Seven Insights for Seven Decades




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Jul 14, 2017
by Louise Hallman
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Seven Insights for Seven Decades

The seven secrets to Salzburg Global Seminar's seventy years of success

Salzburg Global Seminar is enjoying its 70th birthday this summer. Today we boast a Fellowship of more than 30,000 academics, public servants, cultural innovators and social change-makers from 170 countries on six continents and a mission to “challenge current and future leaders to solves issues of global concern.”

Launched in the summer of 1947, the then-called Salzburg Seminar in American Civilization brought 97 students and young graduates from 18 countries – many of which had recently been at war with each other – together for six weeks at the palace of Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg, Austria with leading academics from Harvard University, to examine America, its culture, politics and history – and heal war-time wounds.

Today Salzburg Global Seminar, as we are now known, convenes sessions on topics as diverse as cultural innovation and financial regulation, health care reform and environmental sustainability, LGBT rights and technological disruption, bringing in people from students to senior professionals from all over the world.

So how did a six-week summer academy for American and European students turn into a fully-fledged, international institution? We offer seven insights for our seven decades.

1. We had a plan

In the summer of 1947, for the second time in just thirty years, Europe was recovering from a devastating war. Economic rebuilding was desperately needed, but three young visionaries believed that intellectual renewal was also vital. Those three Harvard men – Austrian graduate student Clemens Heller and Americans, college senior Richard “Dick” Campbell and young English instructor Scott Elledge – had an audacious plan. In 1947, the US government had announced the European Recovery Program, a.k.a. the Marshall Plan, to rebuild Europe economically. Theirs was a plan to rebuild Europe intellectually – a “Marshall Plan for the Mind.”

Originally conceived as a one-off summer program, the founders designed the “Salzburg Seminar in American Civilization” to be an opportunity for a divided Europe “to see who one was, what one believed in, what others believed in and to create a basis for future collaboration.”

Those first 97 Fellows (as the organization’s alumni are known) were advanced students who were teaching, had entered public life, or were intending to do so, and selected “on the basis of past scholarly achievement, with no regard to political, religious or racial considerations.” They spent six weeks sleeping, eating and studying together at Schloss Leopoldskron, eventually overcoming their war-time divisions, forming life-long bonds, and returning to their home countries and institutions with new ideas.

Today’s Salzburg Global Fellows share that same commitment to serving the common good and bridging geographical, cultural and sectoral divides.

2. We started with one focus

The original focus of Salzburg Global Seminar was American studies – but why study this in the heart of Europe? In 1947, Europe was still very much baring the scars of war. America, conversely, was thriving in its post-war industrial boom and taking an increasingly prominent place in the world – politically, economically and culturally – as the former colonial powers of Europe faded. Wanting to bring together bright young minds who had been enemies a mere two years earlier, the founders built on this growing European fascination with America and offered American studies as a neutral topic for the former adversaries to debate and dissect.

Fellows examined a vast array of topics through the lens of American studies, including sociology, literature, the arts, politics, labor relations, economics, and law and legal institutions. In these early years, the Seminar’s home of Schloss Leopoldskron boasted the largest American studies library collection in Europe.

American studies still features on the annual program of sessions at Salzburg Global Seminar; this year 40 Fellows from more than 25 countries are expected to come to Salzburg for a four-day discussion on Life and Justice in America: Implications of the New Administration.

3. We broadened thematically

While originally focused on American studies, in the 1960s the Seminar instead adopted a “common problems” approach. Rather than only examining “the city upon the hill”, Fellows came together “to exchange experiences, to explore differences, to seek out consistent – though rarely identical – solutions for problems that plague and puzzle men on both sides of the Atlantic,” as Salzburg Seminar President Paul Herzog explained in 1966. Long-studied subjects such as literature, politics and education began to lose their American focus. More non-American experts were introduced to the faculty, bringing new perspectives. And innovative sessions such as “The Social Impact of the New Technology” and “Planning and Development of the Urban Community” were held.

In the following decades, Fellows and faculty also tackled new topics including international trade, health and health care, civil society and gender issues. Many of these issues continue to be examined by Salzburg Global Fellows in sessions at Schloss Leopoldskron, as well as topics such as human rights, financial regulation, climate change, and regional cooperation.

4. We diversified geographically

The early years’ Fellows and faculty almost exclusively came from Western Europe and America respectively, but with Austria seen as a crossroads between Eastern and Western Europe, the Salzburg Seminar provided a natural place to bridge Cold War divides. Before the age of online applications, session recruitment was done largely face-to-face through connections at leading universities, government ministries and embassies. Thanks to funding from large private foundations, in the 1960s the Seminar started to expand geographically with Fellows starting to come from “behind the Iron Curtain”.

The 1970s saw the first Fellows come from the Middle East as the organization believed that the region could benefit from the same neutral meeting place as former European enemies had in 1947, and thus launched an extensive outreach program, specifically to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Palestine and Israel. By the mid-1980s, Palestinian and Israeli Fellows were attending sessions together. As a Jordanian Fellow wrote in 1979, “If the world recognized the extent of affection and understanding that can be generated by human interaction, it would denounce and abandon forever wars and hatred. The Salzburg Seminar is a forum whereby such a realization can be easily obtained.” Similar outreach efforts were made into Asia and Africa in later decades, recognizing that these regions’ emerging economies could learn from the similar experiences of Eastern European countries, post-Communism.

Salzburg Global Seminar’s sessions today include Fellows from every (inhabited) continent, with dedicated scholarships offered to ensure that participation is as diverse as possible.

5. We expanded our business model

The Salzburg Seminar in American Studies was incorporated as a non-profit in Massachusetts in 1950. In 1963, because of this non-profit status, the Seminar declined a $10,000 offer from Twentieth Century Fox to use Schloss Leopoldskron as a filming location. Little did they know that the film – The Sound of Music – would go on to win five Oscars and become a global sensation. The German publishing company, Bertelsmann, then-owners of the neighboring Meierhof building, took the offer instead, with set designers building replicas of Schloss Leopoldskron’s famous seahorse statues a little further along the lake.

Instead of Hollywood royalties, support from private individuals has long been of central importance to Salzburg Global Seminar, dating from the initial funding contributed by students at Harvard University. Later, private philanthropists and large foundations such as the Ford, McKnight, Mellon and Nippon Foundations also contributed greatly to help bring more Fellows from further afield. Financial support also has come from both the US and Austrian governments, as well as other government ministries and embassies across the world.

Many Salzburg Global Seminar multi-year series are run in partnership with leading international institutions, such as the Mayo Clinic, Educational Testing Services, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Funding for corporate-focused series such as the Forum on Finance in the Changing World comes from sponsorship consortia that include leading financial services companies, law firms, regulators, and consultancies.

Philanthropic support from organizations and individuals for Salzburg Global’s sessions is today boosted by the highly successful Hotel Schloss Leopoldskron – home to Salzburg Global’s core programs and major convocations, but also a destination venue and award-winning hotel sought out by individual guests, external clients and wedding parties alike.

6. We went truly global

Schloss Leopoldskron has been the home of Salzburg Global Seminar since the beginning. The organization received the keys to the Schloss following a serendipitous meeting between co-founder Clemens Heller and Helene Thimig on the New York subway. Thimig, the widow of the Schloss’s pre-war owner, Max Reinhardt, was so impressed by Heller’s passion she agreed to loan him the palace for the first session in 1947. After years of protracted negotiations, the Schloss was sold by Thimig to the City of Salzburg, which in turn sold it to the Seminar in 1959 for $92,350 (equivalent to $1m in 2017). The Seminar’s property was added to with the purchase of the neighboring Meierhof building in 1973.

To reflect its increasingly global role and the interconnectedness of the world’s challenges, the Salzburg Seminar changed its name in 2006 to Salzburg Global Seminar. While the majority of Salzburg Global’s programs continue to be held at its home of Schloss Leopoldskron, today its reach is felt across the world. What happens in Salzburg has always mattered because of the insights and ideas the experience kindles in our Fellows and for what they make happen later on the ground.

The going out of the gates of Schloss Leopoldskron is more important than the coming in. Alumni reunions and Fellowship events have long been held by the organization, but now programs such as the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators (YCI) seek to engage creative change-makers and turbo-charge their vision, talent and energy at the community level. Beyond an annual session held at Schloss Leopoldskron, the YCI Fellows collaborate in their city “hubs,” of which there are now 19 on six continents. This community-based approach, wherein Fellows establish local networks and implement projects at city or regional level, is now being expanded into other Salzburg Global Seminar programs.

7. We continue to create lasting change

Famed anthropologist Margaret Mead was a co-chair of the first ever session of Salzburg Global Seminar in 1947. Her glowing review of the first summer’s program helped ensure the organization’s support from Harvard University and secure its future. She later coined the phrase: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” This sentiment was embedded in Salzburg Global Seminar’s ethos from its beginning. Our world now faces a multitude of challenges that both reach globally and impact locally: from climate change and disruptive technological innovations, to democratic disengagement, rising political extremism and financial crises. To effect positive transformation, the world needs responsible, proactive and innovative global leaders, but also “thoughtful, committed citizens” at all levels of public life and private institutions.

Today, Salzburg Global Seminar bridges divides between countries as well as among generations, social backgrounds, and sectors. It encourages leaders to accept personal responsibility for finding solutions and opens doors to collaborative thinking and action. In our volatile, interconnected world, what Salzburg Global Seminar offers is more important than ever. Its relevance to global problem-solving and development of tomorrow’s leaders, and its growing base of individual and institutional supporters, ensures its prominence as a place where “thoughtful, committed citizens” can continue to shape a better world.

To read more about our 70 years of history and see how we’re celebrating, click here: