For President of Central European U., All Roads Have Led to Budapest

Mikael Risedal

John Shattuck's firsthand knowledge of Europe guides his teaching and leadership.
May 02, 2010

John Shattuck's long and distinguished professional life has featured several incarnations—as a leading civil-rights lawyer, diplomat, academic, and university administrator—all of which he is drawing upon in his new role as president and rector of Central European University, in Budapest. His previous positions include national staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union; vice president for government affairs at Harvard University, where he taught law; assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration; and U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic.

"I've come because all roads have pointed for me in this direction over my career," he says of the post. "For someone whose whole career has been a combination of human rights and civil rights in the classroom, in research, and in real practice out in the field, this is the place that I feel most at home. In that sense, it brings together all the things that I care most about."

Mr. Shattuck's familiarity with the region comes not just from his tenure as the American envoy to Prague, from 1998 to 2000, but also from his earlier involvement in helping shape American policy in the aftermath of the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia and the ethnic wars whose reverberations continue to echo. "The region is still going through a lot of struggle and difficult times," he says.

Central European University, which the Hungarian-born financier George Soros helped found in 1991, is also a product of that tumultuous era. Mr. Soros originally envisioned the institution as a complement to his network of Soros foundations, which promote open society and democracy. "In the early days of the collapse of the Soviet empire, I thought that the university would be a kind of European center for the foundation," he says. "It didn't work out like this at all. As a university, it wanted to be independent, and it developed independently."

The university has evolved into a well-regarded graduate institution, with 1,600 students from 110 countries. "The fact that there is no one dominant culture here makes people feel more comfortable than they would be if they were in another setting," Mr. Shattuck says. He will be drawing on the region's troubled history for a course he is teaching on problems in international relations; it is grounded in the breakup of Yugoslavia and the resulting genocide and NATO military campaign. "I'm not going to teach in an abstract way," he says. "I'm going to teach as someone who was directly involved, and I'm going to make the students wrestle with some of the questions that I had to wrestle with, like how to persuade the secretary of state that the U.S. needs to be more interventionist."

The course encapsulates some of what he hopes to achieve at the university, which he says "is well on its way to becoming a new model of international education" by taking an approach that is international, intercultural, and interdisciplinary.

A new international school of public policy, the first in the region, will be established in time for the university's 20th anniversary next year, and new programs and degrees are being added to the curriculum. Leon Botstein, the university's board chair and president of Bard College, says those developments mark the university's "shift from an institution focused on the region to an international university." Mr. Shattuck's wide-ranging background made him the "ideal" choice to lead the university at a time of transition, he says. Mr. Shattuck is not only committed to helping the university through the change; he has the diplomatic skills to persuade others of his ideas and deliver on them, Mr. Botstein says.

Five years ago, Mr. Soros gave $206-million to the endowment, which now has a total value of more than $880-million, making the university one of the wealthiest in Europe. The endowment has not suffered the setbacks that have beset many American institutions, says Mr. Shattuck. "Our money situation is very solid, and we're fortunate to have the resources to do the things we are trying to do."

For his part, Mr. Soros hopes that as the university enters its third decade under new leadership, others will be inspired to follow his example. "It only became a university when they got a lot of other people supporting it, and in that sense I have endowed it exactly so that its future is assured, but it now has to do its own work to attract additional support."

As Mr. Shattuck settles into his new role, it is clear that he is looking forward to leading those efforts. He has signed a contract for five years, which he is quick to point out is renewable. "I'm in it for the long haul," he says.