ANN ARBOR, Mich.—When he arrived in Slovakia in 2001 as U.S. Ambassador, Ronald Weiser saw a country transitioning from communism to democracy that was in danger of returning to authoritarian rule. He saw the efforts of the nation's young people and civil society to prevent the pendulum from swinging back.
His experiences convinced him that studying how democracies are born and understanding the role of civil society in that process would be vital to countries struggling to achieve freedom.
To further this research Ambassador Weiser and his wife, Eileen, have donated $10 million to the International Institute in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan. The gift will establish the Ronald and Eileen Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia (WCEE) that will serve as the umbrella organization for the Center for Russian and European Studies (CREES), the Center for European Studies-European Union Center (CES-EUC) and a newly formed center to be known as the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies (WCED).
"I am interested in what factors have led some countries to achieve democracy and others not," Ambassador Weiser said. "In Europe and Eurasia are some of the best examples of places that have achieved democracy and freedom. It is very important to understand how these countries transitioned and to share that information with countries that are in transition.
"The Russian-Georgian war over South Ossetia and Abkhazia highlights the importance of democratic principles and a civil society" he said. "Without these the government might have crumbled and succumbed to Russia's political ambitions," he said. "Georgians cherish the freedoms they have gained and they don't want to give them up."
On Sept. 19, the former President of the Republic of Poland Aleksander Kwa niewski will deliver the inaugural lecture of the Ronald and Eileen Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia and Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan. (See box.)
The Weiser gift will also support the Ronald and Eileen Weiser Professor of European and Eurasian Studies, who will direct WCEE and WCED, as well as funding for graduate fellowships. With matching funds from the University President's Donor Challenge Fund, the Weiser gift will total $11.5 million.
Michael Kennedy, a sociology professor and past director of CREES, CES-EUC, and the International Institute, has been appointed to direct WCEE and WCED and named as the Weiser Professor. The Russian-Georgian war emphasizes the need to understand how democracies emerge and the conditions of their success, he said.
"This war reflects geopolitical contests between Russia and the West, the struggle for energy security, and the meanings of sovereignty and democracy themselves," he said. "To inform emerging democracies, we must not only learn what makes democracies work, but also understand how the extension of democracy fits with spreading human rights, robust economies, and peaceful relations among nations. The war in Georgia shows how much we still have to learn."
Kennedy said the Weiser gift is "transformational." "It facilitates the connection between two great area studies traditions at U-M in European and in Russian and East European studies. It also helps us to support student and faculty learning about emerging democracies in Europe and Eurasia in places such as Poland and the Czech Republic after communism or Germany and Spain after fascism. Through effective public dissemination and engagement, we also seek to inform prospective democratic transformations in other parts of the post-communist world."
"We already have developed partnerships between U-M faculty and their colleagues from Slovakia, and will extend that model to other emerging democracies throughout the region," he said. "We will work with non-governmental organizations and governments to strengthen civil society and tackle the toughest questions, most evident today in Georgia."
The gift will also encourage collaborations among other U-M units as well as institutions in the United States and abroad that will create courses, seminars, conferences, lecture series and opportunities for teaching, learning, research and outreach. These initiatives will be advised by a Policy Board and Advisory Council composed of distinguished public figures and scholars from across North America, Europe, and Eurasia.
"The generosity of Ron and Eileen Weiser will promote deeper understanding of this complex and dynamic region of the world at a time when such knowledge is essential to preparing students to engage in the global economy," said Terrence J. McDonald, dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. "The funding for the professorship and student fellowships will also provide students with real-world experiences."
Weiser, (BBA '66) was appointed by President George Bush as U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia from 2001-2004. In addition to his diplomatic responsibilities he organized three international investment conferences attended by investors from hundreds of companies. In 2004, he received the White Double Cross from Slovak President Rudolf Schuster, the highest award given to non-Slovaks, and the Cultural Pluralism Award from the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad for his work in the restoration of the Jewish cemetery in Zakopane, Poland, and one of Slovakia's most cherished historical sites, the medieval Trencin Castle. In 2007 Ambassador Weiser was honored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center of the Smithsonian with the "Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service." He has chaired or co-chaired numerous non-profits over many years including the University's National Board of the Ginsberg Center for Community Service and Learning.
In 1968, he founded McKinley Associates, a national real estate investment company, and served as its chairman and chief executive officer until 2001.
Eileen Weiser (MMUS '75) served as the executive director of the McKinley Foundation, a public community foundation founded by the couple in 1984. She has also served as a board member for numerous community arts and civic affairs organizations. She was elected to the State of Michigan Board of Education in 1998 where she served for 8 years. She also served for 4 years on the National Assessment Governing Board. In 2007, she was appointed by the State Supreme Court to its Attorney Discipline Board and by the State Board of Education as Chair of its Professional Standards Commission for Teachers.
The Weiser gift advances U-M's $2.5 billion Michigan Difference campaign, which achieved its goal in June 2007. The campaign continues through Dec. 31, 2008.