Sunday, December 30, 2007

This year's Christmas Newsletter

Dear Family and Friends

In introducing last year’s newsletter, I wrote that I would use my blog, as a point of departure; that this makes a yearly recapitulation easier, but also lengthier. I wrote that one of my wife Emily’s distinctive traits - and strengths - is her independence, which manifests itself in independent holiday communications as well as many other facets of a rich and rewarding life.

This year’s format will be much the same. Those who are interested can always read more from my blog directly, including new musings that are posted from time to time. For those uninterested, there is always the ‘delete’ key.

01-15. Recalling great teachers that shaped our lives. Teaching continues to be a major professional commitment, though I now spend more time “teaching” the nine managers and more than 60 full and part-time staffers who comprise the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) family. This posting was about a panel discussion by AU alumni trustees, given at our annual teaching conference, In it, they and I reflected on mentors that helped shape our lives. Introducing the subject, I spoke of mentors who inspired me, who changed my thinking, and one who - literally - saved my life. “The best way to thank a a great mentor is by seeking to be one” is a passage that comes to mind.

02-05. Communicating across generations. An Associated Press features reporter and I spent about three hours together while I cooked a “Sunday night dinner” served about 30 students in our Style Network decorated lounge and (with help from some diners) cleaned up. One question he posed “isn’t it difficult to communicate across two do you do it?” Stuck with me. I was reminded of advice given by a counselor whose help I sought in repairing a troubled primary relationship. ‘The secret of successful relationships,’ she told me, ‘is no expectations.’

03-17, How was your break? “Breaks” are part of a university calendar’s rhythm. When we return, “how was your break?” is a common conversation topic. “...Spring break destinations always amaze me, because there are so many foreign destinations – Capetown, London, Istanbul, Hong Kong – long, challenging journeys for a ten day holiday, but they have become commonplace for students. American University students at least, belie the insularity often attributed to Americans. They go everywhere − and often for amazing feats of service rather than just vacations.

04-18. A busy day - one of many. This was simply a recapitulation of one day in the life of a professor/faculty administrator/faculty resident. It began with my AV events briefing at 5:45 and ended after midnight. “Back from tennis before ten, I prepared for the day and took a long call from my daughter. Then there were meetings at 1:00, 2:00, 3:00 and 4:00. The 4 PM meeting lead to drafting a long note regarding AV support for a conference to be held tomorrow. Then it was time to rush to a nearby specialty grocery, to purchase supplies for tomorrow’s lunch in my apartment. My dissertation advisor of many years ago, is visiting with his wife. At 6:30 there was office hours in the dorm. I was getting pretty exhausted so I took a short break between eight and eight-thirty. At eight thirty was the meeting I described in another blog, about the tragic events at Virginia Tech. When I came back to my apartment, two systems analysis students were waiting and our meeting lasted until nearly 11:30. Then was the time I began writing this blog and others. It will be after 1 A.M. before my work is done.

05-24 Post graduation message - find a job that you love. Graduation is a time for advice giving. This was my reflection. “Most human beings spend most of their lives at work. Not everyone has options but the young women and men with whom I mostly work, do. I can think of no more important decision for a young person that choosing work that is a calling rather than “just a job.” I taught my first university class in the fall of 1963. Most days, I am still eager to the office and engage with the work of American University. When I walk across our campus I am thankful – every day – for the privilege of a rewarding calling and such a beautiful setting in which to live and work.”

07-04 In praise of parents. This was written over the summer as parents and prospective students were visiting campus for orientation. But it could have been written at many other times of the year, as well. “For me, seeing students with their parents is one of the high points of being a faculty member and living on campus. It is so interesting to look for similarities and differences that define a young person, mother and father. What I think of most is the commitment and sacrifice, on the part of most parents, that the arrival of a student at AU represents. And the task is not yet complete. The parents whom I have greeted will be back again – for ‘moving in,” “parents weekend” and again and again and again, until graduation. Students may not appreciate all of this now. They are preoccupied with adapting to a new environment, meeting new challenges, and negotiating the difficult transition from child to independent adult. But taking time out to praise parents is something we should all do more often.

08-08 Will Sri Lankans’ basic honesty survive economic hardships. I made a month-long trip to Sri Lanka in July, working intensively to help the International Center for Ethnic Studies, which I serve as a director, with a leadership transition. This blog was motivated by a transaction with the young watch repair man who occupies a small kiosk in the working class Colombo district of Borella, near where I live. This is but one among numerous examples of honest dealing by strangers whose income is very modest and whose living conditions are harsh, by developed-world standards. Others include the newspaper seller, the lunch packet salesperson, the store clerk, the tri-shaw (tuk tuk) driver, the bus conductor who are meticulous about charging modestly for services rendered and counting out the correct change. The only Sri Lankans I have met who regularly connive and attempt to cheat are a few of those working in tourist areas who deal regularly with foreigners. ... [However] an environment of economic hardship and political corruption, coupled with a widening gap between rich and poor, can over time, corrode the integrity of all but the hardiest. Why should one be honest, the poor are likely to ask, when it is becoming impossible to provide for one’s family and the future of one’s children looks bleak? I fear the erosion of generally high standards of honesty that now characterize most Sri Lankans – and most Americans.

08-28 What teen agers want and need. This great quote is from Anne Lamott’s marvelous book, ‘Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.’ “ They need adults who have stayed alive and vital, adults they wouldn’t mind growing up to be. And they need total acceptance of who they are, from adults they trust, and to be welcomed in whatever condition life has left them - needy, walled off. They want guides, adults who know how to act like adults, but with a kid’s heart. They want people who will sit with them and talk about the big questions, even if they don’t have the answers; adults who won’t correct their feelings or pretend not to be afraid. They are looking for adventure, experience, pilgrimages and thrills. And they want a home they can return to, where things are stable and welcoming.”

09-15. Making complex technical material accessible. This was written at the annual meetings of The Balaton Group, in Hungary, where I experienced some great and not-so-great presentations of complex technical material. “Joan Holmes, Executive Director of the Hunger Project once told a group of us, ‘if fifth graders can understand it, anyone will understand it.” Joan was a former fifth grade teacher. The Hunger Project’s Book, ‘Ending Hunger: and Idea Whose Time Has Come,” which was an expression of the late Donella Meadows’ vision of what a book should be, expressed that point-of-view. A co-authored book ‘Groping in the Dark: The First Decade of Global Modeling attempted to share the most important messages of complex computer models accessibly. The emergence of ‘social networking’ forms of communication poses new communication challenges, but powerful new opportunities for outreach. What should be communicated? How should it be communicated? To what ends? Via what media? We cannot ignore these questions. We cannot shrink from the challenges they pose. We must be courageous, which does not mean we should not be ‘realistic,.’

11-01 Making mummies. This posting described a lighter moment at one of the weekly staff meetings of Anderson Hall Resident Assistants that I attend regularly. “...But staff meetings are not all serious. We also have “ice breakers” which are intended to build community and help us get to know each other better. A quick one is “up and down.” We go around the conference table and each staff member recounts something good and bad that happened to them in the previous week. “Shout outs” provide an opportunity to complement a colleague who did something great the previous week. One week we were asked to describe something unusual about ourselves that others would not be likely to know. My contribution was that three close acquaintances of mine in Sri Lanka had been political assassination victims, two by gunfire and one by a suicide bomber. “Making mummies” was this week’s “icebreaker”. We divided up into teams of about four. Each team was given a large industrial role of toilet paper. The task was to wrap one of our members, like a mummy, so that nothing but the paper would show in about seven minutes. This was a fairly typical “team building” exercise in which members seek to work with one another, performing a complex task and then reflect on what they learned from the experience. My team won ! and we learned three useful lessons. First the oldest and putatively the “wisest:” member of the team may not have the best advice. My plan for completing the task, produced disastrous results. The second message was that a failing strategy should quickly be abandoned and replaced by something that is working. Happily, the two other team members (apart from the prospective mummy) quickly abandoned my plan and worked out a far more effective strategy between them. The third message was that encouragement is important. I quickly switched my role to that of cheerleader, reporting that they were catching up with and then surpassing the other teams, while I helped with minor patches on the project. The two team members who did most of the work said that my enthusiastic encouragement did make a difference. I don’t think they were just being kind.”

12-02. Forgiveness. This morning, I was reading from a pamphlet of daily devotional readings, Forward Day By Day, that is distributed by the Episcopal Church to its congregations. Each reading begins with a brief passage from the Christian Bible. A commentary follows. This morning’s passage was from the fifteenth chapter of Luke, verses 11-32, the parable of ‘The Prodigal Son.’ The concluding paragraph of the commentary called to mind one of my own shortcomings. I know that forgiving is important, not for the individual forgiven, but for one’s own mental and spiritual health. But deep inside, I often find it difficult, especially when I have been the object of harsh treatment by people whom I love and wish to be close to. I printed out a copy of the paragraph and posted it over my work-table as a reminder. The paragraph follows:
FORGIVENESS: I’d rather stay sheltered in my Father’s arms. My heart is too small and my arms are too heavy to be the one offering such grace. And yet we are called daily to plan ways of welcome, to be as merciful and generous as the Father, to follow our Lord into the paths of reconciliation - and ultimate rejoicing.

(I omitted the last item, which is a lengthy quotation from my Decmeber 24th posting.)

My very best wishes to all readers - if any - for the new year.



Fifty years of marriage

The Christmas Holidays are a time when Christmas newsletters arrive. Writing and sending them takes time - because I write one myself, I know. But for recipients, the may be among the best gifts of the season we receive. A particularly meaningful one was from a couple I have known for at least 30 years and with whom I collaborated intensively on one of my books, Making it Happen: A Positive Guide to the Future. Of all the couples I know, they may approach my ideal of what a marriage should be - respect, sharing, love and mutual support among authentic equals.

The celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary earlier in the year and included this lovely retrospective in their Christmas newsletter.

Celebrating fifty years together is to mark a thoughtful milestone. How many days, how many “up’s” and "downs,” how many smiles and how many tears, how much individuality cherished and shared, how much creativity and synergy that either of us alone could never have achieved. In our half-century journey together we have changed, each of us, and we have changed each other. [They reported that a former student had sent them a file of their year end letters since 1960 and they were reading them over, together. [ ,,,we are now remembering things we had forgotten and we rejoice in things that had been buried in the progressions of day-after-day through those years.

We are profoundly glad that we “hung in” to our relationship through the rough patches and that we now experience the difficulties of aging together, rather than alone.

Words to reflect on for two young couples I know, December AU graduates, who in post holiday weddings are about to embark on life journeys together.

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Monday, December 24, 2007

Reflections on the day before Christmas

Our house in rural Virginia, where I often spend weekends and holidays, includes a “silo.” Silo is in quotes because it only looks like one. Once, a dairy barn stood where the house now stands. It included a sixteen foot diameter Silo, which we hoped to incorporate into our new dwelling.The restoration was too costly, so we built a new one on the site of the old. Why must it be that it is so often more expensive to tear down old things, however beautiful or functional, and replace them with new, rather than preserving the old?

My study is on the second floor of the new silo. It would be difficult to imagine a more perfect setting for reflection and writing. From four windows, I can see paddock fences, standing stalls for horses and, more distantly, the homes of four neighbors. This morning, I arose early for a period of meditation and reading. I shared the experience of twilight becoming daylight with a family of four deer.

This year’s end, I set for myself the goal of a non commercial Christmas. Surprisingly this is not so difficult. I have no television, listen only to public radio, podcasts and audio books. I stayed away from shopping malls. My principal presents were checks and donations to the Heifer project. This lifestyle is more difficult for families with young children. Children are principal targets of commercialism’s blandishments. Parents want to “do the right thing.” Post Christmas day comparisons, responding to the question, “what did you get?” can be invidious.

Now, many of the toys that parents buy for their children are made in nations of the Global South. Not infrequently, children may be part of that manufacturing process. Their parents could not afford to buy the toys their children, though they might not want to either. It might be good if each toy was accompanied by a picture of who made it and under what circumstances.

I have been listening to an audiobook entitled “The Universe in a Single Atom” authored by the Dali Lama. It is a deep probing into the relationship between western and Buddhist views of science, consciousness and ethics. Fundamental to Buddhist thought is the “Four Noble Truths”

The four noble truths, briefly summarized, are these:
(Quoted from:

1. Life means suffering.
To live means to suffer, because the human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in. During our lifetime, we inevitably have to endure physical suffering such as pain, sickness, injury, tiredness, old age, and eventually death; and we have to endure psychological suffering like sadness, fear, frustration, disappointment, and depression.

2. The origin of suffering is attachment.
The origin of suffering is attachment to transient things and the ignorance thereof. Transient things do not only include the physical objects that surround us, but also ideas, and -in a greater sense- all objects of our perception. Ignorance is the lack of understanding of how our mind is attached to impermanent things. The reasons for suffering are desire, passion, ardour, pursuit of wealth and prestige, striving for fame and popularity, or in short: craving and clinging

3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.
The cessation of suffering can be attained through nirodha. Nirodha means the unmaking of sensual craving and conceptual attachment. The third noble truth expresses the idea that suffering can be ended by attaining dispassion. Nirodha extinguishes all forms of clinging and attachment.

4. There is a path to the cessation of suffering.
There is a path to the end of suffering - a gradual path of self-improvement, which is described more detailed in the Eightfold Path. It is the middle way between the two extremes of excessive self-indulgence (hedonism) and excessive self-mortification (asceticism); and it leads to the end of the cycle of rebirth.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Quiet Corridors

I don’t experience the transition to holiday periods as vividly as when I first moved on campus, but I still experience them vividly. One experiences them most vividly in American University’s south-side residence hall complex where I live, populated by more than 1800 students. In Anderson Hall, populated by more than 800 one experiences these transitions most vividly of all.

Anderson Hall shares many attributes with small rural communities, and cohesive urban neighborhoods. At their best, they offer an experience of connectedness that responds, I believe, to a fundamental human need. The disfunctions of such communities, too, are visible and tangible. It is difficult to retreat from experiences of shared friendship, shared love, shared tribulation, shared disfunction, when one lives in close proximity, in a confined space, with 800 or more human beings and sees many of them every day.

Anderson differs in one respect from other close communities. It is impermanent. When I return to Sri Lanka, even after a long absence, it is possible to reintegrate with close communities that have remained relatively stable. The passage of time, human life cycles, and, sadly, the rending experiences of protracted civil war are the principal engines of change. The rural community where my wife lives has similar qualities of stable connectedness, though I rarely spend enough time there to personally experience them, Anderson’s students, however, go home for the holidays. And after one, two, three or four years, they depart permanently. The community is periodically wiped clean, and then regenerates itself.

In the summertime, a process of temporary, transient regeneration is almost instantaneous. Departing students, burdened with a year’s accumulated possessions are jostled by more lightly burdened summer session arrivals. At Thanksgiving time, some students remain. Christmas break is different. Anderson Hall is empty. The windowed cubicles students occupy are vacant. The corridors are quiet. Only dormgrandpop, my neighbor the Resident Director, and her cats remain. I am reminded of a science fiction story than ended with the passage “and no one knew that man was gone.”

When I started writing, this morning, I thought there might be some profound lesson to be drawn from all of this, but it eludes me. I am simply experiencing the silence, reflecting, and relishing the opportunity to begin a new day.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Acknowledging each other - Anderson Hall's last RA staff meeting of the fall semester

Anderson Hall’s Resident Director. organized a powerful exercise for our weekly staff meeting - the final one of the semester - last Tuesday evening. Prior to the meeting, she had prepared several hundred strips of colored paper. She instructed each of us to take 20, one for each staff member. Each of us was given a zip lock bag on which we were instructed to write our names. Our task, then, was to write a brief anonymous note to each colleague highlighting some positive quality that we saw in them and place it in their zip lock bag. Hannah cooks up such exercises frequently and they are among many reasons why she is so effective carrying out one of AU’s more challenging management responsibilities. At she intended, it was a moving experience to look around at each RA, many of whom have become friends, seeking to capture and communicate some special quality of each. To receive the acknowledgments of colleagues was an uplifting way to bring our last meeting of an intense, demanding semester to a close.

Though it will probably seem self-serving to some, I wanted to share some of the very thoughtful notes I received

happy and wise
thoughtful and caring
a great cook
your connection to and understanding of students is amazing
I love having you at our staff meeting
your encouragement and caring attitude and compassion are only a few of the characteristics that [we appreciate]
your food is amazing and you always bring a sense of stability to our staff
thanks for always being supportive of us
your dedication to the students at the university is remarkable and inspiring; I finally read your blog recently and it is amazing
thanks for being a constant source of reason and wisdom for us all
your are always there for the students
you are always there to ask us how we are doing; I feel like you really care about each one of us
you are my mentor
you keep the staff calm

Receiving these very kind comments makes me feel that I am progressing toward at least some of the goals that brought me to Anderson Hall, five years ago. And they set a very high bar for me to live up to in future.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Lee Kuan Yew on 'India's Peaceful Rise' and its implications

Among the email newsletters I receive regularly is one that deals with India’s foreign and domestic policy. The organizer is retired marketing consultant Ram Narayanan, who has been described by the pro India Sapra Foundation as an 'indefatigable proponent of strengthened ties between the U.S. and India.' (See the link:

Narayanan reproduced a column, previously published in a Forbes weekly newsletter, by one of the Asian political leaders I most respect, Singapore’s former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. See:

Prime Minister Lee’s pragmatic, hard headed approach to development and disciplined leadership were instrumental in transforming Singapore from an impoverished, vulnerable post-imperial enclave to a respected world class entrepot state and economic power. Lee’s contrasting of China and India is one that I have made myself, using the contrasting images of a giant wheat or rice field and a deciduous forest as a metaphor. His article provides food for thought on which there is much to reflect. The article follows:

Even though the economy’s annual growth rate has been 8% to 9% for the last five years, India’s peaceful rise hasn’t led to unease over the country’s future. Instead, Americans, Japanese and western Europeans are keen to invest in India, ride on its growth and help develop another heavyweight country.

I recently had the opportunity to visit New Delhi twice. In November JPMorgan Chase (nyse: JPM - news - people ) brought its international advisory board, its European board and its principal officers from many parts of the world to the city for a two-day meeting. And earlier this month Citigroup (nyse: C - news - people ) invited me to speak along with the bank’s top leaders at an Asia-Pacific Business Leaders’ Summit there. Two of the largest U.S. banks consider India to be a growth story and are eager to service American and Indian companies. I did not detect any anxiety over India becoming a problem to the present world order.

Why has China’s peaceful rise, however, raised apprehensions? Is it because India is a democracy in which numerous political forces are constantly at work, making for an internal system of checks and balances? Most probably, yes--especially as India’s governments have tended to be made up of large coalitions of 10 to 20 parties.

One example of India’s "checks and balances" at work was the suspension of its talks on a U.S. nuclear power deal. Although this deal is manifestly in India’s interests, 60 communist MPs--part of the Congress Party-led coalition government--opposed the deal. Subsequently, the Communists allowed negotiations to resume, reserving their position on the outcome. India’s development will, from time to time, run into domestic obstruction.

Contrast this with the singleness of purpose in policy and its execution displayed by China’s Communist government.

India’s navy has an aircraft-carrier force; its air force has the latest Sukhoi and MiG aircraft; its army is among the best trained and equipped in Asia. India can project power across its borders farther and better than China can, yet there is no fear that India has aggressive intentions.

Could this be because India is surrounded by states in turmoil? Pakistan is in crisis; a bad outcome there will increase the terrorist threat to India. As Pervez Musharraf is now an elected civilian president, he won’t have the same command over the army he has had as army chief. And any other elected president will have even less sway over the military. Nepal is a deeply divided and troubled country. Sri Lanka is embroiled in an unending civil war, with the Tamil Tigers carrying out endless suicide bombings. India obviously has preoccupations enough to keep its focus fixed on its border regions.

Different Impact

Suppose China were also a democracy with multiple parties and political power bases? Would a multiparty China with a yearly economic growth rate of 9% to 12% be viewed with the same equanimity as India is? Such a China would probably continue to make big strides on the economic, social and military fronts, with more sophisticated capabilities on the ground and sea and in the air and space, and would eventually become a peer competitor, if not an adversary, of the U.S.

The speed of China’s change and the thoroughness, energy and drive with which the Chinese have built up their infrastructure and pursued their goals spring from their culture, one that is shared by the Koreans, Japanese and Vietnamese, who adopted the Chinese written script and absorbed Confucian culture. The Chinese are determined to catch up with the U.S., the EU and Japan. Fast-forward 20 to 30 years and the world will have to accommodate a more technologically advanced and economically more sophisticated China, whether under a single- or multiparty system.

India does not pose such a challenge--and won’t until it gets its social infrastructure up to First World standards and further liberalizes its economy. Indeed, the U.S., the EU and Japan root for India because they want a better-balanced world, in which India approximates China’s weight.

The Indian elite also speak, write and publish in English. They hold a wide range of diverse views--and to the degree that Amartya Sen, a Nobel winner in economics, entitled one of his books The Argumentative Indian. Few Chinese, on the other hand, speak--let alone write in--English, and what they publish in Chinese doesn’t always disclose their innermost thoughts.

What if India were well ahead of China? Would Americans and Europeans be rooting for China? I doubt it. They still have a phobia of the "yellow peril," one reinforced by memories of the outrages of the Cultural Revolution and the massacres in Tiananmen Square, not to mention their strong feelings against Chinese government censorship. China will have to live with these hang-ups. To reinforce the idea that theirs will be a peaceful path going forward, the Chinese have rephrased the term "peaceful rise" to "peaceful development." Greater openness and transparency in Chinese society would also help.

Singapore and Southeast Asia (Asean), sandwiched between these two behemoths, need China and India to achieve a balanced relationship, one that allows both to grow and prosper, pulling up the rest of Asia--East, Southeast and South--with them.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

I still have two papers to write

Some of my most rewarding activities as Faculty Resident are the simplest. “Study break hours” is one of these. Each night, during finals period, from 10:45 until 12:00, I open my apartment. Signs are posted where I think my neighbors are most likely to see them: “stressed about finals: come and join John for a study break! The Faculty Resident will provide snacks/coffee, Klondike Bars 10:45 PM - Midnight.”

My fridge is well stocked with Clementines, Juice, Mountain Dew, Pepsi. Klondike Bars and sugar free popsicles. There are bright yellow mixing bowls filled with cookies and candy bars on the coffee table. I make a fresh pot of coffee and heat water for tea (both traditional and herbal) each night. This holiday season, I have strung Christmas tree lights on my Sri Lankan ceremonial brass oil lamp and around my picture window (looking out on a parking lot), creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere.

Last night, there were more than 30 visitors. I have a sign posted that says, “it is ok to grab a snack and run.” Some do, but others stay for conversation. Some are talkative, others simply sit and listen. “What are your holiday plans?”, “have you lived overseas?”, “are you thinking of study abroad?; where?” are some topics of conversation. Last night a young woman described her love of learning languages. She had lived in Okinawa and was studying Japanese, but she was also studying Arabic and planning to spend a semester in Egypt. A group of three were planning to spend the holidays in Costa Rica. One young woman lived there and her friends were joining her. I learned that with advance planning, one could make the trip for less than $400.

Final exam period can be a stressful time, with multiple obligations - academic, organizational and social. Some professors, including me, sometimes, assign work as if their course was the only one students were taking, rather than only one of five. But students - at least the ones with whom I speak - mostly bear up well. Perhaps the cozy oasis of my apartment, with Christmas tree lights, cushions on the floor, undemanding conversation and an inexhaustible supply of Klondike bars, helps.

At midnight we wrap things up. In the words of a favorite Robert Frost poem of mine, students “have promises to keep” and many have “miles to go before they sleep.”

“I still have two papers to write,” one remarked as she walked out the door with a candy bar, cookies and a can of Mountain Dew in hand.

We don't negotiate with militants

Two days ago, following a security conference in the Gulf States, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was queried by reporters about the possibility of negotiations with Iran. The queries were evoked, in part, by a recent U.S. Intelligence Community report downgrading Iran as an immediate nuclear threat. Gates affirmed the Bush administration’s hard line policy toward negotiations with Iran. In concluding his statement the secretary stated, simply and firmly, “we don’t negotiate with militants.”

That he didn’t say, “we don’t negotiate with ‘terrorists”” interested me. My own writing has focused on violent political conflict, predominantly in Sri Lanka. Finding the appropriate words to describe different protagonists, without making implicit value judgments has been important to me. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter or ‘revolutionary.’ (The United States, after all, won its freedom in what is often labeled not ‘The War of Independence’, but the revolutionary war.) ‘Militant” is the value neutral term I have settled upon to describe those who organize and challenge constituted authority using violent means.

After hearing the reports of Secretary Gates’ comments, I checked out two dictionary definitions, on line. One definition was 1; “engaged in warfare or combat: fighting” or 2: ‘aggressively active (as in a cause): combative (militant conservationists; a militant attitude). A second was 1: ‘at war; fighting' or 2: 'ready and willing to fight, especially vigorous or aggressive in support or promotion of a cause.'

As I reflected on these definitions, the names of five U.S. Political Leaders whose reported attitudes and behavior seem to fit them well came to mind: President George Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz and former U.S. Representative to the United Nations, John Bolton. All of them are vigorous in support of their causes, aggressive active, ready and willing to fight. All have been “at war.” From an Iranian vantage point, surely they must be viewed as “militant.”

Perhaps the U.S. Policy of ‘not negotiating with militants’ should be reconsidered.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Why can't American society be less 'efficient?

A few days ago I received a prescription in the mail from Kaiser Permanente pharmacy. Kaiser Permanente is the 'full service' health maintenance organization to which I belong. I ordered the prescription by dialing an 800 number and then keying in the prescription number, guided by an electronic voice. Contacting a human being at the pharmacy is difficult, but so long as there are no changes or problems, electronic renewal is sufficient.

As I opened the shrink wrapped package, I got to thinking about Greenfield Pharmacy in my home town, and the proprietor, “Doc” Tockman. My family traded at Greenfield’s from the time we moved to Port Washington, when I was about two years old, until after I was married. For a time, the Tockmans lived on the street behind ours. Their eldest daughter, Rochelle, was in my high school class and we were friends.

Greenfield’s was a full service operation, with a soda fountain and a few dining booths. The fountain manager, “Louie” was there almost as long as the Tockmans. When he was drafted and spent three years fighting World War II, the quality of service declined - we all celebrated when he returned to resume his duties behind the counter. When my father was away, my mother and I would sometimes have a “blue plate special” dinner at Greenfield’s. Getting an ice cream cone at Greenfield’s, sometimes from Louie, himself, was always a special treat. The cost was a nickel.

How different shopping experiences are today. There are still pharmacies staffed by human beings, but for the most part those behind the counter are sullen, minimum wage employees who could care less. The service is indifferent - or worse. I’m not angry at them. I empathize. Probably they are working two jobs to try and support their families and, though they are working for a pharmacy, run by a large corporation, have no health benefits. This is because the corporation is delivering, in addition to bloated salaries for executives and lobbyists, low prices. This is ‘efficiency”.

What efficiency seems to mean is an increasing number of commercial transactions that are entirely, or almost entirely, devoid of human contact. I believe that we yearn for human contact in all facets of our life but we may not be willing to pay the price for transactions that are more costly. Advertising has persuaded us that it is things - at the lowest price - are most important in our lives; that enough things will somehow fill the emptiness inside that many feel.

Happily my own circumstances are different. Yes, I do get my prescriptions from Kaiser’s mail order pharmacy. But in Anderson Hall, and at American University, I am immersed in human contact every day with people I know and who know me. I think of my Center for Teaching Excellence staff, many Anderson Hall Residents, and many AU staff and faculty as part of an extended family, with their talents, lovable qualities, foibles and shortcomings. It is a bit like Greenfield’s pharmacy and the town in which I grew up, writ just a little bit larger.

Why can’t more of our society be like that, even if it would be less “efficient?”

Sunday, December 02, 2007


This morning, I was reading from a pamphlet of daily devotional readings, Forward Day By Day, that is distributed by the Episcopal Church to its congregations. Each reading begins with a brief passage from the Christian Bible. A commentary follows. This morning’s passage was from the fifteenth chapter of Luke's Gospel, verses 11-32, the parable of ‘The Prodigal Son.’ The concluding paragraph of the commentary called to mind one of my own shortcomings. I know that forgiving is important, not for the individual forgiven, but for one’s own mental and spiritual health. But deep inside, I often find it difficult, especially when I have been the object of harsh treatment by people whom I love and wish to be close to. I printed out a copy of the paragraph and posted it over my work-table as a reminder. The paragraph follows:

I’d rather stay sheltered in my Father’s arms. My heart is too small and my arms are too heavy to be the one offering such grace. And yet we are called daily to plan ways of welcome, to be as merciful and generous as the Father, to follow our Lord into the paths of reconciliation - and ultimate rejoicing.

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CTE'S goal: a culture that is both results oriented and affirming

At the begining of the fall and spring semesters, The Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) publishes a four page newsletter that is distributed to faculty and staff. My column, "From the Director" appears on the front page. Recent titles have included 'AU's New President: Grounds for Optimism from a Compelling Book' (Jim Colllins, 'Good to Great') and 'Winning the Battle for Brainpower.' My column for the spring semester number follows.

Each August, a new cadre of part-time staff members join CTE. At orientation, we discuss seven principles entitled ‘Serving the AU Community and relating to one another.’ I believe the most important principle is this:

In CTE, every staff member, from the Director to our most junior hourly worker, is expected to do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, irrespective of their job descriptions. Even more, CTE staff members are expected to proactively and creatively seek out what needs to be done, without waiting to be told. How can I make a difference? How can I strengthen the results we produce? How can I improve the quality of work life and the quality of human relationships in CTE? How can I create positive Karma? These are questions we must ask ourselves every hour of every working day.

Not long ago, I shared our principles statement with Traci Fenton, a charismatic former AU graduate student. Traci is founder and CEO of WorldBlu an organization whose mission is to promote and celebrate ‘organizational democracy’ particularly in the private sector. WorldBlu’s research has shown that democratic organizations are often more efficient and profitable than their competitors.

In return, Traci sent an article ‘Engines of Democracy’ from the management journal, Fast Company (#29 – Oct. 1999, pp. 174, ff.). It described the achievements of GE’s jet engine assembly plant in Durham, North Carolina. This 170 employee facility leads not only GE but the world in the efficiency and quality of its work. It has the lowest defect rate and best record of on-time delivery. It has reduced production costs by 30% in ten years. It was selected as the sole source provider of engines for the new Boeing 777. Its employee turnover rate is the lowest in the business.

GE Durham embodies the principles of Organizational Democracy that WorldBlu promotes. There is only one boss, the plant manager “which means that on a day-to-basis, the people who work there …essentially run themselves.” A “culture of continuous improvement” is pervasive. GE Durham employees, “have challenging jobs that matter, they have a degree of control over their work that is almost unprecedented, they adhere to demanding performance standards, they receive the training and support they need to do the best work they can – and, as a result, they do just that.”

Traci shared “Engines of Democracy,” she told me, because my description of CTE reminded her of the GE Durham plant. All of us were gratified by her complement. CTE has a long way to go before matching GE Durham’s world-class performance standard and affirming culture. But we are working on it.

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