Last month, University President Ronald J. Daniels announced that Eliot Cohen will step down as the ninth dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at the conclusion of his two-year term on June 30.
A SAIS faculty member for over 30 years, Cohen served as the Robert E. Osgood Professor of Strategic Studies, director of the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies and executive vice dean prior to his current position. As dean, Cohen led the school through its 75th anniversary in 2019. Outside of SAIS, he was the Counselor of the U.S. Department of State from 2007 to 2009 under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Cohen reflected on his achievements as the SAIS dean in an interview with The News-Letter. His team’s reorganization of the school’s structure, he said, helped put SAIS on track to eliminate a once-substantial structural deficit.
“We created operational processes and a staff structure that we never had before. We now have a much better handle on some critical functions, such as our finances and enrollment trends,” he said. “I would say the thing I’m proudest of is having built a wonderful team, because deans don’t do any of these things on their own.”
During his tenure, Cohen and his team launched 26 new online courses, modernized the school’s flagship Master’s degree and introduced new innovative degree programs, including a Doctorate in International Affairs.
The presidency of Donald Trump also weighed heavily on the school throughout Cohen’s deanship. An outspoken conservative critic of the U.S. president, Cohen described the impact of the Trump presidency on SAIS.
“The danger was a mood of cynicism and, in some cases, even a kind of despair,” he said. “Public service is a critical part of our mission, and, more broadly than that, I didn’t want to see students lose optimism about the future.”
After he leaves his post in June, Cohen plans to remain at SAIS to write and potentially teach undergraduates at the Homewood Campus.
Cohen was appointed as the dean without an interim appointment or a formal search process when Vali Nasr stepped down from the deanship in June 2019. Provost Sunil Kumar explained the decision in an email to The News-Letter.
“The University prioritized adding stability at the leadership position beyond an interim role due to academic programming changes and financial challenges,” he wrote. “Eliot Cohen, who was serving as the Executive Vice Dean at SAIS, was the natural choice to take on this role given his long and respected tenure at SAIS and deep knowledge of the school. We are grateful for Dean Cohen’s acceptance of the two-year term dean role.”
Kumar will chair the committee to select Cohen’s successor. The search is expected to launch later this month.
According to Kumar, the school’s planned relocation to 555 Pennsylvania Ave., the former Newseum building, is a significant factor in the search process.
“There is not a singular factor that would be determinative,” he wrote. “Certainly, an important consideration will be a candidate’s demonstrated visionary and innovative leadership that could be replicated for success in moving SAIS to its new home.”
Cohen echoed the need for leadership through the planned relocation.
“I really hope we get a dean who will commit to staying for at least five years or possibly longer than that,” he said. “The school will certainly need some serious continuity in leadership going forward.”
He pointed to the planned relocation and a recent $10 million gift to support greater integration between the various SAIS campuses as opportunities for the school to set itself apart from from peer institutions.
Cohen stressed that SAIS faces intellectual challenges from issues emerging in a changing international environment, including COVID-19, climate change and Sino-American competition. Nevertheless, he underscored his optimism for the future of SAIS.
“SAIS has some very serious challenges and very serious opportunities ahead,” he said. “It’s not just on the next dean, but it will be the responsibility of the faculty supported by the staff to rise to those challenges and take advantage of those opportunities. I very much hope that they will.”