A Citizen’s Guide to Greece 2015


September 27, 2015

The Dukakis Center: the inside story

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Written by: Politis

A new academic year is beginning at the American College of Thessaloniki and the Dukakis Center is planning another banner year of events and public service initiatives. Politis caught up with Dr. David Wisner, Executive Director of the Dukakis Center, to get the inside story on the many events he has organized at ACT over the years.

Politis What were the first events you organized under the auspices of the Dukakis Center?

DW Our first event as the Dukakis Center of Public and Humanitarian Service was a two-day conference on political reform in Greece. We held this event at the Elektra Palace Hotel, which was pretty much a first for us, organizing a major public event at a downtown venue. I invited several acquaintances, but also others whom I had not met or did not know personally. The response was very encouraging – nobody turned us down! For instance, I sent an invitation to New York Times correspondent Landon Thomas using the Times’ mail server, and he answered positively almost immediately!

We attracted an audience of around 180 people – the room we had rented was chock full. It was a hugely successful inaugural event. I believe we set a precedent for future events in Thessaloniki – ours and those organized by other groups. It was actually billed as the Third Dukakis International Symposium, as I wanted to establish some continuity with a series of events we had organized while the center was still an endowed chair.

Politis Yes, tell us a little about that. What kinds of events did you organize for the Dukakis Chair, as it was called?

DW Dukakis Chair in Public Policy and Service, to be exact. The original idea back in 1988-89, when the Chair was created, was for ACT to host big name professors of public policy in Thessaloniki for a term or more to teach special courses for top ACT students. We did actually host one such professor, MIT Professor and sometime White House Science Advisor Eugene Skolnikoff. Gene taught a senior seminar in Politics and Technology to a small group of students while in residence in one of the furnished flats in Ladas Hall.

But Dick Jackson [then-President Richard Jackson] and I quickly understood that this was not an especially viable activity, given our limited resources and student body. So we moved, tentatively at first, toward hosting one-off lectures on campus, the famous Dukakis Lectures.

Incidentally, I revived the practice of hosting visiting professors at the Center three years ago, first with recently retired European Commission official (and Anatolia alumnus) Simon Bensasson. We then modified our approach by hosting semester-long master classes. For example, in the spring 2014 semester I invited Chryssa Nikoleri (another Anatolian) to conduct a series of masterclass sessions in photography, which culminated in our student exhibition of environmental portraiture “Would you vote for me?” in May 2014.

Politis Ambassador Burns gave the first Dukakis Lecture, right?

DW Yes and no. The Chair was inaugurated in front of Macedonia Hall by Michael Dukakis himself, one of three visits Mike and Kitty have made to Anatolia. But yes, Nicholas Burns gave the first formal “Dukakis Lecture” in the ACT A-V Room in February 2000, When he was US Ambassador to Greece. I worked with Consul General Paul Stephenson to coordinate Nick’s visit. One of our seniors, Natasha Drenou, welcomed the Ambassador as he arrived in the New Building and served as his duty officer, so to speak. Paul later jotted a note of thanks on State Department stationery, one of the first keepsakes I collected as director of the Chair/Center.

Incidentally, that same month of February 2000 we also hosted Micheal Einik, who at the time was US Ambassador to Skopje. Stelios Perrakis, then Secretary-General of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and incidentally the father of one of our students at ACT, spoke as well that same semester. It was a pretty impressive first season of Dukakis Lectures.

Politis What about before the Dukakis Chair? Did you organize many events at ACT?

DW We had a very rich student life at ACT in the late 90s, with lots of clubs and athletic activities. In some ways there was more going on then than there is now. Anyway, [former Anatolia President] Bill McGrew and I did organize a few things. Bill managed to have ACT host a major international conference on NATO. There were diplomats and analysts from the US Congressional Research Service and from Russia, Italy, and the UK, from what I remember.

Bill also invited University of Chicago historian William McNeil, a specialist on post-war Greece, to visit ACT. The morning of his visit Pavlina Harisiadou and I took McNeil down to Vergina and to Methoni, the village where he spent time in the late 1940s, before he spoke publicly in town, at IMXA I think.

I remember attending another conference in Thessaloniki where I met Lord Asa Briggs, whom I persuaded to come up to campus for an informal talk (in exchange for a tour of Thessaloniki by car). I then organized a dinner party for Lord Briggs and President McGrew at Bit Pazar. They had a lively time together.

Politis You must have a lot of little stories like that to tell.

DW It’s one of the best parts of my job, interacting with our guests, and hopefully sharing the experience with colleagues and, occasionally, with students.

I travel annually to the US as part of my job as director of the Dukakis Center. On those occasions that I visit Boston, I always look forward to meeting Michael Dukakis to brief him on our activities at ACT. In September 2012 Mike and Kitty invited me over to their home one morning for breakfast. As Kitty had a broken hand, Michael cooked our breakfast himself. Pancakes and bacon by the man who would be president, imagine that!

Back in Thessaloniki, one weekend in early 2008 I gave my then-four year old daughter a real treat. ACT was hosting senior German diplomat Geert-Hinrich Ahrens, who had been active in the Balkans in the 1990s. I offered to take him to visit Vergina the day of his departure, which was a Sunday. I brought Ermioni along with us. We had a delicious taverna lunch after our visit to the museum. That evening I dropped Geert-Hinrich off at the airport, and picked up the incoming Mike Einik for a return engagement at ACT. Ermioni in tow, we went out for as light taverna dinner in Panorama. Imagine her explaining to her pre-school teacher the following Monday when asked what she did that weekend. “I had lunch with the first ambassador, and dinner with the other ambassador!”

As often as possible I try to include ACT students in these outings. When I hosted renowned Cyprus expert Van Coufoudakis for lunch at my home one afternoon some years ago, I invited Cypriot student Sotiris Themistokleos (who happened to be the recipient of a scholarship from an Anatolia trustee) to join us. Incidentally, Sotiris went on to do a really good MA at Birkbeck College in London after graduating from ACT and is currently working at a civil society NGO at the University of Nicosia.

Politis Is this how you measure the success of the Dukakis Center?

DW This is a classic problem actually, how does an academic center or a think tank measure its potential influence. Of course, you can say that we are successful insofar as we inspire our students to get involved in public affairs. Anatolia has a long legacy of doing just this, and our metrics show that ACT is actually performing better than most American colleges and universities in terms of the civic engagement of our students.

But you could also say that the Dukakis Center has been at the forefront of some of the latest trends of scholarship and activism. We held our symposium on political reform in Greece on the day that then-PM George Papandreou offered to resign. Last summer we held another symposium on the future of democracy in Europe, a full year before the New York Times’ Athens Democracy Forum, which took place just this past week.

Our environment is also more intimate, and less politicized, and this makes a difference in the quality of the lectures. Karen Volker, a senior State Department official, broke down into tears when recounting her recollections of 9/11, and this actually drove home to our students in the audience how traumatic the terrorist attacks were to most Americans.

Because the Dukakis Center is independent, we can follow certain key issues as they emerge – not all of them, as we do not have the resources or the inclination to do so. In addition, Michael Dukakis’ personal and professional interests have universal appeal regardless of where he stands on the issues. This helps a lot also.

My ambition as Director is to keep the Dukakis Center on or ahead of the curve. To use a metaphor that Dick Jackson liked a lot, we punch above our own weight, but do a very good job marshalling our resources and understanding our relative strengths.

Politis What events do you have planned for the coming year?

DW 2015-16 will be an important year for the Dukakis Center. I say this in part because I personally missed most of the spring 2015 semester over health concerns, having organized a relatively modest series of events the previous fall. I have been given, via ACT’s new strategic plan, a renewed mandate to increase ACT’s visibility to the general public. So I have invited several major figures to visit us in Thessaloniki this year, including Admiral James Stavridis, now Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and Ambassador Christopher Hill, now Dean of the Korbell School at the University of Denver. Next month ACT will co-sponsor the annual conference of the Navarino Network, while the Center will also host French journalist Jean Quatremer of Liberation in early November. It is my hope to attract New York Times commentator David Brooks to visit us in the spring, and to organize our first post-graduate certificate program. Finally, I will convene a small conference on the politics of democracy. So you can see that we have an ambitious and varied year ahead of us at the center.

Politis Thank you Dr. Wisner.

DW Thank you.






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