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Conference at IU Bloomington points to importance of area studies

"Area Studies: Do We Need Them?" was the title of a lecture that James Collins, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, gave at a recent conference at Indiana University Bloomington.

Collins answered his own question unequivocally. He said that "area studies are even more relevant and central today to our nation than they were during the Cold War period, which gave them such a major place in the academy."

The Feb. 26-28 conference, Area Studies in the Future of Higher Education, was organized to mark the 50th anniversary of the Russian and East European Institute, the first IU area studies program funded under Title VI of the Higher Education Act. But the event looked forward, with discussions focusing on the state of international and language studies and their relevance in a new era of globalization.

Conference organizer and REEI Director David Ransel, the Robert F. Byrnes Professor of History at IU Bloomington, said the goal was to open the door to new partnerships by making administrators more aware of the expertise in IU area studies centers.

"The hope was that we could have more coordinated use of the university's international resources and put them together for greater impact," he said. "And I think we achieved some of that."

University support comes from the highest levels. IU President Michael A. McRobbie has made international engagement a top priority. Provost and Executive Vice President Karen Hanson and Vice President for International Affairs Patrick O'Meara not only sponsored the area studies conference but took an active part. And deans of the College of Arts and Sciences and schools of Business, Law, HPER, Journalism, and Public and Environmental Affairs took part in panel discussions.

"I was deeply impressed and gratified at the degree of support from administrators," Ransel said.

Patrick O'Meara

Chris Meyer

Patrick O'Meara

Print-Quality Photo

In addition to REEI, IU Bloomington boasts the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, the African Studies Program, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, the Center for West European Studies, the East Asian Studies Center, the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Program, the Center for the Study of Global Change, the Center for International Business and Research, the India Studies Program, and the Center for the Languages of the Central Asian Region.

IU offers instruction in more than 50 world languages, including some not taught anywhere else in the U.S., and serves visiting students through the Summer Workshop in Slavic, East European and Central Asian Languages in Bloomington.

IU programs in East European language and cultural studies were established during World War II. After the war, then-IU President Herman B Wells kept the programs going. And when the federal government began Title VI funding for areas studies after the 1957 Sputnik scare, the university was well positioned.

"The programs that exist because of Title VI have not only taught generations of U.S. citizens how to maintain an effective leadership role, but also how to adapt its leadership skills to a changing world," O'Meara, the IU vice president for international affairs, said in opening remarks at the conference.

Some questioned the need for specialized area studies after the breakup of the Soviet Union, when it seemed that American interests reigned supreme. Then came 9/11, followed by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The need for expertise in local cultures and obscure languages again became apparent.

Collins, an Indiana University REEI alumnus, said area studies never became irrelevant. As ambassador to the Russian Federation, he said, he found that the best way to develop and implement policy was "in essence to rely on a series of area study seminars."

Now, Collins said, the U.S. needs cooperation from other nations to deal successfully with such issues as global warming, failed states, drug-resistant disease, and regional or local conflicts.

"It is hard for me to imagine success without the knowledge, communications skills, and understanding that area studies will contribute to dealing with these challenges," he said.