Origin and history of the Fulbright program

In 1925 the 20 year old  J. William Fulbright won a Rhodes scholarship which would take him to England to pursue a Master’s degree in political science at Oxford. Fulbright would later cite the culture shock he experienced as a young student, transported from the backwater state of Arkansas to the rarefied atmosphere of Oxford, as a crucial factor in shaping his conviction about the importance of humanizing international relations, and “turning nations into people.”  Only by penetrating beyond abstract notions of ideology and interacting on a personal level could people understand  that other countries are populated “not by doctrines that we fear, but by people with the same capacity for pleasure and pain, for cruelty and kindness, as the people we were brought up with in our own countries.”  Fulbright’s immersion in the groves of academe at Oxford also awakened in him a thirst for knowledge and an intellectual curiosity he had not previously known; “I was ashamed of my ignorance and lack of knowledge of literature and other things,” he said, “and I began to read just to learn.”

These two independent beliefs, about the need for humanizing international relations  and about the pursuit of knowledge as a value in itself,  have been central to the Fulbright program throughout its 70 year history.  Yet when Fulbright in 1946 introduced the legislation that would become the Fulbright program, there was little in it that would alert an isolationist Congress to the bill’s lofty,  internationalist objectives;  the bill was simply presented as “Amendment to the Surplus Property Act of 1944,” and its purpose was to designate the U.S. Department of State as the disposal agency for surplus property outside the continental United States,  and more specifically to convert credit from unsaleable military military materiel into a fund for international educational exchange. It was a perfect example of “beating swords into plowshares,”  and the bill cleared subcommittee and floor action  with little scrutiny; Fulbright had avoided calling attention to  controversial aspects of the bill, and also made sure that only a handful of  Senators were present and that it be adopted without a vote under the unanimous consent procedure.  After its approval, Senator McKellar of Tennessee had told Fulbright that had he known the implications of the legislation, he would have voted against it: “Young man, that’s a very dangerous piece of legislation. You’re going to take our young boys and girls over there and expose them to those foreign’isms.” Which is exactly what Fulbright had in mind.

Fulbright at Oxford. It was perhaps this  photo that would later inspire Arkansas detractors to dub him “Lord Plushbottom”

The Fulbright Agreement between the United States of America and Norway was signed and entered into force on May 25th, 1949 in Oslo. Norway was the 11th nation to sign a Fulbright agreement with the United States, and since the start of the program some 1,700 Americans and 4,600 Norwegians have been awarded a Fulbright grant to study or conduct research in the Norway and the U.S. respectively.

As U.S. proceeds from surplus property began to diminish, the need for  binational financing of the program increased; the Fulbright-Hays act of 1961 authorized the President to “to seek the agreement of the other governments concerned to cooperate and assist, including making use of funds placed in special accounts … in furtherance of the purposes of this Act…” On March 16, 1964, the United States and Norway signed an amendment to the original agreement that provided for binational financing of the program through the two nations’ annual budgets.  (see more about the history of the program at:http://eca.state.gov/fulbright/about-fulbright/history/early-years)

While the program was originally supported exclusively by American funding, today approximately 70% of its funding comes from the Norwegian government, primarily from the Ministry of Education and Research, with the remainder coming from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the United States Department of State.

Each year, approx. 40 Norwegians receive grants to study, teach or conduct research in the US, and approx. 25 Americans receive grants to do the same in Norway.

The Fulbright Program in Norway works closely with cooperating agencies in the selection, supervision and administration of particular grantee categories: The Institute of International Education (IIE) manages the graduate students program and the the scholars program. The United States Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs oversees the program worldwide.

The J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board  (FSB), a 12-member presidentially-appointed body, provides policy guidance for the entire Fulbright program. It operates through the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC.

The Commission of the US-Norway Fulbright Foundation is located in Oslo. It has a staff of four and is responsible for the daily management of the Fulbright Program in Norway, which includes both Norwegian grantees going to the US and American grantees coming to Norway.

The work of the Commission is supervised by a Board of Directors, comprising four Norwegian and four American members. The Norwegian and American members are appointed respectively by the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. Ambassador to Norway, who are ex-officio Honorary Co-chairs of the Board. The Board normally meets four times per year, oversees and adjusts the direction of the program, and makes the final selections of the Norwegian and American grantees.

“Of all the examples in recent history of beating swords into plowshares, of having some benefit come to humanity out of the destruction of war, I think that this program in its results will be among the most preeminent.”

– President John F. Kennedy in remarks at the ceremonies
marking the fifteenth anniversary of the
Fulbright Program, August 1, 1961 .

For in-depth information about the history of the Fulbright program, please see the two-part article “Fulbright, Arkansas, and the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Fulbright Program, 1946–2021.” Part I can be accessed here and Part II here.