Tuesday, February 03, 2015

ASEEES Detailed Clarification Regarding Cohen-Tucker Fellowship Negotiations

In the light of a recent article in The New York Times, email chains, and comment in blogs (see here & here) and on social media, we hope to clarify the position of ASEEES on the generous offer by Professor Stephen Cohen and his wife, Ms. Katrina vanden Heuvel, to establish a fellowship program with the association.

ASEEES is a non-profit, scholarly society with over 3,000 members. The association embraces diverse interests and works to support a range of voices on what have been long fraught questions in our world area. The association considers itself non-political in the sense of fostering debate of divergent views at our conventions and in our publications; we try where possible to leave more partisan questions for our members and to have the association stand as a neutral organizing body.

ASEEES is governed by a 23-member Board of Directors which meets in person once annually in November at the Association’s Convention. Along with the President, a President-Elect, and Immediate Past President, the Board consists of Members-at-Large, a graduate student representative (all elected by direct vote of the membership), Treasurer, and the Slavic Review editor as well as representatives of different disciplinary associations and established constituencies such as library information professionals. Business relating to donations, alongside all other business, is arbitrated by the Board. Preliminary scrutiny of business is delegated to the Executive Committee, but this is answerable to the Board, not vice versa.

It is important to note that the ASEEES Board is made up entirely of scholars in our field who serve without compensation (excluding the executive director and the Slavic Review editor), and who agree to do so purely out of their desire to support the association and its mission.  The Board is also broadly representative of the various disciplines, backgrounds, and regional foci that make up the field of Slavic, East European and Eurasian studies.  Presidents of ASEEES and members of the Executive Committee can propose initiatives to the full Board, and can take some decisions on behalf of the Board between annual meetings, but whenever matters of significant concern arise, it is the duty of the ASEEES President and Executive Committee to consult the full Board in a way that allows all of these diverse perspectives to be expressed and respected.

In the example at hand, the ASEEES Executive Committee began conversations some years back to try to respond to the uncertainties of federal funding for the field. Near the end of 2013, after we learned of the Title VIII funding loss, ASEEES was grateful to receive an e-mail of interest from Professor Stephen Cohen and Ms. Katrina vanden Heuvel, head of the KAT Foundation, to create a dissertation fellowship program in Russian historical studies. To date, the KAT Foundation has supported the existing Robert C. Tucker/Stephen F. Cohen Dissertation Prize since 2006, for which ASEEES has long been thankful.

Negotiations between the Executive Committee and the donors to establish the Stephen F. Cohen-Robert C. Tucker Dissertation Fellowship program progressed smoothly until August 2014. The Executive Committee, at that point, unanimously recommended the program to the Board for acceptance.  A selection committee of three eminent scholars in the field of Russian historical studies was organized, and an agreement was prepared that was signed by the prospective donors and returned to ASEEES.  These preparatory steps, in retrospect, were carried out too soon; it would have been much better to wait until the full Board met in November before moving forward.  The sole reason for moving quickly was to try to launch a competition for the Cohen-Tucker Fellowships in Fall 2014, so that graduate students could potentially receive this needed support in the following academic year.

However, in our initial conversations with ASEEES Board members, it became clear that the unanimous support of the Executive Committee was not necessarily shared by the entire ASEEES Board.  Some considered that we should not proceed so rapidly at an exceptionally tense time in our region with a named gift that could potentially generate divisions in our Association.  Important questions of procedure were also raised. One of the problems that became apparent was the absence of an ASEEES Gift Acceptance Policy that would clarify the precise process by which major gifts to the association might be vetted and approved. The Board was also concerned about some clauses in the draft agreement, particularly the stipulation that final approval of the Selection Committee would be made jointly by the KAT Foundation and ASEEES. Whatever individual ASEEES members today may think about the merits of these objections to the Executive Committee’s initial recommendation, they clearly required a face-to-face discussion rather than consultation via e-mail.  When a growing number of Board members made clear they wanted to discuss the gift at our meeting in November, the instinct of the Executive Committee was to proceed slowly in a way that would best respect the democratic impulse behind the association’s tradition of making all major gifts subject to board approval at its annual meeting.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine how the Executive Committee could have gone forward with the Cohen-Tucker Fellowship program at that stage, given that the ASEEES Board and not the Executive Committee is the formal governance body of our association.

Thus Lynda Park, the Executive Director of ASEEES, informed Professor Stephen Cohen and Ms. Katrina vanden Heuvel of the delay. However, on September 8, 2014, Professor Cohen wrote to Ms. Park withdrawing the offer. Professor Stephen Hanson, then ASEEES President, and Ms. Park wrote to Professor Cohen and Ms. vanden Heuvel on September 16, stating that they were saddened to receive their decision to withdraw and apologized for the outcome of the negotiations and the pain and anguish that the process caused them.

By the time the Board met on November 20, the offer had been formally withdrawn. Contrary to some recent reports, no Board vote ever took place on its acceptance or rejection. However, the procedural concerns about dealing with large gifts remained.  With no gift on the table, and the clear need to establish formal guidelines for vetting potential gifts still unaddressed, it was appropriate for the Executive Committee to begin work on drafting a formal Gift Acceptance Policy—one which the Board discussed and adopted, unanimously and in open session, at its annual meeting in November, prior to any further discussion of what steps might be taken concerning the withdrawn Cohen-Tucker Fellowship gift.  Contrary to much speculation, the ASEEES Gift Acceptance Policy was not adopted with specific reference to the Cohen-Tucker Fellowship, but was instead based on the policies of other associations (see the policies of the College Arts Association and National Communication Association, which were used as templates).  We encourage ASEEES members to read the policies of these other associations so that their various provisions are familiar to all.  We would like to note that under the new ASEEES Gift Acceptance Policy, we now have a clear procedure for passage of a gift without unanimous consent as had been Board tradition (but not previously written in a policy). Under the new policy, we need only two-thirds majority vote.

Having adopted this formal set of guidelines, the ASEEES Board then turned to the issue of the Cohen-Tucker dissertation fellowship program, and discussed whether it would in principle be possible to return to the donors and request them to consider reinstituting the funding.  This discussion, as per the newly-adopted rules, was carried out in Executive Session and in strict confidentiality.  Again, it is normal for associations and other non-profit institutions to conduct discussions of potential donations in this manner, since doing so allows for a full expression by Board members of their points of view on potentially sensitive matters. Because of the rules of Executive Session, we are legally bound to keep the discussion confidential. We can state in general terms that the discussion was conducted in a professional manner in a way that reflected the diverse opinions of the Board and of the ASEEES membership as a whole.

The Board in the end resolved to explore a renewed conversation with Professor Cohen and Ms. vanden Heuvel, but also stipulated that the President and Executive Director should enquire whether it was possible to remove the clause suggesting any involvement of the KAT Foundation in selecting committee members and to rename the fellowship program in a way with which the donors would be fully comfortable. We would like to emphasize that the Board decided to make this request only because during the time of initial negotiations in May/June 2014, Professor Cohen himself had weighed various naming options; thus it seemed sensible to inquire in confidence whether or not Professor Cohen and Ms. vanden Heuvel were still open to these options as a way of realizing our mutual goals to fund graduate fellowships in Russian historical studies.

On December 4, Professor Hanson and Ms. Park wrote to Professor Cohen and Ms. vanden Heuvel asking to see if they had any interest in renewing discussion on the gift offer and whether they would consider those two changes. Hanson emphasized clearly that ASEEES would only wish to continue the conversation about naming options if there were alternatives with which both Professor Cohen and Ms. vanden Heuvel would be completely comfortable. Professor Cohen wrote back listing several potential naming options, and asking directly and pointedly whether any of these options would work for ASEEES. In reply, Hanson reiterated the desire to pursue these alternatives only if Professor Cohen and Ms. vanden Heuvel wished to do so. There were no further exchanges until the new year.

On January 13, 2015, Ms vanden Heuvel and Professor Cohen wrote separately to the Board expressing their indignation at the request to consider renaming the fellowships, and their dissatisfaction with the handling of the proposed donation.   

The Executive Committee and Board of ASEEES deeply regret the distress caused to Ms. vanden Heuvel and Professor Cohen by the handling of the negotiations. In particular, it was in retrospect a mistake to attempt to attract major donations to ASEEES without first formally adopting a Gift Acceptance Policy, and it was unfortunate that the Executive Committee’s non-binding decision of August 2014 was communicated to the donors before the Board had met. We were eager to launch the fellowship program that fall, and the rush led to an overly hasty approach.  Members of the Executive Committee have written repeatedly, both collectively and singly, to apologize for this.

Still, we must emphasize that the motivation for these actions was solely to try to find support for graduate students in our field as quickly as possible in a time of major budget cuts.  Moreover, it should be clearly understood that the process of shared board review of potential donations is essential to good governance of a non-profit scholarly association such as ASEEES.

The suggestion that Professor Cohen’s freedom of speech was impaired by such proceedings is, we believe, mistaken.  Immediately after the ASEEES Board received Professor Cohen’s e-mail of January 2015, the Executive Committee offered him the opportunity to publish a letter of protest in NewsNet, the Association’s newsletter, which he declined, and to propose a panel at the 2015 Convention, which he also declined. Of course, he and all other ASEEES members are still welcome to do so according to normal Association procedures.

On January 26, 2015, the President, Past President, President-Elect and Executive Director received a letter signed by Professor David Ransel and 61 others protesting “the decision of ASEEES leaders to cause difficulties for implementation of the Stephen F. Cohen-Robert C. Tucker Dissertation Fellowships because of objections that it honored Stephen Cohen,” and demanding that the addressees should make amends “by implementing the Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Fellowship program as it was originally established, by apologizing to Steve and to his wife Katrina vanden Heuvel, and by thanking them both for funding the Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Prize and now the proposed, and sorely needed, fellowships.” The ASEEES Executive Committee, in response, emphasized the chronology of events and procedural obstacles outlined above and requested suggestions for a constructive way forward. We regret that subsequent discussion in print and social media has hampered dialogue on these issues, especially as those discussions have put forward many inaccuracies.

The Executive Committee has forwarded the letters of protest to the Board and has consulted with all of its members individually. After reflection, the Board has confirmed that the process by which the donation was reviewed by the Board in August and November was procedurally sound. That said, we are eager to hear recommendations from our members on how they would advocate for such cases going forward. We emphasize again that the proposed gift had been formally withdrawn well before the ASEEES Board meeting in November, so calls on ASEEES to “reverse” this decision are based on a misunderstanding of events.  The only decision taken by the Board specifically concerning this matter was to try to reopen the conversation with the donors to see if a mutually satisfactory way forward could be reached.

All actions of the ASEEES governing bodies were taken with the interests of ASEEES foremost in mind. A key priority for the Association has been to advocate for and provide financial support for graduate students. To this end, we have been advocating tirelessly and diligently for re-appropriation of the Title VIII funding. We can report that Congress included support for the Title VIII program in its 2015 budget omnibus bill that was passed, and signed by President Obama, in December.  Also, the Board approved establishment of the ASEEES dissertation grant program, funded by the ASEEES general endowment. The announcement of the program is forthcoming. In addition, we launched a new mentoring program for graduate students and junior scholars in 2014, as a way to provide professional development support. We trust that in due course it will be possible to institute a dissertation fellowships program of the kind proposed in August 2014. 

Constructive discussion on the Association’s governance and advancement is set to continue. The new Gift Acceptance Policy will ensure a systematic and fair assessment of all donations according to a regular timetable. That policy, as any other policies, should be reviewed regularly and should be amended to be in line with best practices. The ASEEES Board and the Executive Committee plan to review and enhance, possibly with an external specialist on non-profit governance, the Association’s governing structure and process. 

Member comments and suggestion for ways to move forward are welcome, using this online form.

Members of the Executive Committee



Jan. 13, 2015: Professor Stephen Cohen sends a letter of rejection to ASEEES laying out his account of the Cohen-Tucker Fellowship affair.  It is published with his permission.

Jan. 26, 2015: Professor David Ransel and 62 signatories send a letter of protest (dated Jan. 23) to ASEEES.

Jan. 30, 2015: ASEEES Executive Committee issues a brief clarification statement.

Feb. 3, 2015: ASEEES Executive Committee issues a detailed clarificaiton statement above.

Feb. 5, 2015: Professor David Ransel and 120 signatories send a response letter to the ASEEES clarification statement.

[Chronology added 2/19/2015]


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