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Georgetown 101

By Kate Wrath

Sunday 1st June 2003

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Asked once how many people actually understood his theory of the expanding universe, the great astrophysicist Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington (1882-1944) paused for a moment and then said: "Perhaps seven." Which is probably more than the number of American undergrads who have historically commanded an insight into New Zealand and Australian affairs.

What better way to fix this dearth of understanding than to establish a highbrow centre of scholarship of Australasian affairs at one of Washington's top educational institutions? Backed by grants from the New Zealand and Australian governments, the Georgetown University Centre for Australian and New Zealand Studies was set up in the northern summer of 1995 for just that purpose. For most of its existence it has successfully brought an understanding of the antipodes to hundreds of American undergraduates, and ranked as one of this country's quiet diplomatic success stories.

Today, however, it's more or less an open secret in das capital that this cultural flagship has been experiencing choppy seas lately, a development that could yet have implications for the generally frayed state of relations between New Zealand and the US.

The centre operates under the auspices of the Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service. Established 80 years ago, it's the oldest such school in the US and the largest school of international relations in the world. Among its notable alumni is former president Bill Clinton, a member of the school's class of '68.

Its programme of courses about Australasia reaches across such disciplines as history, government, international affairs, sociology, literature and the fine arts. Its certificate in Australian and New Zealand Studies is the only one of its kind to be offered at any North American university.

The Georgetown faculty members are joined for a semester each year by a visiting professor of New Zealand studies, a position underwritten to the tune of $35,000 by the Fulbright New Zealand Foundation in Wellington, which is in turn underwritten by the New Zealand and American governments. The foundation's work is overseen by a 12-member board with representatives from the government and private sectors.

Local recipients of the Fulbright award have included Bill Manhire, head of Victoria University's popular creative writing programme, historians Michael King and Jamie Belich, and, most recently, the former Labour Party cabinet minister and historian Michael Bassett.

So far, so jolly. Then, in May, it was to be announced that the next visiting professor at Georgetown would be the popular Auckland-based playwright Roger Hall, whose curriculum subjects for later this year were to include a scholarly overview of the smash hit plays of ... Roger Hall. That alone raised a few eyebrows.

But the real controversy arose even before Hall's appointment was announced, with the revelation that Georgetown had been led to believe Hall was the holder of a PhD - the university's website identified the visiting professor as "Dr" Hall. Hall is a former schoolteacher who does not have a PhD, although Victoria University presented him with an honorary doctorate in letters some years ago in recognition of his considerable achievements in theatre.

Embarrassing as the Hall gaffe was, it pales beside the dissatisfaction reported by other visiting fellows, who have been complaining long and loud about what appears to be the diminishing status given to both the New Zealand lecturers and study options in Washington. It used to be that students had several New Zealand-related courses to choose from; now, of the nine courses being offered later this year, just one is explicitly devoted to a Kiwi theme. Further, unlike their Oz counterparts, visiting New Zealanders no longer have an office of their own to work from. At least one returning lecturer has privately said that the enthusiasm of the Georgetown administrators for specifically New Zealand-themed events, which tend to be held at the nearby New Zealand embassy, now appears to be verging on the lukewarm.

The university seems to be taking the view, returning scholars say, that New Zealand studies are a rather poor relation to the Australian variety, which also happen to be much more generously supported by that country's government. Canberra recently made a $A5 million endowment to the centre.

For its Wellington backers, these problems couldn't come at a worse time. Already on the diplomatic outer as a result of our government's bellicose views about the current Republican administration, what ought to be a happy cultural affair now appears threatened by similar problems.

For now, the board has asked grouchy past recipients to keep their concerns private as they work to improve the situation from behind the scenes. That could be a forlorn hope, though, if the academic chatter in the capital's windy staff cafeterias is anything to go by. The Kiwi universe is shrinking in Washington and already more than seven people know it.

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