|University for Peace Community Liason Group
- a concerned citizens initiative -
(Our group is independent of and has no formal approval from the University for Peace)
Dear University for Peace Council Member -
It has recently come to my attention that, in all likelihood, the University for Peace Council will be holding its annual meeting sometime during this upcoming week. Whether or not that's the case, I wanted to take this opportunity to convey to you something of my recent and, I must say, overally negative experience of interacting with the University for Peace.
I remain optimistic that the University has great potential to develop positively, in the years to come, and finally fulfill its higher potential. At the same time, I do not think that the present trajectory is moving in that direction. There is too much there, right now, I believe, in the way institutional misalignment, mismanagement, and a very real and endemic hostility toward constructive criticism and/or those who are asking for higher standards and performance.
I hope that you will take a few moments to read and consider the attached document. It will give you a somewhat better idea of my own, recent experience.
The only way that the University for Peace can make the most of its potential, I believe, is to invite in, rather than excluding, expelling, and/or marginalizing those most talented, most interested and most able to help it along its future path. For that kind of development to occur, in turn, I think that it will require your attention and, perhaps, that of surrounding, stake-holder communities.
Please feel free to contact me if I can provide you with any further information regarding the attached document, or related issues. I have drawn up this document, and given all the attention that I've given the University for Peace this past year, as a volunteer, because of my deep interest in the future of the UN system and my belief in the potential of the University for Peace.
Upeace Needs Another Reorganization
by: James Wallerstedt
The United Nations-chartered University for Peace, situated in peaceful, sunny, de-militarized Costa Rica, is, potentially, one of the most important institutions located in Latin America; or the world, for that matter.
It is still, today, the only degree-granting institution of higher-learning chartered by the United Nations General Assembly to award degrees in its name - with a license to offer masters and doctoral degrees and short courses, across a broad range of subject matter; to expand campuses and its physical (and online) presence globally; to lead a UN system-wide educational and advocacy mission to “promote among all human beings the spirit of understanding, tolerance and peaceful co-existence” while “helping lessen obstacles and threats to world peace and progress, in keeping with the noble aspirations proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations.”
During the 1999/2000 period, the University only narrowly escaped closure, after a rocky, twenty-year history - which saw years in which no students at all were admitted, which saw the repeated announcement and then prompt closure of program after program (none of which ever attracted more than a few dozen students at a time); during which period the institution was plagued by mismanagement and constant rumors of corruption. Understandably, the institution has suffered from and has striven to overcome this dubious reputation, ever since its reorganization in 2000.
The institution was envisioned, when originally chartered, to become a global teaching and learning network, taking forward its enlightened Mission Statement, as the world’s first and foremost “Peace Academy” - a vision made all the more promising by its unique and prestigious status within the UN system (with 1983 plans calling for having 2,000 students at the Costa Rican campus, alone, by 1993).
In an interview published by the Tico Times in November of 1999, then Rector and current Chairman of the Upeace Council, Maurice Strong – who engineered the University’s reorganization and ultimately was responsible for selecting both the University’s new Council and present senior management – said; “It’s not that the University’s been a failure, it’s just that it’s been very limited. It has been run like a little family business instead of a global institution.”
There are quite a number of us, close observers of the University, that would submit that - still today - some four years after these statements were made, the University for Peace is still, “run like a little family business instead of a global institution.”
I volunteered at the University for Peace, during the period late-2002 to mid-2003, and formed, during this same period, a number of excellent friendships there among faculty, staff and students. I was active, among other things, in contributing ideas and suggestions toward helping launch the University’s envisioned online educational programs. During May of 2003, I was tentatively offered a professional position with the University, which was subsequently withdrawn for lack of funding.
During June of 2003, I became aware of a potential scandal in the Ciudad Colon area, where I live, involving an individual who was attempting to donate a beautiful $2 million property to the University but who, in the course of negotiation (involving three Upeace staff representatives) broke off talks because of suspicion that there was a developing attempt to divert this intended donation for purposes other than a good-faith effort to benefit the University community.
After several phone calls to myself, following my tentative agreement to chat informally with him, to discuss this experience and help him develop an idea of what might have occurred, I met with this individual, at his home. After several interviews, I concluded that, likely, there had indeed been some form of wrong-doing in process, on the part of the University’s team.
Given that I already had developed, through nine months of contact with the University by this point, a rather dim and increasingly skeptical view of the management status quo there – both in terms of basic attitude, as well as an overall lack of professionalism (in my judgement, and in the opinion of many others in the surrounding community, including past and present staff and faculty) - the above-mentioned incident served, for myself, as “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
I decided that I might best perform a valueable public service by helping to encourage reform and improvement of the institution; even if this meant, likely, throwing away nearly a year’s worth of dedicated work on my part to become a respected, potential member of the University’s workforce. Specifically, I decided that I should attempt to develop some kind of an open letter to Upeace senior management and their governing Council.
In order to get some final feedback, prior to circulating my ideas, I contacted one of the University’s co-founders, former Costa Rican President, Rodrigo Carazo. We discussed my thoughts by phone, in late July - agreeing to meet in person, that following month. Prior to leaving the country for a brief vacation, as a courtesy, I sent him an impromptu, follow-up message, outlining several ideas that I wanted to discuss. Here is an excerpt from that correspondence;
This email eventually found its way to Upeace senior management and, shortly thereafter, I found myself barred, physically, from re-entering the campus by campus gate guards! This, from an institution that’s hoping to promote among the rest of humanity “understanding, tolerance and peaceful co-existence,” while “stimulating cooperation among peoples” and “helping to lessen threats to world peace and progress.” This is an institution that hopes to specialize, internationally, in “Conflict Resolution” skills and expertise!
I wish that I could say I was greatly surprised by this incident, but, frankly, I wasn’t. Friends of mine inside the institution, having years of experience with the management culture there, had already told me about staff and volunteers that had “disappeared” for “crossing the party line,” or for getting involved in the dangerous practice of “questioning authority.” Reality is that power is exercised at Upeace in a rather opaque and authoritarian, if not arbitrary, manner, while the ideals of “promoting understanding, tolerance and peaceful co-existence” - though making nice slogans – cannot go very far, if incompatible with the current management’s basic approach to life.
An overall lack of management skill and coordination there, along with a rather pervasive “Square peg in round hole” syndrome among key staff; forms yet a secondary layer of needed attention.
What occurred, with respect to my own rather distressing “Upeace experience,” was confirmed when I received an email from the University’s new Director of Planning and Program Development (Georges Tsai) - with whom I had recently maintained a friendly and mutually-respectful relationship – in which he, referring to my willingness to criticize the institution in my email correspondence, said, “With friends like you, who needs enemies?” He also inferred that I had misinterpreted facts related to the potential scandal that I had stumbled across at a neighbor’s residence – though I and others still believe that the facts point toward their own convenient “adjustment” of related information, rather than my misinterpretation of same.
Georges’ hostile, and, from my standpoint, unjust reaction was reinforced by a separate report that Martin Lees held me responsible for “trying to brew up trouble,” and I was therefore advised by an acquaintance “not to bother” attempting to explain or defend myself to him via a suggested letter, as, “I’m sure he won’t even bother to read it."
This, after having given the University five good reports, as a volunteer, for which I might previously have billed $30,000; after pain-stakingly building many key, mutually-respectful relationships within the institution; after diligently learning much about the institution’s present and past; and, after having drawn a tentative job offer from one of the University’s senior managers.
In short, I was "ex-communicated" for exercising ordinary first amendment and freedom of association rights, and for holding to higher standards than the present, institutional status quo; by this would-be citadel of peaceful cooperation and Conflict Resolution skills, for reasons that would never stand up to public scrutiny. Worse, there is overwhelming evidence to demonstrate – here in the surrounding community, among people associated with the University, past and present – that my experience is more typical than exceptional…
I was just reminded of this disappointing and disturbing saga, which occurred three months ago now, upon reading a press account of the recent eviction of Radio for Peace International (RFPI) by the University. RFPI staff have concluded that there is a likely connection between their own eviction and a strange liason which has recently developed between the U.S. Pentagon (the U.S. military’s “Southern Command,” an ex-high level National Security Council executive and, potentially, the U.S. Army’s disgraced School of the Americas) and Upeace - which includes new funding for the University and a newly-proposed slate of training programs for…para-military and police units.
Based upon what I know of what’s happening at the University for Peace these days, I believe that such connection is likely. I also know that several long-standing members of the Upeace faculty were incensed by the manner in which these new “Human Security” programs were “dumped on their heads” without consultation regarding the ground rules (or, should we call them, “the rules of engagement?”) - involved in installing this dubious new line of work at the world’s erstwhile first “Peace Academy” network.
Bear in mind that the whole raison d’etre of Upeace, from the start, was that the world was already chock full of weapons, military and police academies - and needed and deserved a new Peace Academy model.
The larger questions, I believe, are these: a) Just how is it that such unwise decisions are developed and approved; which, in the case just cited, hold the potential to directly jeapordize and completely discredit the University’s mission and status? b) Why is there not much more institutional transparency, accountability and public oversight; given that this is the U.N.’s only degree-granting institution of higher learning, anywhere in the world? c) How is it possible that the University’s senior management repeatedly gets away with behavior that does not at all conform to the principles of enlightened conduct enshrined in the institution’s own Charter and Mission Statement?
A friend of mine, recently a staff member of the University, just submitted to the Upeace Council a serious critique of Upeace current management practice. I hope that he soon makes this available to a wider public; unless, that is, the University’s senior management actually responds favorably and responsibly - something those of us familiar with the pattern in recent years dare not hope. Though I am not familiar with the details of the RFPI eviction story, what I do know is reminescent of the same kind of capricious exercise of power which, I, myself, have recently experienced.
An institution that aspires to teach the rest of the world about peaceful co-existence while “lessening obstacles and threats to world peace and progress” cannot be staffed by a management team that instead lives according to the “My way or the highway” school of thought, whose general philosophy might be well-expressed by the recently-made popular phrase, “You’re either with us, or you’re against us.” In my own case, I am now “an enemy of the state,” for having dared to pressure the University toward higher standards.
Friends, is such behavior something we are willing to accept, for the only degree-granting institution of higher-learning within the UN system; one chartered to pro-actively take forward the original agenda of the UN system as a whole, of creating a more cooperative and peaceful world for future generations?
Maurice Strong’s comments, published just prior to the University’s reorganization, remain relevant; “It’s not that the University’s been a failure, it’s just that it’s been very limited. It has been run like a little family business instead of a global instition.
Our world, more desparately than ever, right now, needs an institution that can assist young people and mid-career professionals to become world leaders, building peace and solving major world problems along the lines envisioned within the University’s enlightened Mission Statement; advocating and helping to establish conditions necessary for global peace; helping, pro-actively, to create a more just and sane world.
I would like to submit for consideration that the UN’s only degree-granting institution of higher learning not only cannot afford to fail; it also cannot afford to continue to be a lukewarm, under-performing, controversy and friction-plagued institution; with a repressed and anemic management and academic culture. There is nothing there, today, like the dynamism that there could and should be; which might otherwise propel the University toward a higher and more respected destiny, and at a faster rate of evolution.
Unprecedented global demand for the kinds of programs that Upeace is chartered to offer - especially given the University’s unique connection to the UN system as a whole - means that the school’s overall performance, from January, 2001 til today, could and should have been several multiples what it has been.
But, I and others believe that the institution cannot and will not fulfill its higher potential until it has a senior management team that is exemplified by maturity and depth of character, which demonstrates the same honorable traits promoted by the University’s own Mission Statement; which has more appropriate skills and experience by job function; which builds an institutional culture marked by an open and egalitarian ethic, in which both intellectual curiosity and moral integrity are honored; wherein a public-service orientation holds sway, oriented toward achieving the University’s Mission Statement, while remaining publicly accountable for same.