The Mitchell Scholarship

03.13.24.  On our website

is the statement we released that we are pausing selection for the Mitchell Scholarship program.  We tried to envision questions that might arise from that announcement, and we hope these Q&A will provide answers.

To see these Q&A as videos: Pause Q&A as video


Q&A with Trina Vargo

Founder of the US-Ireland Alliance & George J. Mitchell Scholarship Program 


1.      Is the Mitchell Scholarship over?


No.  We have a class there now and another will start in the fall.  We’ve decided to pause future selections and spend time determining whether there is sufficient interest, i.e. serious funding, to make it long-term sustainable.  We’re not doing this because we have any near-term issues but because we’re questioning the long-term viability.


The other programs of the US-Ireland Alliance, including our annual Hollywood event, border cycles, cultur club, and our activities with Mitchell alums, will continue as usual.


2.     How long will the pause last?


At this point, the only decision we’ve taken is to not select a class that would start in the fall of 2025 (2025/2026 academic year).  We will obviously be spending a good part of next two years making sure that the class that’s there now, and the one that goes to Ireland and Northern Ireland this coming September, that they have the same great experience that the Scholars before them had.  


Eventually, the pause will free up time so we can focus on that long-term assessment.


3.     Why are you announcing this week?


Every year around St. Patrick’s Day, we launch the application for the next round of selection.  Since we’re not doing that, we need to make potential applicants aware that the Mitchell won’t be an option for them this year. We want these scholars to have time to consider other options, other scholarships they might want to apply for.


4.     Is a pause unusual?


As most of the other prestigious scholarships have massive endowments, they’ve never been in our position, so not that I'm aware of.


That said, just last year, the Luce Scholars Program, which is funded by a massive endowment, took a one-year hiatus just to redesign their admissions process.  Then after that, they saw a record number of applications.  


It’s not ideal to pause but it’s not devastating, and it’s necessary. 


5.     What do you need?


If we had a $40 million endowment, that would provide enough returns/interest to just keep us even and run the program, as it has been run, for the past 25 years.  The Irish Government is required by legislation to match anything we raise up to €20m euros. So a simple way to think about it is if a donor gave $21m they could share the name of the scholarship with Senator Mitchell, or be anonymous if they prefer. We could use even more money than that but the certainty of at least that much, that’s what would persuade us to plan for the future, rather than plan for ending the program.   


6.     Why do you think you don’t have an endowment by now?


Because I’m not a billionaire.  And we simply haven’t found anyone with the money and/or the power to bring the money, who cares enough about the relationship to endow this.  Rhodes, Gates, Schwarzman, Knight -- those other top scholarships in our space -- were created by billionaires who put their names on their scholarships.  We’ve had to annually chase the funding for this for 25 years.  We’d hoped that support would come with the success of the program, but we knew from the start that this would depend on sharing the vision and caring about the future of this relationship.


7.     Why are endowments important?


They provide certainty and security.  There is a difference between ticking something over and setting something up for succession and longevity.  Endowments are invested and scholarships live off the interest of the endowments.  But you need enough of a base endowment to ride out the inevitable downturns in the economy.  We’ve never had that base.  The other scholarships have over $100m in their endowments, most are around $500m -- we’ve never had even a tenth of what the others have.  It’s simple arithmetic.


8.     But some of those programs give more scholarships annually than the Mitchell.


True. But if you divide the amount in endowments by the number of scholarships granted annually, we’d still be the least well-funded, on a per scholarship basis, and that's if we had the $40 million endowment.


9.     Why pause now?


The Mitchell has been in existence for 25 years and it has become, against all odds, one of the country’s most prestigious scholarships.  It is successful in every way, except the one thing lacking is an endowment.


It’s not that the program is without support – the universities on the island, and in the US, are incredible partners as are some donors and other stakeholders and supporters who have helped over the years in a variety of ways.  We are grateful for that. While there has been enough support to get this far, that support is, and has been, necessary, but it is not sufficient for the long term. 


10.  Talk more about the endowments of the other scholarships.


Many of the total endowments are $500m or more.  These always change with market fluctuations but looking at the end of 2023, at the endowments, on a per scholarship basis:


Schwarzman – for study in China; $3.87m per scholarship (and given what Schwarzman intends, that is probably a conservatively low figure in that he’s on his way to a billion-dollar endowment).


Gates – Cambridge University; $5.2m per scholarship.


Rhodes – Oxford University; $5.65m per scholarship and they intend to increase that.


Knight Hennessey – Stanford University; $8.8m per scholarship.


Mitchell – if we had $40m, that’d be $3.3m per scholarship, the lowest of all.


The Marshall -- for study at UK universities -- is funded annually, mainly by the British Government.  If the Mitchell were to spend an equivalent amount per Scholar, we’d have to have a budget at least double, if not triple our current annual budget.


If we are to remain competitive, we need the resources.  


11.  You get some annual money from the Irish Government?


We have, and that is one of those things that is necessary but not sufficient.  There is no certainty of that funding. We must apply every year and are usually not told until around August or September of the year if we’ll receive funding for that year.  You just can’t do this sort of serious project without multi-year certainty.  And, despite our request, our funding has never been increased to account for inflation. There is just the law of diminishing returns here.


12.  Why doesn’t the Irish Government just fund the endowment?


You would have to ask the Taoiseach or the Tanaiste. We have raised this with them for at least the last two years but have received no reply.  Senator Mitchell also raised this when he was in Ireland in September, and they made no commitment to him either.  We get no sense that they care if the Mitchell continues.


They should care, for a variety of reasons but to just give three:  Irish American influence is on the wane, and that's a simple matter of US demographics. Ireland needs to have ties to future American leaders, and not just Irish Americans, and the Mitchell is doing that.  It’s the only one of the prestigious scholarships that sends future American leaders to the island.  If the Mitchell ceases to exist, those Scholars are going to Oxford and Cambridge instead.  “Ireland” must decide if it’s okay with that.


Also, the universities on the island have made the Government aware of how much they value the Mitchell and want to see it supported.  The Mitchell’s prestige on US college campuses means Irish and Northern Ireland universities receive a level of profile they wouldn’t otherwise, and this has led to paying students for those universities.  


Finally, much has been written lately about Ireland needing to attract international talent.  The Mitchell is an avenue for that and, with appropriate funding and strategizing, could play an even more important role on that front. 


13.  What about the US Government?


We have requested the support of President Biden, also for more than two years, and have never received a reply.  We thought that last year, with the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, it would have been the perfect time for the President to announce, while he was in Ireland, that the US Government would match what the Irish Government would provide.  But the year came and went.


I fear that the US foreign policy “pivot to Asia” has been at the expense of Ireland and Western Europe.  Which is why, again, it comes back to the Mitchell having to be important to Ireland, or a philanthropist, or a corporation, because it’s not important to the US Administration.


14.  Has the Irish Government weighed in with the Biden Administration, i.e. asked it to match what Ireland would provide? 


We have asked the Taoiseach, the Tanaiste, the relevant departments, and two successive Irish Ambassadors in Washington, to weigh in with President Biden, and we have not received a reply. 


There are only two explanations we can think of:


1.     They are unwilling to ask, and don’t want to say that as the next question would naturally be “why haven’t you?”

2.     Or it could be that they asked, the Administration declined, and the Department of Foreign Affairs doesn’t want to say that because that would raise questions about how important this relationship is to the US, and how influential Ireland is, or isn’t.  


Bottom line: we’ve received no answer from the Irish Government on raising this with President Biden, and no answer is an answer.


15.  Is the US-Ireland relationship in decline, politically speaking?


Yes. We created this organization 25 years ago, foreseeing the inevitable decline and all the evidence is that those concerns have been borne out.  The decline is due to basic demographics, and it was also inevitable, for the positive reason that Northern Ireland does not require daily US attention as it did in the 1990s. 


As a former Senate foreign policy adviser, I’ve seen how differences have grown over the years.  If you think about how the Biden Administration may think about Ireland:


-  Successive US administrations have bemoaned the loss of US corporate tax revenue to Ireland, and I recognize that the US is equally to blame for that situation, but nevertheless, there is the view that tax paid there is tax not paid here.

-  There would be differences of opinion over the issue of Irish neutrality.

-  Ireland is seen as more China-friendly in ways that cause security concerns in the US.  Ireland has TikTok’s European data center, and Huawei’s European cloud hub will be located in Ireland.

-  The Biden Administration would see Ireland’s views on the Middle East as out of step with its own.  


Regardless of varying views on those issues, these are just some areas of disagreement that may be having an impact on the Administration’s desire to invest in the relationship, and therefore in things like the Mitchell Scholarship program.  


A simple example – we asked President Biden to match the funding the Irish Government would provide.  We thought that his visit to Ireland, the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, Senator Mitchell’s return … that all of this would make 2023 the ideal time for an announcement.  None was made but a month later, when the President of South Korea visited President Biden in Washington, the two leaders announced $60 million in scholarships exchange funding.  So money is there.


And just as the US is pivoting to Asia, maybe Ireland is also, in some ways, pivoting away from the US?  And some of that is due to US policies that Ireland doesn’t agree with.  Regardless, the Mitchell Scholarship should surely be a keystone of any serious strategy for the future of the relationship, if sustaining that relationship is a priority.  


16.  What about corporations & philanthropists?


We’d welcome support from the likes of Apple, Accenture, Microsoft, Google, and Irish companies like CRH or Glanbia.  I would say to them that a strong relationship, at a bigger picture level than their own corporate profits, also benefits them.


It’s disappointing that Irish and Irish-American surnames are not prevalent at the highest levels of philanthropy.  I regularly look at those who have signed the giving while living pledge and you don't find many, if any, Irish surnames on that.   


I’ll never forget two different conversations I had with the late Chuck Feeney – one of the greatest philanthropists ever. He gave us a little money early on, but he told me that we’d have a hard time making it happen because he said others wouldn’t give.  He complained that he was expected to pay for everything when it came to Ireland.  Later in life, he shifted his giving away from Ireland.  He told me he was giving to issues like South Africa, aging, Vietnam… that he’d done his bit for Ireland. And he had. The US-Ireland relationship, and the Mitchell Scholarship, needs a Chuck Feeney 2.0 and we’ve yet to find such a person.


Again, if the Mitchell ceases to exist, those Scholars are going to Oxford and Cambridge instead.  They will not have that tie to Ireland and the relationship will be the poorer for it. We hope corporations or individuals will not want to see that happen.


17.  How will you personally feel if it ends?


I would love to see this go on for future generations. I see how Mitchell Scholars and so many others have benefitted.  We will have introduced around 300 leaders and future leaders to the island.  We’ve raised the profile of the island’s universities.  The cvs of the Mitchell Scholars will forever carry that link to Irish and Northern Ireland universities.  Many of the scholars maintain relationships with the friends and professors and colleagues they met on the island.  Many return, some of them often.  A few of them stayed.  Mitchells are an alumni group and their association with one another will continue and has already led to incredible collaborations.  


Several Mitchells met their spouses/partners while on the island and there have been many children born as a result.  I love that they always send me baby photos.  A Mitchell alum recently sent me a photo of her new baby wearing a cap that says “Wicklow” on it.  It’s where she had her first date with her now husband and they named their baby Wicklow.  If a Mitchell Scholar or one of those children cures cancer, or does something even slightly less dramatic, for the world, or for this relationship, that will be why the Mitchell existed. I’m fairly Buddhist in my overall outlook about this sort of thing … the teaching of impermanence, that all is continuously changing.  If the Mitchell is meant to continue, someone will recognize the value of it and step up, and if not, it will have served its purpose, and I’d be content with that.