Fulbright Keeps Moving Forward Despite Budget Uncertainty

Benjamin Rasmussen for The Chronicle

Gabriel Preliasco, of Uruguay, received a Fulbright Nexus award to study turbines that require less wind, at Colorado's National Wind Technology Center.
October 23, 2011

As lawmakers seek to make deep cuts in federal spending, the U.S. State Department's Fulbright Program—the nation's flagship academic exchange—faces an uncertain future.

Members of Congress have yet to set the 2012 fiscal-year budget, and proposals vary on how much the department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which oversees Fulbright, will receive. The Senate has approved a 2.2-percent increase in the bureau's 2011 allocation, while the House of Representatives has proposed a 10.1-percent reduction. For its budget request for 2012, the Obama administration sought an increase in spending for the bureau, but also asked for an almost $1-million decrease in Fulbright.

FULBRIGHT DATA: Countries Sending the Most Scholars to the U.S. |
Top Destinations for U.S. Scholars | Top Destinations for U.S. Students |
Top Producers of American Scholars, by Institution Type | Top Producers of American Students, by Institution Type

As the fiscal battle wears on, Marianne Craven, managing director of the bureau’s office of academic programs, says she is “cautiously positive” that Fulbright will survive relatively unscathed.

"We hope we can maintain as close to our current level as possible, and, depending on the budget outcome, we'll be looking at any inefficiencies we can find or working within our priorities to establish where we would have to reduce," says Ms. Craven, who until recently was the department's acting deputy assistant secretary for academic programs. Meghann Curtis was appointed to the position this month.

For 2011, the Fulbright's budget fell by $16.4-million, to $237.4-million. Ms. Craven says the change led to modest cuts, including decreases in its foreign-language awards and in the number of fellowships it provides for international students to enroll in doctoral studies in science and technology at American institutions.

"When the budget decreases, obviously we have to make choices," she says. "We want to keep the core programs strong. We want to keep them innovative and diverse."

With the budget scrutiny, Ms. Craven says, the bureau has been more systematic in offering briefings on Capitol Hill about its work, including Fulbright activities.

While it's unclear how much the U.S. government will spend on the Fulbright Program in 2012, other countries have been steadily raising their financial commitment to it—a sign of international interest in academic ties despite the tough economic times.

Foreign-government contributions to Fulbright rose $10-million, to $89-million, in 2010, the latest year for which data are available. The money helps pay for foreign scholars and students to study at American colleges, among other exchanges.

Chile led the way, providing almost $8.2-million. Other major contributors include Brazil, Germany, and Spain.

"The strength of the foreign-government contributions really tells us how much the programs are valued," says Ms. Craven.

She says the bureau also benefits from partnerships with the private sector.

For example, this year the bureau is marking its five-year anniversary of working with mtvU, the educational arm of the cable-TV music channel, to provide a few fellowships to American graduates to study music and cultures overseas. "It really brings to life the international experience through music," she says.

While companies and other private donors provided $17-million for Fulbright programs in 2010, Ms. Craven says the bureau remains cautious about relying too much on outside dollars, even with a potentially shrinking budget.

"We learned that you really need to look at sustainability and not just going after the funds for the sake of the funds," she says.

As for its programs, the bureau continues to want to use Fulbright as a way to develop ideas that contribute to meeting global challenges, like developing renewable-energy sources or fighting HIV/AIDS. As part of its new Fulbright Nexus Program, for instance, the bureau provided awards to 20 scholars, nonprofit leaders, and businesspeople in the Western Hemisphere who are doing work in three areas: science, technology, and innovation; sustainable energy; and entrepreneurship.

The bureau has also organized meetings focused on global issues for Fulbright participants. Last year it worked with the University of Nebraska at Lincoln to bring together students from 46 developing countries and a broad variety of disciplines to discuss ways to improve food security.

Malnutrition around the world and similar problems are "being addressed by governments and other entities, but the role of scholars and institutions in addressing those issues is really important, especially since they need to be solved on the global level," says Ms. Craven. "It can't just be one country solving them."

Correction (10/24, 11:20 a.m.): This article originally reported incorrectly on the size of the cut in the Fulbright budget in 2011. It fell by $16.4-million, to $237.4-million, not by $300,000, to $253.5-million. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.