Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Which Path to Choose?

In the past several days, more than in the months since my official “retirement,” I have had the experience of reconnecting with American University.  The fact that I purchased an apartment within a few minutes walk or bike-ride from campus makes this easy. 
The late summer weather has made walks about AU’s beautifully landscaped campus enriching.  The faces of students are familiar, generically, though unfamiliar, specifically.  I can still exchange friendly greetings with faculty colleagues, staff members, dining staff, shuttle-bus drivers and groundskeepers who became friendly acquaintances over many years.  Last week a colleague, newly appointed to an academic leadership position and I conversed at length about the challenges she faces.  On Monday there was a similar conversation with a 30-year colleague and staff member in the teaching excellence and technology center I once lead, now fundamentally transformed through reorganization.  Today, I met with a student affairs (Campus Life) staff member for an engaging conversation about how AU could better assist undergraduates in finding faculty mentors.
AU’s multi-tribal culture of undergraduate students, graduate students, academic departments, the Provost’s Office, the several Vice Presidents’ offices and the President’s Office is one that I understand intimately.  Years of experience, complemented by the skills of an ethnographic field researcher, has produced this understanding.  In the past, when challenges arose or opportunities beckoned, I could contextualize nuanced courses of action within a richly textured tableau.  This afternoon, I was asking myself, why not return to this comforting, affirming field of endeavour?
My grasp of the cultural/managerial contexts that now most engage me, Singapore’s public policy domain, the National University of Singapore the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the National University of Singapore High School of Public Policy is still superficial.  Gaining the deep, nuanced understanding that is necessary for real effectiveness will take years of “field research” complemented by intense study. Will I have the time and energy to do it? Building credibility will require a string of successes in which my past achievements will count for little.  Why should they? Failure is a possibility that must be acknowledged, though not contemplated.   Functioning in this arena is further complicated by the fact that Singapore is half way around the world.  And there are other complications.
What I am undertaking is an agenda motivated by the as yet ill-defined vision that Singapore might, somehow, serve as a beacon light for an urbanizing human species that is unthinkingly, even rapaciously, overshooting the physical and ecological limits of its habitat. This is less because of Singapore’s past achievements than, because, I believe, of this unique society’s capacity for creative adaptation and resilience.   In the past, Singapore not only overcame daunting post independence challenges, but helped light the path of China’s transformation.  For global challenges of “overshoot and collapse” to be surmounted it is China that, once again, must be transformed.
A return to doing good work in the beautiful, secure and affirming environment that American University and Northwest Washington provides is so tempting and would be so easy.  But, somehow, that path seems less fulfilling.  To quote Robert Frost, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”  

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