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Jul 24, 2017
by Karin Zauner
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Stephen Salyer - "You are part of something bigger here"

Salzburg Global President speaks to Salzburger Nachrichten for in-depth interview Stephen Salyer speaking at the 11th Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change

The original version of this article first appeared in the Salzburger Nachrichten on Saturday, July 22, 2017. The interviewer was Karin Zauner. To view the original version, which is in German, please click here.

Bankers, Nobel Prize winners, or students -  they all are thinking beyond the horizon at Salzburg Global Seminar. 30,000 people have attended so far.

When the group chairman of HSBC, the biggest bank in Europe, comes to Salzburg and turns off his cell phone to discuss fundamental questions about the finance sector with colleagues of all ages – for instance, if banks will still exist in five years -  and doesn’t take a single penny for his contributions, he is certainly at Salzburg Global Seminar. Salzburg Global is one of the most important international educational institutions in Austria. 30,000 people from 170 countries have attended programs over the past 70 years. The NGO is still fairly unknown in Salzburg, and their President, Stephen L. Salyer, wants to change that.

SN: Salzburg Global Seminar was founded in post-war Europe (from the US) as a “Marshall Plan of the Mind.” Looking at the current difficult relationships between the US and Europe, do institutions like yours gain more significance again?

Salyer: The initial idea after the Second World War was to create a secure place here in Salzburg, where people of different backgrounds and opinions could come together to speak openly and work out ideas. Today’s world is divided. When we start Salzburg Global’s next 70 years, we feel there is a place for this institution and opportunities for exerting influence are strong. This is not about Europe and the US only; this is about finding solutions to problems of global concern. Apparently, there has been a big divide between the US and Europe since Donald Trump became President. We do not have solutions for this at the moment. But we have a constitution, independent courts, and elections. We are not supposed to forget that. 

SN: Do those currently complicated relationships between Europe and the US have an influence on your programs?

Salyer: The demand for our programs has never been higher. 83 students are attending our Media Academy at the moment, the biggest group we ever had. We had more than 400 applicants. The topic is: how can we overcome extremism and populism? The students talk about the US, but also about their home countries – and also about Austria. We see a clear interest in exchanging ideas with other smart, thoughtful people. In our programs, we always try to respond to the current situation. It is not about merely talking and having a good time, we always look at what the participants take home, what actions they can implement afterward. This means we really focus on what participants are doing after they leave the Seminar. 

SN: Although Salzburg Global has famous Fellows such as Hillary Clinton and Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow, even the locals of Salzburg know little about what you are doing. Do you mind this?

Salyer: We have been trying to open the doors of Schloss Leopoldskron for years. Since 2014 we have also been running a hotel business. Next year will be the 100th anniversary of Max Reinhardt’s purchase of the Schloss. There are talks with the Salzburg Festival about using the common history of the place. Salzburg is also one of our 19 hub-cities for young cultural innovators and therefore aligned with cities such as Athens, Tokyo, and Adelaide. Will there be cultural festivals in the future? Those are the questions we raise. Of course, we need to promote our activities all the time. Next week we will celebrate our anniversary, and that will be an occasion to tell our story. We seriously want locals to understand what we are doing. We need to become better at that.

SN: Talking about the Seminar, what are you specifically proud of?

Salyer: I am proud that we are still here after the financial crisis. Every employee voluntarily accepted a pay cut in 2009. We invested two million USD into the renovation of the hotel. We are a private institution and have a small foundation after all. Every member of the board must make their contribution every year – also financially. In all our programs we talk about how to finance the future, also the future of medicine, for example. The young people need to find this out [and] develop their capabilities. They do not usually learn that during their education in journalism. That is part of what we are doing here. We ask tough questions and want young people to think outside the box, to look beyond. 

SN: How do you push your participants into more uncomfortable zones?

Salyer: By having participants from different societies, [they] give examples and ideas that help you to question your own standpoint. One of our participants was heading the library in a small African town. The head of the British Library - one of the most important libraries in the world - told me after her presentation that he felt embarrassed by his own banal whining. The African colleague reminded him of the reasons why he wanted to become a librarian in the first place, and what he and his team could change to have a better future. We do not have the answers and do not force them on our participants. We create a situation where people listen to others and think: Wow, if they do it somewhere else, what can we do here?

SN: This situation can be created everywhere. How can you motivate leaders worldwide to come to Salzburg?

Salyer: Even nowadays people are afraid to raise their voice. Journalists fear for their life; they seek a secure space for exchange. This is valued here by the powerful as well as the young. We recently held our finance session in Salzburg, which is our stellar program. Among others, we hosted the chief regulator of the Australian finance industry and a governor of the American Federal Reserve Bank. When those people are here, they turn off their cell phones, they discuss if banks still exist in five years. I asked the group chairman of HSBC why he comes here. He said, first of all, because of the quality of the participants, at all stages of development; secondly, because of the high percentage of female participants, which is important in the finance industry; and finally, because this is the only meeting in the world where nobody wants personal advice from him. 

SN: The setting of Schloss Leopoldskron is breath-taking. Does this mean anything for your work?

Salyer: It is difficult to set apart the beautiful and inspiring environment from work. Everyone who comes here is touched by it. Attending a program here makes people think they are part of something, something that is bigger than themselves. 

Stephen L. Salyer was president of Public Radio International. Under his leadership, the network's affiliate structure expanded from 200 to more than 800 stations. He also co-founded a nationwide web service company for public television and radio stations in the US. Salyer started his career as speech writer for the philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller III.

Dates and Facts: the intellectual support program has changed

Three Harvard students, Clemens Heller, Richard Campbell, and Scott Elledge laid the foundation for Salzburg Global as an intellectual support program (“Marshall Plan of the Mind”) in the summer of 1947. Heller, a native of Austria, who fled to the US in 1938, wanted to locate the Seminar in his home country.

Through family ties, Heller was able to secure Schloss Leopoldskron as a location. After three summer sessions, it became an institution: “Massachusetts non-profit -  The Salzburg Seminar in American Studies.” During the Cold War, the Seminar played an important role as a bridge-builder. Ever since it has expanded widely both in geographical and thematic terms. 

Salzburg Global Seminar makes a total revenue of about 10 million Euro. The operating revenue consists of individual contributions (16%), foundation grants (28%), hotel income (35%), and tuition (7%). In 70 years, no faculty member has been paid for their contributions. Salzburg Seminar bought Schloss Leopoldskron in 1959.