Born of sudden inspiration (and rescued by the mother of a poli-sci major), Drew’s U.N. Semester has given students a front-row seat to major world events spanning a half-century.
By Christopher Hann
One afternoon in the winter of 1962 Drew President Robert Fisher Oxnam summoned to his office Robert G. Smith, the founder and chair of Drew’s Department of Political Science. Oxnam was meeting later that day with the presidents of 10 Midwestern Methodist colleges, and he wanted Smith to take part in their conversation. The presidents had been on a quest to create a joint program of international studies and had recently toured Europe in search of a location that might serve as the base for such a program. They were not successful. Back in the United States, the presidents turned to Drew for help.
During the meeting with President Oxnam that February afternoon a half-century ago, Smith told the visitors about Drew’s London Semester, begun the previous fall, in which political science students traveled to the British capital to study government. Smith, who’d created the the London Semester and who’d been looking to create other off-campus programs, suggested that perhaps he could adapt a similar model for the study of the United Nations in New York City. Smith, who spent four decades at Drew, burnishing a legacy as an enthusiastic and innovative educator, told the presidents that he would submit a plan to them the following day. And he did.
“The plan they approved the next day,” Smith would write a quarter-century later in a report on the founding of Drew’s off-campus programs in political science, “was that of the housing of students on the Drew campus, busing them to a study area near the United Nations two days a week and the taking of the remainder of a semester’s courses on campus in any of our offerings. At the United Nations study area, two Drew faculty members would lead a seminar drawing on United Nations personnel as speakers and guide the students in individual research papers to be done at the United Nations and elsewhere in the city. We stipulated that the semester not be limited to those 10 colleges and universities, but be opened to all such schools in this country and to foreign students as well.”
If there is anything more remarkable about the U.N. Semester’s founding than that its essential framework was assembled in a mere 24 hours, it is this: Smith’s plan was then approved at a special meeting of the college faculty on Feb. 22, 1962, no more than three weeks after Smith himself had first been apprised of the need for it. Ten days later, Smith’s plan, creating the only United Nations–based program of study offered by an American college, was presented to the rest of the world in the pages of The New York Times. “The United Nations will serve as a part-time campus for students from colleges and universities throughout the country who enroll in a new program announced last week by Drew University,” the Times reported.
Thus commenced Drew’s U.N. Semester.
Well, not quite. There was one problem. Neither Smith nor anyone else at Drew had yet sought—much less won—the consent of the United Nations. And when Smith went to talk to U.N. officials a day after the story appeared in the Times, he wrote, “They would have nothing to do with me.”
The U.N. Semester appeared dead in the water, a grand idea buried before it could blossom. But perhaps all great institutions must from time to time rest their fortunes on the whim of serendipity. Enter Mary Lodge.
A sophomore from Long Island, a political science major, Lodge appeared the next day in Smith’s office. She told Smith that her mother, Grace Lodge, had heard of his conundrum at the United Nations, and she extended to Smith her mother’s offer to help. Grace Lodge had only a high-school education and had gone back to work only when she found herself widowed, with two young daughters, at the age of 35. She had found a job at the United Nations—it didn’t hurt that she spoke fluent Swedish—and by February 1962, when she reached out to Bob Smith, she’d become the executive officer in the office of Secretary-General U Thant, the highest-ranking official at the United Nations.
“From that moment on,” Smith wrote, “almost daily for the rest of the semester, Mrs. Lodge guided me through the intricacies of the United Nations organization, arranging interviews with key persons, briefing me before the meetings and opening key doors for our program.”
Grace Lodge introduced Smith to such U.N. luminaries as the American diplomat Ralph Bunche, who in 1950 had received the Nobel Peace Prize (the first African American to be so honored) for negotiating a peace agreement between Jews and Palestinians, and Chakravarthi Narasimhan, the incoming under-secretary for General Assembly Affairs. “She was absolutely indispensable,” Smith wrote of Grace Lodge, “and Drew later honored her by a ceremony on campus.”
The U.N. Semester
Past and Present
Semester on the United Nations founded by Political Science Chair Robert Smith. Gordon Weil and Charles Brouse appointed first program directors. Julius Mastro helps frame the program.
+Bay of Pigs Invasion
The first group of students begins studying at the U.N. twice weekly in the fall.
+Cuban Missile Crisis
Julius Mastro is named director. In gratitude to theU.N., Drew offers full-ride scholarships to children of U.N. employees.
+ Nelson Mandela sentenced to life in prison
Neal Maliky becomes director.
+ Mao Zedong launches Cultural Revolution in China
Richard Rhone tapped as director.
Doug Simon becomes co-director.
Jean Gazarian, secretary of the General Assembly, joins U.N. Semester staff.
+U.N. Security Council adopts mandatory arms embargo against South Africa
Doug Simon leaves U.N. Semester, but remains at Drew.
Richard Rhone dies, and Bill Messmer becomes director; U.N. Semester Internship Program begins.
Debra Liebowitz is named director. Program is granted NGO status; students begin attending General Assembly committee meetings. Internship program expands.
+The day after North Korea conducts its first nuclear weapons test, U.N. Semester students attend General Assembly First Committee’s meeting to hear the North Korean ambassador answer to the world.
Drew awards Jean Gazarian an honorary doctorate.
Carlos Yordán assumes directorship from Andrea Talentino, who directed the program in 2010; Jean Gazarian retires from the U.N. Semester after 35 years.
Fifty years later, Mary (Lodge) Wells deflects any credit for her cameo role in the creation of the U.N. Semester. She’s retired now, having founded and run a family service agency that today employs 500 people across seven counties in southern New Jersey. Credit for the U.N. Semester, she insists, goes to Bob Smith. “Professor Smith was a very brilliant and worldwide person and was always thinking of ways to expand our horizons,” says Wells, who enrolled in the U.N. Semester as a senior in the fall of 1963. “He knew how to make things happen by knowing people who could make things happen. You couldn’t go anywhere and get a better professor than Bob Smith.”
Still, before Smith’s plan for a U.N. Semester could win approval, there were diplomatic hurdles to clear. Although the plan had received wide support throughout the U.N., Smith wrote, there was “a reluctance to accept it, as it was to be sponsored by one university—Drew—and an American one at that.” Smith was told that none other than Dag Hammarskjöld, the U.N. secretary-general who had died in a plane crash a year earlier, had directed that a small conference room be built at U.N. headquarters expressly for students. The decision would come down to Narasimhan, an Indian, who also thought the plan was “excellent,” Smith wrote, “but that its approval would be awkward for him as one of his first decisions.”
Narasimhan conceded to Smith that he especially liked working with young people. Smith invited him to be the opening speaker in Drew’s inaugural U.N. Semester. “As I was leaving his office, assuming that he would have to disapprove,” Smith wrote, “he called me back and said that the idea was too good to turn down. He approved, and he would be our first speaker.”
Fifty years later, the Semester on the United Nations has educated upwards of 2,000 students from across the country on the organizational and philosophical underpinnings of the world’s most important international body. The program has evolved over the years—in the 1960s most students in the U.N. Semester were not from Drew—but in 2012 the fundamental ideas on which Bob Smith built the program remain remarkably intact. Twice a week students travel into Manhattan and meet in a classroom inside a 12-story office tower at First Avenue and 44th Street, known as the Church Center for the United Nations. Throughout the semester students hear from a parade of speakers whose work is rooted in the function of the United Nations—U.N. officials, mission employees, representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—and across the street they sit in on U.N. meetings covering all manner of global conflict and urgency.
In recent years dozens of Drew students have undertaken valuable internships at the United Nations and at NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, the International Peace Academy and Amnesty International. For countless alumni of the U.N. Semester, the experience has had a profound and lasting influence on their geopolitical worldview. For at least one, it led to a posting in the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. Fifty years after its impromptu founding was made possible by the selfless acts of one student’s mother, Drew’s Semester on the United Nations is one of only two such U.N.-based college programs in America. (The other is run by Occidental College in Los Angeles.)
“I probably owe my graduate degree to my U.N. Semester,” says Victoria Webbe ’09, who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and women’s studies and then a master’s in international studies from the New School. Today she’s completing a Scoville Fellowship at the Truman National Security Project, a leadership development organization in Washington, D.C.
“If I were understating, I would call that semester pivotal in my life,” Webbe says. “Probably more than any other class I took, it gave me a combination of theoretical and practical knowledge that has proven invaluable for me.”
Robert Kopech ’73 crafted what he calls a “multidimensional major in Russian studies.” His plan was to become a college professor and teach Soviet foreign policy. Vietnam still raged. The Cold War was in full bloom. The U.N. Semester seemed a natural path.
“With the background and the objectives I had, it was extremely interesting to get a better understanding for not just the function and structure of the United Nations, but how it worked,” says Kopech, today a vice president at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. “The general concepts for which it was founded, the objectives it was trying to deal with—all of that was definitely grist for my mill. I thought it was a great experience.”
Students receive eight credits for their U.N. Semester work and typically take two additional classes, for eight more credits, on campus. They also write term papers on any aspect of the U.N.’s work—peace and security issues, economic development, human rights, war crimes tribunals. “As long as it was U.N.-dependent,” says Doug Simon, who co-directed the program for 15 years starting in 1972. At one point, Simon says, he had to impose a 35-page limit on the research papers, the most verbose of which were consuming some 75 pages.
Simon’s partner as co-director was the late political science professor Richard Rhone, who came on board a year earlier and remained with the U.N. Semester for 33 years, until his death in 2004. No other program director has served nearly as long. Bill Carney ’84, who has spent his career in the federal government and who now works as a counselor in the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, says the passion that Rhone and Simon brought to the semester invariably infected students. “It was just a fantastic semester,” Carney says. “A lot of it had to do with Simon and Rhone. They really loved what they were doing, and that made you want to love it just as much.”
Carney says the directors’ ability to attract a rich variety of speakers to the program brought firsthand accounts of the day’s hot-button global issues into the classroom. He recalls, for example, Israeli and Palestinian diplomats articulating their positions on their long-standing divide. “It was just a great opportunity to hear both sides of the argument,” Carney says.
In 1977 Rhone brought to the Drew program a career U.N. official, a French national, who had been with the organization nearly from its opening day. Jean Gazarian had come to work at the United Nations in 1946 as a translator. In a career that spanned more than six decades, he worked closely with several secretaries-general. He spent 18 years as the director of the Division of General Assembly Affairs and was later appointed a senior fellow at the U.N. office in charge of training diplomats worldwide. Gazarian’s formal title with the U.N. Semester was assistant director, but he also served as a liaison, lecturer, tour guide and institutional historian. In the corridors of the U.N., Gazarian was the ultimate insider, and he often invoked his access when leading students on tours of the U.N. complex.
“He is so widely respected in the building, he would just wander to the point that we actually ended up on the floor of the Security Council,” recalls Victoria Webbe. “I remember him just breezing past the security guard at the door, just kind of waving, just wandering into this space that we should not have been.”
Gazarian was often a witness to history, and twice a week each fall he’d share his memories and his lessons with the Drew students. He was there, for example, on Oct. 12, 1960, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev did (or did not) pound his shoe on his desk to protest remarks by a Philippine diplomat about Soviet aggression. In 2007 Drew awarded Gazarian an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. Earlier this year he stepped down after 35 years with the U.N. Semester, having played a singular role in its success.
“He’s the living history of the U.N.,” says Political Science Associate Professor Debra Liebowitz, who directed the U.N. Semester shortly after Rhone’s death and who will direct it again in 2013. “Having him in the program has just been invaluable. He would provide historical context for a lot of the issues we were talking about. There is absolutely no way anyone could know the history the way he knows the history.”
Under the direction of Liebowitz, the U.N. Semester received certification as an NGO, giving students access to meetings throughout the U.N. complex. Liebowitz says she made this effort so students could get a firsthand look at how the countries of the world conduct international relations. They have sat in on the Rwanda war crimes court and heard discussions about the strategy of embedding humanitarian aid workers with the military and George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq.
When Liebowitz woke up on Oct. 9, 2006, and read that North Korea had just conducted its first test of a nuclear weapon, she knew she’d be bringing her students the next day to the meeting of the General Assembly’s First Committee, which oversees arms control negotiations. During the committee meeting, Liebowitz recalls, a student turned to her and said, “‘Oh, my God, that’s the North Korean ambassador’—who was having to defend, in front of the world community, their detonating a nuclear weapon.”
Fifty years on, the U.N. Semester has helped sustain the stellar reputation of Drew’s Department of Political Science. For Drew students, the semester provides a real-time window into world affairs that can’t be replicated in any other setting. This fall, it might be the Syrian uprising, Egypt’s fragile new democracy or the evolving state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“It’s the most amazing—and I know all the students would say this—capstone experience if you are interested in international politics,” Liebowitz says. “Not because you’re necessarily interested in the United Nations per se, but because it’s this place where you’re able to see international politics happen.”
Not Your Typical Course
U.N. Semester Memories via Facebook
“The opportunity to study with Doug Simon and Dick Rhone was the gift of the U.N. Semester. The bus rides in and out of the city often turned into impromptu lectures from two of the most insightful and engaging minds Drew had to offer.” —Kevin Barney ’83
“Benjamin Shedlock ’09 and I once groggily sat outside of a General Assembly conference room, fully spent from a long night of research and writing. Suddenly the doors burst open and a whirlwind of journalists and camera flashes jolted us to attention. The mob was swirling around Bill Clinton, who led the procession past Ben and me. Somehow the sight of two dumbfounded college seniors caught his attention and he waved to us. It took us about 10 seconds to wave back, 30 more to regain our composure and before a minute had passed we were on our phones. ‘Hey Ma, you wouldn’t believe who just waved to me!’” —Seth Gorenstein ’09
“I participated in the U.N. Semester my senior year. One afternoon, while walking to the bus, we noticed a movie production crew filming a man running repeatedly up the sidewalk in front of the flags. I realized that the man they were filming was Woody Allen. After about the third or fourth time I walked right up to him and said, “Don’t you think you’d run faster with sneakers on?” He smiled and replied, “As it is, the camera can’t keep up with me anyway!” The movie was Manhattan. I was happy to see that the scene I watched them film actually made it into the movie.” —David Ellovich ’79
50th Anniversary Celebration
Join President Vivian A. Bull and faculty emeriti Doug Simon and Bill Messmer for the United Nations Semester 50th Anniversary Celebration on April 12, 2013 at 1 United Nations Plaza, New York, N.Y. Learn more >