The University of Iowa

Joel and Sandra Barkan Honored with Distinguished Alumni Award

July 2nd, 2014

On June 7th, the University’s Alumni Association presented Sandra Barkan, formerly associate dean of the Graduate College, and her late husband, Professor Joel Barkan, with its Distinguished Alumni Award  for their contribution to international studies at Iowa. It was an unprecedented dual award honoring both Joel and Sandra’s work. In accepting the award, Sandra explained why she and her husband regarded international studies of such great importance and described the establishment of the University’s Center for International and Comparative Studies, forerunner to today’s International Programs. The following is a summary of her observations, prepared by Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science Gerhard Loewenberg.

International scholars, unlike natural scientists, find their laboratory far away from the University in the other parts of the world that they study. Joel Barkan was always grateful that the University of Iowa made it possible for him to spend time in his “laboratory,” that is, in other parts of the world. Through that travel he brought the University to other countries, and other countries to the University. He was instrumental in establishing an exchange program between the University of Iowa and the [Kenyan] Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi, where he had spent some of his earlier years in East Africa. 

At Iowa, Joel, with his colleagues Mike McNulty, whose laboratory was in West Africa, Paul Greenough, whose laboratory was in India, and Jim Pusack, whose laboratory was in Europe, won the support of the University administration to found the Center for International and Comparative Studies, predecessor of International Programs. The Center enabled faculty and students in different colleges and departments, with overlapping and complementary interests, to find each other and support each other and to develop richer programs for the University’s students.

Joel and Sandy Barkan

Joel and Sandra Barkan

For students interested in international studies, learning begins in the classroom, but it benefits enormously from an experience in another part of the world. The ultimate importance of this international educational experience for students and of these research opportunities for faculty was underscored recently by Secretary of State John Kerry when he testified before Congress on the Obama administration’s FY15 budget request. Kerry mentioned the immense return on investment the American people are getting for their comparatively small investment in U.S. foreign policy, and specifically mentioned the positive impact of international exchanges. 

Joel Barkan’s work in the field had an impact on the policies of African countries. Recent Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s tribute to Joel, read at a memorial service in Washington DC, stressed this impact. “Whenever he was in Nairobi,” Raila said, “I would want to see him and get his perspectives on Kenya and Africa. No other non-Kenyan scholar I knew understood Kenya better.”

Dr. Joe Kieyah, Senior Policy Analyst at the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis, described the impact of Barkan’s substantial knowledge of East Africa, derived from extensive work in the field, in the following terms: “I met Joel when I took an elective course with him on Democratization of Africa while I was a second year law student at the University of Iowa College of Law. Joel was a towering, credible, pragmatic voice that shaped Kenya’s diplomatic relationship with the USA. He was credible because he willingly listened to Kenyan’s stories... His voice carried the memories of Kenya’s poor governance that at first replaced the exuberance of the 1960s with the cynicism of the 1980s, which eventually triggered the clamor for a multi-party democracy."

Because Joel Barkan had the time to conduct extensive research in the field, he was not only a better teacher, mentor and respected scholar, someone whom leaders in other countries sought out for advice, but he also was able to have an impact on U.S. foreign policy. U.S. ambassador to Kenya Mark Bellamy said that Joel Barkan’s work on Kenya educated him before going there as ambassador in 2003. He noted that Barkan helped him to understand where Kenya had been, how the crusade for democratic reforms in the 1990s came about, and how important the transition was in 2002. When he got to Kenya, Ambassador Bellamy said felt that he understood the historical moment and the role the U.S. needed to play to keep history moving in the right direction. Hank Cohen, assistant secretary of state for Africa during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, wrote that “Joel’s influence was widespread. I particularly relied upon his research when I formulated policy toward Kenya in 1991. That was a momentous moment that tipped Kenya into multi-party democracy.”

On the occasion of receiving the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Iowa in June, Sandra Barkan said that the award was recognition not only of what each of them had contributed to international studies and programs at the University of Iowa, but recognition of the value of student programs which expose students to other countries. It was recognition of the importance of bringing knowledgeable and committed faculty to campus, and then supporting them, as President Freedman and Vice President Spriestersbach did in supporting the formation of the Center for International and Comparative Studies in the 1980s. The work of faculty has had impact also in the larger Iowa City community. Joel and his colleagues prompted the organization of the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council, whose programs draw on faculty and their visitors from other parts of the world and have contributed to creating an engaged and informed citizenry.

When they retired from the University, Joel and Sandra Barkan created a scholarship for students to enable them to study abroad in non-Western countries. Contributions can be made to the Joel D. and Sandra Barkan Scholarship for Study Abroad and sent to the University of Iowa Foundation, 1 West Park Road, Iowa City, Iowa 52242.