Common Ground

Olin Robison ensures the Salzburg Seminar provides a safe haven and life-changing experiences for the world's future leaders

by Larissa K. Vigue

If asked what Vermont and Austria have in common, most locals would light upon the same answer: Stowe's von Trapp family -- made famous by "The Sound of Music" -- who landed in the Green Mountains after fleeing Austria during World War II.

Since 1992, there has been another relationship between Vermont and Austria, which also owes its existence to the Second World War. In two of Middlebury's converted Marble Works buildings sits the American home of one of the most influential meeting places for the world's future leaders: the Salzburg Seminar. Established at Harvard University in 1947 as a reaction to the divisions created by war, the non-profit seminar is part think-tank, part educational conference. Approximately 20 times a year it gathers promising mid-career individuals from around the world to discuss contemporary issues of global concern. Once running in the red, today the seminar's balance sheet lists more than $25 million in assets; its operating budget hovers around $8 million; and its four programs -- Core Sessions, Special Sessions, the Universities Project and the American Studies Program -- boast 20,000 alumni or "fellows" from 150 countries.

While the 20 employees in the Vermont office pull the administrative strings far behind-the-scenes, the stage for these programs is an 18th-century rococo Austrian castle once owned by famed theater director Max Reinhardt. The Schloss Leopoldskron sits on lakeside grounds with decorative gardens and a view of the Alps. With 58 bedrooms and suites, conference facilities for 130, and baroque banquet halls, the Schloss is the Salzburg equivalent of Vermont's Shelburne Farms. Approximately 60 seminar employees in Austria -- many of whom, like waiters and housekeepers, make up the conference services staff -- work in the wings.

This magical place (where, coincidentally, some of the exterior shots for "The Sound of Music" were filmed) and its mother country facilitate the free exchange of ideas and development of productive relationships among people of different countries and cultures. After its tumultous history mid-century, Austria's identity during the Cold War "was primarily that of neutrality, neither east nor west. It was a common meeting ground," explains seminar president and chief executive officer Dr. Olin Robison. "That image of neutrality has served us well."

During the 1970s and '80s, the seminar played a major role in throwing back the Iron Curtain so that by the time the Berlin Wall fell, the seminar's alumni roster included 1,700 fellows from formerly Communist countries. Robison says he "thought the end of the Cold War would diminish sharply the need for what one might call a 'safe space,' but what I've learned is the need for that is as important as it ever was."

As an example, he mentions the relatively new Universities Project -- a series of symposia convening senior representatives of higher education from target regions like Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Newly Independent States (NIS) to meet with Western European and North American counterparts to discuss institutional reform. At the first session in 1997, Robison came upon a table full of fellows from former Communist-bloc countries: Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, and Romania. "I walked over and said, 'Hey, you guys, I didn't bring you here to talk to each other -- you talk to each other all the time.' One of them said, 'What you don't understand is that we don't ever talk to each other -- none of us has the ability to convene anymore, so we come here because we can meet and talk.'"

Dr. Gail Stevenson, Champlain College's director of international programs and former director of the American Collegiate Consortium based at Middlebury College, wrote grant proposals for the Universities Project and attends three sessions a year as rapporteur -- the project's report writer. At first she was unaware of the seminar's power. "I was fairly skeptical of the ability to affect reform, but with each symposium, old and new fellows build up trust. In its way it has contributed to an environment where reform can take place."

Programs take place in the Schloss Leopoldskron, the Salzburg equivalent of Vermont's Shelburne Farms.

Though Robison credits serious intellectual exchange as the driving force behind the seminar's reputation (a primary rule of each session is to be "hard on ideas and easy on each other"), he says location lends the advantage. "There's something place-specific about it. If the same people came together at the Holiday Inn in downtown Detroit, it wouldn't be the same. It's a splendid setting; we are the keepers of it and we've tried to be good custodians of the special dramatic nature of it all."

Former Middlebury College president, popular Vermont Public Radio commentator, and longtime adviser to Washington on U.S.-Soviet relations, Robison is the seminar's seventh president in a line of distinguished leaders. They all have had Clemens Heller, a Harvard graduate student, to thank for their jobs. The Austrian-born Heller wanted to "bring together students from across the war-ravaged (European) continent in an effort to renew intellectual dialogue among individuals who had been divided by totalitarianism and war," notes Dr. Timothy W. Ryback, director of the seminar on-site in Salzburg, in a history titled "The Salzburg Seminar -- A Community of Fellows." Heller brought on board two Harvard peers, Scott Elledge and Richard Campbell, to plan the first "Salzburg Seminar in American Civilization." Denied funding from Harvard's president on the grounds that the idea was too impractical, and without a site for the seminar, the triumvirate had the odds stacked against them. "These young people thought that if Americans and Europeans could talk maybe there wouldn't be any more wars -- it was a romantic and almost naive notion that really didn't deserve to work," says Robison with a smile.

Twenty-thousand alumni or "fellows" from 150 countries have participated in Salzburg Seminar programs. "There are fellows who now run corporations, universities, countries," says Olin Robison, pictured with Prince Charles.

Yet it did, because Harvard's Student Council donated money and provisions from a university food drive, and because of a lucky coincidence. Heller had been taught in Vienna by Reinhardt's widow, Helene Thimig, who generously offered the Schloss as a home for the seminar. In July 1947, 127 students from across Europe and America gathered to hear lectures by eminent faculty including anthropologist Margaret Mead and literary historian F.O. Matthiessen.

Since then, 379 additional Core Sessions with similarly luminous faculty (none of whom has ever been paid an honorarium for participating) have taken place. With titles like "Planning and Development of the Urban Community" (1964), "Religion and the Church in Contemporary Society" (1973), and "The Management of Conflict in International Relations" (1983), the Salzburg Seminar has touched upon the pressure points of a constantly changing world.

A typical Core Session (of which there are 10 to 12 per year) costs $300,000 and accepts roughly 60 fellows for whom it costs $5,000 to attend; approximately 90 percent receive funding. They come from 35 to 40 countries and represent a range of societal sectors. "We really have an unusual mix," says Robison. "What they have in common is a special interest and expertise in the subject." Instead of older individuals at the peak of their careers, Core Sessions target mid-career "fast-trackers," many of whom consider participating in the seminar a formative experience. Conversely, the three Special Sessions each year are by invitation only and cater to more established individuals. While the Universities Project draws fellows from specific regions, the American Studies Center program, begun in 1994, appeals to scholars interested in discussing themes in American studies.

For all programs, the faculty always reads "like a who's who of the world," says Robison. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton joined "Educating Youth: Challenges for the Future" in 1997, the seminar's 50th anniversary. "She sat at the front of the room for two hours taking questions," recalls Robison, "and worked through it all very patiently. She was candid and incredibly articulate."

The Schloss Leopoldskron library

Faculty seem to gain as much from the experience as fellows. Clinton took notes during her presentation. Closer to home, University of Vermont president Judith Ramaley, on the faculty for Core Session 361, "Higher Education: Leadership and Institutional Reform," says she "chose to attend to understand the issues facing higher education around the globe and found the session to be extremely valuable in helping me see trends and underlying commonalities in what appear to be very different systems and political and cultural settings."

Involvement from Vermonters like Ramaley and rapporteur Stevenson, as well as five faculty and 15 to 20 student interns from Middlebury College each year, is one of the ways Vermont maintains a visible presence at the sessions. After all, the U.S. office is in the Green Mountain State mostly by default. When Robison agreed to replace outgoing president Bradford Morse in 1992, the seminar had only four staff members in its Harvard Square office. Since one employee was retiring, it made sense to relocate the office to Middlebury.

Just as Austria and the Schloss make for ideal settings, Robison says that "Vermont has proven to be a splendid place to assemble a group of talented and dedicated people," one of whom is executive vice president, Amy Hastings. "I couldn't imagine having a better colleague," says Robison of the woman with whom he has worked since 1984, when they were both at Middlebury College. Robison asked Hastings to come on board as the seminar's vice president and director of development while she still was at Middlebury, where she had coordinated the college's $80 million capital campaign in the 1980s. (Robison was on leave from the college when he was asked to join the seminar.) She found the offer tempting because "one of the goals I had set for myself was to work for a non-profit organization distinct from education."

Next, the organization leased space in the Marble Works and, as Hastings explains, "We really just started over. All of the operational infrastructure related to the American office had to be recreated." Eventually, the organization outgrew its original space, and rented two additional floors in a second building in 1995 and '97. That's phenomenal growth considering that when Robison took over, the seminar was several million dollars in debt and had been for some time, partly because of the cost of modernizing and renovating the Schloss and its grounds.

In a few short years, the seminar was enjoying substantial support from big-name funders such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The foundation granted the seminar a $10 million endowment in 1995, because Robison led the board of directors to make a tough but forward-thinking decision: Put up the Schloss, the organization's greatest tangible asset, as collateral for borrowing additional money in order to reorganize and diversify the seminar's programs.

"You can't raise money without developing new ventures that funders find attractive, so we made the decision to become genuinely global instead of trans-Atlantic," he says. "While the seminar had been dramatically successful in Europe, we had done very little in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America." Content-wise, sessions were developed with those audiences in mind. Several organizations, like the Freeman and Starr foundations, which fund projects in Asia, began supporting the seminar shortly thereafter. Kellogg signed on because of its agricultural interest in Africa and Latin America.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton participated in a Salzburg Seminar program in 1997, the seminar's 50th anniversary. "She was candid and incredibly articulate," recalls Robison. Pictured: a mountain view from the Schloss Leopoldskron.

Today, even with nearly 80 employees on two continents, Robison and Hastings remain the primary overseers of the organization. Although the seminar has its own well-defined internal operations, it has no formal divisions or departments. "After Olin and me, we deliberately have been a very non-hierarchical organization," Hastings says, which perhaps explains one reason why the seminar has seen little turnover since Robison took over. Nevertheless, she adds, "that creates its own set of challenges in the way we manage. Somebody has to take responsibility and ownership, but Olin and I don't want all the decisions to be made by us."

Though she gets to Austria three to four times a year, Hastings stays primarily in the Vermont office overseeing staff and daily operations. Robison spends much of his time in Salzburg facilitating the sessions, meeting and greeting, and working on ideas for future sessions with the 56-member board of directors. It's an impressive group of people, led by chairman Roy M. Huffington, former U.S. ambassador to Austria. This division of duties works well, says Hastings. "Olin and I are a good team because he is always reaching for something I wouldn't have thought of. I consider it my responsibility and that of our colleagues to be the implementers -- to take that vision and find a way to make it work."

The Salzburg Seminar's founders would be proud to see how their vision has prospered. "There are fellows who now run corporations, universities, countries," notes Robison. "It's a stretch to say they wound up in those positions because of the seminar, but not a stretch to believe it was an important experience. We get endless amounts of mail saying, 'Thank you, you've changed my way of looking at things.'"

Larissa K. Vigue is a free-lance writer living in Winooski. She completed her master's degree at Middlebury College's Breadloaf School of English in August.