So, I have news. In August, I will become a Full Professor and Director of the Department of International Development, Community, and Environment at Clark University. It is an honor to be asked to lead a program with such a rich history, at such an exciting time for both it and the larger Clark community. The program uniquely links the various aspects of my research identity within a single department, and further supports those interests through the work of a fantastic Graduate School of Geography, the George Perkins Marsh Institute, and the Graduate School of Management. At a deeply personal level, this also marks a homecoming for me – I grew up in New Hampshire, in a town an hour’s drive from Worcester. My mother is still there, and many friends are still in the region. In short, this was a convergence of factors that was completely unique, and in the end I simply could not pass on this opportunity.
This, of course, means that after twelve years, I will be leaving the University of South Carolina. This was a very difficult decision – there was no push factor that led me to consider the Clark opportunity. Indeed, I was not looking for another job – this one found me. I owe a great deal to USC, the Department of Geography, and the Walker Institute for International and Area Studies. They gave me resources, mentoring, space, networks, support, etc., all of which were integral in building my career. Without two Walker Institute small grants, the fieldwork in 2004 and 2005 that led to so many publications, including Delivering Development, would never have happened. The department facilitated my time at USAID, and the subsequent creation of HURDL. I will always owe a debt to South Carolina and my colleagues here, and I leave a robust institution that is headed in exciting directions.
As I move, so moves HURDL. The lab will take up residence in the Marsh Institute at Clark some time in late summer, assuming my fantastic research associate Sheila Onzere does not finally lose her mind dealing with all of the things I throw at her. But if Sheila is sane, we’ll be open for business and looking for more opportunities and partners very soon!
No, the title is not meant to invoke the idea that I am going to sell all my worldly possessions and seek some sort of enlightenment – nor is it a suggestion that you should do so. Nah, this post is more tricky than that . . . it’s about thinking through who we are, and who we want to be in the world.
This has been at the front of my mind for a lot of reasons of late. At a personal level, the wife of a very close friend of mine is about to pass away from cancer – she’s 41, and will leave behind her husband and a 6-year-old son. This sort of thing really tends to put life and its trials in perspective. And so, with that framing, I’ve also been wrestling with what I am going to do career-wise. The fellowship I am on required that I declare if I intended to renew by late last week. This was not a difficult decision – however, I also had to decide if I wanted to continue in my current position, or take up a new one. For many in my agency, this decision would have been easy – keep the slot I currently occupy. I have a direct line to my Assistant Administrator (which at AID is very, very far up the food chain), who has a real interest in climate change and really listens to me when I advise her. I sit in a program office, where I have the capacity to shape the direction of climate change programming for an entire Bureau with a multi-billion dollar budget. In the bureaucratic world, I have landed in a remarkably influential position . . .
And I have decided to give it up.
Here is the thing: I have about 14 years of experience working on issues of development, principally from the research end of things. I’ve had the good fortune to become engaged in several global environmental assessments, which have broadened my perspectives and my expertise/experience. I know where we have significant holes in our understanding of how the world works that are impeding our ability to address the challenges so many face in the world today, and will serve as roadblocks along any path toward a sustainable future on this planet. I am working to fill those knowledge gaps with my research . . . but in my current slot, I don’t really use what I know – either what I know to be true from my research experience, or what I know we don’t know. In seven months, I feel like I have really gone to the intellectual well once – in a briefing to my Assistant Administrator last week. The rest of the time, a reasonably competent manager with a general awareness of climate change and humanitarian assistance could have done my job. I cannot tell you the number of days I have left the office without a clue of what I accomplished, deeply frustrated and unsatisfied.
My agency is a contracting agency – we write scopes of work for other people to do our research and thinking. So I am expected to scope papers and projects for other people, who are significantly less qualified than I am, to execute. This . . . is . . . maddening. It is also reality.
So, what does it all mean? First, it means I am going back to academia at the end of this fellowship: if all of the thinking is done externally, and I feel like I am well qualified to do that thinking, I had better get outside of the agency so that I can actually do it. And if I am going to leave the agency, I need to start building up my contacts with the people who get what I do and what I know so they will come to me in the future for these tasks. I am currently in a humanitarian relief bureau, but I am not a relief person – I am a development person by training, research and inclination. Yes, that is a false dichotomy, but in terms of policy and programming, it is a very real institutional divide here. So I need to sit with the development people, with those who understand how my efforts to rethink livelihoods (first article in a series is in review), and to rethink the connection between land use change and livelihoods change (here and here), might become crucial contributions to their programs and policy. So in year two, I am shifting to a new Bureau, and to a relatively minor slot in a line office, to work in detail on issues of adaptation to climate change. Many people would see this as a demotion – as me giving away access and all its advantages. I see it as the only way to keep what I have, and to have a much longer-term impact.
You cannot imagine my relief.
Ian Brown was right: Keep what ya got, by giving it all away.