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Chissano accepting the Ibrahim Prize (source: http://www.moibrahimfoundation.org)

Chissano accepting the Ibrahim Prize (source: http://www.moibrahimfoundation.org)

In the spring of 2008, Joachim Chissano, former president of the Republic of Mozambique, won the Ibrahim Award in recognition of his commitment to democracy. I wanted to visit Chissano and invite him to speak at our university. At the time, I had only a vague idea of what I wanted to ask him to do.

While I was elated with the inaugural lecture for FOCIS by Vicente Fox, something had been missing. It bothered me that the students did not become involved with the project until the former president arrived in Detroit. I had only taken a doctoral student with me to visit Fox in Mexico, but it would have been great for a group of students to have traveled there to learn more about our southern neighbor from its former president and to explore the immigration issue in more detail outside of the U.S. I wanted students to be more involved with Chissano. I wanted them to see more, to own the project, to immerse themselves in some aspect of the former president’s life and country, and to have access to Chissano over a longer period of time.

So my thinking began to jell. What did American students know about Africa? Not very much. What is Africa’s image? Probably they thought only of war, pestilence, tribalism, autocracy, genocide, non-democracy, etc. I had heard Chissano’s acceptance speech as the first recipient of the Ibrahim Award, and decided to propose that a group of students come to visit the former president at the Chissano Foundation to learn about democracy firsthand. Then Chissano would come to Wayne State University as a speaker in the lecture series by former heads of state, spending about a week on campus in various venues with students, faculty, and others.

My assistant, Michael Hicks, contacted the Chissano Foundation in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, extending my invitation. A reply came that very afternoon welcoming such a discussion. In November of 2008, I visited Chissano at his Foundation in Maputo. We were joined by the Foundation’s executive director, Dr. Leonardo Simao, in the library. I appreciated Chissano’s graciousness in seeing me, particularly since he had just arrived home from Europe in the early morning before the meeting.

With Joaquim Chissano in Maputo

With Joaquim Chissano in Maputo

When I told them about my desire to bring American students to Mozambique, both men gave me a rather curious look. I realized that Americans rarely go to Mozambique. I learned later that Chissano could only vaguely recall one other group of American students, and he was unsure of the purpose of their visit. Simao, who had served as foreign minister in the Chissano administration, suggested rather matter-of-factly that I consider bringing students during the 2009 presidential election. Wow! This was precisely the kind of involvement I wanted for a group of students from my university. Obviously I was very excited and anxiously asked the date of the election. They told me that the date had not yet been determined, but it definitely would be in 2009.

I was amazed because “first Tuesday in November every four years” stuck in my mind. I had the naïve idea that all presidential elections were held on fixed dates, and learned that the American democracy was an exception. Regardless of the date, I wanted the students to witness in person democracy in this part of the world, which was relatively unknown to most of us. It would be the opportunity of a lifetime – so different that they should have a way to document their experiences, to extend them beyond the length of the trip. If they made a documentary, it could be a part of Chissano’s visit when he arrived on campus in September 2010.

Joaquim Chissano in his office in Maputo

Joaquim Chissano in his office in Maputo

The former president’s face grew serious as he wondered what the previous group of visiting American university students had accomplished during their time in Mozambique. It was a sobering thought, and I vowed that my students would be different. This project would have substance and meaning for them. I could not bear the idea that given this great opportunity, we would waste the time of the former president of the republic.

Two faculty colleagues and I set out to design a yearlong course called African Democracy Project Mozambique (ADPM). We enrolled a diverse group of 12 students and inaugurated the course in late August of 2009. At the end of this month we will depart on a 12-day trip to Mozambique, preceded by two days in Johannesburg, South Africa, loaded with a broader knowledge of Mozambique than they could have imagined just a few months ago. Imagine what they will experience and learn about democracy, Africa, America, each other, and themselves.

We need to think long and hard about how our students learn about the rest of the world, and how that learning can affect their places in the world. For most of us, Africa is remote – but it is not irrelevant. We are better persons over time because we relate to each other: family, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens of our country and of the world. This is the lesson about our own democracy that I want our students to learn from the democracies of others.

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prez2prof-logo2.jpgLong before I went to visit the former president of Mozambique, Joachim Chissano, I talked to a few people about how to prepare for the next phase of my life. My wife was one of those advisers, of course. Eventually, I talked to my children about it, but they seemed to have problems understanding why I could not continue in my current life. My grandson asked, “Grandpa, why don’t you want to be president any more?” My daughter and granddaughter expressed some sadness about leaving the president’s house, and that same probing grandson wanted to know what was going to happen to Miss Ervine, the housekeeper at the president’s house on campus.

Okay, I was not getting far with them. When you are making a change in your life, you soon realize that you are also making a change in other people’s lives – and most of your close acquaintances would rather see you not screw around with a great thing by changing it! I ended conversations with all family members except my wife. I simply told the others, “Plan on coming and getting all of this stuff out of the house that your mother and I have been carrying around for the last 20 years!” My son, the packrat, realized I was serious, and showed up to collect his belongings shortly after I moved into a nearby condo. Little by little I realized that in order to move forward, I had to define this transition, at least temporarily, as being about “me.”

Then it dawned on me: I am going from being an executive to being a non-executive. Others have done the same. I thought how great it would be to meet and discuss a variety of issues with others who had transitioned to another kind of life when their executive roles ended. I had been observing Bill Clinton with considerable awe and admiration at how he had moved on from the greatest executive position of all. I admired his international role in health, poverty, conflict, and world affairs with the cooperation of seemingly incompatible forces. He had inspired those who have money to give and share and make future commitments. What about all the other former heads of state around the world?

In 2008 we were in the middle of a national presidential election and several topics were being hotly debated: war, crime, health care, and immigration. Heads of states of other countries try to stay out of their neighbors’ politics, but that is not necessarily true of former heads of state. The thought of former executives like myself led to an “aha!” phenomenon. What about Vicente Fox, the very articulate former president of Mexico? Surely he would have some ideas about what was going on in the U.S., particularly with regard to immigration. I decided that one of the things I wanted to do in my new life was to provide a venue in which students, faculty, and the community could hear from these former leaders.

With Vicente Fox at his home in Mexico

With Vicente Fox at his ranch in San Francisco del Rincón

In late spring 2008, through his agency in New York, I contacted former president Fox on his ranch outside of Leon, Mexico and asked to meet with him to discuss an interesting idea. From contacts with his agency the former president knew that I wanted him to give a lecture. With an assistant I traveled to Mexico and spent a day with the former president at his think tank and library on his ranch, Centro Fox. I explained the notion of creating a new speakers series with former heads of state. I wanted him, not a former president of the U.S., to be the inaugural speaker. I hoped he would speak frankly about immigration and meet with students and community representatives in small and large group sessions. I also wanted each former president to hold phone interviews providing a preview of his or her views up to a week before the public lecture.

Vicente Fox in Detroit

Vicente Fox in Detroit

On September 12, 2008, Vicente Fox, former president of the republic of Mexico, became the inaugural speaker in the new lecture series titled Forum on Contemporary Issues in Society (FOCIS). He spent a full day on campus meeting with students, faculty, and members of the Detroit community to talk about immigration, among many other topics. A new phase of my life was launched.

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From university president back to classroom professor

About three years ago, as I was approaching my 16th year as a university president, I started to think about stepping down from the helm. It had been a pretty good run, and I pondered what might lie ahead: higher tuitions, external intrusions into academic affairs by politicians and overseers, deferred maintenance, recalcitrant faculty… Although none of this was critical in my thinking, it looked like it might be my time to move on. But there was one problem: I loved being in the business of higher education.

I had been a professor of business before heading a department of business law, which was followed by service as dean of a school of business and two university presidencies. I especially loved being around students with their learning, thinking, challenging, annoying, and goading. But did I want to return to teaching? I certainly did not yearn for the good old days of the classroom as I left it. My PhD, from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, is in business and applied economics with a specialty in marketing. Did I want to teach marketing? No. Management or leadership? Maybe.

Finally, I decided that what I truly wanted was to take advantage of an opportunity I had loved throughout my university life – traveling and learning, and enabling others to do the same. I enjoy working with people of various cultures and seeing students learn about people, societies, and nations different from their own. (I was happy years ago to learn that our son had been admitted to an Ivy League university, but ecstatic to learn that he was going into the Peace Corps.) I also loved putting together forums and lecture series wherein people could offer and discuss provocative thoughts

FOCIS: Forum on Contemporary Issues in Society

FOCIS: Forum on Contemporary Issues in Society

I started with this last idea first. Two years before announcing that I would step down as president, I asked a group of faculty to help me think through two lecture series. One would involve world leaders discussing issues with people from all walks of life and the other would involve experts on the challenges faced by global societies. From this was born FOCIS, the Forum on Contemporary Issues in Society. Our first three experts were Robert Kennedy Jr. talking about the environment, Bob Woodward on the press and the presidency, and Vicente Fox on immigration.

All of this was great, but I still sensed the need to find a missing piece before taking the big step of announcing my departure from the presidency – although not from university life. It came in the spring of 2007, when I learned that a new award had been established to recognize emerging democracies in Africa. The first recipient of the award was Mozambique’s former president, Joachim Chissano. When asked by his party to run for a third term as president, he responded that he had fought the Portuguese colonists to establish not a dictatorship, but a democracy.

I knew what to do. I booked a flight to Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, to discuss my idea with Chissano.

Mozambique here I come

Mozambique here I come