Americans show staying power in battle for status

January 24, 1997

Huw Richards talks to two men in the London hot seats of learning about Australia and the US

IT WAS not so much Independence Day as Permanence Day. Last month staff at London University's Institute of United States Studies were given a taste of how liberated the pioneers of 1776 must have felt after the university's review of their own operations deemed them a success.

The review, establishing the institute as a permanent part of the university and renewing director Gary McDowell's contract indefinitely, completes the relaunch started after it came close to closing at the beginning of this decade.

"It gives us equal status with other institutes in the school of advanced studies and allows us to start thinking in the long term," says Professor McDowell.

A 46-year-old academic lawyer who worked for the US justice department under Reagan, Professor McDowell wants to raise the institute's profile. "We had some visibility, some of it not very positive because of the doubts over our survival, in the British academic community. We had to convince people that this was an institution doing work worth supporting."

One element in this was persuading Baroness Thatcher to chair the board. Professor McDowell emphasises that appointing her was not aimed to impress in the US market. "We wanted somebody who was known to believe strongly in the US and in its validity as a subject of study," he says.

Both staff and student numbers have expanded - with enrolments for the masters programme in US studies doubling to 26 this year. High-profile events last year included Baroness Thatcher's Bryce lecture and a conference on the media, both of which are still running on the US political cable television channel C-SPAN.

After four years in the post, Professor McDowell has no doubt that explaining the US to Britain is an important, worthwhile job.

"I think British people have a pretty good understanding of the US in a broad sense, but there are intricacies and subtleties that aren't obvious. A good example is why it should be a case for the Supreme Court when the president is accused of sexual harassment and the implications that might have for the presidency as a whole.

"There is a great deal to be gained by bringing together people from either side of the Atlantic to talk about issues they have in common - crime or race and racism - and the different approaches adopted. The US has a lot to learn about why Britain is so much safer," he adds.

But he has no doubt that relations have deteriorated since the Reagan-Thatcher axis. "It does matter that the world's two great liberal democracies should have good relations," he says.

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