An attack on repected professor, Stephen Cohen - “Putin’s American toady,”
In turn Prof. Cohen accuses the NY Times of professional misconduct.
Scholars at Odds on Ukraine
28 January, 2015
Since the crisis in Ukraine began, the Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen has cast himself in the role of the unbowed dissenter, whose sharp criticisms of America’s foreign policy in the region have earned him denunciations as “Putin’s American toady,” as The New Republic put it, and worse.
But Mr. Cohen is also a man of means, whose wife’s charitable foundation has donated large amounts of money to support Russian studies, which have been hard hit by declining government funding.
Now, his largess and his divisive reputation have collided, opening a rift in the main scholarly association covering the post-Soviet world and spurring charges that the polarizing politics of the Ukraine crisis are stifling free speech and compromising the group’s scholarly mission.
The affair began amicably enough two years ago, when Mr. Cohen and his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor and publisher of The Nation, began discussions with the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, about ways to support research.
Ms. vanden Heuvel’s Kat Charitable Foundation had previously funded a dissertation prize named jointly for Mr. Cohen and his mentor, the eminent political scientist Robert C. Tucker, who died in 2010.
Last spring, the couple hit on the idea of creating the Stephen F. Cohen-Robert C. Tucker Dissertation Fellowship Program. They committed an initial $413,000 to support up to 18 projects over three years, with potentially millions more to come for a permanent endowment.
The gift would have almost entirely replaced key State Department grants that had ended in 2013, to broad dismay in the field. But in September, the couple canceled the gift after some association members objected to having Mr. Cohen’s name on the fellowships.
After a board meeting and other last-minute efforts at compromise, the conflict broke into broader view last week, when a long, indignant letter by Mr. Cohen recounting his version of events began leapfrogging across colleagues’ email inboxes. It was soon followed by a letter in support of Mr. Cohen, signed by more than 60 scholars and sent to the association’s leaders on Monday, calling the apparent politicization of the group “a profound embarrassment.”
“This thing has really snowballed,” said David Ransel, a retired historian at Indiana University, who drafted the letter of protest. “What has happened is really unfortunate.”
The association, which includes some 3,000 members around the world, has often been divided by sharp debate since its founding in 1948. But the Ukraine crisis, scholars say, has prompted especially intense divisions.
And standing at the center is Mr. Cohen, 76, a professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University who regularly airs his views in the pages of The Nation — “Distorting Russia,” read one headline — and in television and radio interviews.
“Steve Cohen is singular,” said Ronald G. Suny, a historian at the University of Michigan. “He’s not only a scholar of note, but a very controversial public intellectual whose views often rub people who are hostile to Russia the wrong way.”
That didn’t seem to worry the association initially. On Aug. 11, Ms. vanden Heuvel signed a memorandum of agreement on the planned gift, and received an email describing the board’s reaction as “unanimously positive.”
But a week later, the couple received another message lamenting that “every action is being viewed through an ideological lens,” given the deteriorating situation in Ukraine, and saying approval would be postponed until the board’s annual meeting in November.
It remains unclear who objected to the gift as proposed. Stephen Hanson, the group’s president at the time, declined in an interview to confirm any threatened resignations, or to identify any individuals who raised questions. But he said that proceeding would have risked “serious splits” within the group.
“It’s no secret that there were swirling controversies surrounding Professor Cohen,” said Mr. Hanson, the vice provost for international affairs at the College of William and Mary. “In that context, consulting with a wider community of scholars was the prudent thing to do.”
After being informed of the delay, Mr. Cohen and Ms. vanden Heuvel withdrew the gift offer, protesting what Mr. Cohen summed up as the “intolerant politics” involved.
“It’s an obscenity,” Mr. Cohen said in an interview. “This wasn’t just about me, or even primarily about me. These people were doing something very, very wrong. If I didn’t withdraw, this would fester and get worse.”
At the November meeting, the board voted to approach the couple about reinstating the gift offer, under what Mr. Hanson called a “compromise name.” To some, that proposal smacks of censorship. In an email to the association on Jan. 13, Ms. vanden Heuvel rejected what she characterized as the demand to drop Mr. Cohen’s name, calling it a “political act” that violated “free journalistic and scholarly inquiry.”
The letter signed by the 60-plus scholars said that the treatment of Mr. Cohen “reeks of a censuring of public discourse.”
But some scholars questioned any claims of censorship. Yoshiko M. Herrera, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said while she would have voted to support the gift, submitting it to board review was part of a necessary democratic process.
“I think it’s unreasonable for a donor to say, ‘You cannot subject my gift to approval by the full board,’ ” Ms. Herrera said. She added: “What’s happening is that people who disagree have essentially voted against him.”
Serhii Plokhii, the director of Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Center, said he had been unaware of the incident until last week, but that the association leadership was right to worry about splits in the group.
“The frustration caused by Stephen Cohen’s pieces and statements on television is deep and quite serious,” Mr. Plokhii said. “The concerns are not so much about politics per se, as about the partisan nature of his interventions, the way he just blames one side.”
Mr. Cohen rejected that characterization, saying his intent has been to give “a balanced picture” by offering a “factually, historically correct” account of the Russian perspective on Ukraine. “That doesn’t make me pro-Russian,” he said.
Others defended Mr. Cohen’s scholarship, if not his conclusions. “I don’t agree with many of Cohen’s recent positions on Ukraine,” said Michael David-Fox, a professor at Georgetown, who signed the letter. “It’s precisely because he is in a minority that this is an especially important case.”
Stephen Cohen at the annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, January 2, 2015. He accuses the NYT and Washington Post of "journalistic malpractice" for demonizing Vladmir Putin.