Remarks by Fulbright Norway Executive Director, Petter Næss at Fulbright 75th Anniversary

In an event at the University of Oslo’s venerable “Gamle Festssal” on November 24, the U.S. Norway Fulbright Foundation and the Fulbright Alumni Association of Norway celebrated the 75th Anniversary of the Fulbright Program and the 50th Anniversary of the Fulbright Alumni Association, and honored the 2020 and 2021 winners of the Fulbright Article of the Year and Fulbright Young Researcher Article of the Year.

Executive Director Petter Næss’s remarks:

Thank you Chargé Hudson-Dean for your kind words about the Fulbright program. I know that no one is better equipped than a professional diplomat to truly understand and appreciate the value of the Fulbright program…except perhaps our Fulbright alumni.

First of all I want to congratulate the Fulbright Alumni Association of Norway on its 50th anniversary, which coincides with the 75th anniversary of the global Fulbright program, and also the 72nd anniversary of the Fulbright program in Norway.

And on behalf of the Norwegian Fulbright program and its governing board, I want to express our very deep gratitude to Maren Falch Lindberg and the Association’s Board, as well as to previous Board Chairs and Board members, for the work they do,  for wonderful initiatives like the Fulbright article prize, which we’re celebrating here today, and the book about the fond but sometimes challenging Norwegian – American relationship which the Association published 10 years ago – and which you can help yourself to a copy of out in the foyer.

And indeed, and perhaps most importantly, I’d like to thank all of you Norwegian Fulbright alumni over the years, both for being exemplary foot soldier in the “turning nations into people” Fulbright campaign, and for supporting and promoting the program afterwards, so that other students and scholars might also have the opportunity to go to the United States as Fulbrighters.

I think all of you know something about the background of the program, at least that was our assumption when you were given a Fulbright grant, so I won’t dwell on the history of the program, but just underline some points that I think are as important today as when the program was signed into law by President Truman, with Senator Fulbright at his side, on August 1, 1946.

20 years later Senator Fulbright, who was then Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, published an astonishingly radical critique of the United States’ conduct in world affairs in a book called the Arrogance of Power; in the introduction to the book he tells the amusing story of a scoutmaster who had ordered his boy scouts to go out and do a good deed for the day, and then report back to him about what they had done. After a bit, three of them came back and proudly announced that they had helped a little old lady cross a very busy and dangerous intersection; the scoutmaster said that’s great, but did it really take three of you to help a little old lady across the street? And one of them replied a bit sheepishly, well, she didn’t want to go.

The story is of course a great example of that soft power concept which is at the very core of the Fulbright program and, as we’ve seen many times since then, it is as indispensable today as it ever was: however well-intended, coercion just is not an effective strategy for getting people to do what you want, whether it be crossing a street, respecting human rights, or adopting democratic institutions.

The term Soft Power was popularized in Joseph Nye’s 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, in which he wrote: “when one country gets other countries to want what it wants, that might be called co-optive or soft power, in contrast with the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants”

There are of course hundreds of “soft power” programs, what we call public or cultural diplomacy, and small countries, like Norway, need to be especially good at them, since they lack the persuasive military power of larger countries.  

But what I think distinguishes the Fulbright program from other soft power programs, and makes it even more impressive….originating as it did in the world’s undisputed greatest superpower –  is that it’s not only about “getting other countries to want what the United States wants” – it’s at least as much about developing one’s own perspectives, and learning to see the world as others see it, and perhaps changing one’s own notion of what it is one really wants.

Senator Fulbright was very explicit about this, and I think this objective – not simply to cultivate likemindedness, but to seek out and try to understand and learn from others who think differently, is a distinguishing feature of the Fulbright program.

The slogan the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board and the State department came up with to brand the 75th anniversary, is “Fulbright: Celebrating 75 Years of Global Impact.”

Part of that impact is, I hope, within the realm of soft power, which I’ve been talking about up till now, and although it’s an immeasurably important component of the Fulbright program, it’s also very hard, impossible really, to measure. But I’d like to move on now to another kind of impact the Fulbright program has, and which is easier to measure, namely the academic and scientific excellence that most people associate with the word Fulbrighter, and which is why we’re here today, to honor that excellence that has been demonstrated by our article award winners Lise, Gaute, Alexander, and Aksel.

Now, I mean no disrespect to the winners, but I don’t really think they’re any more deserving than other Fulbright alumni, or any other people in general; this is a conviction that has grown stronger in me every year that I’ve worked with these brilliant, hard-working, accomplished Fulbrighters, that really, they’re just lucky; through a combination of nature and nurture, they’re just lucky enough to be brilliant, hard-working and accomplished.  So I was relieved that the Fulbright Scholarship Board settled on the word “impact,” which is very important, but also impersonal…a physical object can have great impact without being deserving …and not something like “meritorious,” “praiseworthy”, “admirable” impactful or any of the many other words that tend to accentuate the fact that some people, and very often Fulbrighters, just happen to be better at some things than other people.

This is a bit of an obsession with me, I mention it every chance I get, and just did again, but I’ve been thinking about it especially this week, because we’ve been interviewing Norwegian candidates for next year’s Fulbright awards.

These interviews are conducted in English, and at the end of the interview we always ask the candidates if they have questions for us. One question we get a lot is “What do you want from me, what does your ideal Fulbright candidate look like?”

It’s such a big question, and since we’re usually already out of time, I try to give a very short answer which is typically “Well, we want you to be – and then I have to revert to Norwegian and use the word flinkwe want you to be flink – because there’s really no American word that adequately covers that concept.

 When I look up flink in my old blue Norwegian-English dictionary, it gives me only two options; clever and able. Had we been speaking British English, clever would probably cover it, but in American English, clever has an innuendo of smarts and shrewdness about it, as in clever like a fox, or clever with investments, or clever with your tax returns, and that kind of clever is certainly not what we’re looking for. And I guess able is a fine enough word, but really somewhat below the standard we’re aiming for.  

Good is another option, but in English you usually talk about people being good at something –  good by itself means virtuous, and as Mark Twain has reminded us, “Be Good and you will be Lonely” – and we don’t want that for our grantees either.

I was discussing this with a Danish friend, and she said she found it slightly amusing, quite charming really, that we were primarily looking for people who were flinke, but added that she didn’t think it sounded like a very competitive grant. I asked why, which led to her clarification that in Danish flink means something different than in Norwegian, not able, competent, accomplished, or clever, but instead kind, and helpful. And it occurred to me that what we’re looking for in our Fulbrighters is in fact a hybrid kind of flink, which accommodates both the Norwegian and Danish meanings of the word.

So, after that digression, I’d like to round off yet another one, which accentuates an important dimension of those 75 years of impact which the Fulbright program, quite rightly I believe, can be proud of celebrating this year.

Some years ago, the UK introduced an “impact agenda” in higher education, a duty imposed on academics to show that their work has impact, which was to be provable occurrence of social, economic, or political benefit, signed and witnessed within the last five years. The English philosopher Simon Blackburn shared his frustration about this in an email: We all have to fight the same dreary battle, and on ground that ensures that we cannot win. That is, all the most valuable aspects of life and culture – art, music, literature, philosophy, love, play – have to prove themselves by the very economic measures that they enable us to go beyond.

I hope such an “impact agenda” is never imposed on the Fulbright program, and  I don’t think it will be; such an agenda is simply incompatible with this program, and would disregard the immensely important but less measurable impact that more than 375,000 alumni worldwide have made over these 75 years; while the program can surely boast of hundreds of   “impactful individuals,” I believe the most important impact of the Fulbright program is of the kind personified by Dorothea Brooke,  in that wonderful last sentence of George Eliot’s Middlemarch:

“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”