Friday, February 04, 2005

Seizing the moment

Years ago, I was a young, utterly undistinguished, Assistant Professor of Political
Science, sitting in my small office at Case Western Reserve University. A young man appeared at my door. He was a refugee from Hungary, a engineer, who had fled the failed Hungarian revolution. I knew nothing about him, but he, apparently, knew something about me. He thought I could help him achieve his goal: a Ph.D. in political science. He also needed a scholarship.

I had no access to scholarship funds. Indeed, our entire small department had no funds at all, but I knew a colleague in the School of Engineering, Professor Mihalo Mesarovic who directed one of the world's leading control theory research institutes, The Systems Research Center. He might have money for this student, I thought, and he did.

But the funds came with a catch. Engineers were just beginning to explore social problems, Mike explained, and the Center wanted to make its mark in this area. He would give me the funds, for a year, if I would promise by the end of the year, to develop an application of multilevel hierarchical control theory (the Center's specialty) to a social problem and publish the results in a refereed scientific journal. I had not the slightest idea, really, of what this would involve, however the student needed the money, so I promised Mike I would do this. He gave my student and me an office in the school of engineering and we began.

Fortunately, I had no senior political science mentors to advise me that this was not a sure path tenure in that department. In fact the political science department fired me, in essence, three years later. By then, fortunately, I had other options.

We did develop an application and publish the results in several venues. Through fortuitous circumstances, not notable computer science skills, I became, two years later, the director of the School of Engineering's Donald P. Echman Computing Laboratory, which became the venue for applying multilevel control theory to urban problems, environmental problems (the death of Lake Erie) and then to the problematique of the Club of Rome.

That work brought me to American University as head of the University's Center for Technology and Administration. Though I failed as the Center's Director - I could not persuade that generation of University leaders that applying computer technology to managment, social and environmental problems was a promising field - I was able to join the School of International Service for what has been a rich, rewarding and varied career. And now, interestingly, I am responsible for many of AUs academic computing laboratories and services.

What would my life have been like had I not offered to find funds for that Hungarian refugee - he is now a highly successful engineering consultant - to undertake his doctoral studies?

When a moment of opportunity appears, it is best to seize it.


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