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Academia Finally Tears Down the Wall

How long did it take U.S. academics to acknowledge the fall of the Berlin Wall back in 1989?

September 15, 2000

How long did it take U.S. academics to acknowledge the fall of the Berlin Wall back in 1989?

In addition to its main campus and medical school in Baltimore, Maryland, Johns Hopkins University has academic facilities in Bologna and Florence in Europe and at Nanjing in China. Its prestigious School of Advanced International Studies, which has an august faculty of policy experts and former high-ranking public officials, is situated less than two miles from the White House in Washington, D.C.

Founded in 1876, the university has long been guided by the edict of its first president, Daniel Coit Gilman, that the university would stress its role as a research institute as strong as its role as a teaching facility. Ever since, the university has been world renown for its scientific and intellectual achievements. No other university in the United States has won as much research and development funding from the federal government. But, despite its outstanding record, one of the university’s eight academic divisions appears to be limping somewhat behind the times.

Johns Hopkins’ Advanced School of International Studies — whose scholars have exhaustively scrutinized the many cold war conflicts and frictions between the powers of the East and West — has only recently taken steps to acknowledge that the Wall has indeed come down.

Even though Germany will mark the tenth anniversary of its reunification this October, the school’s old Department of Russian Area and East European Studies put itself through a much-belated reorganization to reflect these the new geo-political realities only in the past year. In the process, the department’s name was changed to Russian and Eurasian Studies, at least nominally giving Eastern Europe — the countries once under the shadow of the Iron Curtain — the heave-ho.

Meanwhile, the programs in Eastern European studies have been folded into the department for European Studies, which has tended to focus on Western Europe’s post-World War II experiment of building the supra-national institutions of the European Union and the euro. Could there be any clearer indication that the School of Advanced International Studies now considers Eastern Europe’s integration into “Western” organizations like the EU and NATO a virtual certainty?

Up until 1989, the old East-West division made sense — inasmuch as the geographical boundaries between Western and Eastern Europe also represented sharp political and economic divisions. And while few were able, ten years ago, to envision how quickly the former Soviet bloc countries would move to embrace the West, it does seems appropriate to question why it took Johns Hopkins ten years to adjust departmental realities to political realities.

The answer might have something to do with the fact that the European Studies program has traditionally focused on just the stable democracies and developed economies of Western Europe. Perhaps it was simply unwilling to expand its focus to the young democracies and fragile market economies of Poland, Hungary and the rest of East Europe until the signs were clear that these institutions had taken root. In other words, why change the name just to have to change it back?

If that theory is correct, then we have reason to be optimistic about the future of Eastern Europe. After all, the scholars at Johns Hopkins University — after ten long years of sober analysis and serious consideration — have staked their good names on it.