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Northwestern wants to hire a former Afghan war commander, and professors are pissed

Faculty members question whether a lieutenant general turned ambassador should head the school’s $100 million Buffett Institute for Global Studies.


  • Danielle Scruggs/Sue Kwong

In January 2015, when Northwestern University announced a $101 million donation from Roberta "Bertie" Buffett Elliott—a 1954 graduate of the school and investment guru Warren Buffett's younger sister—there were a lot of happy folks on campus.

The largest single gift in the school's history, it was earmarked for the Buffett Institute for Global Studies, a hugely expanded version of an existing international studies program she had already funded on a smaller scale.

According to a university press release, the Buffett Institute, open to professors and students throughout the university, would "combine world-class research with innovative student study and engagement programs." It would bring in visiting professors, sponsor public programs, fund research, and provide scholarships for international students. And it would be led by a "renowned expert in global affairs."

But by late November, the university had provoked serious consternation among much of its faculty with the announcement that the institute would be headed by retired U.S. Army lieutenant general Karl W. Eikenberry, a 35-year military veteran who commanded the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, and then served as America's ambassador there from 2009 to 2011.

Retired U.S. Army lieutenant general Karl W. Eikenberry - AP
  • AP
  • Retired U.S. Army lieutenant general Karl W. Eikenberry

For those most closely associated with the institute, the bonanza had turned into a problem. It looked to them like their proudly independent research center was about to be co-opted by the federal government's military and foreign policy establishment.

They were alarmed because, as art history professor Stephen Eisenman, a past president of the university's faculty senate, told me, "A great thing about the center has been the freedom faculty felt there, without any sense of a bureaucratic authority that might be shaping the conversations."

According to a February 9 open letter signed by 46 faculty members (and published in the Daily Northwestern), when the Eikenberry appointment was announced, they had already formally objected to the way the search had been handled and to his possible appointment, to no avail.

In a September letter to the 11-member search committee, chaired by president emeritus Henry Bienen, a group of faculty closely associated with the Buffett Institute had requested that the search be expanded, that finalists give a public talk and be available for meetings, and that key faculty be kept informed. They would later complain that the committee met only once before Eikenberry—who'd been placed on the list of candidates by Bienen and discreetly interviewed on campus—was selected.

And on the day of the Eikenberry announcement, more than 60 faculty members had signed another letter to NU president Morton Schapiro and provost Dan Linzer, arguing against the hire.

Among their objections: Eikenberry's lack of traditional academic and research credentials (He has two master's degrees but no PhD, and, though he teaches at Stanford, they said, he is not a "regular member" of the faculty there.) But their most serious concern was about Eikenberry's apparent view of the humanities as a tool. Citing an appearance he made at a 2014 Chicago Humanities Festival event, they wrote that he "advocates instrumentalizing the humanities and social sciences research to advance U.S. soft power."

"We believe that it would be irresponsible to remain silent while the university's core mission of independent research and teaching becomes identified with U.S. military and foreign policy."

—Forty-six Northwestern University faculty members in a letter to the administration­

That speech is up on YouTube, so you can still see Eikenberry explaining "soft power" as the ability to "attract and co-opt, as opposed to coerce."

"Soft power is about culture, values, and smart, nuanced foreign policy," the former general says. "Its fount is the magnetic potential of the arts and humanities." He adds that it's a lot cheaper than "hard power," which in Afghanistan was costing about a million dollars a year for each soldier or marine.

Eikenberry's controversial stint as military leader turned ambassador ended after his classified complaints to Washington about the inadequacies of then-president Hamid Karzai were leaked to the New York Times. He didn't return the Reader's calls for comment.

In their February letter, faculty explained their stand this way: "We believe that it would be irresponsible to remain silent while the university's core mission of independent research and teaching becomes identified with U.S. military and foreign policy."

But it looks like that might be exactly what the administration has in mind. In their own "open letter" response, Schapiro and Linzer said Eikenberry stood out among the other candidates for his "access to a broad array of scholars, government officials, and world leaders," and that he will "broaden access" for NU faculty and students.

Eikenberry is scheduled to begin work at NU in September; his appointment was on the agenda at a faculty senate meeting earlier this month. Linzer, who was there to discuss it, said the idea behind the appointment was not to add another faculty researcher, but to "search for a director that would allow us to have a global impact. . . . At the end of the day, Morty and I decided Karl Eikenberry was the person. . . . The goal was to expand what we do, not replicate."

Which prompted this question from Spanish professor Jorge Coronado: "You're saying he's a great guy, and he's got all these contacts. Is this the criteria for new positions going forward?"

An online petition at seeks withdrawal of Eikenberry's appointment and the establishment of a new, faculty-approved search committee. v

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