A transformative era ends at the Center for International Studies

Richard Samuels (left) is the Ford International Professor at MIT. Evan Lieberman (right) is the Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa.

Richard J. Samuels steps down as director; Evan Lieberman is named his successor.

Leda Zimmerman | Center for International Studies

May 5, 2023

In the early 1980s, Richard Samuels PhD ’80 was an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, specializing in Japanese politics and public policy. With the rapid emergence of Japan as a global economic powerhouse, Samuels, now the director of the Center for International Studies (CIS) and Ford International Professor of Political Science, had realized that “only by working and learning abroad, will MIT scientists and engineers fully appreciate that not all the world’s science and engineering starts and ends in 02139,” he recalls.

This insight sparked the MIT-Japan Program in 1982, an entirely new approach to international undergraduate education that emphasized Japanese language study and hands-on application of expertise in companies and university laboratories in other countries.

Samuels’s novel concept of “applied international studies” lit a fire. With his support, additional programs were created for China and India, paving the way for MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), which at last count provided opportunities for nearly 1,000 students a year to research and collaborate in 20 nations.

MISTI exemplifies Samuels’s larger enterprise at CIS to make international scholarship and experience not just relevant, but essential, across the Institute and beyond. He has broadened the center’s scope, embracing education and public outreach, while deepening its storied roots in security studies and research in science and technology policy.

At the end of June, after a two-decade tenure at CIS, Samuels plans to step down. He will remain an active faculty member in the Department of Political Science and its Security Studies Program. Evan Lieberman, the Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa and current director of MISTI, will take on the leadership of CIS.

The orchestra conductor

On the eve of his departure, colleagues reflected on the evolution of CIS under Samuels.

“Dick has been a wonderful promoter of good ideas, always getting behind the efforts of his colleagues,” says Suzanne Berger, Institute professor, who led the MIT-China and MIT-France Programs, and was a founding director of MISTI. “He’s like an orchestra conductor, building off of people with deep interests and capabilities.”

For Bish Sanyal, the Ford International Professor of Urban Development and Planning and CIS research member, Samuels played an integral role in bringing to fruition a 2007 project, “Just Jerusalem: Visions for a Place of Peace,” spearheaded by Sanyal and Diane Davis, then associate dean of the School of Architecture and Planning. “CIS, under Dick’s leadership, supported the Department of Urban Studies and Planning-led campus wide effort to envision what Jerusalem could be as a city,” says Sanyal.  A design competition, “Just Jerusalem” invited entrants to imagine ways of bridging differences by addressing the physical, economic, civic, or symbolic infrastructure of the city.

According to M. Taylor Fravel, the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science and recently appointed director of the MIT Security Studies Program (SSP), CIS has served “as a welcoming incubator for new programs.” SSP, which began in the Cold War as the Defense and Arms Control Studies program, has “grown significantly under Samuels’s leadership of CIS,” says Fravel, an expert on China, East Asia, and international relations.

One major venture Fravel cites is the Robert E. Wilhelm Fellows Program, begun by Samuels through a gift from an MIT alumnus. This program supports a year-long engagement at CIS by an individual who has held senior public policy positions, giving center researchers direct access to an authoritative figure working on problems in their area. “In security studies, we’ve had the ability to interact with a terrific group of people in the national security space,” says Fravel. In recent years, fellows have included the former commander of the Pacific Fleet and a head of U.S. counterintelligence under the director of national intelligence.

Fravel credits Samuels in part for identifying the need for deep expertise in Asia and helping establish a group of tenured faculty “on all the major actors that bear on national security there.” This includes Samuels, Fravel, and Vipin Narang, the Frank Stanton Professor of Nuclear Security and Political Science (and currently principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy), as well as Eric Heginbotham, an alumnus with China and Japan expertise whom he enticed to return to MIT as a principal research scientist at the center.

Fravel also noted “the build-out of the Starr Forum series,” a public event series bringing major policymakers and scholars to MIT to discuss pressing international issues of the day. “The forum has been very nimble in putting on programs quickly and effectively,” he says. Topics in the first few months of 2023 included discussions of the struggle for normalcy by women in Iran and the consequences of the Ukraine-Russia war on domestic life.

Before the pandemic, the forum drew large in-person crowds, and now, “with a hybrid format, many hundreds more have been able to participate and learn from these events,” says Fravel. “CIS has become a central node for discussion of pressing, contemporary challenges in international politics.”

Talk to the public

Although Samuels denies pursuing a grand vision, he admits that he “wanted to broaden CIS, to get social scientists not just talking to each other but to the public, sharing what they have learned, and making a mark in the real world.”

His modus operandi was to “find support for the remarkable faculty and students of MIT and then get out of the way,” he says. But the cluster of CIS programs that emerged on his watch — on human rights and technology and international migration, for instance — attests to his desire and determination to make the research and perspectives of center scholars known for their expertise on some of the most significant global problems of the day.

One CIS project with great personal meaning for Samuels is the Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship, named for a friend, a Boston Globe journalist who died in Iraq in 2003. The fellowship, conducted in partnership with the International Women’s Media Foundation, provides women and nonbinary journalists from around the world with an opportunity to spend seven months at MIT, the Globe, and The New York Times, focusing on human rights and social justice issues.

As wide-ranging as these CIS projects are, Berger and other longtime colleagues see MISTI as Samuels’s signal accomplishment.

“He planted a seed that blossomed into something incredibly impactful,” says MISTI Executive Director April Julich Perez, who first met Samuels during a visit with the French consulate in Boston, where she was working as assistant cultural attachée to discuss connections between MIT and France. Julich Perez notes that Samuels was more than a generative force behind the MISTI student programs. “He launched the MISTI Global Seed Fund program, which awards $2.5 million a year to MIT faculty to work with researchers on complementary projects in dozens of countries.” A majority of MIT faculty have applied for seed funds, she says.

MISTI is now so mainstream at MIT that engineering and science faculty are signing up to be academic leads on undergraduate programs in different countries, replacing social science and humanities colleagues who historically held those roles.

“The MISTI model has fundamentally transformed MIT education,” says Berger. “Samuels found a way of interesting a majority of faculty and students who are intensely focused on technology in international life and learning, positioning the Center for International Studies in a way that has made it uniquely valuable within MIT.”

The next chapter

On July 1, Evan Lieberman will pick up the CIS baton from Samuels, who is happily anticipating resuming a book on political kidnapping he set aside in 2011.

“Dick Samuels built the CIS into a vibrant incubator of ideas, an engine of scholarly output and policy relevance, and a place where fierce debates could occur while friendships were forged. This is the institution that Evan Lieberman, one of the department’s most creative and entrepreneurial members, will soon take in exciting new directions,” says David Singer, head of the Department of Political Science and Raphael Dorman-Helen Starbuck Professor of Political Science

Lieberman joined MIT in 2014 as the Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa. Prior to that, he served as a tenured professor and associate chair in the Department of Politics at Princeton University.

He brings to CIS a rich portfolio, including his dedication to international education. In 2021, he was named faculty director of MISTI — and will continue in that role.

As MISTI faculty director, Lieberman has expanded global education opportunities for MIT students working in critical areas such as climate change, sustainability, AI, and global health.

He is a co-founder of the MIT Global Diversity Lab, where he and colleagues study the relationship between human diversity, development, and dignity in the United States and around the world.

His most recent book, “Until We Have Won Our Liberty: South Africa After Apartheid,” (Princeton University Press, 2022) has earned wide praise as a timely book on the lasting impact of democratic ideals. His sobering account of South Africa’s post-Apartheid transition from a minority rule to a democracy elucidates important achievements in government accountability, human rights, and improvements in quality of life.

One of Lieberman’s first charges at CIS will be inaugurating a new MIT China Policy Program, a project Samuels helped develop, that will be run by Fravel and Yasheng Huang, the Epoch Foundation Professor of International Management at MIT Sloan School of Management. The program, with seed funds from the associate provost’s office, will focus on the political, economic, and cultural dimensions of China.

“This is exactly the kind of program I’d like to see more of at CIS,” says Lieberman. “I want faculty to be aware that if they’re interested in doing research around a project in China, or Kenya, or Germany, CIS can help them learn about that place.”

Lieberman would like the center to foster collaborations across MIT on questions of vital importance, from climate change and the challenges of artificial intelligence to democratization, human rights, and human security. “I hope to bring people working on these problems into a broader campus conversation, so we can learn from each other about the different ways in which science and technology interact with the politics, economics, and cultures of different places around the world.”

As a scholar whose own research interests lie at the intersection of politics and technology, Lieberman says, “It’s a joy to think about questions on a larger scale, and through cooperation with lots of colleagues, who will look at these issues in new and different ways.”

“Dick Samuels has been a visionary leader for CIS. The center has thrived, expanded, and has never been more vibrant than it is today,” says Agustín Rayo, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. “Evan Lieberman is a champion for international studies at MIT. He will be an excellent new director for the center.”

« Back to News