'Changing Roles' for Diplomacy

"Your knowledge, wisdom and passion about the globe today can mean a more peaceful and humane world tomorrow," President Kent Fuchs told more than 750 Florida high school students as he opened the GatorMUN XIV conference at UF in January.

'Changing Roles' for Diplomacy

Thank you, Madame Secretary.  Good evening, delegates, and on behalf the University of Florida, welcome!  We are delighted to have you representing the world here on our campus.

I understand that more students are participating in Model UN than ever before, and that this year’s “GatorMUN” is the best-attended in the conference’s 14-year history! Organizers and delegates: Your knowledge, wisdom and passion about the globe today can mean a more-peaceful and humane world tomorrow.

Today, all eyes have been on Donald Trump’s inauguration as our 45th president.  But your time to lead, in reality, is not so far off.

Delegates, I admire you for devoting yourselves to Model UN amid your work and other commitments, and for dedicating your weekend to this conference.  I was not like you in high school. I was not part of Model UN or other significant organizations.

Not until graduate school and my career as professor did I develop your international perspective.  This took place through mentoring international students and collaborating with scholars around the globe through my research.

You might think the thrill of scientific discovery was the highlight of that research.  For me, not so much.

What I learned that I most loved was collaborating with students and colleagues in France, the U.K., Brazil, China and other countries.  Despite our physical and cultural separations, we began to feel a powerful sense of community as we all worked to solve the same puzzles.  And we advanced the science far beyond what any one of us could have done in their own country.

I hope that those of you who pursue careers in international relations will strive to create and broaden similar opportunities for future scientists, scholars, artists and authors.  Human progress depends on it.

This brings me to the core of my comments.  Working across borders, though greatly needed, can be extremely difficult, whether it involves a scientific project, negotiating a trade deal or drafting a peace treaty.

My experience powerfully affirms your conference’s theme of “Changing Roles.”  Very simply, I have found that success in getting things done internationally often requires three building blocks: Bold and even daring action, active listening, and a willingness to “change roles.”

I have one brief story to illustrate my points.

Before I came to UF about two years ago, I was provost at Cornell University in New York.  In December 2010 then-New-York-City Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a global competition for universities to build a new technology campus in NYC.  The winner would get $100 million and 11 acres of the world’s most valuable real estate, on Roosevelt Island in Manhattan.

Cornell was the underdog, facing goliaths in both New York City and California, including Stanford, the prime mover of Silicon Valley. Competing with Stanford for a technology prize was like playing baseball against the Yankees in the World Series.

 To regain the edge, we took a bold step: We secretly negotiated a deal with a partner 6,000 miles away.  This was with the Israeli Institute of Technology, also known as Technion, in Haifa, Israel.  Some of you may know that Technion was one of the universities that transformed Israel’s formerly agrarian economy into a technology economy.  This was a record that we at Cornell did not have and could not claim.  It was vital to our chances.

I cannot tell you that the negotiations with Technion were brief or easy.  Our first meeting took place in March 2011 in Beijing, China. That meeting involved only me and the President of Technion, Peretz Lavie, who I later learned had graduated from the University of Florida.

Many meetings followed. Dozens of leaders at each university skyped and emailed for months, leading to another secret meeting in July in New York City, leading to even more meetings and talks.

Technion wanted to have an equal partnership in the new campus but was not contributing financially to the effort.  Cornell wanted Technion’s faculty, knowledge and expertise in developing programs and curriculum, but we were making a huge investment and therefore needed to hold on to ownership.

 Not until summer’s end did we hammer out a deal.  We went public in October 2011, just 10 days before the city’s deadline for proposals.  When the news came in December that Cornell-Technion was the victor, Mayor Bloomberg praised our “tantalizing, groundbreaking partnership,” saying that we had “far and away the boldest and most ambitious” application.

I learned from this experience that international boldness sometimes leads to breakthroughs, perhaps especially when the chances seem slim.  I also learned that negotiating with an international partner requires a lot of listening and hard work, which means time and patience.

And finally I learned that all parties may need to accept roles they may not be comfortable with, such as sharing a very valuable enterprise and major leadership decisions.

Ultimately, however, the effort is worth the cost.  Cornell and Technion achieved something neither of us could achieve alone: a new technology campus in NYC. In addition to the $100 million from the city, another individual, Chuck Feeney, donated $350 million; a couple, the Jacobs, donated $130 million and Mayor Bloomberg personally donated another $100 million.

As proud as I am of that achievement, a partnership between two universities in the U.S. and Israel is very small change in the scope of the globe.

Just Wednesday it was announced that 2016 was the hottest year on record for the third year running.  Can anyone doubt that coming to grips with climate change will require global collaboration on a historic scale?  And yet won’t Brexit and other strains on international unity make this ever harder to achieve?

Delegates, the heavy lifting needed to surmount this challenge, and so many others, will very soon fall to you.  I encourage you, this weekend and beyond, to be bold in your proposed solutions, to listen intently to the other sides in your negotiations, and to prize “changing roles” in your actions.  Our world – and our times demand – nothing less.  Thank you!