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Inside agitator: Star UW history professor Jeremi Suri wants to shake things up


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Jeremi Suri is on a mission. He wants the UW-Madison, where he's a rising-star history professor, to be bolder, more daring, more adept at reaching out. Unafraid of controversy.

More, come to think of it, like Suri himself.

"We should be a place that takes risks [and] pushes boundaries between disciplines and in the way we teach," says Suri in a tone that is both friendly and urgent. "I'm frustrated by the fact that, for all we talk about being on the cutting edge here, we are very resistant to risk-taking, very resistant to thinking about our mission as citizens and intellectuals."

Suri pushes himself hard to live up to those standards, whether he's delivering provocative lectures to a large intro course or teaching online for military officers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, as he did this past summer.

On campus, there is much talk about the Wisconsin Idea - making the boundaries of the university as wide as the boundaries of the state - and plenty of good work that does happen. Yet there's also institutional conservatism in some quarters, a sense that coasting on tradition is good enough.

For Suri, "good enough" doesn't cut it.

At 37, Suri is young for a full professor who holds a named chair. (Officially, he's the E. Gordon Fox Professor of History, and he also directs the European Union Center of Excellence and the Grand Strategy Program.) In conversation, he's animated and quick to smile. Dressed casually, he could pass for a grad student rather than a professor.

Suri has three well-received books, the most recent of which is 2007's Henry Kissinger and the American Century. That same year, Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's Top Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences. He's received numerous teaching awards.

But Suri is also known for having ruffled feathers as a dissident voice on the UW's Athletic Board, from 2005 to 2008. He sought to hold the athletic department more accountable for its actions, financial and otherwise.

He brings the same scrutiny to the UW's role as a large, public, Big Ten university. He believes it needs to serve a broad public in new ways, through real innovation and action.

Suri himself reaches out via a frequently updated website (www.jeremisuri.net), Twitter and appearances on media outlets like Wisconsin Public Radio. He's given public lectures for the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters; the Wisconsin Veterans Museum; alumni groups and others. (For upcoming events, see below.)

While many professors do these kinds of things, few match his frequency or gusto. More than anything, Jeremi Suri wants the university to matter.

"It seems to me that what makes us great is that we are public," says Suri. "We believe that what we're doing is a higher calling, and it should serve the public."

Here's how one student summed up his impressions of Suri on the popular website RateMyProfessors.com: "Extremely competent. Heavy workload. Fascinating perspective. Very thorough. Suspicion: Jeremi Suri does not sleep."

Suri's energy level does seem a little superhuman ("I get very little sleep," he admits. "It continually worries my wife.") But that drive has its rewards.

When he was hired by the UW as an assistant professor in 2001, Suri was still wrapping up his Ph.D. at Yale. His rapid ascent to full professorship attests not only to his contribution to the field of history, but also the university's desire to keep him on the faculty.

With his academic star shining brightly, Suri, who lives in University Heights with his wife and two young children, could probably work anywhere. Other respected universities have tried to lure him away. But he's made a personal commitment to remain at the UW.

"We [professors] shouldn't seek outside offers unless we're serious about leaving, and I've never been serious about leaving," he says. "The university has been good to me."

A New York City native who attended Stuyvesant, a high-pressure public high school for top students, Suri has come to appreciate Madison.

"I love living here," he says. "It's a community where you can be involved in serious work, but in a comfortable place to raise kids, free of a lot of pressures and dangers of other areas. It's filled with intellectual energy."

Suri's wife, Alison Alter, also works for the UW. A Harvard Ph.D., she's the associate director of the Center for World Affairs and the Global Economy.

It's in part because Suri expects to spend his career here that he's driven to articulate his vision of what the UW can be. That's not to say he thinks there is only one answer to that question; Suri's opinionated and confident, but he's no egomaniac.

"We shouldn't have one vision of what a better place is," he says. "We can have many visions, and at our best moments, we did. Let's have that discussion."

Suri, for instance, thinks the UW should strive for excellence on its own terms, instead of comparing itself to peer institutions.

"We've spent too much time over the last 10 years trying to be like everyone else, instead of being the best but different," he says. "We should be more creative. We shouldn't just follow the pack."

The tension between proponents of the status quo and advocates of change is a central theme in Suri's work. His 2003 book, Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente, looked at the 1960s through leaders and protesters on three continents.

The '60s left a lasting sense of skepticism toward authority. It's a skepticism Suri seems to share, though his concerns are presented in the careful and measured (yet not dispassionate) manner of an academic.

Institutional resistance to change and a perceived lack of accountability are at the core of what bothered Suri about the UW athletic department. He argues that it fails to operate as part of the university as a whole, with its larger best interests in mind.

For example, he cites the financial obligations taken on by the department, such as significant building costs and large salaries. "They claim they're financing themselves, but they're not. Every contract they sign is guaranteed by the university. The more they spend today, the more [the UW] is obligated down the road."

Suri's criticisms of the athletic department are sharply disputed.

"Not only is the athletic department self-sufficient, it contributes substantial money to the university," says Walter Dickey, a law professor and the Athletic Board's chair since 2005. "The athletic department's budget and the underlying financial model are reviewed yearly and have been approved annually by the board, campus administration and, finally, by the Regents."

Dickey says all of these bodies "are keenly aware of the importance that athletics be closely aligned with the overall mission of this university, as is the department itself."

But Suri feels that the board - composed of faculty, academic staff, students and several nonvoting alumni - acts more as a rubber stamp than a monitor.

"Why on earth does so much money go in that direction?" he asks, a tinge of anger in his voice. "Those are resources the university has. Every part of the campus should ask, 'What is the public-ness in what we're doing?' And it's not enough to say that we're doing the same thing we've always done."

When he was on the board, Suri regularly asked such questions. It's not a typical role for academics, and Suri thinks he knows why.

"[Faculty] are afraid people aren't going to like them," he says. "As you move up, you start interacting with powerful people who...can determine whether you continue to move up. People who have those ambitions are concerned about not being seen as troublemakers. You're always told, 'Do this for the team.' There is this sense that you're not being collegial."

In his career as a historian, Suri has faced more formidable foils than powerful administrators or athletic department honchos. He engaged in a series of têteàtêtes with Henry Kissinger, interviews that helped form the basis for Henry Kissinger and the American Century.

Of course, there's no shortage of books by or about Kissinger, now 86, who was President Nixon's national security adviser and secretary of state. But what set Suri's book apart was his approach - less "What did Kissinger do?" than "What forces made Kissinger who he is?"

Suri explored the experiences that molded Kissinger and his ideas of power: his life as a German-born Jew who spent his early years in Weimar and Nazi Germany, his time in the U.S. military and Harvard, and so forth. "I was trying to understand rather than condemn or valorize," says Suri of his nonideological approach.

Wrote The Atlantic, "Probing thoughtfully into Kissinger's background and character, Suri sees the secretary as the Cold War's ultimate statesman. Eschewing polemics... this work explores what shaped and nurtured the phenomenon that was Henry Kissinger."

Niall Ferguson, writing in London's Times Literary Supplement, called it "surely the best book yet published about Henry Kissinger."

But Suri's even-handed treatment of Kissinger has drawn criticism. One reviewer clucked, "Most of the time, Suri appears to be a subtle, but sympathetic, convincing apologist for the life and career of the national security adviser and secretary of state."

Suri met with Kissinger eight or nine times, each for more than an hour. "He wanted to talk. He's definitely an egotist, but he's also an intellectual in the true sense of the word," says Suri. "I could never come up with a question he hadn't thought of."

Since he wasn't allowed to take notes or record during these sessions, Suri would feverishly scrawl what he could recall following the interviews, only attributing to Kissinger quotes he was certain about. Says Suri, "He's read it, but he has not questioned any of the evidence."

Throughout his career, Suri has embraced innovative teaching strategies. This summer, he led a graduate section of an online course for 22 Army, Navy and Air Force officers stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Every one of them said they wanted more of these courses offered."

A different section of the same online course was targeted at UW undergrads. Of 100 students, over half were not physically in Madison, some because they needed to move home and earn money over the summer. Asks Suri, "How are we going to reach those students who, because of economic challenges, aren't able to spend as much time on campus?"

This fall, Suri is teaching an undergraduate seminar in which all students are being provided with the free use of a Kindle, Amazon's e-book device, thanks to funding from the UW's Parents Enrichment Fund.

The DX-model Kindles, which currently retail for $489, have been loaned to the students preloaded with course readings by Tolstoy, Thucydides, Sun Tzu and others.

Suri and others in the pilot project are hoping to discover whether this new technology enhances or distracts from learning, and if it can cut down on the use of paper on campus. It's part of his commitment to quality teaching.

Typically, it is also part of a larger critique.

"Universities do a very poor job of evaluating teaching," says Suri. "We hire a professor, they arrive, and we just throw them in the classroom and assume they know how to teach."

In the end, "innovation, excellence and relevance" is Suri's mantra. He's even got these words on a Post-It in his office as a reminder.

Jeremi Suri appearances

Friday, Nov. 6, 10 am: Suri will lead a public seminar with Dr. Peter Feaver, one of the key White House policymakers behind the "surge" in Iraq. UW Ingraham Hall, Room 336.

Tuesday, Nov. 10, 11:30 am: Keynote lecture on Contemporary American Foreign Policy for the Madison International Trade Association. Sheraton Madison Hotel.

Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2 pm: Lecture on Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy. Karl Junginger Memorial Library, 625 N. Monroe St., Waterloo, Wis.

Friday & Saturday, Dec. 11 & 12: Suri will participate in a conference he co-organized on the Military and American Society. Wisconsin Veterans Museum, Madison.

For more information, visit Suri's website at www.jeremisuri.net or follow him on Twitter (@JeremiSuri).

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