Frank Baber: The Dare That Made him a Lawyer

Frank Baber is a visiting research fellow at RWI and the Fulbright-Lund Distinguished Chair in Public International Law.

Walter F. Baber holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of North Carolina and the J.D. from the University of San Diego. He is a professor in the Environmental Sciences and Policy Program and the Graduate Center for Public Policy and Administration at California State University, Long Beach. He is also a member of the Lead Faculty Group of the Amsterdam-based Earth System Governance Project.

Baber was the 2009 Fulbright Distinguished Chair of Environmental Policy at the Politenco di Torino. He was a Visiting Fellow in the Research School of the Social Sciences at Australian National University in 2012. And, in 2016, he was the Fulbright Distinguished Visiting Professor of Political Science at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna.

Baber’s 2009 book, Global Democracy and Sustainable Jurisprudence: Deliberative Environmental Law (co-authored with Robert V. Bartlett) won the 2011 International Studies Association Book Award for international ethics.

Where are you from?

I’m from San Diego, California.

What is your academic background?

Well I have been a political science professor most of my life. I have also taught at law school so I have both a PhD and law degree. I have kind of hopped back and forth and changed hats as I went. But for the most part I have been a political science professor since I got my PhD 10 years before I got my JD.

Why Law?

Well, it was a bit of challenge that was thrown down to me by some of my students. This happened a long time ago when I was teaching a course at the National Judicial College to a group of peculiar students on law and public policy in United States.

All the students there were sitting judges and they wondered why I had never attended law school. I told them that I had already gotten a PhD and that more didn’t seem necessary. But they spent the next six weeks ridiculing me about it. Later, I got the opportunity to pursue a law degree because both my wife and I were on the faculty at the University of Nevada and she got an offer in California while I got a job offer in Tennessee. We chose California over Tennessee, opening up room in my calendar (so to speak).

I took the opportunity to take three years off and go to law school simply because I could, which is a lousy reason to go to law school. Intellectual curiosity is the worst reason, but ‘just because you can’ is the second worst reason.

Did you go back and prove your students wrong?

Haha well I never caught up with them actually.

The whole reason behind it was the challenge?

Well they made me start thinking about it, thinking seriously about it. I had considered it previously, right up to my Master’s degree. But, while I had thought about it before, quite frankly the study of law just didn’t seem interesting enough – while working on a PhD in Political Science did. The other thing is law school in the US doesn’t pay for itself like a PhD in Political Science could at the time.  It doesn’t anymore, of course.

You don’t regret it?

Not at all, I wouldn’t be sitting here if I hadn’t done both degrees. The position I have is a really competitive appointment and after being here since September, it’s clear to me that the reason why Lund wanted me was because I had those two skill sets together.

What does being a Fulbright-Lund Distinguished Chair in International Human Rights entail?

The Fulbright programme was created in the 1950s under the US senator Jim William Fulbright. The idea was that it would be a good thing for American students and scholars to go abroad for some period of time while also bringing in people from other areas of the world to the US, so it flows both ways. I constantly tell students to apply for the Fulbright since most of them go to students actually. This is my third Fulbright, but my first for a full academic year.  And, it’s my first appointment that is housed in a law faculty.

Can a Swedish student apply for a Fulbright then?

Yes, both faculty and students can but they have to study in the US. It seems a bit unfair since there are American Fulbright in about 70 different countries. Most student Fulbrighters use it for Master’s degrees – it’s a one year appointment so it’s ideally suited for a Master’s degree. Some people just go because they want to extend their studies without necessarily pursuing a degree. Half of the US students going abroad aren’t going abroad to pursue their own research or a degree, instead they are going as English language tutors.

What about your previous work experience?

My home institution is California State University of Long Beach, and I have been there almost 16 years. That’s where I spend most of my time. Happily, a couple of years ago they started pressuring the faculty to develop online classes, which I didn’t really want to do. Then I wised up, and I am actually teaching my classes right now back home. I didn’t have to take time off without pay or take a sabbatical. I can come here since I’m teaching my classes online. I still don’t like it much, but it allows me to be here. My second Fulbright was at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna (which was two years ago) and my first Fulbright was in 2009 at Politenco di Torino. Some fantastic experiences, but this is by far the best experience.

How come you chose RWI and Lund?

During the periods when I wasn’t pursuing a Fulbright, I had served on the selection committees – the Commission kind of liked me since they could either put me on political science or law depending on where they needed me most. I became aware of the Lund Chair in that way, and had been considering it for some time.

Anyway, it seemed like the right time and I received the award last January and accepted the position immediately. RWI published an annual report with a strategic plan (which I hadn’t seen) and when I finally read it, I found that environmental rights are prominent part of the Institute’s plan going forward.

So, sometimes dumb luck is very important, but you cannot be lucky if you don’t try. It was a nice coincidence of circumstances, however, because it opened up a lot of opportunities.

I was telling someone over fika this morning how I have gotten much more involved in the overall activities of the Wallenberg Institute then I ever did on the two previous Fulbright positions, which is very gratifying.  Part of it is good fit, but mostly it’s in the nature of the Institute.

The organisational culture in the Institute is very open, very non-hierarchical, and the emphasis is on what you can do and what you can contribute. If you’ve got something to contribute, then people don’t particularly care what your job designation is, where you come, or how long you are going to be here.

I’m going to Bangkok, for example, next month to do some training with the Institute’s Jakarta Office and I think that will have a big payoff since one of the other major things I’m doing is working on a conference here in Lund on environmental rights. The conference will occur around September-October.

Was this what you expected from your life? Travelling with your work?

I never really thought of it. Getting a Fulbright in United States is very competitive, only one professor out of hundred does it so it’s not something you can really plan for. This one in particular has been the highlight of my career in terms of constantly being engaged in something that is meaningful and interesting.

What do you want get out of the experience of working here at RWI?

I told the director that the only thing I would consider evidence of a failed Fulbright is if I left on May 31 and I didn’t know when I would be coming back. I already know that by then we will have dates scheduled for the conference and I’m hoping that I will be involved in other Institute activities. I hope and believe this will be a long-term relationship.

What’s the plan after this?

Well, there are short-term Fulbright’s for a specific project during a 4-6 weeks period that I would like to do – allowing me to return to Lund. In the long run,

I would like to get some PhD students interested in the environmental rights project I’m involved in because I believe you shouldn’t retire without academically and professionally procreating (so to speak). It’s important to leave something behind, and I would love to recruit some of the next generation of people who are interested in environmental rights on the global level.

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