Sunday, April 26, 2009

Gandhi's view - the means must justify the ends, not the reverse

Mahatma Gandhi is of my gurus. From his life and writings, I seek guidance on how I might improve my own life. Presently, it does not remotely approximate the ideals he professed, but I have not abandoned the goal. Gandhi’s image, along with those of the Dalai Lama, Donella Meadows and (the juxtaposition may seem surprising) Lee Kuan Yew, looking down from my kitchen cabinets, is a daily reminder of this.

Four times each year, the Washington DC Gandhi Memorial Center’s newsletter arrives in my mailbox. This unique institution is located at 4748 Western Avenue, Bethesda, Maryland, within an easy bicycle ride of American University, but relatively few students take advantage of the tranquil ambience, resources and events it provides. Readers in any part of the world who wish to connect with the Center can do so at its Website, www,

Perhaps because I am presently teaching international development, I was particularly taken with a Newsletter commentary on Gandhi’s view of the relationship between means and ends, written by Gandhi Memorial Center Director, Carrie Trybulec.

Gandhi focused his thinking and acting on the ‘means’ rather than on the ‘ends’ with the ideal that the ‘ends’ cannot justify the ‘means.’ Therefore, if one seeks peace, justice and harmony, then one must employ means that are peaceful just and harmonious to achieve these ends. This also relates to his idea of selfless service: that he might not even see the results of his actions in his lifetime but would not change his means of service. The means must justify the ends, not the other way around.

Central to Gandhi’s belief in peaceful, just and harmonious means was his commitment to nonviolence. The Newsletter quoted the following passage from Volume 39 of his Collected Works.

...nonviolence is the basis of the search for truth. I am realizing every day that the search is vain unless it is founded on nonviolence as the basis. It is quite proper to resist and attack a system, but to resist and attack its author is tantamount to resisting and attacking onesedlf. For we are all tarred with the same brush, and are children of one and the same Creator, and as such the divine powers within us are infinite. To slight a single human being is to slight those divine powers, and thus to harm not only that person but the whole world.

Like my own life, the world does not remotely approximate the goals that Gandhi professed, but that does not mean they should be abandoned.

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10 Stress relief tips

When I returned to Anderson Hall, after an early morning appointment, I was greeted in the lobby by three of my favorite resident assistants.  As students walked by on their way to class, the RAs offered them fresh orange juice, bagels, cream cheese. and small cards on which were written 10 stress relief tips.  It struck me that these tips might be helpful to all of us, not just our students, at what is, for universities, the busiest time of the year. 

GET REAL!  Make sure to set realistic expectations.
LAUGH!  Laughter is a great stress reliever.
EXERCISE!  Try something new and fun.
WRITE!  It allows you to vent your feelings
BE POSITIVE!  Say NO to negative thoughts.
BREATHE!  A calm body leads to a calm mind.
SMILE!  Many report being happier when smiling.
PLAN!  Start studying for finals now.
EAT WELL!  Even small changes can really help.
DON’T HESITATE TO SEEK HELP!  The Counseling Center is located at Mary Gradon Center 214.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Lessons from international development for university administrators - and vice versa

This spring, after a hiatus of several years, I have been teaching ‘International Development,’ the core course for graduate students in AU’s International Development program. Last week’s topic was ‘Reforming Development Assistance.’ As a final examination project, class members have been tasked to develop recommendations for improving (or reforming) the US foreign aid program. When a new administration comes to town, foreign aid reform is invariably on the agenda though not necessarily a priority item.

For me, reforming foreign aid is a familiar topic. I wrote about an aspect of the program in my doctoral dissertation and first book, Partners in Development (1969). As I was preparing my class, the phrase ‘everything is different, everything is the same’ came repeatedly to mind. Recently drafted reform proposals point to problems that differ little from ones I highlighted forty years ago.

The heart of the matter is this. Foreign aid serves two very different constituencies, one foreign, the other domestic. The first comprises the poor people and their governments that aid programs are intended to help. The second comprises, primarily, members of Congress, especially House members and senators who are members of key subject-matter and appropriations subcommittees that oversee foreign aid.

There is a disconnect between these two constituencies that perpetually challenges foreign aid administrators and their staffs. Their real ‘bosses’ are not the individuals they serve. Representatives and Senators have many constituencies, the interest groups, businesses, communities, voting blocs in their districts. It is these constituencies they must serve to remain in office. That poor people in Rwanda, Sri Lanka, El Salvador and Haiti have virtually no voice in shaping programs that are intended to shape their lives is hardly surprising. Many of the decades-long problems that foreign aid programs have faced are caused by this disconnect.

To equate problems students can face in negotiating university bureaucracies with those faced by foreign aid recipients may seem to be stretching a point, however from my Anderson Hall vantage point, I am struck by similarities. Knowledge creation and education are seen as a university’s mission. Faculty serve students and often care deeply about them, but are more beholden to external constituencies that judge the quality of their research. Staff members who serve students in a multitude of offices - the registrar, the library, financial aid, the health center, public safety, housing, academic counseling centers and many more - serve students directly but are more directly beholden to their administrative ‘bosses.’ These bosses may have little direct contact with or empathetic understanding of students’ academic or non academic lives. When students face challenges that complex bureaucracies, staffed by imperfect overburdened human beings, inevitably cause, they are often unskilled in communicating concerns in a manner that will motivate staff members to respond positively.

American University, like most universities, makes serious efforts to find out what students want, need and how they are being served. Teaching evaluations are administered in each class at the end of each semester. Administrative units conduct ‘customer surveys.’ The university as a whole administers a nationwide ‘Campus Climate Survey’ each year. Applications, acceptances, retention rates and graduation rates are monitored carefully. At a tuition dependent University such as AU, students are the lifeblood of the institution. Yet disconnects remain and human beings remain fallible. Disconnects and fallibilities can make student’s lives more difficult than we would wish. Responding to those difficulties expeditiously and humanely requires constant vigilance.

Viewing the structural problems with which universities must struggle to meet the needs of our students should provide a lesson in humility for those of us write about development assistance from an academic vantage point. Perhaps we should be more tolerant of our colleagues in the Agency for International Development and like institutions who strive to do good work and maintain their idealism while coping with structural impediments that are far more daunting.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Accepting mass fatal shootings as fact of life - an NRA success story

Writing about the recent mass killing of 13 in Binghamton, a USA Today reporter noted that “Since 1976, an average of 18 mass fatal shootings have occurred yearly in the USA, killing nearly 3,000 people, an analysis of FBI data by Northeastern University professor James Alan Fox shows. These are incidents in which four or more people have been killed, excluding the attacker.” The shooting occurred just short of two years after the mass killing at Virginia Tech University that left 33 dead.
Some years ago, such mass killings would have sparked calls for more stringent gun control legislation. This incident sparked almost none. There has been a cultural change in the United States. Restricting accessibility to guns of all types has become an issue that few political leaders will touch. Responding to the Binghamton mass killing, an NRA spokesperson was quoted as saying "this is a time to be supporting the bereaved families in their grief, not to be raising political issues [of gun control legislation.]” the majority of Americans and most political leaders seem to agree.

Whatever one’s views regarding gun rights (or gun control) one has to admire the National Rifle Association for its focus, tenacity and political skills. Winning victory in the battle over such a divisive issue is no mean feat.

This semester, I am teaching our International Development Program’s core course entitled simply “International Development.” My class members are an inspiring group. Most have international experience. Four are returned Peace Corps volunteers. Virtually all share a deep commitment to the international development field’s overarching goal: improving the well being of the poorest of the poor and ‘giving voice to those who have no voice.’

One of my class assignments is entitled “How My Professional Life Will Make a Difference.” It is motivated by my belief that class members, in one way or another, intend to be change agents.

Anyone who is seriously interested in becoming a change agent should devote serious study to the National Rifle Association. the leaders of this organization are supporting their beliefs effectively. They are living lives that make a difference. You could begin your research by checking out their website at

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Saturday, April 04, 2009

The sort of message that makes a professor's heart glad

Every now and then I have an interaction with a student that reminds me why I chose to be a professor. Some weeks ago a young man whom I did not know stopped by my Anderson Hall apartment. Students who have trained as engineers but subsequently become interested in international relations or international development sometimes seek me out. They are looking for ways that they can put their previous training to use, while pursuing their new interests. My background, too, combines those fields and I have written about their relationship. One article, entitled ‘Systems Engineering and Political Science: Toward Symbiosis’ appeared in a leading systems engineering textbook, some years ago. So at the least, I can share a journey that is somewhat similar to the one they are considering. After our talk, I didn’t hear the from from young man for a while. Then I received the following message, which made my heart glad.

Dear Dormgrandpop,

I am not sure if you remember me; my name is [AU grad student] I talked to you in October about systems analysis. The conversation with you was very inspiring and I wish the semester had not been so busy so that I could have talked to you more often. You recommended two books to me – Groping in the Dark and Business Dynamics. These are two of the most fascinating books I have ever read. I was completely immersed and absorbed by the approaches to dynamic modeling and systems analysis. I really loved the style of your book Groping in the Dark. In a way, it felt like “a very concentrated experience of truth” to me.

Then times got too busy and I had to give the books back unfinished. I’m working part time now, which is why I currently don’t get to devote any time to systems analysis. But I’m looking forward to change that and read more as soon as my schedule allows. It would a be great privilege if I could talk to you again and learn more from you.

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Stepping down as CTE Director and sharing the news with friends

After seven years, I have decided to step down as Director of AU’s Center for Teaching Excellence. Before there was an official announcement, I chose to share the news with a few close colleagues. Here is the note I wrote to AU’s former Provost and Interim President, Milton Greenberg, about whom I have written in a few previous postings.

Dear Milton,
In advance of a formal announcement, I wanted to let you know that I have decided to step down as CTE Director. While the exact date is not certain, my expectation is that it will be before the first of July. Provost Bass will, I expect, be informing faculty members of this transition shortly. I have asked to take a one year sabbatical to work on two long planned books and then return to full-time teaching and research as an International Development faculty member in the School of International Service.

Though this is clearly the time to move on, there are many things that I will miss about serving as CTE Director. One is the annual opportunity to introduce you at the welcoming reception for Greenberg Seminar participants and the motivation that event always provided me to read your latest columns. Also, I looked forward to the opportunity to catch up with you that those events provided. I plan to continue reading your columns and will be seeking out other opportunities to keep in touch. But let me take this opportunity, while still in an ‘official’ capacity, to thank you for support of the Greenberg program and you many kind works about the program and our work in CTE. They have meant a lot to all of us.

With new leadership in the Office of the Provost and a new Dean of Academic Affairs, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Affairs, Vice Provost for Graduate Affairs and Research, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and, now, Director of CTE yet to be chosen, this is clearly a time of transition for Academic Affairs at AU. As in the past, I am sure we will survive the turbulence such transitions entail, moving forward with resilience and new strength. I look forward to participating in that process, albeit in a more modest role. Perhaps there will be grist for future columns as you view all of this with characteristic humor, detachment and wisdom.

With respect, warm regards and best wishes


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Sabbatical Proposal, Part II - A ‘trade’ book describing my seven year experience as Anderson Hall’s Faculty Resident

I moved into 101 Anderson Hall in January 2002. In October 2004, I created my blog, Dormgrandpop and posted my first entry. Since then, I have written 508 additional posts. I have not tracked the number of hits, but I know from periodically checking Google links, that it has achieved a fairly wide readership. It is the subject of a Wikipedia entry. It has been mentioned in several AU Annual Reports and was the lead story in one of them.

In Fall 2006, the Style Channel chose Anderson Hall as the site for the ‘reality’ makeover program, ‘My Celebrity Home.’ The makeover was the Anderson Hall first floor lounge, which was recreated to resemble “Dolce,” a Los Angeles restaurant catering to the rich and famous. In December 2006 the program ran more than seven times on the Style Chanel, including four showings in ‘prime time.’ The makeover was the cover story in the Fall 2006 number of American.

In Spring 2007, Associated Press writer, Brian Westley, who had learned of AU’s Faculty Resident program from watching the Style Channel, decided to write a feature story about the program. He spent three hours with students and me, watching final meal preparations, enjoying a dinner and helping with cleanup, while interviewing and photographing participants. The feature story he subsequently wrote, ‘In some Dorms, Not all Residents are Students,’ appeared in more than 200 newspapers and numerous on-line sites. For one day (a slow news day, presumably), it was the most widely read story on As the result of Westley’s story, AU’s Faculty Resident program was the subject of short features on at least two (possibly three) Washington DC television stations.

These experiences motivated me to consider writing a ‘trade’ book that would chronicle my experiences. I have some experience in trade publishing. The book that I created and edited for the US Association for the Club of Rome, Making it Happen: A Positive Guide to the Future (1983) sold nearly 10,000 copies and was nominated for a major prize (though it did not win). The co-edited book that was the product of a project I co-led for the Hunger Project, Ending Hunger: An Idea Whose Time Has Come (1985), sold nearly 100,000 copies.

Through a close friend and successful author of trade books, I made contact with a New York literary agent. The agent reacted positively and is looking forward to receiving a proposal. Preparing a proposal and, then, a draft manuscript will be a priority in the fall. Much of the material will come from my blog, which should speed the manuscript preparation process.

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