Monday, August 30, 2010

Praxis Personified

Bob Biller, who served as dean of USC's School of Policy, Planning and Development and provided inspiration to a raft of students over his time as a professor and dean, died over the weekend.  I have the distinction, I think, of being the only person to ever dump him from a dissertation committee, but that is a story best told later.  Bob was a beacon of energy - he thought, read, reflected, inspired, sometimes enraged.    He was a member of the National Academy of Public Administration and had a host of other awards and recognitions too numerous to mention.  After retiring from USC he worked on the development of the Skirbal Center in LA. There are three stories worth retelling.

#1 - The Role of a Scholar - When I was doing my doctoral work SC had a qualification course called PA 600 - four months, 60 required textbooks, 8 short papers and one major research paper.  It was designed to see whether you were really serious about doctoral work.  Bob taught the section on Administrative Theory.   One day in class he said that one of the roles of a scholar was to communicate your findings.  He urged us, if we wrote about someone who was still alive, to send our papers to the scholar.  I did that twice in that course.  The first time was to Aaron Wildavsky, who was a very creative thinker at Berkeley.  Wildavsky scribbled back some responses to me on my paper and thereafter I became one of his reading list recipients - when he ventured into a new area (which he did several times while I was a student) he would send out his new thoughts and ask for comments.  It was a real thrill to be on his list.  In a later course that Bob also taught I did a paper on James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock (Buchanan went on to win the Nobel in Economics in 1986). After an initial paper being sent to them I got the benefit of their thoughts and guidance.  For about two years both scholars were very generous in offering comments about Public Choice Economics (the field they developed).

There is a footnote to the story.   Alice Huffman, who started the doctoral program about the time that I did, wrote about a writer named Vincent Ostrom, who had written an influential book The Intellectual Crises in American Public Administration - the main thesis of the book was that the field of PA in the US had forgotten its roots and instead adopted the thoughts of Max Weber as its base. Huffman's political career in California has been with the CTA and the NAACP. Her paper argued that theory in Ostrom's book was somehow "racist."  She sent her paper to Ostrom and he in turn sent her back a ten page single spaced refutation of her thoughts.  We bound the papers and the responses together.  In today's environment we probably would have put them up on the net.  I still have the two bound volumes.

#2 - The Role of a Practitioner - After Bob left the deanship we talked him into serving on the California Student Aid Commission.  At the time he was chair, there were large conflicts on a couple of issues and Bob tried hard to resolve them.  He was never afraid of thinking big ideas.  Ultimately, he proposed a series of changes in the structure of the Commission and in the way that Cal Grants would be delivered which would have aided students but been less certain for segments of higher education.  He produced a proposal and asked the commission members to discuss and refine it.  The fight on the issue soon became personal.  One member of the Commission began to attack Bob.  He chose to resign from the Commission rather than engage in the petty theatrics that his antagonist had adopted.

#3 - Kicking Bob off my Dissertation Committee - As I got into thinking about my dissertation I moved from a couple of other topics to one on the tax system.  I went down to SC and talked to Bob about it and he did what he always did - give me three or four or five new sources or approaches which could help think about the topic.  But as I got into the process, I soon realized that tax theory was not something that he cared much about. I finally went down to him and said I was making a change in my committee.  He did not argue with me. (Which I thought he would.)  Not surprisingly, after my dissertation came up for its defense, I ran into him on campus and he asked me a couple of questions about how it had gone.  It was clear to me that he had read the paper, and although he was not interested in the area, he wanted to see how my efforts came out.

For me Bob was the perfect blend of theory and practice - the ideal called Praxis.

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