Profile with Claudena Skran

Claudena Skran (Michigan & Magdalen 1983) is  Professor of Government at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.  Her research and writing focuses on the role of international organizations in providing emergency relief in post-conflict societies. She is also the founder of Kidsgive, a scholarship program for children in Sierra Leone, where she spent six months studying post-conflict development on a Fulbright Scholarship. She also has conducted field research in El Salvador, Mexico and Belize. She has written Refugees in Interwar Europe: The Emergence of a Regime for Oxford University Press. She holds a DPhil and MPhil in international relations from the University of Oxford, and a BS in Social Science from Michigan State University.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book that you couldn’t put down?

Claudena Skran: I really liked College: What it Was, Is And Should Be by Andrew Delbanco, a professor at Columbia. It’s really a defence of a college education as it has been traditionally known, and stresses how college has been developed to help people who are 18 to 22 years old mature. I thought about Oxford’s role in helping people within the English elite mature and later being a global university doing the same thing. I’m really impressed how there’s a consistency in the way colleges help open up the world to people. Oxford certainly helped me to see that. The other thing I really liked about it was that it stresses how college is really a collaborative learning experience; it’s something you do with other people. I’ve often thought about the Rhodes experience; it’s not an experience you have by yourself, but with a group of people while you’re at Oxford and it continues even after you’ve left.

Rhodes Project: What did you find most surprising about Oxford?

Claudena Skran: I had just come from a big state university and I tumbled into this medieval university; there were so many things about it that were surprising because it was very old fashioned. At Magdalen, the men were still using outside urinals. The college had just opened up to women and when I had to take a bath, I had to walk down the staircases all the way across the college quad to a bathhouse, a block away. What was surprising was this juxtaposition of Oxford being a top intellectual elite university and then having a living situation rooted in the early twentieth and in some cases even the nineteenth century.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a particularly meaningful project you’ve worked on recently?

Claudena Skran: I’ve been working since 2005 in Sierra Leone, West Africa. I went there originally with the Fulbright Scholars and I continued working there creating a short-term study abroad programme for students in my university - and now for other universities as well. The students go there to learn and to do research, and they’re also very engaged in three community learning centres that I helped to set up contact with. I really feel this as an exciting model of how universities can engage with developing countries particularly the poorest of the poor developing countries. This can expand American students’ horizons in introducing them to the world of international relations, development work and aid, and create a meaningful partnership with some local community development.

Rhodes Project: What do you think is the greatest challenge you face as an academic studying global refugee crises?

Claudena Skran: The greatest challenge is balancing two things - one is the mainstream academic approach of being objective, neutral and separate from the subject you’re studying so you can contribute to the wider frame of reference. But you’re also studying some of the most vulnerable people in the world who are often in difficult situations and you have to find a way to respond to that while you’re doing your research. How you do that and stay true to the academic community and also stay true to yourself as a human being interacting with people who are in extreme need?  It’s a balancing act and academics need to think not just about what they’re doing but how they’re doing it. It’s important to treat the people you are studying, no matter how poor or disempowered they are, with respect. It’s amazing how many people fail to do that in their research and that’s the great challenge for every researcher who tries to address something like a temporary refugee problem.

Rhodes Project: What is one thing that the international regime can do to improve refugee policy?

Claudena Skran:  The most important thing is for developed countries like the USA and Britain to reaffirm their commitment to assisting refugees. Unfortunately, since 9/11 and even before then, there has been a leakage between the discourses of security and terrorism and refugees and immigrants. The bottom-line knee jerk reaction when policymakers confront refugee policies is to think immediately of border security and not of the long run interest of countries, supporting democratic principles around the world and the benefits of maintaining open societies, particularly societies that are open to people who are politically active in countries of struggle. Some of the major international actors need to take the lead in affirming the principles on which refugee regimes should be based and then find a better way to balance their legitimate concerns of security with their long term commitment towards maintaining the principles of society.

Rhodes Project: How does your travel and international experience inform the way you teach?

Claudena Skran: It’s made a huge difference.  My real travel experiences began when I was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and it was a wonderful opportunity for me to take advantage of global travel. It’s enabled me to share with my students my personal experience of travelling to almost 25 different countries including pretty much all the major developed and developing countries. I also travelled to the Soviet Union before it collapsed, so I also have some idea of cold war politics that is quite lost to the current generation of students. Probably more important than that is that it has given me a perspective on U.S foreign policy, policies of the United Nations. Things look different depending on vantage points.

Rhodes Project: Tell me something your students have taught you.

Claudena Skran: I have been a full time professor for over 20 years now. I think all students are the same in that they come to the enterprise with a kind of youthful enthusiasm but they bring different skills, different interests. Probably most recently, I’ve been learning a lot about social media like Facebook and Twitter. I have a better idea how they are shaping our world because of the interactions that I’ve had with my students about how they interact in these new forms of social media.

Rhodes Project: Do you have any role models?

Claudena Skran: My parents were both successful people in their own right. My mother was a teacher and my father was an engineer and in some ways I’m like both of them. I had a lot of wonderful teachers both at Michigan State and at Oxford and they really opened the world to me in an academic sense as well as taking me beyond my upbringing in a small Michigan town and showing me how to be a world citizen and think critically about different issues.

Barbara Harrell-Bond, in particular, who taught Refugee Studies at Oxford, showed me how a professor could combine both scholarship and activism on a human rights topic, and Hedley Bull, the head of the International Relations program there, was the person who suggested that I look at refugees.

Rhodes Project: Is there anything that consistently frustrates you?

Claudena Skran: People forget the lessons of the past, take two steps forward and one step back. We learn lessons the hard way and then we forget them. To give you an example, when it comes to our own freedom and privacy, we have lived in the 20th century, we have had two governments, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, that very strongly controlled people’s personal information and limited people’s freedom to communicate with each other and their families. People seem to have forgotten the cost of that kind of society; they seem interested in replicating if not the ideology, then many of the same means, and this is in the United States. 

Rhodes Project: What brings you the most joy in life?

Claudena Skran: I really enjoy being near the water, I like walking on the beach in Africa in Sierra Leone where they have beautiful beaches and going there with my students. I enjoy being at the lake here in Wisconsin with my family. I enjoy having that mix of water, sand, greenery, all together.

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