Corporate and educational entities need to develop networks | Sunday Observer

Corporate and educational entities need to develop networks

Dr. Patrick Mendis Pic: Courtesy Harvard University
Dr. Patrick Mendis Pic: Courtesy Harvard University

The corporate and educational entities need to develop networks through their alumni and involving faculty in corporate boards in order to incorporate the academic knowledge in commercially viable ventures. At present, it appears that the alumni associations and universities are largely disconnected and have become mere social groups with occasional gathering, Professor Patrick Mendis, an Associate-in-Research of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University.

“There need to be strong infrastructural links and organizational frameworks for transformative leadership development and viable future products. I think that the corporate sector needs to consciously reach out to these groups as potential beneficiary for their corporate governance as well as research and development,” he said in an interview with the Sunday Observer.

Professor Mendis will be the keynote speaker at the 14th International Conference on Business Management (ICBM) organized by the University of Sri Jayewardenepura.

A former American diplomat and a military professor in the NATO and Pacific Commands, Dr. Mendis is currently serving as a commissioner to the US National Commission for UNESCO, an appointment by the Obama White House.

During this visit, Prof. Mendis will also conduct a series of different lectures at the Universities of Kelaniya and Jaffna as well as several high schools in Colombo and Polonnaruwa, where he was born. He will also have discussions with a few senior government officials and key leaders on various aspects of the education system of Sri Lanka.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q. What do you plan to share with the University students?

A. Education is the best way to freedom and for a better life. Unlike any other investment, education can’t be taken away from you. Therefore, I would tell every student, especially university students, that we must learn not only from teachers and professors but also from each other, especially from strangers we would meet in daily life. Learning is a reflective and conscious process—don’t be a slave to your iPhone, but be a master of technology. The world is in your hands now.

Students also need to remember that the world has moved from the agrarian-economy to the industrial-economy and from the service-economy to the knowledge-economy. The latter will be of the greatest value to Sri Lanka’s progress. The destiny of the island largely depends on knowledge-workers and these students must be on the forefront of this journey.

Q. How do you propose to link corporate institutions to benefit from academic knowledge?

A. Our educational system is compartmentalized for convenience by disciplines, and our educators are often living a comfortable life in their respective disciplinary silos. Nothing is wrong about this, but our societal problems are increasingly interdisciplinary and inter-professional, and the proposed solutions must be addressed within these multiple academic disciplines and professions.

These days, private and public-sector enterprises are collaborating, but academia is hardly involved in finding practical solutions to societal problems.

This gap must be narrowed, especially in policy development. Some companies have their own think-tanks like research and development units. I think that the academia should get more involved in these through their alumni and other associates—even with social settings.

Occasional conferences like the ICBM is a creative way to have continued dialogues between the corporate sector and academicians.

In these encounters, each would enrich their personal understanding of themselves as well as trying to solve bigger societal issues. It is a mutually beneficial exercise as learners and educators.

Q: Do you have any experience in doing so? Can you elaborate with examples?

A. Throughout my life, I changed my areas of study from business administration and economics to public policy and international affairs, then finally to geography and applied economics; as everything is connected to everything else. When opportunities presented, I interchanged my career between the corporate, government, and academia.

I began my professional and industrial training at Unilever Sri Lanka (Colombo) and the Target Corporation (Minneapolis, USA).

The latter allowed me to travel around the United States as a senior market research analyst to place new Target Stores and gather business intelligence from competitive retail markets in various metropolitan regions.

As I pursued my academic life in various universities, I worked in the government sector at local, state, and federal levels in the United States.

While working in the Hennepin County Government Department of Planning and Development in Minneapolis, the Minnesota State Department of Finance in St. Paul, and the Minnesota House of Representatives, I was exposed to the politics of public policy at local and state levels. So, I got involved in politics and political campaigns at both state and national levels. My first political campaign was for my dear late Professor John Brandl of the Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota as he ran for the State Senate after being in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

I also worked on the Mondale-Ferraro Presidential Campaign against President Ronald Reagan in 1984. We won the State of Minnesota but lost nationally to President Reagan.

During the intermittent years, I also served in NGOs and the foundation sector in the State of Minnesota, like the Society for International Development, the UN Association of the US, the St. Paul Foundation. Working with these volunteer organizations were remarkably fulfilling, and a great learning experience.

In later years, I went to work in the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee for Senator Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota in Washington, the World Bank Headquarters, and the United Nations Secretariat.

With these corporate, government, and international experiences, I have been exposed to think more about the complicated interconnections between what I have studied, learned, and researched at universities and the realms of public policy and global issues.

I believe that sort of education is of greater value when I try to address local issues because they have regional and global implications; say, for example, Climate Change, intellectual property rights, and refugee issues have local and global dimensions.

Indeed, I have dealt with these issues while I was serving in the US Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Defense, and State. For the latter, I needed to work with the corporate sector and the NGO community in the Washington DC area and the White House Office of Technology and Policy as well as the White House Office of the US Trade Representative.

In retrospect, I think that the collection of assorted experiences has truly helped me to see the issues in different perspectives when I served as the chairman of the US government’s inter agency policy working groups at the Department of State and working as an advisor to the US Delegations to the UN during the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Having had these eclectic experiences, the Obama White House appointed me twice as a commissioner to the US National Commission for UNESCO at the Department of State, even as the Trump White House decided to withdraw the US from the UNESCO membership at the end of 2018.

Q. What is your experience on interaction with students?

A. Currently I am writing and researching on broader policy and bilateral issues between the United States and China at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and with several Chinese universities and the Pangoal Institution, a prominent global-governance think-tank in Beijing.

As a Sri Lankan by birth, I am naturally inclined to explore and write about the island’s issues and its perennial relations between the United States and China.

In my latest book, Peaceful War: How the Chinese Dream and the American Destiny Create a Pacific New World Order (also published in Mandarin Chinese in Beijing), I wrote extensively on Sri Lanka as Colombo plays an important role in Sino-American relationships in the Indian Ocean.

In addition to endowing the annual ‘Patrick Mendis Prize’ at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura since 1993, I have established the ‘Edward Burdick Legislative Award’ at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs in honor of my late mentor and friend in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

At Harvard University, I established the ‘Millennials Award for Leadership and Service’. As I got my education through a variety of fellowships and scholarships, I felt it is time to reciprocate in a small way to these great institutions.

Q. Tell us about your current research/and university work?

A. My students are my teachers; I am often learning from them. For example, when I was an American military professor in the NATO and the Pacific Commands (based primarily in Germany and Japan respectively), my students-in-uniform as well as civilian students were a great source of knowledge for me due to their own backgrounds and professional experiences. As an educator, my role was to facilitate and guide them—literally ‘professoring’. I enjoyed these graduate students who were in the University of Maryland’s MBA and MPA courses and seminars in England, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Turkey.

I often used case studies, role-playing, and the Socrates methods of dialogue with them. In the process, I learned a lot and appreciated their commitment to service for the betterment of themselves and the nation. The students in China are quite different in their orientation to learning. Their Confucian values and cultural traditions may have surely influenced their character. They are very good in memorizing and substituting; their inherent compassion and respect for their teachers are also legendary as well. Over the years, I have noticed this distinction between the East and the West in Japan and South Korea, where I had the opportunity to teach the US military personnel and the Japan Self-Defense Forces at the Misawa Air Force Base and the KATUSA (Korean Augmentation To the United States) soldiers and the US military students in the DMZ and the Yongsan Army Base in South Korea. The Japanese and Korean students (in both civilian and in uniform) had different styles of learning than their American counterparts but the interface in classroom dynamics was unique and fascinating to observe.

Overall, I still consider that the best educators are the better learners.

Q. What is the difference in such interaction in Sri Lanka and the US?

A. In general, Asian countries—like Sri Lanka—have a set of Buddhist and Confucian values of reverence to teachers as ‘gurus’. Education is largely a part of moral and inner development in person hood in Asia. In the United States and in European countries, the process of teaching and learning is a way of discovery of the outer world or external development in individual outlook. With Sri Lanka’s Buddhist traditions and cultural heritage, the islanders are now increasingly interfacing with these two faculties of learning—learning to improve oneself while exploring the truth in the scientific world. I think this amalgamation is better than one orientation over the other.

Q: How should the university system be changed in Sri Lanka in order to raise the bar in the educational level? elaborate with examples?

A. Sri Lanka is a complex and diverse society with various multi-layers of traditional cultures, foreign invasions, colonial rules, Buddhist revivals, and ethnic nationalism. In all this, Sri Lanka has a mixture of educational systems but largely public education is more pronounced in the secondary and post-secondary levels.

The university entrance is highly competitive, and the quality of instruction differs from one university to another. Yet there have been remarkable improvements within the last generation or so.

I think that the mastery of English must be a primary requirement in university education as some ‘colleges’—i.e., high schools—in Colombo (mostly with the Christian and religious affiliations) are having advantages in English proficiency and modern learning, and thus preference in the employment market is for them because of language skills and the quality of their education.

This is largely attributed to the legacy of colonialism. The traditional rice ‘farming-mindset’ of the pre-colonial low country of Sri Lanka—deriving from the ancient Buddhist kingdoms of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and others—can be juxtaposed with the prestigious ‘plantation-mindset’of the post-colonial up-country as a West European relic. This dichotomy has gradually been changing over the years, as many students seem to prize education.

Sri Lanka needs to move ahead with its tribalism of history in policy making, and more importantly the parochialism among educators, especially those who think they have the keys to knowledge.

Their interactions with other disciplines, professions, institutions in both private and public domains, and notably with students, must be strengthened to make themselves flourishing organizations in learning cultures. Otherwise, they will continue to teach from their old textbooks and lecture notes without providing space for critical-thinking among students to go beyond their teachers in search of new frontiers in discovery.

Q. In your point of view why have Sri Lankan corporates failed to transform research into commercially viable products?

A. Among large multinational corporations, there are research and development offices as in-house think-tanks to monitor business trends, customer behaviour, changing regulatory regimes, and global geopolitics. The dynamic business sector in Sri Lanka has the capacity to benefit from local think-tanks, consultancy firms, and even universities.

While I was at the University of Sri Jayawardenepura, my management professors had many consultancy assignments with private companies and state-owned banks, in which I was a paid research assistant.

For a win-win situation, I think that the corporate and educational entities need to develop networks through their alumni, involving faculty in corporate boards.

It appears that the alumni associations and universities are largely disconnected and have become mere social groups with occasional gathering.

There need to have strong infrastructural links and organizational frameworks for transformative leadership development and viable future products. Also, I think that the corporate sector needs to consciously reach out to these groups as a potential beneficiary for corporate governance as well as research and development.

Q: How do you propose to increase this relationship in the future?

A. Well, I am not a firm believer in purely creating unnecessary bureaucracies; Sri Lanka has enough of that already.

But there must be a dynamic organizational structure or strengthening the existing systems for a variety of corporate-sponsored academic laboratories or research centers for commercially viable products.

They should invite small and mid-size companies and entrepreneurs who have new ideas for products or services. These don’t have to be nationally and globally transformative products and e-platforms; they can be locally-focused to address local issues for farmers, fishermen, and micro-entrepreneurs.

To do all this, there must be a conducive business environment for entrepreneurs to succeed with less red-tape in the encumbering nature of government bureaucracies.

Q: How should the research system be changed in the future in SL?

A. The driving strategy in the macro-sense of governance is that the government needs to foster a better investor and entrepreneur friendly business culture. For this, policymakers should be transparent in their actions and accountable as public servants; otherwise, there will be credibility gaps in the public square creating more room for private gain and corruption.

Q. What sort of contribution would you like to make to our society and to the education sector?

A. The current administration also needs to consciously interface with academic and research communities as well as the thriving corporate sector.

If the government truly envisions developing a ‘blue and green economy’, then there must be a shift in the entrepreneurial culture of the government itself. As the new government came into power, there was a short-lived jubilant change of welcoming Sri Lankan expatriates returning home to serve.

I expressed my willingness to return to my motherland to serve in the government service. After several consultations at the highest levels, I was politely told that the government has enough qualified people.

After learning about this my senior mentors and national leaders in Sri Lanka advised me to return ‘home’ to the US for greater pur pose in public service. But I would continue to contribute to Sri Lanka in alternative ways by offering advice, providing scholarships, and assisting educators and students alike.

Q. What sort of policies should be in place?

A. More recently, there is growing recognition that ‘together’ is better than having a Robinson Crusoe like island mindset.

There are good policies, like welcoming expatriates and the evolving ‘blue and green economy’ framework. But the application of those policies is most likely to be mismanaged in the implementation.

More often, policies have become political rhetoric and tweets these days. Most importantly, Sri Lanka needs to develop a technologically sophisticated and more competent administrative and diplomatic service to implement policies; their welfare should also be guaranteed as public servants to draw young talent and skills for a sustainable government service.

Q. Any other developments you would like to talk about?

A. The world is changing; Sri Lanka has never been an island throughout its long history. As policymakers often envision Sri Lanka to be another Singapore, the government needs to have friendlier policies to attract the best and brightest Sri Lankan expatriates.

China has, for example, more recently offered its own version of Green Card and immigration visa for overseas Chinese to return home and also welcomed the talented and skilled professionals from other countries to work in Chinese industries and academic institutions. I think that the post-Eelam War era is a more promising and opportune period for Sri Lanka to appeal to its expatriates as the functioning parliamentary democracy has returned to its rightful place.

Of course, returning home is a sacrifice for some Sri Lankans as they have developed their sense of home in other lands where their contribution is better valued and more appreciated.