the potential to deprovincialize those disciplines. Indeed, if area studies communities become spaces for encounter among scholars drawn from around the world, with the aim of pursuing intellectual objectives in collaborative fashion, the rationale for them moves beyond one of national interest.  This is important: to the extent that area studies are justified in terms of national security or competitiveness they are being conceived of in fundamentally national terms, as preparing experts in the United States who can deal with other parts of the world.  Yet the approach that I am recommending underscores the potential for a post-national area studies, one that is about the collaborative pursuit of knowledge for the common good.  In this respect, area studies should be understood as central to a fundamental goal of the contemporary university: the formation of a global citizenry.”

Patricia McManus Patricia McManus stressed the high degree of historical contingency characteristic of social science theory. Theories rapidly go out of date. Theories of the welfare state, liberalism, and the like tend to cover only particular places for limited times. For example, welfare state theory used to be almost entirely based on European experience. Now work on welfare states comes from Latin America and Asia, which were not included earlier. She also noted that recent major shifts in world politics—the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of China—provide laboratories for the testing of established theory. She recommended the approach of John Meyer’s “World Society Theory,” which has affected studies of professions, family law, and medical care.

During the discussion, Stephen Hanson agreed with Hershberg that for the time being schools of international studies, such as the University of Washington also had, would have to serve as a site for area studies economists and some other social scientists, in view of continuing resistance from the disciplinary departments. David Ransel questioned this approach, noting that in the Russian area at Indiana University, social scientists were working in the disciplinary departments (3 economists, 4 political scientists, 2 anthropologists—but, admittedly, no sociologists) and that most young social science area specialists were well trained in theory and statistics. The problem with placing them in area studies or international studies centers were two: first, the disciplinary departments were the weaker for not having these experts and, second, we have professors in, say Chinese literature, voting on the tenure and promotion of political scientists and economists, and vice versa.

10:30-12:00 - Panel: Reshaping Regions for Analytical Coherence (Podcast)
Chair: Dean Bradley Hamm, Journalism

Michael Robinson (IU East Asian Languages & Cultures)
Christopher Atwood (IU Central Eurasian Studies; C.V.)
Richard Martin (Emory University, Middle Eastern Studies)

Michael Robinson Michael Robinson, a specialist on modern Korea, noted that they basic divisions still reflected the Cold War arrangement of 1st, 2nd , and 3rd world countries. He spoke about the earlier exoticism of East Asia in the American academy. It was this that first attracted him to study of the region. In a short time, however, this source of attraction has been supplanted by a growing centrality of East Asia in the world, as Japan and the smaller Asian nations broke through as major economic forces, followed soon after by the rise of mainland China.

Christopher AtwoodChristopher Atwood made the same point with a somewhat longer view, pointing out that a diachronic assessment of the Eurasian continent would reshape this region of the world in different ways at different times. The Mongol empire united much of it at one time, leaving the fringes to other political entities. Later the Chinese, Russian, and Ottoman empires gave it another form. Atwood contended that whatever form the regional division might take the “big players” would not be left out. They can be certain of getting the attention and rewards of the Title VI program. He feared that the smaller peoples and languages that occupy the interstices between the large nations could be neglected.

Atwood also pointed out that in Europe regions are broken down by language group, whereas in the rest of the world the areas are more broadly defined by continents. Does this imply that language families have little meaning for people outside Europe? Another way of dividing up other parts of the world is thinly disguised religious groupings, even though when you look closely, the areas are highly diverse in religion, and many co-religionists reside outside the region.

Richard Martin offered a brief history of the development of the academic study of Islam in U.S. religious studies departments.

Unfortunately, the panelists, even when directly questioned, did not address the issue of how the study of Europe and Asia might be resituated from the Cold War paradigm, except to note that Title VI tends to focus on the world as it looks today rather than its shape in past eras. One of the most apt comments on this came later in the conference from IU alumnus and current chargé d’affaires in Turkmenistan, Ambassador Richard Miles, who joined the conference via interactive video from the embassy in Ashgabat. He remarked that although he had trained in Russian and other Slavic languages, much of his career was spent in countries that were either Turkic or had a thick Turkish cultural overlay (he was ambassador in Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, deputy chief of mission in Serbia, and now interim ambassador in Turkmenistan). He mused that he might have been more effective if he had trained in Turkish language and culture.

Some efforts are now underway to define regions along religious or civilizational lines instead of political formations. For example, the Center for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Indiana University is changing its name to the Center for Islamic Studies and giving attention to the regions of the world where the greatest Muslim populations reside, namely, from Karachi, Pakistan eastward.

2:00-3:30 - Panel: Area Studies and Legal and Civic Culture (Podcast)
Chair: Dean Lauren Robel (IU Maurer School of Law; C.V.)

Panelists: Faisal Istrabadi (IU Law and former Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations)
Timothy Waters (IU Maurer School of Law; C.V.)
Bradley Levinson (IU Education; Director, IU Ctr. for Latin Amer. and Caribbean Studies)
Terrence Mason (IU Education)

Feisal IstrabadiFeisal Istrabadi spoke about what he considered the severe devaluation of specialists with knowledge of the Middle East. They are labeled in the West as “arabists,” which, he said, is a term of derision. Bloggers attack Middle East specialists as mere “arabists.” As a result, the kind of information we need to understand the people of the region is devalued. He offered a vivid example of western misunderstanding of Iraqi judicial process and consequently its unwarranted criticism of it. Iraqi judicial process, like that of much of the world, is inquisitorial, not adversarial. The judge plays a central role in the conduct of a trial and questioning of witnesses. In an inquisitorial system the role of the judge is to protect the witnesses from attack and intimidation by the lawyers. The trials in Iraq during the occupation have been conducted with a hybrid system in which the normal Iraqi procedure was blended with elements of the American adversarial process. But when the defense misused this mixed system by deploying boycotts, the judge fell back on his prior practices and abruptly ended the defense phase. Outsiders, not being educated culturally, wrongly assumed the judge was abusing his powers.

Timothy WatersLaw schools are less parochial than they used to be, reported Timothy Waters. Many now teach international law. In legal education, the question of universal and specific, just as in social science, is salient. Most law by its very nature reflects local values and practices, as Istrabadi illustrated. Waters did not therefore envision globalization of law or some universalist outcome but an increasing number of interactive influences between heterogeneous systems. He advised that law schools should reach out to area studies programs. At Stanford University you can already get a joint MA and JD degree. [This is beginning to happen at Indiana University as well, where the Russian and East European Institute has individually negotiated joint degree opportunities for two MA/JD students in recent years.-- DR]

Prepared remarks by Waters:

So, I’d like to say a few words about the way in which area studies approaches can contribute to the changing study of law that is both theoretically robust and practical in its application – ways I see in my own experience the value of what Lisa Anderson called, I think with some bitterness, ‘mere area studies.’

In a sense, the perennial tension between universalist (or ‘discipline-oriented’) models and area studies models long bypassed the legal academy, precisely because of law’s provincialism – I mean the legal community’s historic tendency to be divided into a nationally defined guild structure. Of course, there has always been cross-fertilization – the comparative legal tradition in Europe, the shared heritage and precedential borrowing within the common law systems, but the main lines, I submit, have been parochially focused on contesting legal questions within a single jurisdiction, which in turn has encouraged an educational model that is singularly focused on replicating legal monocultures. American law students, by and large, traditionally study American law.

As a consequence, the potential zone of contestation between generalist models and area studies (because of course American studies is area studies too) was, historically, elided – a perfectly collapsed Venn diagram, if you will.

I think this must be changing. The globalization of legal culture in response to the increased integration of economic activity, the rise of universalist models of human rights, and the general tendency towards the judicialization of politics compels lawyers – and thus law schools – to confront the same generic tensions that other disciplines have confronted between choosing the general and choosing the specific. There are two things going on here: one is an observable shift in the content and focus of law’s subject, and the other is a consequent opportunity, or challenge, to reconsider the methodologies for teaching law.

I see clear signs of the first shift in educational priorities at this law school, whose dean, I can say, convinced me during my job interview with her that she was genuinely committed to supporting interdisciplinary area studies work, and has continued to demonstrate it since. I’m teaching a course on the lessons of the Yugoslav crisis, and a course on Islamic law. We have recently hired a scholar who writes on the Indian legal profession. We have a LLM program that annually brings in over 80 students primarily from Asia, the majority of whom will return to practice in their own countries. Even my international criminal law course wouldn’t have been offered in most law schools 20 years ago, and now it is becoming an expected part of the curriculum.

The overall impression is of a school – and beyond it, however haltingly, an entire field – turning to encounter the international, the comparative. This turn practically compels law schools to consider what, exactly, is the expertise they have, and where they can find that expertise in the broader university. And, as I say, that brings into relief the tension between different models.

Indeed, law’s own lack of a proprietary disciplinary orientation makes it amenable, even susceptible to the skirmishing between these two perspectives, both of which operate with attractive force on the body of legal study. The skirmishing is sometimes between straw men – I know few area studies practitioners who see no place for universalist models, and most general modelers recognize the value of specific expertise. Certainly, the rise of universalist social science models in the law – such as law and economics – is both undeniable and welcome. Yet this is not the only way to move the legal academy further away from a scholastic, doctrinal model – away from ‘model codes’ and towards meaningful measurement of the world in which we live. Area studies’ focus on the particular, the specific, on context, is a compelling match with the shift in law’s content – which, while it is globalizing, does not imply a simple homogenization, but rather increased interaction between heterogeneous systems.

Indeed, the ‘unrigorous’ profligacy of area studies approaches – their aggregative function – is, in its own way, what a law school does: bring disparate methodologies and disciplinary perspectives to bear on a subject of interest, law, which may not be best understood in generalizable ways. I can think of no better defense of those very qualities for which area studies is sometimes criticized – its tendency to describe rather than analyze, it preference for specificity over generalizable theoretical results – than Holmes’ famous maxim that ‘general propositions do not decide concrete cases.’

I doubt I could prove the validity of the area studies approach – let alone its priority over general models – and certainly not in five more minutes. But let me resort to one of the devices that area studies is sometimes accused of, which is to rely on anecdote.

In my first job after law school, I went to work at the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague, in the Prosecutor’s office. The Tribunal was already, at that time, an enormous institution, running dozens of investigations and several trials simultaneously.

The team I worked on was mostly composed of non-lawyers, and everybody on it, whether a trained lawyer or not, needed to have professional familiarity with the former Yugoslavia. There were historians, aid workers, journalists, translators. . .It was, in other words, a team formed in direct response to the pressure of events, to provide context, local knowledge – the very things that general theory, by its nature, does not provide but that area perspectives do.

Experience was already showing that it wasn’t enough to be familiar with international criminal law, or with trial process. It was necessary to know the practical political relationships between actors who were conspiring to deport or kill populations, to know the history in which claims about the ethnic purity of territory were made, and even, in one notorious episode, to know that ‘Banja Luka’ is a city, not woman. (You can imagine that was one witness interview that didn’t end well.)

Cases require an overarching theory, perhaps; but cases also require a factual context, a specificity. The notion of joint criminal enterprise is a theoretical legal construct, but the claim that these people engaged in this joint criminal enterprise requires an understanding of place, of person, of history. . .  Even the new, hybrid procedure under which the tribunal operated – a mix of civil and common law systems – encouraged its operators to have some familiarity with legal systems other than the ones they trained in.

There are limits to how far a professional school can go in integrating an area studies approach. It is as difficult to imagine the legal academy adopting a foreign language requirement as it might be desirable. And given the continuing need to produce lawyers grounded in a particular national jurisdictions practice and culture, there are countervailing pressures on hiring, scheduling, and resources.

But this limit is itself an opening and an opportunity for greater cooperation with area studies programs. Law schools cannot possibly incorporate within themselves all of the disciplinary and area studies expertise they increasingly require, and therefore they must, and should, reach out to sources outside.

But there are also are concrete ways in which a great research university and a great law school can benefit from and reinforce the contribution of area studies approaches. I will restrict myself to one suggestion, which is the development of joint MA/JD programs – like Stanford’s 4 joint degrees in Law & International, Comparative and Area Studies. I envision programs in which area studies operates as an equal partner, not an ancillary service provider, in providing an education in law and regional training that prepares students for the practice of law in its globalized context, which is to say, increasingly, in specific cross-border contexts. I wish there had been one when I was in school, because I would have taken it.

The second half of the panel featured a report on the Civitas International Civic Education Program "The World We Want," which was presented by Terrence Mason (view the PowerPoint file). Bradley Levinson of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies pointed out the importance of local knowledge to the success of such educational projects (view his PowerPoint presentation). Attempts at imposing what our culture defines as "best practices" have not worked.

Panel: Shaping the Global Future at IU: Partnering with Area Studies4:00-5:30 - Panel: Shaping the Global Future at IU: Partnering with Area Studies(Podcast)

Chair: Provost and Executive Vice President Karen Hanson


Associate Dean David Reingold (IU SPEA; C.V.)
Dean Bennett Bertenthal (IU College of Arts and Sciences)
Dean Dan Smith (IU Kelley School of Business)
Dean Robert Goodman (IU, HPER)


Stephen Hanson (U of Washington; C.V.)
David Ransel (Director, IU Russian and East European Institute)

This well-attended panel was a highlight of the conference, one of whose principal aims was to find ways to bring the widely scattered international engagements of the College and the professional schools into better alignment. The chief campus officer, Executive Vice President and Provost Karen Hanson, chaired the session.

The College of Arts and Sciences, which houses the languages programs and most of the area studies centers, was, according to its dean, Bennett Bertenthal, committed to strengthening the ties between the various programs and fostering more integration with other internationalizing efforts. He saw the planned new International Studies Building as a means of drawing the programs together in greater cooperation and ways that could consolidate administrative tasks and share resources. He also encouraged CourseShare (interactive video courses involving multiple universities in the CIC—a consortium of the Big Ten, plus the University of Chicago) as a means of sustaining economically the 109 languages taught at these schools and thereby support the nation’s need for less commonly taught languages.

Bob Goodman, dean of HPER, was a discovery: a professional school dean who was fluent in Mandarin Chinese, had earned a master’s degree in history, and expressed a positive approach to cultural difference. Goodman spoke of the approximately two dozen agreements his school had negotiated with institutions abroad, including projects in the Dominican Republic, East Asia, and Turkey. He allowed that although his school had not thought to cooperate with the IU area studies centers in these efforts, it was something he was open to in the future. (View his PowerPoint presentation.)

David Reingold represented a school that had some years ago developed joint MA and MPA (master’s of public affairs) with six area studies programs. Unfortunately, the degrees, he said, seem to reside in silos, and it is therefore up to individual students to lend them some coherence. He thought that the degrees could serve even more students than they do now and asked if there were not some means by which we could integrate the degree programs more effectively.

Dan Smith of the Business School noted that a high percentage of his students (about 40%) have international experience, if only short-term contact with a foreign country. He advised further development of exchange programs for faculty and students and perhaps during the looming financial crisis to do more by way of interactive video conferencing. His school was involved in a number of group projects with international students in the area of emerging markets, micro lending, and others but that the efforts were done randomly, not tightly organized or integrated.

Stephen Hanson addressed the structural issues in international studies at universities, pointing out the benefits and corresponding drawbacks of a centralized as distinguished from decentralized management in this area, including the implications for budgetary systems and for intellectual production. He also spoke of the various rationales for international and global studies and ended by saying that they should be done not for instrumentalist reasons but for their own sake.

David Ransel pointed out that in international studies at Indiana University the parts have long been greater than the whole. While every unit is involved in international education or development, the efforts are scattered and are deprived of the educational and practical impact they would enjoy if our resources were better integrated. And the opportunities to bring the College area studies programs and the professional schools into cooperation on degree programs have in some ways been receding in recent years because of the lack of area specialists in the schools. We used to have an East European expert in the Business School, now we have none. We used to have three Russian and East European specialists in the Public Administration school, now none. We used to have two experts in the Library and Information Sciences school, now we have one. He also pointed out that the success of our area studies centers in obtaining Title VI grants is in some measure dependent on hiring in the professional schools, because in recent years the Department of Education has stressed the importance of cooperation with them. The chief burden of winning the grants rests on the shoulders of the deans of the College, where these programs mainly reside, but the College cannot be successful without help from the schools. Ransel likewise questioned the absence of a language requirement in the schools, a circumstance that undoubtedly prompts some students to declare a major in the schools merely to avoid this requirement in the College, although they may be more interested in and suited to degree programs in the College.

7:00 - Remarks by Ambassador James F. Collins at the Conference Dinner (Podcast)

By James F. Collins
February 27, 2009
Conference on Area Studies in the Future of Higher Education
Indiana University

It is always a pleasure to return to IU, but especially so for this conference. I have found today’s sessions enlightening and thought provoking. I believe each segment has expanded the discussion and focused us well on the issues surrounding area studies today. We have heard perspectives that will need to be taken into account as IU and others approach these academic issues for a world where the one certainty we can count on will be change. It is a world almost certain to be very different after our emergence from today’s global economic and financial meltdown and certain to be shaped by ongoing tensions between the forces of globalization and the local reaction to them.

My hope this evening is that I can continue to add to our discussion by giving you the views of one who has been a product of area studies training, a consumer of area studies expertise, and a practitioner of what I will call “applied area studies.” My brief time in the academic world, then as a career diplomat, and finally as a consultant in the private sector and director of a think tank area program has had one uniting theme – the importance of place to the development and analysis of program and policy questions for which I had and have responsibility. I hope this may help me make a few useful remarks about what someone concerned with policy has found significant in area studies in both a bi-polar world and an era of globalization. The questions we have been talking about today in some way boil down to whether area studies today are providing a relevant and useful contribution to the nation and to our understanding of the human condition. Put baldly it is whether area studies should still have a place in our academic program. My answer is a categorical “yes”: that area studies are even more relevant and central today to our nation than they were during the Cold War period which gave them such a major place in the academy. Paradoxically, in fact, I would suggest that the forces of globalization and the end to the bi-polar international system have deepened the need America has for a more intensive, comprehensive and expansive commitment to this field. It is simply a fact that the intensified engagement of our country internationally has imposed new demands on our academic and training institutions for experts who can work effectively across a greater range of nations, cultures, and regions than at any time in our country’s past.

And this is only logical. To a major extent the demand for area studies and area expertise has always been heavily influenced by the way our nation has defined its international position. This was very much the case at the birth of modern area studies programs and the origins of the Title VI program. These programs and their impetus were a product of shock to our system. In the aftermath of World War II, America emerged victorious and dominant. And at first America accepted its new international responsibility with reluctance. As Americans came home they focused on home: this proud and successful America saw little reason to broaden U.S. understanding of the world at large or promote what might today be called “internationalization” of our educational system. There was plenty to do at home and the American way had proven its superiority in any case.

The launch of Sputnik and the nearly panicked American response to it changed this environment in rapid order. The National Defense Education Act and Fulbright-Hays legislation spurred the creation of area studies centers, language institutes, and teacher training programs. These area study programs transformed the academic landscape. They were designed to improve the nation’s ability to compete globally with our principal adversary and to be more effective in engaging the global community that was redefining itself in the post war, post colonial era.

It was in this environment that I came to one of the nation’s pioneering area institutes here at Indiana. The Indiana program exposed me to a rich and new interdisciplinary program that was in the process of defining area studies. For me the Institute opened exceptional opportunities to pursue an area based academic program in the U.S., and then to take part in the U.S.- Soviet exchange program at Moscow State University followed by a similar time in London. Those periods abroad in many respects rounded out a rich program of area study. It brought my language skill to a level almost impossible to achieve in the U.S. It forced us on a daily basis to test assumptions about the culture and system of the USSR against the realities we lived as students in Moscow. And it gave this graduate student a special perspective and base for future judgments and understanding about a region that would shape American global policy and not coincidentally my own career for the next four decades.

At the time I joined the Department of State I was the first exchange program participant to join our Foreign Service, and among the first to have any area studies background in the Soviet Union and East Europe. Looking back I now know how much this background both informed and strengthened my subsequent work on Soviet affairs in Moscow and Washington in the early seventies and beyond. Many of my colleagues in government had served in Moscow, but for a considerable period of time none had been there in any but an official capacity. Nor had they had the opportunity to interact with Russian society in anything like the routine manner afforded to those of us who were students there. This experience simply gave a deeper understanding of many Soviet realities than my colleagues had available.

But perhaps more importantly as events unfolded, I am persuaded that it was the background and perspective, developed through IU’s area study program, that helped give me the interdisciplinary approach to issues that was necessary for informed and sensible judgment as revolutionary events in Moscow redefined our world during the last decade of the past century. As events surrounding the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the USSR and emergence of modern Eurasia unfolded, it was my good fortune or at least fate to have a central role in defining and prosecuting America’s response to them. At our Embassy in Moscow in the early 1990s, as ambassador at large for the New Independent States later, and then as ambassador to the Russian Federation at the end of the decade, I found the only way to develop policy, or structure my resources to implement it, was in essence to rely on a series of area study seminars.

In an Embassy with close to thirty government agencies and a budget nearing a billion dollars annually, I found that the U.S. Government structure was in many respects dysfunctional when it came to reaching sensible decisions or setting priorities regarding Russia. My formula for a workable model involved drawing from each of my agencies what its people could contribute to a given end and using their expertise and knowledge to develop reasoned and sensible judgments about policy and programs. Likewise in Washington, I found it essential to engage both functional and area specialists in the development of policy and programs if they were to have a chance for success. I needed at nearly every turn those who possessed area expertise to test the thoughts of colleagues who could develop functionally sound policy and program even as I needed the latter to challenge those with the area knowledge about their assumptions of what would be possible or workable in ever changing circumstances. It was, it seems to me, a working model of area studies at its best, put to the practical test of national policy making, program development, and management. And it was not by accident, I believe, that a very significant number of the early leaders in U.S. policy management in post-Soviet Russia and Eurasia had background in the programs of Soviet and East European area studies.

Paradoxically, of course, it was precisely at the time of the most significant contribution by the area studies trained specialists, that we also saw the entire field of area studies come under renewed questioning. The demise of the USSR, the near disappearance of alternatives to the market economic system associated first and foremost with the U.S. model, and the information revolution spurred by the emergence of the internet and new communications technologies were accompanied by proclamations of a new age of globalization. Frances Fukuyama famously proclaimed the end of history, and in a period dominated by post-Cold War-post Soviet triumphalism and euphoria, America’s focus in government and the academy turned toward the universals that seemed to have carried the day after nearly a century of ideological conflict. Confident in the spread of the American model of market economics and democracy, and in the American place as sole super power, we again looked inward in a time reminiscent of the post WWII period. In an era of globalization where it was assumed global reach would define the most pressing questions of the age, there were deep misgivings about those who sought to demonstrate that the fault lines and divisions that made the globe a diverse place had much to offer in looking at the issues we would find most pressing in a new century. The result was a fall off in language study, Russian and Eurasian studies seemed headed back to their pre 1958 levels, new emphases on business and financial development in previously closed areas seemed to have little need for area specialists. And Americans looked comfortably at world that seemed to welcome a conversation in English about how to make the most of an American style market based democracy.

This era of near euphoria came to an abrupt end on nine eleven. At that moment Americans, in a way reminiscent of those days following the launch of Sputnik in late 1957, had their world upended. The sudden realization that globalization not only carried American values and culture abroad but also brought the rest of the world’s fights, issues and questions to the United States was forcefully and brutally brought home by the attacks on New York and Washington. And as Americans came to terms with the other side of globalization, there were calls for answers. Americans wanted to know how this could have happened, who was responsible for such actions and perhaps most significantly for our topic why some obscure groups in a distant corner of the world – all but unknown – had targeted the United States. For answers everyone from CNN to CIA sought out and turned to those with background in cultural, linguistic, historical, and scientific understanding of the Arab, south Asian and Islamic world.

Area studies, in short, were back and it had suddenly become again an essential element in addressing a critical national need. The results were not long in coming. New initiatives from the national security community revived dormant programs focused on area studies and began to address our inadequate linguistic capacity as a nation. New exchange programs were developed to encourage a new generation of American students to deepen understanding about foreign areas. And we have seen a major movement by the Academy to look anew at how American institutions of higher learning can internationalize their campuses.

In this environment, the most pressing questions being asked by government, the private sector, an active NGO community, and in my experience our younger generation, as often as not have no answer outside area studies. As we all look therefore at the future of area studies and especially here at IU where a leading role in this field has been well established, it seems to me there are several elements that the future programming in this field should encompass.

First, we will need to find improved ways to develop professional language capability. Global engagement by Americans, the communications revolution, and demand for the capability to understand societies in which diversity is increasingly important will demand that our systems of area training include enhanced language capability. I am pleased to see that we will have a panel to discuss what is presently being done in this regard. It is my own experience, however, that even in some of the major languages we have a long way to go to create the competencies we need today. But the bottom line remains: most world citizens do not speak English. To participate effectively in a broadening global conversation we are going to have to learn the languages people using to converse.

Second, we will see in the future an increasing need for functional specialists with sufficient area expertise, or at least access to it, to be effective in working outside our own culture and system. This requirement was brought home to the Russian and Eurasian field with unexpected intensity as professionals from the private sector; NGO’s and government had to engage professionally societies that were largely isolated from us and most of the outside world for much of the twentieth century. It is certainly true that not every American lawyer who works in Russia or on Russian matters needs area expertise. But I can say with confidence that firms without that expertise which have entered Russia’s market have often paid a price.

Third, as the complex of influential elements and forces seems to multiply in nearly every society and as sub-sovereign actors assume an increasingly important role in shaping the international landscape, it will be important for scholars, practitioners and governmental officials to understand societies in greater depth and in their diverse elements. Area studies is the approach that is most likely to provide the capability to do so. For example, today one of the especially important entrees into the culture of Russia’s younger generation, its thinking, and its values can be found in the blogosphere, a realm nearly closed to any but the area specialist with a high level of language competence and understanding of contemporary Russian society.

And fourth, my experience tells me that area studies own methodology, and I believe it does have a methodology, offers a particularly rich and productive approach to addressing many of the most important questions our society and its institutions are going to face in the international arena. This is essentially an interdisciplinary or in governmentese an inter-functional or interagency methodology which brings to bear a mix of disciplines and special skills to resolve a given problem or understand a particular circumstance. As ambassador I found it essential to seek the contribution of all elements of my embassy in addressing both our priorities and in shaping our recommendations. It was, as I noted, necessary to conduct an almost perpetual area studies seminar with different disciplines in the lead depending on the question on the table.

Finally, let me conclude with an observation from one outside the academy, one who has spent a career answering questions or responding to concerns on the minds of our government, business and professional community, civic organizations, and citizens, and on occasion making a best effort to conduct and define policies and decisions in the best interests of the American people. In listening to the discussion today and in reading some of the literature about area studies, I am left with one strong conclusion. As America becomes ever more dependent on other societies, nations and cultures for achievement of our own aspirations and the resolution of emerging global problems, area knowledge and area expertise will become even more significant. Indeed it will be essential to maintaining our position of global leadership and influence.

Over the last decade we have seen the very real limits on American ability to determine and shape events without the active cooperation of others. In significant cases it has been failure to understand the motivations, values, traditions, and social structures that have weakened our capabilities. We have, in short, failed to bring to bear effectively and to appreciate area knowledge to deal with some of the challenges we faced. And we have paid a price for that. As we deal with transnational issues like global warming, failed states, drug resistant diseases, regional or local conflicts, and the like, our ability to elicit support and cooperation from others will define our prospects. It is hard for me to imagine success without the knowledge, communications skills, and understanding that area studies will contribute to dealing with these challenges. And that, I believe, is the best assurance that the work Indiana University is doing to enhance area studies within the Academy will ensure its place as a leading American University.


Panel: Appropriate Role of Area Studies in Contributing to National Security8:30-10:00 - Panel: Appropriate Role of Area Studies in Contributing to National Security (Podcast)
Chair: Heidi Ross (IU East Asian Studies Center)

Richard Miles (US ambassador to Bulgaria, Georgia and Turkmenistan)
Robert Slater (Director, National Security Education Program)
Sumit Ganguly (IU India Studies; C.V.)
James Collins (former US Ambassador to Russia)

Ambassador Richard Miles, joining the conference by video from Turkmenistan, underlined the great importance that language training and area studies played in his career as a Foreign Service officer. Robert Slater offered a history of the relationship between area and language studies and national security, breaking it down into four periods. The first began with the launching of the Soviet satellite “Sputnik” in 1957, which saw the creation of a generation of foreign area specialists. During the subsequent period a second phase, which Slater called “ideological shift” occurred. While Russian specialists did not perceive a conflict in working with the U.S. government, many of those who worked in other world areas, especially in the Third World, opposed U.S. policy. The third period began with the end of the Cold War and the dismissal of the importance of the world outside North America. This era of know-nothingness came to an abrupt halt after 9/11, which brought, according to Slater, a rediscovery of the need to know foreign languages and other cultures. Although this new period also witnessed the rise of the neo-conservatives and intolerance on the part of the administration toward other views, the Bush years were accompanied by a new push to educate Americans in foreign languages and area studies. As for the current NSEP program that Slater heads, he pointed out that it was less “instrumentalist” than David Ransel had suggested in his rationale for the conference. The program aimed at providing training a broad spectrum of experts. Slater referred to the new Minerva Research Initiative as an example of the way the Department of Defense views building the relationship between area studies and national security. This may or may not be the right approach to building relations betweennational security and academia/area studies but it does offer an opportunity for engagement and perhaps expanded discussion of new ways to partner. Slater did point out that the first projects Minerva funded included area studies input that failed to reflect the input of premier area studies scholars.

Sumit Ganguly lambasted a number of prominent scholars writing about India because of what he argued was their abysmal ignorance of the social and cultural backdrop in the sub-continent, an ignorance that led them into egregious errors of judgment and interpretation. You cannot simply parachute into a complex culture, Ganguly warned, and expect to understand particular events or policies. This takes a thorough linguistic and cultural understanding. Ganguly noted that the best work in social science during the Cold War was done by Soviet specialists, as they were well trained and well acquainted with their subject. Without this kind of expertise our policy makers are prisoners of the moment. Why did Vietnam happen, Ganguly asked, and answered his own question by pointing out that McCarthyism had driven out of government our best Asian experts, people who knew the region intimately.

James CollinsAmbassador James Collins warned that after the current world economic crisis settles out, we will see a world much more in balance, in the sense that the United States will be only one among a number of countries powerful enough to influence the course of events. We will need to be prepared to deal with these other powerful countries, and that means we need to have a far higher degree of language and cultural knowledge than we do at present and need to produce a large number of citizens with in-depth understanding of the languages and societies of the world.

In the discussion period that followed, Collins offered a dose of reality in response to a question about how academic specialists could advise policy makers. Policy makers need information and advice in a form they can use, Collins advised, and we should keep in mind that they are in continuous crisis management mode. No one reads more than two pages of anything, no one goes to the library; they do, however, read the New York Times and Washington Post, which often set the agenda for the day. So, articles in these outlets, work produced by think tanks, could be way to reach policy makers. But much of policy, he lamented, was theology. It was hard to get changes. The last major speech that outlined a policy on Russia, for example, was an address by President Clinton in April, 1993.

Ambassador Miles suggested that the study of religion was an area that needed greater development. The lack of understanding of religion may be causing us to miss important developments in other countries. Robert Slater spoke of the complex environment that universities present in their confusing array of programs, language departments, and study abroad opportunities. The proliferation of programs and their location in isolated stove pipes point to the need for greater integration. To the question of what universities can do in this regard, James Collins emphasized that they definitely do not want government meddling in these matters and that the government, for its part, was not going to get into the implementation business.

10:30-12:00 - Panel: Place of Foreign Language Training in Area Studies (Podcast)
Chair: Henry Cooper (IU Slavic Languages and Literatures)

Dan Davidson (Bryn Mawr Dept. of Russian; President, Amer. Couns. for Int'l. Ed.)
Robert Eno (IU East Asian Languages & Cultures)
Antonia Schleicher (U. of Wisconsin African Studies)

Dan Davidson began with a comparison of the success of the Russian language training programs in the United States relative to those in other critical languages. For example, one-third of students taking Russian now are working at the advanced level, whereas in Arabic 80 percent of students are still at the elementary level. Davidson then reported on the Flagship program for Russian, which was producing students with highly sophisticated use of the language, enabling them to take high-level courses in science and other specialized subjects in Russian. He presented a slide show with statistical measures of the powerful effects of the Flagship program in Russia (view the slideshow here).

Robert Eno reported on the special problems of teaching East Asian languages and on Flagship program for Chinese at Indiana University.

Robert EnoSpeaking to the issue of how foreign language training relates to area studies from the perspective of East Asian area studies, the dominant fact is that our languages, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, are all classified as Level Four (or L4) languages, requiring increased learning time over Romance languages such as Spanish and French by a factor of three to four. Under normal circumstances, a four-year college curriculum in these languages will not bring novice learners beyond advanced level, and even that can be very difficult to achieve. I’m going to talk about some recent attempts to overcome this barrier, specifically the Chinese Flagship initiative now underway at IU, but I want to begin with some historical background for context.

The original impulse for East Asian area studies grew, in part, from the experience of World War II, and the realization among many in US government and education that our ignorance of Japanese language, culture, and history had added obstacles to our wartime efforts.  In this sense, the goal of fostering language competence for national security purposes was an early aspect of area studies.

But at least in the East Asian area, postwar area studies was also a lever for modern historians and social scientists to pry tightly held ownership of cultural expertise out of language and literature departments with long traditions of philological skills humanistic interpretive agendas. When I began training in the China field forty years ago, for example, the impact of the Association for Asian Studies had very much foregrounded the aspirations of quantitative social science modeling as a path to escape a scholarship of essentialistic cultural connoisseurship in favor of disciplinary approaches to Chinese studies that would integrate China in a global academic discourse. (The ruling example was the work of the late G. William Skinner.) Training controlled by major area studies centers – enabled from the 1950s through foundation endowment funds and federal NDEA grants – was aimed largely at providing enlarged numbers of graduate students with language skills adequate for data collection that would allow them to address problems in the disciplines.

Of course, the story was never this simple, but I think the commonly told story is largely true: the linguistic excellence that had become the hallmark of a small group of sinologists and japanologists between the wars became the target of a democratizing impulse that empowered by means of lowered expectations for language and raised demands for rationalistic modeling.

In the East Asian area, the L4 nature of the languages created a certain necessity for this trade-off.  Not only were the languages too difficult to master in the course of a four-year college experience, virtually no instruction was offered at pre-college levels, and teaching methods and materials lagged far behind traditionally taught European languages. There was no path to language competence other than post-graduate education, and, indeed, for Chinese and Japanese consortia of the major research universities formed in order to provide “finishing schools” in Tokyo and Taipei for small numbers of advanced doctoral students to actually become linguistically proficient.

While the 1960s model of East Asian area studies as a revolt against philology lost steam long ago, largely because the battle was – for better or worse – won, and a counter movement to repair lowered linguistic expectations was in full swing by the 1980s (earlier for Japanese), it is only recently – and again because of national security imperatives – that we have seen a new effort to make more than incremental headway against the barriers to language proficiency that Level-Four languages present. I don’t mean to ignore the various schools of language teaching that addressed issues of classroom technique in Chinese, Japanese, and to some degree Korean teaching, or the contributions of ACTFL to the professionalization of language teaching, but for a fifteen minute summary the headline news has been that apart from exceptional cases – and there are always some – students who don’t come to college with significant background in L4 languages don’t graduate college in four years with superior – or generally even high advanced – proficiency.

But in a post-9/11 world the imperatives of national security have led the government to press universities more forcefully to find formulas to address the problem of producing college learners who travel from novice to superior in a four-year span. This is the latest direction of the Flagship program initiative – at least the one I’m familiar with here at IU – and if it can be successful, it may offer a path to accomplish both the goal of providing true linguistic proficiency to larger numbers more quickly and a way to accelerate deployment of superior language proficiency within academic disciplinary studies, to some degree bridging the divide between the goals of linguistic and disciplinary excellence while addressing a broader national security need.

There are a number of current Flagship models. Some place greatest emphasis on building a K-16 articulated language structure, and indeed, if we could seed high school programs in L4 languages in numbers comparable to, say, French, we might be halfway towards the goal – ultimately, if the Flagship initiatives are successful, all will be K-16 in structure. In Indiana, which did have a substantial and successful initiative for Japanese in response to the late 1980s sensation of “Japan as Number One,” and which now has relatively high-functioning Japanese programs in many high schools, we now see a significant number of college freshmen placing into intermediate or even advanced level courses. However, in the case of Chinese, Indiana has been so late in seeding high school language programs that the conditions do not yet exist for a Flagship based on K-16 articulation (though in the past year we have seen evidence that change may finally be underway in a number of regions within the state).

Other Flagship models focus on heritage learners, whose background skills provide a platform to accelerate or truncate the normal college course sequence.  But this model relies on certain assumptions about the goals and motivations of heritage learners that often do not hold.  Moreover, IU’s low proportion of Chinese heritage students did not recommend this strategy to us, though it may be practical for cities such as New York or Los Angeles.

The model on which our Flagship will be built aims to solve the L4 problem through a combination of year-round courses, overseas studies and internship components, and new course modules that pair disciplinary courses such as Chinese political economy, the sociology of Chinese law, and ethnic cultural variety in China with parallel language-training complements. The typical Flagship student will follow a path such as this: After a freshman year in a normal elementary Chinese sequence, “Flagship bound” students will do intensive second-year coursework in an on-campus immersion program. A regular campus third-year class in the sophomore year will be followed by summer at a Flagship field site in China.

In this way, Flagship juniors will be ready for fifth-year coursework, and this will take the form of tandem course modules, each paring a regularly offered English-language disciplinary course with a complementary course in Chinese, designed to reinforce language learning through disciplinary study. For example, next Fall, Flagship students (in this initial year drawing on a pool of motivated, existing advanced learners) will enroll in an English-language course in Chinese political economy and a complementary language course with Chinese materials selected by the political economy instructor, analyzed and prepared for linguistic instruction by the Flagship staff, and taught by a Flagship instructor, the two courses being linked by a native-speaker graduate assistant who will attend both courses and provide tutorial aid.  A similar pair will be on the Spring schedule, and as new courses are developed and the Flagship population grows, multiple courses will exist in a single term.  Initially, all these courses will have China area studies content, but the longer term goal will be to expand in range gradually so as to diffuse Chinese-language learning contexts throughout the broader curriculum, to the degree that faculty in other programs are attracted and able to participate.

It is this step in the Flagship model that offers some promise for the reconciliation of the goals of area studies per se and the training demands of an L4 language. If the training ground of global linguistic proficiency can be shifted to the area studies disciplinary curriculum itself, then to a certain degree this simultaneity may reduce the inevitable conflict between training goals that cannot be accomplished in parallel within the context of a four-year undergraduate curriculum.

Finally, returning to the curricular path at IU, Flagship seniors will undertake a capstone year involving Fall language study on a designated university campus in the PRC, followed by an internship assignment arranged through the national Chinese Flagship to complete their undergraduate degrees.

Obviously, the per student funding required to launch this initiative is high and its ambition and complexity make it very likely that we will be confronted with many unanticipated problems (not to mention ones that we are able to see coming from the start). However, short of lengthening the college experience in order to finesse the structural problem L4 languages present, this may be the most promising of the various models to apply for states like Indiana, at least until a robust pre-college language training infrastructure develops.

Antonia Schleicher reported on the history and development of the teaching of African languages in this country. She then summarized the current Flagship program for African languages at her home institution, where, interestingly enough, all the students in the program at present were white. The program has instituted a new proficiency standard based on actual ability to use the language effectively and not to confine training to book learning. The Flagship students, in addition to the special tutoring they receive, also attend regular classes and thereby help to improve the skills of the non-Flagship students.

Schleicher then presented a PowerPoint survey of the new teaching materials and recruitment brochures for a wide range of African languages (view the PowerPoint file here).

During the discussion David Ransel asked if the universities did not bear a heavy responsibility for dropping language requirements in the past 30 years, thereby permitting high schools to eliminate many of their foreign language programs. Bradley Levinson pointed out that a number of other pressures prompted universities to move in that direction, for example, the desire of students and parents for more professionally oriented education, the increasing consumer focus of universities, and the notion that courses in cultural appreciation could substitute for language learning.

Paul Foster asked about the federal funding models, and Robert Slater responded that the newer models were necessary because Title VI funding did not deliver a large number of dollars to begin with and was not sustainable. Most of the funding for Title VI centers comes from the universities themselves, and the Title VI funding serves merely as leverage that encourages universities to maintain their commitments. As for the consumer-driven model at universities and its undermining of language training, that is something that universities need to confront and resist.

David Ransel (March 27, 2009)


Center for the Study of Global Change, Center for West European Studies, African Studies Program, East Asian Studies Center, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Program, Center for International Business and Research, Center for the Languages of the Central Asian Region, India Studies Program.