The day after announcing that he was leaving his eleven-year position as founding President of California State University Monterey Bay, Dr. Peter Smith and his wife Sally got up at dawn and loaded up their car for a holiday road-trip to Colorado.
While navigating small roads somewhere between “nowhere and Bakersfield,” Smith spoke to the Weekly via cell phone. Smith, the former US Congressman—who just accepted the post of Assistant Director-General for Education at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)—says he spent three intense days interviewing for the position in Paris, where the job is based, at the beginning of December. His position begins next June.
Weekly: I’m curious about how the policies you advocate in your book [The Quiet Crisis: How Higher Education is Failing America] line up with your goals for this position.
Smith: They asked me about the book in one of the interviews, but of course the book is about America, and this is a United Nations job. I’m not working on American problems, so I asked them, ‘Gee, why do you ask, and why are you interested?’ And they said, ‘We think some of these [educational] problems may extend to other countries and other cultures.’
I said, ‘I need to become more familiar [with other countries’ problems.]’ I don’t want to come in there with my template and my way of thinking and impose it on regions and countries. The first thing I have to do is find out who is doing what—where the successes are and where the failures are—and what it means to be successful in a country where half of the children don’t read at a third grade level.
Weekly: Which countries are those?
Smith: Nigeria, Brazil, Pakistan, China. China is having a population boom that continues to outpace the ability to educate kids and [adults]. The question is, how am I going to work with people in the field and bring the best mix of philosophy and good practical program development so that children and adults—if we are retraining adults—are well-served?
Weekly: What are some of your ideas?
Smith: Our job is to develop a human infrastructure [within countries]: people to teach, people to run schools. And we need to create a policy infrastructure, with policies that are recognized by the governments and legislatures of those countries, as well as by the business and professional classes. The policies can create consistent educational practice over time. For a long time, the problem has been that [the educational practice] hasn’t been consistent. And there has to be a capital infrastructure—countries need to make sustained investment in schools and public health. Children aren’t going to learn if they are hungry and sick.
Weekly: So, in a sense, do you have to lower your expectations for education, depending on the state of a particular country?
Smith: We are looking at [improving education] on a fundamental level in some cases, and at a more sophisticated level in other cases. But I wouldn’t say ‘lowering expectations.’ It’s a matter of understanding—with the UN leadership, and my boss, the Director General of UNESCO, and the leader of the country—what their immediate five- to eight-year objectives are, to meet those objectives, and to have them be able to continue after we leave.
Different learners are at different points, but the thing you want to avoid is the one-size-fits-all mentality. Cultures have different traditions, and it’s not just what you want to achieve, but how. You achieve [educational goals] very differently in Asian, South-American, and African countries. We have to be very intuitive and sensible.
Weekly: Were you looking for this job, or did it find you?
Smith: I wasn’t looking for this. I have a friend who is involved in technology education, who was following UNESCO, and he said, ‘This job is perfect for you.’ I said, ‘What have you been smoking?’ It would not have occurred to me. I put in my Web-based application last summer, and they called me in November. I was the last person they interviewed, and I was just dumbfounded.
I’m an aggressive person—people know I look for challenges. CSUMB was a huge challenge, but I wasn’t looking for work, and this came along. It’s an incredible challenge and an opportunity to try to bring some of the message we have been working on at the university to a global canvas.
Weekly: How do you feel about leaving CSUMB, and what do you see for its future?
Smith: I have very mixed emotions about leaving, both Sally and I do. It’s the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. I wouldn’t have left if I didn’t think this place was well-launched, and whatever contribution I’ve made [allows] them to prosper and thrive in the future. If they weren’t accredited, I wouldn’t have left.
But the university is fully accredited, it has its new master plan, a library plan, and new programs in hospitality and nursing. Other people can do that work. Sometimes a new set of eyes can bring new energy.
With any luck, in five years, I can take a leave from UNESCO, and come back as a professor at the Panetta Institute. I’ll just be another face in the crowd, and that’s how it should be.