SAIS Europe’s CIA History Overshadowed by its Own Obscurity

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By Zoe Mize

November 20, 2019

BOLOGNA, Italy –– Why Bologna? It’s a common question voiced at SAIS Europe, as students ponder the unusual decision to headquarter SAIS’s European campus in the relatively small capital city of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. Why not a larger city, a more international city? Why not Rome? …Paris? 

John Harper, SAIS Europe Professor of American Foreign Policy, says the answer lies in the city’s nickname: la rossa, the red. SAIS Europe matriculated its first class in 1955 in the midst of the Cold War. As the United States battled the Soviet Union for cultural and ideological supremacy in Europe and around the world, Bologna’s communist party grew in strength. The Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) ran a fair and stable government in Bologna, representing an alternative ideology to Italian fascism.

C. Grove Haines and Walter Orbaugh, the founders of SAIS Europe, once met for drinks in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and imagined a university where an international cohort of students could learn under the tutelage of both European and American professors. Haines, who Professor Harper describes as having had “a passion for Europe and for Italy in particular,” viewed Italy as the perfect home for this educational endeavor.

Bologna welcomed Haines and the idea of SAIS Europe with open arms. While communism had made a happy home in the city, the PCI was by no means unopposed. Il Mulino, a progressive non-communist publishing house, sought to bring non-communist influence into the city, and joined with University of Bologna rector Felice Battaglia in offering Haines access to classrooms, office space, and the UniBo library. 

These contributions gave SAIS Europe its start, but Haines lacked the funding required to keep up with recurring administrative costs. In 1954, the nascent school gratefully accepted a grant from the Andrew Hamilton Fund of Philadelphia in the amount of $218,000 USD, with similar financial contributions continuing through 1961. But who were these mysterious donors? “Undoubtedly a [US Central Intelligence Agency] front organization,” claims Professor Harper. 

The CIA viewed SAIS Europe as a marvelous opportunity to educate a generation of pro-American Europeans within a city famous for the success of its communist government. Then known as the Bologna Center, SAIS Europe began its inaugural year in 1955, with a class comprising eight students: two Austrian, two French, two Italian, and four American. 

This contentious piece of SAIS Europe’s history is hardly a secret, yet it has spread conspiratorially, whispered from one student to the next as they question the idea of SAIS Europe’s academic esteem having its origins rooted in secret CIA funding. However, Professor Harper is careful to stress that “CIA backing did not condition the degree of intellectual freedom at the [Bologna] Center.” 

Speaking with Italian students at SAIS Europe reveals how the storied anti-communist origins of the campus have since been overshadowed –– even if only through its relative anonymity within Italy.

“If you don’t come from Bologna, you don’t know it,” says Giacomo Bogo as he reflects on Italians’ familiarity with the school. Bogo is a MAIA student originally from Genova. He admits that Bologna’s small size likely contributes to any familiarity with SAIS amongst the Bolognese. Additionally, SAIS offers a dual-degree program with the University of Bologna, meaning those in its English-based curricula are better exposed to the opportunities afforded at SAIS. However, he says that he knew nothing of the school before pursuing a graduate education at UniBo. 

Lorenzo Marchetti, a MAIA student from Imola, finds that even within Bologna, SAIS is relatively unknown. “The understanding and the knowledge of what people do here, it’s pretty obscure,” Marchetti says, lamenting that SAIS has closed itself off in recent years rather than seeking to integrate further into the local community. Giulio’s Bar, a fixture of SAIS Europe’s closed foyer, was once an open courtyard that gave Bolognese residents greater access to the SAIS campus for lunch, coffee, and drinks. Many local student discounts in Bolognese shops and museums don’t apply to those holding a Johns Hopkins SAIS ID badge. For SAIS Europe’s students, the notoriety of SAIS’ CIA connections has seemingly been replaced by anonymity. 

If anything, Lorenzo Fontanelli, a MAIA student from Rome, believes Haines’s decision to house SAIS Europe in Bologna validated the city as a center of European education. “It gave more reputation to Bologna itself… to create a SAIS center in Bologna really adds more importance to the university city.” After all, it seems fitting to place a satellite campus next door to UniBo, the oldest European university. In his view, SAIS Europe adds a valuable American perspective to those represented at UniBo, fostering a connection between both communities. “I think this is viewed positively by Bolognese… and by [other] Italians, too, if they would know that [SAIS] actually exists.”


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