Expanding the Fulbright Legacy in Vietnam (?)

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.  -Mark Twain (1835-1910)

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This was the title of a 2018 article written by Mary Beth Marklein (MBM) for Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning (Volume 50, 2018 – Issue 1, pp. 63-70).  The online version was published on 22 May 2018.  Since I have been following the development of Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) since it was first announced, I read Mary Beth’s piece with great interest and, ultimately, disappointment.  It read like a one-sided, US-centric puff piece that could easily have been written by the FUV public relations office or that of its benefactor, the US State Department. She took the time to speak to quite a few FUV people who, of course, confirmed her rosy view of this institution and whitewashed its recent controversial history.  In other words, she committed a number of sins of omission.    

Here are some comments from colleagues who know Viet Nam, all of which are spot-on, in my opinion.

She has drunk the establishment Kool-Aid.  She thinks no one can truly do any wrong, I guess.  She certainly skated lightly past a few important issues, such as how money was extracted from the Vietnamese for Fulbright U.  

Like most Americans, she conflates two quite different concepts: “unbiased” and “pro-U.S.”  Ironically, at most high-quality universities in the U.S. a large number of faculty see it as their mission to make their students aware of the powerful criticisms of the “neoliberal” world order, “globalization”, and U.S. policy.  Even in the U.S., serious scholars (with some exceptions) are not mindless sycophants of U.S. imperialism.  But FUV is much more U.S.-nationalistic than most universities in the U.S.  So it’s worse than just “meddling” and imposing a U.S.-style institution on Vietnam — it’s imposing a lousy U.S.-style institution on Vietnam.

Below are some of my comments in red after the author’s paragraphs in blue.  

If U.S. readers have heard about FUV, it is probably because of the cloud that hovered over it in 2016 when FUV announced that Bob Kerrey would be chair of the FUV’s board of trustees. A decorated war hero who went on to become the Governor of Nebraska, a U.S. Senator, and a university president, Kerrey’s reputation was forever stained in 2001 by a revelation that he had led an attack in 1969 that killed 13 Vietnamese women and children civilians, and then covered it up. 
 
Where did MBM get the “13” figure – Kerrey’s memoir or the US military?  The figure I have from various reliable sources is 21.  That’s number that was used in the initial New York Times report from 2001 that broke the story.  In fact, his Bronze Medal citation reads as follows:  “The net result of his patrol was 21 Viet Cong killed, two hooches destroyed and two enemy weapons captured.”  
MBM also stated that Kerrey and his unit killed only women and children, forgetting about the 65-year-old grandfather whom Kerrey held down as one of his men, Gerhard Klann, slit the man’s throat, according to Klann.  
 
MBM referred to Bob Kerrey as a “decorated war hero” without mentioning the fact that one of his medals, the Bronze Medal, was awarded for the Thanh Phong war crimes.  
MBM neglected to mention that rather important fact that Kerrey’s mission that fateful night in February 1969 was a Phoenix Program operation.  
 
Kerrey has acknowledged and apologized, multiple times, for his actions; still, the FUV appointment prompted both demands for Kerrey’s resignation and a spirited defense of his appointment. Today, Kerrey’s name remains on the FUV website as a member of the board of trustees. FUV Trustee Ben Wilkinson disputes a report, published in May 2017, that Kerrey had quietly resigned (Ashwill, 2017). Nevertheless, Thuy has taken over the chair’s duties (Taft, 2018). 
 
I’m afraid MBM is missing the forest for the trees.  The point is Kerrey should never have never been offered that position and, having been offered it, should have refused.  Of course, Ben Wilkinson (BW) disputed what I revealed in my May 2017 article.  Always the loyal soldier, I refer to BW as the “quiet American,” a textbook example of someone who is interculturally competent (IC as a skill set) yet a US nationalist (nationalism as a mindset/ideology).  His blood runs red, white, and blue.  He was dead wrong in this case.    
 
The debate over Kerrey is healthy and necessary, but it also distracts from the larger story of the making of Fulbright University Vietnam, a story that includes cautious baby steps and giant leaps of faith.    
 
Regarding the “debate over Kerrey” – whose fault is it that?  Two consecutive PR disasters:  1) Bob Kerrey’s appointment; and 2) Thomas Vallely’s interview with Isabelle Taft for Politico.  He said that Kerrey shouldn’t be singled out for criticism because of the sheer ubiquity of violence against civilians in the Mekong Delta. In other words, so what if Kerrey and his Raiders murdered a couple dozen people in some village.  It was a common occurrence.  Besides, “There’s no one in Thạnh Phong going to FUV,” as he put it in a snide and hurtful as remark.  (Check out my article from August 2018 for more information, if you dare.)  FUV is its own worst enemy.  Ted Osius, former US ambassador to Viet Nam, joined FUV as vice president and then resigns six months into the job.  A little birdie told me that Vallely is on the way out.  Gee, I wonder why?  

Last but not least, another sin of omission is a major source of funding for FUV, namely, the balance of the Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF), a scholarship-for-debt program.  That $20 million came indirectly from the Vietnamese government, a partner in this project in more ways than one.  

Finally, what about the victims, both the living and the dead, of Kerey’s war crimes in Thanh Phong?  What about the cruel and insensitive comments by Vallely in that Politico interview?  What about the cynical and persistent use of education not only as a tool but as a weapon of soft power in trying to shape Viet Nam in the USA’s image, which is decidedly anti-Fulbright?  

I could say more but I think this will suffice for a blog post.  

Note:  The author is a Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University, where her focus is on US higher education as public diplomacy.  My hope is that she develops a more critical perspective on the issues she writes about and doesn’t continue to uncritically toe the line of US public diplomacy.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA, The Unquiet US American

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On the outside looking in: A US American in Vietnam

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I have spent over 40 percent of my adult life outside of my home country, never content with having my soul controlled by geography, to paraphrase George Santayana. I carry a U.S. passport but it doesn’t define me. I am a U.S. ex-patriot and global citizen who calls Vietnam home.

Follow this link to read my latest essay for VNExpress International.  It includes some personal reflections of my nearly 14 years of living and working in Viet Nam.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA

 

New Approaches to University Education in Asia

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While I will reserve judgement, the theme of this Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) conference sounds like yet another example of US Americans telling others, in the case, Asian universities, how it should really be done a la Daddy knows best.  Why not just New Approaches to University Education?  

Or, as one colleague put it, “It’s nice to see that (Thomas) Vallely & Co have found that Vietnam is too small for their ambitions.  They want all of Asia to hear their wise words about higher ed.”    I wonder if there will be any criticism of US higher education as a negative role model, in some respects?  

Said colleague continues:  My own humble opinion is that what’s needed is a conference organized by Asians to explain to Americans how we can improve our universities.  My colleagues and I could tell many, many stories about how university education in the U.S. has deteriorated over the years.  In the 19th century, American colleges were at best comparable to European high schools.  We might be getting back to that in the 21st century.   

I wonder what advice Asian scholars would give to Americans about how to raise the level of education in the U.S.  Unfortunately, in order to avoid offending thin-skinned Americans, they’d probably keep most of their thoughts to themselves, and would not say, for example, “Drop the slogans!”  “Fire the bureaucrats!”  “Give lower grades!” “Ignore student evaluations!” “Abolish competitive athletics!” 

If FUV really valued the liberal arts tradition to which it pays lip service, it would organize such a conference.  My colleague and I won’t hold our breath.  

In the grand tradition of comparative studies, the US, with which the event sponsor, the Coca-Cola Corporation, and FUV are affiliated, like all countries, is a positive and negative role model, including its higher education system.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA

 

EducationUSA Closed for Business

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From the website of US Mission-Viet Nam:

Lapse in U.S. Government Appropriations

The Federal Government of the United States of America is currently in a Lapse of Appropriations period.

Scheduled passport and visas services, and emergency services for U.S. citizens, will continue at the U.S. Embassy Hanoi and our Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City during the lapse in appropriations as the situation permits.

The American Centers and EducationUSA advising offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City will be closed to the public during the lapse in appropriations. All schedule programs are also postponed until further notice.

We will not update this account until full operations resume, with the exception of urgent safety and security information.

EducationUSA is unable to work with international students who have an interest in study in the USA because DJT wants his border wall.  The irony is so thick you can cut it with a knife. 

Shalom (שלום), MAA

About Viet Nam’s “gifting culture”

Giving gifts to people in authority has become normal, but we have to be aware it institutionalizes an ‘underworld.’

Also known as an “envelope culture” (văn hóa phòng bì) because envelopes are used for more than sending letters, so passé in the digital age, and giving “lucky money” (lì xì) at Lunar New Year.  A recent essay explains how small-scale corruption works and is recommended reading for those interested in learning about some of what goes on behind the curtain.  

Here are some of the money paragraphs, no pun intended:

The situation has been left for so long that it has become normal. And when this happens, people’s trust in the system is undermined, even as they go with it.

We have the option of eliminating this system entirely by refining our legal and administrative procedures to make them more transparent, more accessible to the public. In the long run, we would also need to learn how to spend the national budget more efficiently and more effectively. That way, not only can we reduce financial burden on our businesses, people can also see that their tax money is put to good use.

On a side note: did you know that as many as 90,000 businesses in Vietnam went bankrupt last year, a 50 percent increase compared to 2017? That happens despite how the country’s GDP grew by over 7 percent last year, the highest in a decade.

While that might signal a competitive economy where only the cream of the crop survives, I sometimes wonder how many of these businesses went bankrupt not because of their poor performance, but because of something else? You should also be asking that question, and so do policymakers.

While I agree with the thrust of the author’s essay, it’s a bit of a stretch to blame petty corruption for corporate bankruptcies.  There are many other factors, including lack of experience and knowledge on the part of the businesspeople whose companies go belly up.  The failure of most new companies is not something that is unique to Viet Nam.  

At any rate, how to solve this systemic problem and ensure that the new normal becomes a thing of the past?  

  1.  Raise the salaries of civil servants and take away the rationale (excuse) for the envelope culture;
  2.  Make it illegal for them to accept “donations”;  
  3.  Create a hotline for citizens to call to report bureaucrats who request “donations”, assuming the business owner, for example, has evidence that supports this accusation, e.g., audio or video recording; and, last but not least, 
  4. Reward conscientious citizens for reporting verified cases of petty corruption.  

The above measures could be the beginning of the end of institutionalized petty corruption.  Now Viet Nam just needs to come to terms with massive corruption, an area in which it has been making some inroads in recent years, thanks to the efforts of Nguyễn Phú Trọng, General Secretary of the Communist Party and President of Viet Nam.  

25thlogo_3Since Viet Nam is so adept at learning from the experiences of other countries, why not study the case of Sweden, once mired in corruption and now a squeaky clean country, comparatively speaking?  In the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index Sweden ranks 6th among 180 countries with a score of 84/100.  (Viet Nam ranks 107 with a score of 35/100.)  Now that’s an achievement worth recognizing, celebrating, and learning from!  

Postscript:  Here’s a bit of good news from Viet Nam.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA

 

English Proficiency in Viet Nam: Giving Credit Where Credit’s Due

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Courtesy of VietnamNet Bridge

An article entitled What is the real English profiency level of Vietnamese? (yes, the word “proficiency” was misspelled) recently graced the Internet in Viet Nam with this description:  While an education organization has ranked Vietnam in the seventh position among 21 Asian countries in proficiency of English, some experts call the result ‘flashy’, saying it does not reflect the real situation of English learning and teaching in Vietnam.

Of course, no one survey can provide an accurate overall picture of the state of affairs of whatever it is measuring.  It is but a snapshot, an impression, a baseline for comparing an apple in Viet Nam, in this case, English proficiency, with the same apple in other countries. 

Yes, there are many students who are not performing well in English, based on high school final exam results.  Yes, many employers complain that most university graduates cannot communicate fluently in English.  Yes, English language instruction methodology in Viet Nam is archaic.  And, yes, there are too few opportunities for many students to practice what they learn in the classroom.  

According to the article, the EF ranking “shows the high readiness of Vietnamese youth for global integration,” an assertion I happen to agree with and that I bear witness to on a daily basis.  Interest in studying English is at peak levels and while much of the instruction is not of the highest quality in terms of teacher quality, methodology, curriculum, and materials, growing numbers of student find a way, including by taking advantage of a plethora of online resources.  

English as an Official Language?  

There’s even been talk about making English an official language in Viet Nam?  Such is the level of enthusiasm about English.  Why?

The reality is that not all Vietnamese need to be proficient in English.  While English is the most popular foreign language, young Vietnamese are studying a number of other languages, East Asian, e.g., Chinese, Japanese, Korean and European, e.g., French, German, Spanish. Many will require no foreign language proficiency once they enter the world of work.  

Therefore, any curriculum should be designed based on the current and future needs of the target student audience.  Why not offer English as an elective to students who are interested in learning it for whatever reason, including some who are linguistically gifted?  The current “shotgun” approach, while well-intended, is not likely to bear fruit in the long term. 

Let me conclude with some good news.  Based on my rather extensive in country and regional experience, Viet Nam compares very favorably to other Asian countries, including those with huge economic, educational, and historical advantages such as China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand.  What’s needed is a more balanced perspective.  Yes, there’s room for improvement but we should always give credit where credit’s due. 

Congratulations to Viet Nam for its progress to date!    

Shalom (שלום), MAA

P.S.:  For the record, in response to the question in the second article about whether or not Viet Nam should make English an official language, I voted a resounding NO.  The majority vote to date was YES, but 311 votes, most probably cast by foreigners, does not a scientific survey make so take it with a grain of salt, dear reader.  🙂

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