Capstone Options Cut for Some in AFP

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Some American Foreign Policy concentrators began the school year with a surprise: two of the three advertised capstone options were no longer available.

Second year AFP concentrators who spent the last academic year in Bologna, or did not complete a capstone requirement during their first year at SAIS D.C., arrived in Washington this September to find that the AFP Thesis Seminar and Case Studies in AFP courses would not be offered to them during the 2016-2017 academic year.

The cleaving of capstone options came due to changes within the AFP faculty. Michael Mandelbaum, who directed the program and taught the thesis seminar, retired from SAIS in May 2016 after 26 years at the school. SAIS has yet to hire Mandelbaum’s successor.

Unfortunate timing also affected the Bolognesi. Bologna-based professor John Harper, who teaches the case studies course, took a sabbatical in the spring of 2016 to write his upcoming book The Edge of Empire. Harper’s absence left AFP students unable to complete the course as it is only offered during the second semester.

In lieu of the two courses, students were left with the option of writing an independent research paper, or writing papers for Professor Charles Stevenson’s courses on congressional or executive power. The affected students were also given the alternative of submitting previously-written papers that might qualify for the capstone.

The shakeup has flummoxed some concentrators.

“The AFP staff never communicated the AFP capstone project to me. … Dr. Charles Stevenson sent me an email out of the blue merely asking if I had done my paper for the capstone,” a second-year AFP concentrator, who spent the last academic year in Bologna and wishes to remain anonymous, said. “I had been looking forward to taking Professor Mandelbaum’s class my second year, and his name is still on his office door … I found out about his retirement in SAIS Magazine, of all places.”

AFP concentrators who spent the 2015-2016 academic year at SAIS campuses overseas are most affected considering that their first chance to pursue a capstone option came during the 2016-2017 academic year. But current M.A. candidates who started and now remain at SAIS D.C. are also impacted. Like the second year Bolognesi, many students spending both years in D.C. also learned of Mandelbaum’s retirement in print.

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Many SAIS students learned of Prof. Mandelbaum’s retirement through the SAIS Magazine

“I found out about Professor Mandelbaum’s retirement this year as I was reading the SAIS Magazine,” a second year AFP concentrator based for both years at the SAIS D.C. campus said.  “Although I’ve been fortunate enough to have taken a class with [Mandelbaum] last year, I felt as though he left a vacuum in the AFP program, which the program and/or the school didn’t bother taking care of. … It’s a pretty big deal. … Think about it. You come to SAIS to pursue higher education and to develop a specialization …  and the key cornerstone the major project that you undertake during your time here at SAIS now appears insubstantial.”

Professor Stevenson, who was appointed acting director at the end of the summer, met or emailed each of AFP’s 42 concentrators earlier this year to discuss capstone options.

“I can understand why the students are puzzled and even disturbed due to the changes because of Professor Mandelbaum’s retirement, and I am trying to accommodate students,” Stevenson said. “I have been in touch with every single student and given guidance. At least one student has not responded to my latest message, but just about everybody is on board with a plan they told me, or is revising their plan based on suggestions I provided for them.”

AFP plans to expand course offerings next semester, plucking Dr. Hal Brands from the newly-established Kissinger Center to teach a yet-to-be announced AFP course. Brands’s past work has focused on post-Cold War American foreign policy and American grand strategy.

But the new courses and adjusted capstones still are not enough for some in AFP.

“I am really disappointed in the AFP program,” the anonymous Bolognesi continued. “If I had known beforehand it would turn out like this, I would not have concentrated in AFP.”

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