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Baber Spends Fulbright in Turin, Italy Teaching, Researching

Published: May 3, 2010

Frank Baber believes in the Fulbright Distinguished Chairs program.

A member of the Graduate Center for Public Policy and Administration since 2001, Baber was named the Fulbright Distinguished Chair of Environmental Policy at the Politechnic Institute of Turin, Italy for 2009 where he spent the spring semester teaching and conducting research on international environmental law.

“There are more than 800 Fulbright scholars selected every year,” said Baber, a 1975 CSULB graduate. “But only 38 are named distinguished chairs. That’s one reason I was so honored by this recognition.”

Fulbright Distinguished Chairs are viewed as the most prestigious appointments in the Fulbright Scholar programs. Other chairs exist at such campuses as the Australian National University, Austria’s University of Siena and the University of Trieste. “When you realize my office was in the Castello del Valentino, which was begun in 1275, you have some idea how excited I was about this opportunity,” he said.

The Fulbright program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, is the largest U.S. international exchange program offering opportunities for students, scholars and professionals to undertake international graduate study, advanced research, university teaching, and teaching in elementary and secondary schools worldwide. Established in 1946 by the U.S. Congress to “enable the government of the United States to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries,” the program has awarded approximately 6,000 grants in 2007, at a cost of more than $262 million, to U.S. students, teachers, professionals, and scholars to study, teach, lecture, and conduct research in more than 155 countries, and to their foreign counterparts to engage in similar activities in the United States.

“It was a fabulous experience,” recalled Baber, who received his M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of North Carolina before earning a J.D. from the University of San Diego’s School of Law. He was admitted to the practice of law in California.

He feels the Fulbright trip made him a better educator. “I used to walk into a classroom and begin lecturing,” he explained. “My attitude was, if I said anything the students didn’t understand, they would raise their hands. But when I taught in Turin, not everything that came out of my mouth could be understood by the students. One thing I understood right away was the importance of slowing down. I have a habit of talking very fast and that works in my favor at CSULB. But in Italy, students who don’t speak English well tend to panic if an English speaker doesn’t slow down. So I developed the habit of thinking six words ahead.”

Another learning experience involved humor. “Humor doesn’t always translate, especially between Italy and the U.S.,” Baber shrugged. “What I thought was hilarious, the Italians didn’t think was funny at all. It was a constraining experience. Then there was the time I spent an hour explaining ‘customary law’ only to see the question I spent the most time on turn out to be the question they had the most trouble with on the midterm.”

Baber is the author (with the University of Vermont’s Robert Bartlett, a former Turin Chair) of Deliberative Environmental Politics: Democracy and Ecological Rationality from MIT Press. They recently completed their new book, Global Environmental Law: Toward a Sustainable Jurisprudence.

“Robert stressed to my wife and I the importance of buying a museum pass right away,” he laughed. “We became frequent museum visitors thanks to that. And right around the corner from our apartment was the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory of Turin. The conservatory organizes educational concerts demonstrating methods in technique every Wednesday free of charge as well as end-of-year recitals by the school’s best students.”

Carolyn Baber
Photo by Carolyn Baber
Frank Baber in Orvieto, Italy

Baber adopted the Italian habit of walking. “If you’re going to have pasta and red wine for lunch, you need the exercise,” he laughed. “I didn’t drive a car for four solid months. I wish I could go back to that. I not only didn’t drive a car, I wasn’t in a car for four months. When spring break arrived, we took the train to Venice, and when we realized we had another week, we took the train in the other direction to Paris. The train made it possible to take weekend jaunts to towns like Asti, home of Asti Spumonte, where we walked by chance into the annual celebration of their patron saint’s feast day including a parade they’d been having for 400 years.”

Baber compared his CSULB students, his co-author’s University of Vermont enrollment and his Turin students in the way they solved problems. The students in all three campuses were asked to deal with five hypothetical disputes between hypothetical countries. “I created something that was very plausible,” he said. “I told the students about how many miles of railroad tracks the countries had, how big a population and the kind of economy they had. One country was actually Botswana with everything multiplied by four. Another was Belize with everything multiplied by 10.”

The students were asked to solve disputes between these countries based on their use of a river.

“I found out that all the supposed differences in environmental law between California, Vermont and Italy go away when there is nothing on the line,” he said. “When they were asked to be impartial, all three student groups came up with the same kinds of resolutions. I was surprised by the lack of significant deviation. For instance, I expected differences when it came to the American Endangered Species Act which is the strictest piece of legislation on the subject on the planet. The Italian version is lax by comparison. I expected deviations between the Italians and the Americans and I found none at all.”

Baber encourages other faculty members to apply for a Fulbright. “It will be the kind of experience that you can’t anticipate and you can’t predict. It doesn’t matter what age you are. It will change your outlook on life,” he said. “Nothing will happen bad enough to make you regret that you did it.”