Months after initial backlash from Buffett Institute budget cuts, faculty and students remain in the dark


The Northwestern Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs is located on the third floor of 1800 Sherman Ave. Following student and faculty backlash, Annelise Riles, the executive director of the institute, announced structural reforms to how research funds will be allocated.

Amy Li, Campus Editor

Shortly after a scathing Faculty Senate in February when multiple faculty members questioned Annelise Riles’ decision to employ large-scale funding cuts since her appointment as the Buffett Institute for Global Affairs’ executive director last September, Riles sent a letter to all faculty announcing major structural reforms to the institute’s funding. During a Monday meeting with The Daily, Riles shared the email with The Daily and discussed Buffett’s new direction in funding allocation.

“Buffett looks forward to continuing to support Faculty who wish to work collaboratively across disciplinary and national boundaries to address critical global questions in ways that reflect the highest scholarly standards and push the frontiers of knowledge,” the letter wrote.

The February letter introduced a three-phase model for research to be approved for funding, including an idea incubation phase, a long-term collaborative research phase and a last stage to ensure the research makes global impact. Riles said the Buffett institute uses the United Nation’s outline of today’s most salient global issues to measure what it considers as projects that can yield “global impact.”

The new criteria to receive research funding necessitates “broad multidisciplinary commitment” and must “further the wider strategic objectives of the Institute and the University,” the letter said.

Before Riles’ appointment, the executive director was in control of funding allocation to working groups. However, the new and higher bar for funding approval under Riles added a judging process after the “idea incubation phase,” in which groups of researchers pursing an interdisciplinary answer to a global question are to face a group of judges in November to decide whether their projects makes it into the research phase.

The judges will include a trustee, someone who specializes in foundations for grants, someone from the policy worl and various academics, Riles told The Daily.

However, months after funding cuts, student groups, graduate students, and faculty members who previously used the institute as a continuous source of funding remain uncertain about whether they had a role to play in Buffett’s new direction.

Political science Prof. William Reno said since Riles’ arrival, she has requested to meet with all WCAS faculty that had received Buffett funding for research or to support working groups, and most faculty members lost the funding as a result.

“I think that for faculty, one of the complaints was that they didn’t like losing the support, but they also thought that their opinions and views were not being listened to, and if they were listened to they were being rejected,” Reno said.

Reno said while faculty often find other means to finance their research, via workshops or book conferences on campus, for example, student groups struggled the most with the abrupt cessations of funding.

Global Brigades, a volunteer group that organizes brigades to under-resourced communities to resolve global health and economic disparities, received quarterly allotments of around $500 through the Buffett Institute before the institute froze funding to most student groups, Avi Dravid, who was NU chapter president during the funding cuts, told The Daily.

“The Buffett Institute will not be accepting funding requests from student groups this year, and the pause on funding to all but a select few student groups will continue throughout the academic year.” An email to Global Brigades, signed by Emory Erker-Lynch, associate director of global collaboration for the institute wrote. “While we recognize your group’s work as valuable, we are unfortunately not able to fund it this year.”

Riles, who initially said she was unaware that Global Brigades was affiliated with the institute at all, later told The Daily a different narrative — that funding is awarded each year on a competitive basis through an application process.

“This group’s funding was not cut,” Riles wrote in an email to The Daily. “It was just not successful in this year’s cycle of funding applications because other student groups’ proposals were more competitive.”

However, Dravid said the group was not informed on what criteria was used to determine which groups received fundings and which groups didn’t.

In order to retain the NU chapter, Global Brigades had to ramp up fundraising through donut sales, for example, to cover expenses previously supplemented by the institute.

The Buffett Institute was founded in 2015 with a $100 million donation from Roberta Buffett Elliott (Weinberg ’54) with an intention to expand programming and to internationalize the undergraduate, graduate, and faculty research and learning experience.

Under previous directors and with the additional help of around one million in donations from Buffett each year, the institute has broadened its reach by funding over two dozen faculty working groups, undergraduate and graduate student groups across the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, including affiliated faculty from the Kellogg School of Management, the Pritzker School of Law, and the School of Communication.

Hendrik Spruyt, who had previously served as Buffett’s executive director and on the board of advisors for the institute, said as a result of rampant expansion, talks began about a more focused direction while he was still involved — supporting bigger themes at a higher level.

“(Buffett) did many things for many people,” Spruyt said. “So one view was: ‘Maybe we’re doing too many things. Maybe we need to define our new voice.'”

However, despite the institute’s broadened mission statement on the website — something that a faculty member previously described as “marketing” — some faculty felt that Buffett is narrowing in its impact.

All together, Reno said since Riles’ arrival, the international studies institute has diminished in importance in the daily lives of faculty, students and Weinberg as a whole.
“From my position as a political science professor, I don’t really see what the Buffett institute does anymore,” Reno said. “I can go to their website and I can see things, but in terms of what goes around on campus, I can’t really see what they do.”

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