Bob Kerrey & Fulbright University Viet Nam

Bob Kerrey’s appointment as chair of the board of trustees of Fulbright University Vietnam has raised questions due to Kerrey’s past war record, and risks tainting the whole project.

kerrey UWN

“One simply cannot engage in barbarous action without becoming a barbarian… one cannot defend human values by calculated and unprovoked violence without doing mortal damage to the values one is trying to defend.” – J William Fulbright, The Arrogance of Power.

Imagine, for a moment, what would happen if a foreign university in the United States appointed an individual who had killed US civilians – or anyone, for that matter – to serve as chair of its board of trustees?

Or this post-World War II European example from David Marr, a US American historian of modern Viet Nam and Australian National University professor emeritus: “If the post-war West German government had selected a former German army officer who had killed (or ordered the killing of) unarmed French civilians to head the Goethe Institute in Paris, do you think the French government would have accepted this? Going back one step, would Bonn ever have selected such a person in the first place?”

Would the reaction be ‘forgive and forget’, or outrage that the university or government and its supporters could be so blind, so insensitive, so short-sighted as to select someone with such a dark past to assume such a key position?

What about a former Navy SEAL who admitted to being involved in the cold-blooded murder of a score of Vietnamese civilians in early 1969 in the Mekong Delta?

Follow this link to read the rest of this University World News article.

MAA

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Open Letter to Vietnamese & American Friends

Below is the English translation of an open letter written by Tôn Nữ Thị Ninh about Bob Kerrey’s appointment as chairman of Fulbright University Vietnam’s Board of Trustees.  Follow this link to read the original Vietnamese version:  Thư ngỏ của bà Tôn Nữ Thị Ninh gửi người Việt Nam và các bạn Mỹ   Mdm. Ninh’s statement is compelling and spot-on.

To say that the reaction to Kerrey’s appointment has been mixed is an understatement with people often falling into various predictable categories and camps, most without a full picture of his background and the status of the Fulbright University Viet Nam as a joint initiative.   I even received a Facebook message from a young Vietnamese, a mid-career professional, essentially lobbying me to support Bob after reading some of my anti-Bob comments in the media.  He later posted this simple yet sincere statement on my Facebook page:  I am with Bob.  I countered with this heartfelt reply:  I’m with the victims of Bob’s CIA-sponsored (Phoenix Program) slaughter and for someone who will not taint the reputation of this fledgling university.

MAA

Ho Chi Minh City, June 6, 2016

Ton_Nu_Thi_Ninh.jpg
Photo courtesy of Infonet.
  1. On June 1st I expressed an initial opinion on the appointment of Mr. Bob Kerrey (BK) as chairman of Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV)’s Board of Trustees. Today, I am sending this open letter to Vietnamese and Americans interested in the matter with a view to clarify and elaborate on prominent points:
  1. First, I would like to bring to light some facts about the role of the Board of Trustees (BOT) of an American-style university like FUV and the latter’s funding:

2.1. For an American-style university like FUV, the role of the Board of Trustees and its chair is not confined to fundraising but includes deciding on strategic directions for the School and formulating policies on complex issues affecting very diverse stakeholders. It is the BOT which selects and appoints the President. It would be erroneous to consider this position as inconsequential, or with little power, not worth the public’s attention or debate.

2.2. After the Vietnamese version of this letter was published, the leadership of FUV clarified the source of the initial funding for the school, to the effect that the first 20 million FUV received did not come from cutting the same amount from the VEF (Vietnamese Education Foundation), as had been mentioned in the news but from the Vietnamese Debt Repayment Fund (VDRF). While acknowledging FUV’s clarification, I would like to further clarify that the bill about the creation of VEF/VDRF was introduced to Congress by Representative George Miller and co-sponsored by a number of other Representatives and Senators.

  1. I do not agree with the drive to suppress the opposition to BK’s appointment by linking the issue to President Obama’s visit to Viet Nam. I do not believe that President Obama would have agreed to the association had he known the appointment would lead to controversy and reopen old wounds, contravening the visit’s primary goal of consensus building and looking together to the future.
  1. I also do not agree with the labelling of people opposing the appointment as conservative, not forward-looking and “not in favor of reconciliation”. I oppose the appointment but none of the Americans that I know have come to the conclusion that I am not forward-looking or “not in favor of reconciliation”. Promoting reconciliation and looking towards the future is neither the exclusive right nor the sole prerogative of those supporting BK’s appointment. Had BK not been

involved in that dark chapter against Vietnamese people, no one would have had any comment. If the appointment had been that of a Vietnam veteran like former Congressman and first United States Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson, or Mr. Thomas Vallely himself, also a veteran, someone who has been instrumental in the establishment of FUV, no one would have opposed it.

  1. I do not see the imperative to put BK in such an important position during FUV’s initial phase, one fraught with symbolism. The Americans (including veterans) who have spoken out on the issue directly to me or publicly through the media and social networks have expressed disapproval if not outright criticism. For instance, the BBC on June 2nd quoted Assoc. Prof. Jonathan London: “… [that is] an irresponsible decision. To establish a new university in Viet Nam, the least you could do is to be sensitive to the history of the two countries. I think this is a very sad mistake”. Dr. Mark Ashwill, an education expert who has been living and working in Viet Nam for many years, told Soha News on June 3rd that the appointment is “… disgraceful”. BK should “resign immediately”. Why is it that we, Vietnamese, remain unperturbed compared to Americans over searing pain inflicted on Vietnamese civilians?
  1. To the number of netizens and others asking people to be “generous, forgiving, forward-looking for the future of Vietnam…”, I want to reiterate that:

6.1. To forgive or not to forgive BK for his role in the Thanh Phong massacre is an individual right and choice. That said, it is entirely conceivable for one to forgive AND to disapprove of BK holding a leadership position in a university in Viet Nam (his leading an American university in the US is a different issue).

6.2. My opposition is not based on raw emotions nor is it the result of a “lack of a conscious and lucid mind”. On the contrary, I am raising my voice in full consciousness and lucidity about the matter with the desire that Fulbright University have a smooth start on a healthy, consensual basis for a sustainable development. The people involved in BK’s appointment should have been “moving on in Vietnam but remembering its lessons”, the third lesson being “to exercise humility in assuming knowledge about foreign cultures” (The New York Times Op-Ed, May 23rd, 2016).

  1. We are witnessing a kind of exhortation to the masses to express across the board “generosity of mind and nobility of heart”. I believe the Vietnamese do not have to prove time and again their sense of humanity in their relations with former enemies, a fact which has been widely recognized, especially among American veterans themselves. I was surprised at the profound sympathy expressed for BK’s “agony” and the praising of his “courageous decision to take the position”. Meanwhile, echoing in my mind are the words of a former staff of the War Remnants Museum where evidence of the Thanh Phong massacre is in display, crying for the victims who have yet to see the culprit return and light them a candle. That person could not fathom how hundreds and thousands of Vietnamese students at Fulbright University would eventually refer to BK as “Thầy”, a respectful form for addressing teachers in Asia, particularly in Viet Nam. And I could see BK’s portrait hanging in the prominent space reserved to the School’s founders!
  1. I think that at this stage we can say that the appointment of BK as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Fulbright University Vietnam has become a public controversy rather than contributed to the consensus needed for this ambitious project to take off smoothly.

The ball is now in FUV founders’ court. Since this is an educational project of great significance and far-reaching implications, I hope FUV founders will reconsider their decision and together with BK offer a reasonable solution: to appoint another person to lead FUV’s Board of Trustees.

If the occasion arises, I have no problem meeting again Bob Kerrey, the Vietnam veteran, and discuss matters benefitting US – Vietnam relations and peoples of the two countries.

“Fulbright University Viet Nam – Starting on the Wrong Foot”

Below is the English translation of a statement by Mdm. Tôn Nữ Thị Ninh, whom  I like, respect, and admire, about the appointment of Bob Kerrey, former Nebraska governor, US senator, New School president, and self-confessed war criminal, as chairman of the Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) board of trustees.  Mdm. Ninh, Vietnam’s former ambassador to the European Union and Vice Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for the National Assembly, focusing on North America and Western Europe, was quoted in this 2 June 2016 New York Times article.

While attending a conference last week, I was asked by a Vietnamese media outlet to share my reaction to Kerrey’s appointment.  The quote below is what I had time for.

The appointment of Bob Kerrey as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Fulbright University Vietnam is, in a word, disgraceful.  The fact that he accepted the appointment is equally disgraceful.  Sen. J. William Fulbright must be turning in his grave.  15 years ago, Kerrey admitted that he and his commando unit massacred civilians in February 1969.  He should do the honorable thing on behalf of the Fulbright University Vietnam by resigning immediately.  Surely, the University can do better than the likes of Bob Kerrey, a self-confessed war criminal and relic from a dark past.

MAA

As a student in Paris, I actively participated in demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the nineteen sixties and seventies. My Master’s thesis was about the American writer   William Faulkner. For almost 30 years in the foreign service, I built relationships of mutual understanding and sincere friendship with a large number of Americans from all walks of life, for example, diplomats like Ambassador Pete Peterson; leaders of humanitarian groups that made direct contributions to the antiwar movement such as John McAuliff and Sally Benson; business leaders like Ernie Bower; veterans like Bobby Muller and Tom Vallely (who was first to bring the Fulbright program to Viet Nam); journalists like Murray Hiebert; and academics and researchers such as Walter Isaacson, to name a few. I am not haunted by or living in the past. I am neither an America “hater” nor do I feel an innate hostility to Americans. Like most people in Viet Nam, I am more than willing to put the past behind and look to the future together with the American people for our mutual benefit. Education is among Viet Nam’s top strategic interests. I fully support the foundation of Fulbright University (FUV) in Viet Nam, and I was happy to attend its license granting ceremony on May 25 in Ho Chi Minh City. Like everyone else, I sincerely hope FUV will be a significant actor in the building of a healthy, high quality institution of higher education in Viet Nam, a center for genuine learning in pursuit of excellence, contributing to the country’s global integration.

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Photo courtesy of DW

That’s why I was stunned to learn that former Senator Bob Kerrey was appointed Chair of the FUV Board of Trustees. That decision makes no sense to me. Why Bob Kerrey?

  • Mr. Kerrey directly participated in the massacre of innocent civilians, women, children and the elderly in the village of Thanh Phong on May 2, 1969. This is indisputable and has been acknowledged by Mr. Kerrey. We cannot obliterate such facts by invoking the need to look to the future.
  • On each side the issue may trigger different reactions. Though it might be seen differently depending on where one stands, one thing is certain: Bob Kerrey is not an appropriate choice, to put it mildly, to be Chair of the Board of Trustees of Fulbright University.
  • Mr. Kerrey said he expressed remorse over his role in the Thanh Phong massacre. This may be so. What I know, however, is that a leadership position at a university with the status and ambitions of FUV cannot be viewed as giving him an “opportunity” to atone for past wrongdoings. That opportunity can take many other forms rather than such a high profile position already inviting controversies. I know of many US veterans not directly involved in wartime atrocities who are living in Viet Nam and working alongside the Vietnamese to confront war legacies, like Chuck Searcy with the unexploded ordnance removal project in Quang Tri; or Billy Kelly, the former Infantry Captain who comes back to My Lai every March 16th to seek forgiveness of the victims, though he himself had nothing to do with the tragedy.
  • Mr. Kerrey believes that holding a leadership position at FUV will contribute to promoting cooperation between the two sides. However, in his recent response to
    the Financial Times (UK), Mr. Kerrey said he was ready to step down if his participation in FUV is detrimental to the project. I think that Mr. Kerrey should demonstrate his readiness and act as he proposed without further ado. Such a timely gesture would show self-respect and grace and would be duly appreciated by the Vietnamese. I am convinced that many of Mr. Kerrey’s fellow Americans would agree.
  • I am well aware that a number of people directly related to the project have publicly affirmed that Bob Kerrey is the “perfect fit” for this leadership position.  Really? Is there indeed no one else in the United States but Bob Kerrey who is capable to raise funds for FUV? If the project team had carried out an open selection of the chair position, with more than one candidate, I have no doubt that somebody with the appropriate expertise and experience but no similar baggage would have been identified. There will be an indelible mark on the foundation of a prestigious institution such as Fulbright University if Mr. Kerrey is the founding board chair of the University. American friends with whom I have discussed the matter fully concur with this opinion.
  • If the US side insists on holding to its decision, then, in my view, FUV can no longer be considered a joint education project as averred by the founding team. A happy marriage is one where both parties listen to each other, have consideration for one another’s opinions and respect each other’s emotions. Otherwise, Fulbright University will be an American university project in Viet Nam conceived and decided upon by Americans, in which the opinions and contributions of the Vietnamese are secondary.
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Photo courtesy of Getty Images

In other words, the decision to appoint Bob Kerrey as FUV Chair of the Board of Trustees shows insensitivity to the feelings of the Vietnamese and, may I say, disregard for our opinions, our sense of self-respect and our dignity.

It is my firm belief that a reversal of that decision in no way affects the ongoing positive bilateral relations between our two countries. On the contrary, it will allow for an equitable, healthy and sustainable Viet Nam-US cooperation in this meaningful university project.

Tôn Nữ Thị Ninh
Ho Chi Minh City, June 1, 2016

Vietnam-Fulbright University (of Vietnam)?

Here’s an update on the Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV), which is being built on the solid and well-respected foundation of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP),  a partnership established in 1994 – the year the decades long economic embargo was lifted and a year before the normalization of diplomatic relations – by the Harvard Kennedy School and the HCMC University of Economics.  The Vietnamese government recently granted an operating license to the Trust for University Innovation in Vietnam (TUIV), the non-profit organization that is the catalyst for this ambitious project.

fetp logoAccording to a press release on the FETP website, FUV will be built on a 15 hectare (37 acre) plot of land in the Saigon High-Tech Park near HCMC.  Incorporated as a not-for-profit, foreign-invested university, FUV will offer research and education in public policy and management, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), medicine, social sciences, humanities, and interdisciplinary sciences.

The plans are to begin construction next year with investment capital of $70 million, including $5.3 million in the initial phase, $20 million in the second phase (2017-2020) and $44.7 million in the third phase (2020-2030).

Where’s the money coming from?  Since it’s a US university, it must be the US government or another US source, right?  Here’s the “money paragraph”, pun intended, in a 10 July 2015 article entitled US-backed university in Vietnam cements diplomatic ties:

TUIV has set targets to enrol 2,000 students and raise US$100 million in the university’s first five years. About half of the US$40 million pledged to date comes from the Vietnam Education Foundation, or VEF, Act of 2000, through which the Vietnamese government has been repaying debts to the United States incurred during the war years.

Stin·gy
ˈstinjē/
adjective
unwilling to give or spend; ungenerous.
“his employer is stingy and idle”
synonyms:    mean, miserly, niggardly, close-fisted, parsimonious, penny-pinching, cheeseparing, Scroogelike

Let me get this straight.  The FUV, which “is to be designed around key principles of US non-profit higher education, including self-governance and academic freedom,” is classified as a US university but 50% of the initial installment of $40 million is from the VEF balance, meaning it’s (indirectly) from the Vietnamese government.  It sounds like a joint project to me.  Why not call it the Vietnam-Fulbright University?  Senator J.W. would no doubt look down from heaven with a smile on his face.  If you leave out “Vietnam” and the FUV is receiving “about” $20 million in Vietnamese government funding, nearly 30% of the total cost, he’ll be rolling over in his grave.

MQ-9-ReaperViewed from another perspective – in the spirit of turning swords into plowshares – the TUIV could fund the entire university, including all three phases, with the cost of just over five (5) MQ-9 Reaper drones.  Let that sink in for a moment.  (Each drone costs $13.77 million, not including the cost of ground stations and other associated equipment.  An added benefit of diverting funds from a drone budget to a new university is that fewer innocents are likely to die.)  Since this not very likely, let’s just call it the Vietnam-Fulbright University in honor of Sen. J. William Fulbright, passionate opponent of the American War in Vietnam, vocal critic of US foreign policy and author of the classic, The Arrogance of Power.  He would be pleased.  Plus, what a great way to cap off the 20th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

MAA