The 75th anniversary of SAIS invites reflection on its past—and its future

By Yilin Wang

October 29, 2019

WASHINGTON, D.C. – On a summer morning in 1943, Congressman Christian Herter and Paul Nitze were chatting about international affairs as usual over the breakfast table in a Georgetown house, while their wives were on vacation. At that time, the world was still shocked by the traumas of World War II and the U.S. was faced with the huge challenge of assuming the responsibilities as a postwar great power. So when Herter raised the idea of founding a graduate institution to train professionals in the international affairs in Washington, Nitze immediately took notice. Acting quickly, Herter and Nitze gathered a group of friends to support their initiative. Among them was Halford Hoskins, the founding dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, who was extremely supportive of the idea of establishing a graduate school of international studies in Washington. In fact, Hoskins soon moved to Washington and became the first director of SAIS. By October 1944, SAIS was up and running at an old mansion on Florida Avenue, formerly home to the Gunston Hall School for Girls.

The initial SAIS cohorts in the 1940s were small (23 students in the first class), almost resembling a family, and they consisted only of Americans. After all, SAIS’s founding fathers had envisioned the school as an institution that would train “young Americans for world careers in government or business.” The contrast is sharp between the situation then and now, when 38% of the M.A. students in the class of 2021 are international. In a conversation with Dean Eliot Cohen, he said, “I would say that we are an American school of international affairs—not in a parochial way, but in a rooted way, as we are located in the capital of the United States and that ought to be part of the appeal of SAIS. I think SAIS is ‘American’ in terms of its approach to higher education. American universities are different from those in Europe, China, or anywhere else for that matter, in ways such as faculty-student relationships, kinds of faculty members, etc. It’s not just that our students are international—we have international faculty, staff, and international presence as well. I think one of the things that makes SAIS distinctive is that we don’t pretend we are based on the moon and have no roots anywhere. We do, but in every other respect we are international and, I hope, welcoming.”

Though a brand new, independent institution, SAIS was authorized to award PhD degrees at the time it was founded. Interestingly, the 1949-50 catalog of SAIS indicated that the PhD degree at SAIS was a professional one “intended only for those to whose vocational plans it is essential.” This was a direct reflection of the positioning of SAIS as a professional school. Contrary to what one might believe, however, there were recurring debates throughout the school’s history on whether SAIS should be academically or professionally oriented, especially when there were changes in the composition of faculty. During the 1960s, as the first generation of SAIS faculty retired, prominent scholars Robert Osgood, Robert Tucker and George Liska came to form an integral part of the second-generation faculty, teaching theory-heavy courses on American foreign policy, American history, and so on. Students joked that they were the “sixth-floor mafia” because of their affiliation with the Washington Center of Foreign Policy Research (now Foreign Policy Institute), the flagship research center of SAIS at that time located on the sixth floor of the Nitze Building. Jokes aside, in the 60s, SAIS evolved from a vocational training program to a rigorous, structured academic institution. To this day, one of the things that distinguishes SAIS from other policy schools is that it can “pursue deep knowledge and yet still be relevant to policy,” remarked Dean Cohen.

During the 60s and 70s, the student body at SAIS was very actively engaged in political affairs. The Vietnam War elicited intensive debates on campus, as there were some who had fought in the war and others who had participated in the Peace Corps, groups that held completely different positions on the war. SAIS students would gather together and discuss how the group should voice their opinions in view of the intensifying war. After the bombing of Cambodia, they signed an open letter to publicly condemn the incident and also organized boycotts and strikes to express their fury. “As intensely politicized as a lot of things seem to be right now, it’s nothing compared to what it was compared to the Vietnam era, because you not only had the war but a lot of dramatic social changes, such as the Civil Rights Movements. So that was a time when people were politically very active,” said Dean Cohen.

The 70s and 80s witnessed substantial changes in all academic programs at SAIS, as the third generation of SAIS faculty arrived during this time. For instance, the Latin America Studies program underwent an influential reform under Riordan Roett and grew into one of the largest programs at SAIS. The Asian Studies program flourished under Dean George Packard, who was a distinguished scholar in East Asian studies. Dean Packard made huge efforts to establish the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies and also helped push forward the creation of Hopkins-Nanjing Center, a significant breakthrough of SAIS and a truly rare case in the entire field of higher education in both China and the U.S. at that time. It was also during this period that SAIS acquired the Rome building, as the school was expanding both in the scope of its studies and size of its members.

Dean Cohen arrived at SAIS in 1990. In his opinion, the biggest change of SAIS since 1990 has been the demographic turnover among faculties. In recent years, SAIS has experienced enormous changes among its faculty members, now representing different kinds of interests and a wider array of backgrounds. What’s more, he remarked that we are currently still at an early stage of a transition where the school will gradually evolve from an institution with predominantly M.A. students to one that will feature more types of degrees and reach more demographics. There will also be deeper integration between SAIS and other Johns Hopkins divisions. For example, there will be more SAIS classes taught to undergraduate students at Homewood, a more direct admissions program for Hopkins undergraduates, and perhaps even cooperation with the Whiting School of Engineering and the Applied Physics Lab, with potential courses exploring the intersection of technology and international affairs. SAIS plans to launch a joint degree program with the Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School as well. The move to 555 Pennsylvania Avenue will create a great opportunity for cooperation among different divisions to take place, and the move, as described by Dean Cohen, will be a “transformative” experience.


Gutner, Tammi. The Story of SAIS. Washington, D.C.: School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University, 1987.

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