Salzburg Global President Reflects on 70 Years of Salzburg Global Seminar




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Jul 04, 2017
by Stephen Salyer
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Salzburg Global President Reflects on 70 Years of Salzburg Global Seminar

Salzburg Global Seminar President Stephen L. Salyer comments on the organization's 70th anniversary Salzburg Global Seminar President Stephen Salyer speaking during the Board of Directors Weekend

Below are the remarks of Salzburg Global Seminar President Stephen L. Salyer from his evening talk at the June 2017 Board of Directors Weekend.

It is a privilege for me to welcome members of the Board of Directors, Senior Fellows, distinguished guests, and friends to this 70th anniversary weekend. Directors and staff here all serve the education, networking, and effectiveness of our Salzburg Global Fellowship – including some 30,000 Fellows in more than 160 countries.

We derive great strength from our worldwide fellowship in extending the reach and impact of our activities. Could all the Salzburg (Global) Fellows in the audience please stand?

It’s an honor for me to offer some personal reflections on the occasion of this 70th anniversary. I want to focus on what makes Salzburg Global Seminar unique in the world.

Even if it were not our 70th anniversary, the answer to this question would require us to examine the organization’s founding DNA. Many of you may remember the film “The Great Escape” from 1963 or have seen it in digital form. As you will recall, the film features the planning of an escape by prisoners placed in a maximum security facility during World War II.  The characters in the film each play essential roles, including “intelligence,” a “scrounger,” and a “forger.”

The founding of the Salzburg Seminar, while a post-war effort, bears similarities. In our case, the three young Harvard men who gave birth to a new idea – Clemens Heller, Austrian, (“intelligence”) the visionary who excited friends and faculty to organize a “Marshall Plan for the Mind”; Richard Campbell, American, (“scrounger”) the organizer and business manager who under impossible conditions found food, beds, and funds to make the summer school possible; Scott Elledge, (“forger”) the recruiter, who traveled the continent to find 100 remarkable men and women and get them across closed borders to Salzburg – just how did he manage that when many lacked passports?

We have glimpses of that first summer in our archives, which we have been trying to gather and make accessible via an anniversary website.

Two of these first Fellows are still living – one in Italy, the other in England.  Both wrote letters soon after Seminar #1.

Vittori Gabrielli, in a letter dated October 1, 1947, wrote, “Something of the celebrated ‘hopefulness’ associated with the notion of America was infused in all of us.… I was particularly inspired and infected by the proposition Clemens [Heller] so aptly stressed, and that you set out in your program to demonstrate, that it is still possible for private individuals to create something vital and lasting in a more and more state-dominated and organization-ridden world.”

Another of those first Fellows – a young English woman named Anni Holme – wrote on October 15: “Coming from north and south, east and west, and representing so many different racial characteristics and political, economic, social, cultural, and ideological backgrounds, we were like a boiling kettle…. It is only natural that there was sometimes friction between different points of view, but it gave only color to our community life.”

Hopefulness. Initiative. Creativity. Diversity. Friction. Community. A lot has changed over the past 70 years. But these words describe well the DNA today’s Fellows and faculty share with the founders and first Fellows, and with the volunteer faculty and student organizers who made that first session unforgettable.  

The first faculty set the bar high for all those who followed them:

  • Carl Kaysen, Professor of Economics, Harvard, and later Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton
  • Wassily Leontief, Professor of Economics, Harvard, who won the Nobel Prize in 1973, as did four of his Ph.D. students thereafter – Paul Samuelson, Robert Solow, Vernon Smith and Thomas Schelling
  • F.O. Matthiessen, Professor of American History and Literature, Harvard, whose book “American Renaissance: The Age of Emerson and Whitman” (1941) was said by the New York Times in 2003 to have “virtually created the field of American literary criticism”
  • Margaret Mead, Professor of Sociology, Columbia, whose “Coming of Age in Samoa” (1928) launched her career in cultural anthropology
  • Walt Rostow, Professor of Economics, Oxford University, author of “The Stages of Economic Growth” and advisor to U.S. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson

The impact on the Fellows and faculty, their perspectives, and later accomplishments was powerful and lasting. Matthiessen, who gave the opening lecture, wrote, “It was the most meaningful teaching experience in my life.”

The effect on higher education in both Europe and the United States was also profound. American ideas and American studies were released across an ocean that had largely separate intellectual currents before the war. Of course, the Europeans found the very idea of an “American civilization” something of an exaggeration, and soon the name was changed to the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies.

The demonstration effect was powerful at an institutional level as well. On January 27, 1948, as plans advanced for a second Salzburg Seminar, the Harvard Crimson reported: “Encouraged by the success of the Salzburg Seminar, representatives of fine American colleges will meet here this weekend to discuss plans for similar projects throughout Europe.” The universities were Yale, Washington, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Oberlin, Yale Law School, Chicago, and a federation of Canadian schools.   

Over the years, the Seminar has changed as the world has changed. From 1949, when he helped organize Salzburg Seminar #3, until his death in 2013, Herbert Gleason led, inspired, and cajoled our development over the span of eight Seminar presidents. In 2013, Elizabeth Mortimer completed a bronze bust of Herb, which now presides outside Parker Hall and which appropriately calls him “the Fourth Founder.” If Herb were still alive, he would certainly be here, cheering us on but also urging us to continue growing and changing, to lift our game further, take on the big global challenges, and help wrestle them to the ground.

At the same time, I’m confident that Herb would agree that there are through lines worth preserving, themes that take us back to the question asked earlier: What now and for the future makes Salzburg Global special? Let me suggest three answers.

The first is one that we discussed in our first panel this morning – in fact across seven decades of Salzburg Seminars – the search for truth, not a search for facts that support one’s point of view. A chilling example can be drawn from a book by our former vice president and resident director, Tim Ryback, called Hitler’s Library. Tim’s account tells the story of unearthing, in the basement of the Library of Congress, an unopened crate of books salvaged from Hitler’s bunker in Berlin. Beyond finding what appeared to be a mustache hair in one book, it was interesting to discover that the German Führer responsible for so many horrible acts had read widely in history and philosophy. But most revealing were the passages underlined in the books – out of context, each seeming to support some aspect of his extreme views.  

We have always been an institution that avoids identification with any single government or ideology. In today’s world, there are plenty enough of those around. We take pride in this independence, and we have accepted for 70 years the financial challenges that come with it.

We also believe that our issue-centered discussions need to be evidenced-based, not a place where people express only opinions. We achieve this not by employing legions of in-house experts, or by presenting academic papers at our sessions. Rather, we partner with many of the top institutions in the world and attract top thinkers and decision-makers as speakers and moderators. The world is our oyster. We also take fullest possible advantage of one of the best talent pools in the world – more than 30,000 Salzburg Fellows.

The second through line I believe worth preserving is a rare combination of diversity, friction, and civility. As Anni Holme wrote about Seminar #1, we often experience seminars that bring the kettle to a boil, where steam is released as Fellows advance toward ways of seeing a problem that permits progress to be made. A recent example is our late 2016 seminar on health care near the end of life. This gathering of global experts and rising innovators raised questions that fell outside the usual practice of medicine and examined the limitations of steps merely to keep people alive. The participants decided that rather than issue a statement, they would draft and release critical questions – e.g. what is a ‘good death'? – releasing one each month for a year via social media to stimulate thinking and debate. The response has been quite extraordinary, with levels of engagement setting records for Salzburg Global. Sometimes getting the questions right can be more important than exacting consensus.

Likewise, diversity has been an essential ingredient at each stage in our evolution – from an institution introducing America to Europe, to one conducting a transatlantic dialogue, to a Cold War meeting ground for east and west, to a place where developed and emerging country Fellows could learn from one another and seek common ground, to today’s search for new ways of tackling problems in a Post-Westphalian world where crossing borders of all kinds must become a way of life. This evolution has been fueled by an ever-expanding understanding of the many forms of diversity among people and cultures. At every stage in our development, we have seen that “innovation blooms at intersections.” We believe that embracing diversity is a key to finding common ground.

We instruct our Fellows at every session, “Be hard on ideas, but kind to each other.” It seems so straightforward, but it is elusive for many of our high-achieving Fellows, perhaps especially for those most passionate about their ideas, or for those often accustomed to communicating only with people inside their sectors, professional silos or ideological echo chambers. The practice our Fellows receive in listening to and presenting ideas to those who see the world differently can open the door to leadership traits that enhance their effectiveness over a lifetime.

The third through line that sets Salzburg apart is continuous reinvention spurred by the young, rising innovators and leaders who participate in all of our sessions. I recently asked Paul Volcker, the former U.S. Federal Reserve chief, Salzburg Fellow 60 years ago, and several-time faculty member, why he keeps coming back. He replied, “It’s really simple.  Everywhere else I go it’s the same old crowd that attends all of these meetings. At the seminar, I meet top-level people, but learn the most from the rising stars you gather.”

When David Wills founded the 21st Century Trust almost 30 years ago, it was to connect the next generation of rising leaders around critical issues, the way Ditchley had done for senior leaders. In 2009, the Trust and Salzburg Global merged, bringing its 1,100 fellows along with executive director John Lotherington to the Seminar, and soon after David Wills’ daughter, Catherine Wills, joined our Board of Directors. Next year, we will conclude the Seminar’s 70th year with a salute to the 21st Century Trust’s 30th anniversary, as well as honoring the purpose we advance together.

The combined resources of these two exceptional organizations have put Salzburg Global in a class by itself in identifying and assembling many of the brightest, fastest-rising talents on the planet. Learning how to better utilize this remarkable global fellowship is one of the priorities we have set for ourselves, along with ensuring that we make it possible for those selected to participate, regardless of their financial circumstances.  

So what’s ahead for an institution with these distinctive advantages? As our conversations this weekend have underscored, we live in a time perhaps as unsettled as any since our founding in 1947. Many of the international institutions built up in that post-war period have come under question, arguably some very close to unraveling, even as our need for collective action is rising. Public confidence has reached new lows in attitudes toward elected leaders, media, and many other institutions. Technology, while opening many new opportunities, also threatens a level of disruption that may further widen the gap between those educated and with access to capital, and everyone else. Moreover, a number of the issues we face require a combination of government and private sector response, with few public servants equipped to create and manage effective partnerships.  

Against this backdrop, Salzburg Global Seminar is looking to further focus its attention and resources over the next three to five years. Identifying where we can contribute most to a better world is paramount. For our already strong programs in health – with partners including The Dartmouth Institute, Mayo Clinic, and a consortium of leading European foundations (Bosch, Careum, and the Health Foundation) – we plan to concentrate in areas where cross-border learning appears vital and where we believe we can add real value – areas like healthcare at the end of life, big data and the future of the doctor-patient relationship, and moving toward a shared culture of health, in addition to tackling topics like youth violence and children’s access to nature, not generally addressed within the health paradigm.

In our arts and culture work, we have shifted significant focus toward building relationships with hub cities across the world – we are already operating on six continents. In this design, we offer a rarified experience each year for five young cultural innovators from each hub city, then prepare them for innovation and collaboration at the community level when they return home. Currently, we have 19 hubs; in five years, we want there to be 50. These concentrations of young men and women are already creating significant impact in their home communities, as well as engaging in cross-city exchanges and projects.  

This year, we made 17 “micro-grants” – $500 to $2,500 awards to help great ideas advance – and the momentum built in one year has been remarkable. Our future strategy is to extend this model to other fields in which we work where the Salzburg experience excites and equips young innovators to test their ideas, to fail, to learn, and to scale up faster.  

Across the world, we have network members who can mentor and advise our Fellows who are geographically nearby. Part of our forward plan is to build our capacity to connect Fellows with mentors who can help them maximize the difference they make.

Let me bring these anniversary reflections to a close by saluting the past, the founders, and the early Fellows whose families represent them here tonight and who are stepping forward to help Salzburg Global Seminar write the next chapter in a steadily evolving story.

During another period of uncertainty in the United States, when Joseph McCarthy cast doubt on individuals and institutions without real evidence to back up his charges, a young U.S. Foreign Service officer, Walter Roberts, stepped in to make sure the Salzburg Seminar wasn’t wrongly accused. Today, his three sons and their wives are stepping in to help us secure the future, and to honor their father in the process. I’m delighted that on top of sponsoring the renovation of a suite in this building – henceforth the Walter Roberts suite – they told me last week that they will also endow a scholarship in Walter’s name.  

I single out the Roberts family not because they are unique, but because they represent the love so many feel for this place, and because they understand that we need now to ensure the next 70 years.

Thanks to all of you who believe in this place, and thanks also to those visiting us for the first time this weekend. As Heather Sturt Haaga put it so well last night, we are a family, a growing family that needs to nurture the next generation. We would be thrilled to have you with us as we face a challenging present and seek to invent a future that all of us want for our children and grandchildren.

Thank you and goodnight.