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Johns Hopkins SAIS: The Next 75 Years

October 24, 2019
Johns Hopkins SAIS 75th Anniversary Gala at 555 Pennsylvania Ave.
Remarks of Eliot A. Cohen, Dean

Let me begin with heartfelt thanks to the staff who worked so hard on this wonderful event; my welcome to university colleagues, faculty, and friends of the school; my gratitude to our donors and supporters; and a special greeting to current students and alumni. You are why we are here.

It is my honor to be the ninth Dean of Johns Hopkins SAIS. For nearly three decades it has been my still greater honor to teach many hundreds of students at this institution, and to have served on its distinguished faculty.

Tonight I will say a few things about the last 75; my theme, however, is the next 75.

Paul Nitze was a Democrat; Christian Herter was a Republican. They shared a love of country, a commitment to public service, and a common idea: to create a school to prepare young people for careers of service in international affairs, be it in the public, private, or nonprofit sectors.

Nitze and Herter nurtured SAIS and returned to it throughout long and eminent careers. Public service was for both men a vocation, a noble calling. So too was education.

The ancient sages asked, Who is wise? They answered The one who can see that which is being born.

That was the greatness of Nitze and Herter: in the midst of chaos – during a war that was far from won, and when more suffering lay ahead than behind - to envision the great challenges of the future and then to create a school informed by those insights.

The founders of this school could not foresee everything. They did not anticipate the atom bomb or the Cold War. But they perceived three things very clearly:

They realized that the United States would become the most powerful country in the world, and they believed that with great power comes great responsibility.

They understood that the European state system had collapsed, and that Europe’s colonial empires would dissolve.

They saw, finally, that the previous international economic order had failed, and had to be re-established on new principles.

And so they created a school whose faculty would understand and interpret that world; and they recruited students eager to shape that world.

That mission endures.

The initial class at SAIS consisted of some two dozen students, most of them women, all of them Americans. It had 3 resident and 11 adjunct faculty. Its physical premises were, as you have heard, underwhelming.

Today, we have three campuses on three continents. We have well over one hundred faculty, while across the world we have nearly fifty times as many students as we did in 1944. We have students from scores of countries; we have faculty and staff from Germany, France, Brazil, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Ethiopia and many more countries besides.

And instead of a rickety old building we are on the verge of entering this extraordinary space.

When I served as Counselor of the Department of State I traveled a great deal. In June 2008 I visited the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, the FATA, which was and remains a dangerous place. There, I walked into a meeting with representatives of the US Agency for International Development’s Office of Transition Initiatives, which does urgent and difficult work in conflict zones.

Suddenly, I heard someone say, Hi Professor Cohen, remember me? 

Of course I did. It was Stacia George, a Conflict Management major, a 2001 graduate who was running projects that ranged from building schools for girls to constructing roads. Her courage, her commitment, and her calm professionalism were inspiring.

Over the years I have lost track of how many times I have heard, Hi Professor Cohen, remember me? I have heard it on the unsafe streets of Kabul and in an elegant government building off the Place de la Concorde in Paris. I have heard it in the Secretariat Building in Delhi and the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. I have heard it in Colombian jungles and Dubai’s ultramodern airport, in Iraqi bunkers and London board rooms, in each case encountering some of our over 20,000 remarkable alumni, who every day fulfill Nitze’s and Herter’s hopes of a graduate body prepared for lives of service and achievement in every aspect of international affairs.

They were proud of their school, and I was, and remain, very, very proud of them.

But the big question, the SAIS question, is where are we going?

The story of SAIS echoes the story of world affairs. And like the larger world, SAIS stands today at a watershed.

I am the last Dean of SAIS who will have known Paul Nitze. Thus, we still have a bridge to that founding generation. That implies a special responsibility to discover whether we too can see that which is being born, and whether we too have the courage to act on what we see.

We live in a time of change possibly as profound as that which beset the war-torn world of 1944. No doubt we will miss much. But surely we too can see three big things.

Since 1944 the world has experienced two great geopolitical transformations: the Cold War and its dramatic end. A third is upon us. It has many aspects, and none more important than the arrival – not the rise, but the arrival – of China in international politics.

China in 1944 was a country partly occupied, impoverished and war-wracked. Tens of millions had died of conflict and famine: in the decades that followed, tens of millions more perished in man-made calamities.

Two generations later China is the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter. It has lifted more than half a billion people out of poverty. It has the world’s second largest military budget. Its people’s enterprise and its leaders’ initiatives are transforming commerce, international alliances, and strategic realities.

China’s arrival is changing the world. There is no better place than SAIS, with its long standing excellence in China studies, its Nanjing campus, and its flagship Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, from which to evaluate the new geopolitical order, and to explore the most complex and consequential international relationship of the future – that between the world’s two most dynamic economies and most powerful countries.

We can see, secondly, the disruptions caused by transnational forces that no state can control, and that are moving very fast – indeed accelerating. The advancing information technologies are one example; climate change is another.

SAIS is the place to come to terms with what these transformations mean, for good and for ill. We recently hosted Nandan Nilekani, the brilliant Indian entrepreneur who designed India’s digital identification system, which allows any Indian citizen, including those who are illiterate, to have secure, private, and reliable means of establishing their identity.

At the same time we are also the place to study some of the malign aspects of information technology – be it political subversion in cyberspace, or the proliferation of surveillance technologies to browbeat and control restive populations.

SAIS has an opportunity to synthesize science, technology and politics in the field of cyberspace. We can bring that synthesis to bear as well on our changing climate. We can ask what it means when the High North becomes both a commercial artery and a zone for strategic competition, and what it will mean when widespread flood and drought drive millions from their homes.

We can bring – we do bring – this disciplinary mix to the study of global health, of food security, and economic development. And as we do so we will tap Johns Hopkins University’s exceptionally deep expertise in engineering, public health, business, and more.

Finally, we live in an era when the premises and vitality of free government, of fundamental rights of speech, worship, assembly, and political participation, of rule of law and respect for the individual are under strains of a kind not seen for generations.

Last year, Freedom House’s annual survey began as follows: In 2018, Freedom in the World recorded the thirteenth consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The reversal has spanned all continents and a variety of countries, from long-standing democracies like the United States to consolidated authoritarian regimes like China and Russia…Democracy is in retreat.

This matters. It matters for us as citizens, and it matters for the fabric of international affairs. It matters because foreign policy can become a tool of domestic corruption or repression. It matters because some of the most important alliances in the world are predicated on common values. If the values erode, so too will those structures that have kept the peace.

It matters because a closed and repressive world is a more dangerous and violent world. Freedom, the rule of law, honest institutions are no longer, if they ever were, purely domestic issues.

SAIS is the place to understand how this has happened and what it means. We have a vantage point in Bologna from which to observe the varieties of populism that challenge one of the greatest achievements of the postwar period, European cooperation and institution building. We have in Washington subtle experts who explore how popular culture can be a conduit for, and an indicator of effective political dissent. We share scholars with the university’s Agora Institute, public intellectuals whose courageous voices are regularly heard well beyond the academic world, and we look forward to welcoming more.
At the core of any school must be an intellectual vision and a plan.

Here is what we will do.

In the past, we focused most of our efforts on a narrow demographic of students a few years out of college. In the future, we will teach students ranging from undergraduates to those at all phases of their careers. And we will bring them back to us again and again.

In the past we were, allowing for some modest differences in scale, rather like Texans in their more idiosyncratic moments – psychologically never quite letting go of our years of independent existence. In the future we will engage deeply and catalytically with other divisions of Johns Hopkins University, bringing to bear our university’s strengths and enhancing them.

In the past we taught in two modes: lecture and seminar. In the future we will exploit to the fullest the latest instructional technologies. We will – we already are – creating new degrees and programs to meet our students’ needs. We will meet our students where they are, in physical and in cyber space, and not only in thirteen week semester blocks of time.

In the past we were an American school not only in outlook, but in faculty, staff and student body. We were monochrome, and much the poorer for it. In the future we will make ourselves more diverse in every respect.

There is a lot to do.

But some things will remain the same, following not only the spirit, but in some respects even the letter of the school’s first Educational Plan, promulgated 75 years ago.

We will continue to recruit and nurture faculty who hit the trifecta of policy-relevant scholarship, excellent teaching, and participation in the public square.

We will continue to join with them distinguished colleagues from the world of practice; diplomats, intelligence professionals, international civil servants, finance and development experts.

As the leading professional school of international affairs, we will even more than today model for others a community of practically-minded scholars and academically-inclined practitioners, demonstrating by our example that theory and practice, research and instruction, public engagement and intellectual seriousness are not opposites, but, rather, in the most profound way, supports to one another.

We will challenge ourselves to produce studies of all kinds that measure up to those of the past, such widely read and insightful monuments of thought as Robert Osgood’s Ideals and Self Interest in American Foreign Policy, or Fouad Ajami’s Dream Palace of the Arabs.

We will prepare students to lead by putting before them our extraordinary faculty and alumni who themselves have been great leaders of bureaucracies and corporations, non-governmental organizations and voluntary associations.

We will be ever more global in outlook, in faculty, and in our student body. We will cherish and develop our campuses in Bologna and Nanjing.

But this building, and this city, will be our core.

Paul Nitze often insisted SAIS is an American school of international affairs. By that he and Christian Herter intended not parochialism but rather rootedness. Our interests, our students, our faculty and staff will span the world from Capetown to Rio, from Jakarta to Ottawa, from Berlin to Shanghai and of course, from Bologna to Nanjing. Our focal point, however, will remain Washington, DC.

We will debate issues in the way Paul Nitze and Christian Herter modeled for us – with spirit and conviction, but always with civility and mutual respect.

Here and abroad we will speak the truth, including controversial and disquieting truth, because today the Hopkins motto, veritas vos liberabit, the truth will make you free, means more to us than ever.

We will do those things wherever our classrooms may be, wherever our faculty travel and wherever women and men educated at SAIS gather – but most of all, in this, our spectacular new home, on the most important street of the most important city of what is, and will remain the most important and powerful liberal democracy in the world.

Ladies and gentlemen, the last 75 years were inspiring and exciting.

The next 75, I promise you, will be truly extraordinary.

We welcome you to this vision and to this ambition.

Share our enthusiasm for this great enterprise, and join us in it.

Thank you very much.