Meet the President: An Interview
Hiram Chodosh reflects on his life and career in the new issue of CMC Magazine
NOTHING SERVES as a better metaphor for Hiram Chodosh’s approach to people, and to his role as CMC president, than the image of a table. For him, tables reflect the essence of the collaborative process.
“Tables are the places where we gather to share and discuss our thoughts,” explains the 51-year-old former dean of the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah. “If it’s a round table, even better. There’s no hierarchy, no head. Everyone’s equal. I love working in that kind of dynamic environment. That’s where I’ve always done my best work.”
In the course of 20 years in higher education, Chodosh—that’s CHO-dahsh, in case you’re wondering—has collaborated at plenty of tables: as an innovative educator, administrator, and law school dean; as a prolific scholar and author; and as a global justice expert whose mediation work has taken him to hotspots in Indonesia, India, and Iraq.
If you happened to hear his early remarks as CMC President-elect last December, you might recall that Chodosh invited the entire CMC community to join him around “the kitchen table” to discuss the College’s future. (And let’s not forget the pool table—Chodosh won tournaments during his years at Yale Law School. If he challenges you to a game of 8-ball at The Hub, don’t go easy on him.)
In the early fall, CMC Magazine sat down with him at another table to learn more about his upbringing, his experiences domestic and abroad, his family, and his excitement at becoming CMC’s fifth president.
CMC’s birth in 1946 is often one of the first things that people mention about us. CMC is so “young” in comparison to its peers, like Amherst and Swarthmore. Do you think our age is a disadvantage?
Not at all: in fact, what I really admire and appreciate about CMC is its youth. This College is scrappy. Many of our early, successful alums didn’t enjoy the same resources that some older institutions had, and they still managed to succeed and make so much for themselves. I think that ethos of swimming uphill and showing accomplishment is what I love and identify with at CMC. Many institutions in higher education have greater challenges with innovation. It’s harder for them because they’re burdened by so much tradition and history that there’s not as much natural drive and motivation to improve. What I’ve found here is an ethos of innovation and critical self-assessment, combined with one of the most eminent liberal arts programs in the country. We can do everything that our competitive peers can do, but also we can do better because we have this forward-looking, we-can-do-it perspective.
What did Priya, our new First Lady, and your son Caleb and daughter Saja think about moving from Utah to Southern California and CMC?
Priya grew up in Northern California, and I have a brother in Mar Vista—so California isn’t unfamiliar to us. It’s always hard to move, but the entire family was very excited. Opportunities like this come up maybe once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky. Priya and the kids love the whole environment of Claremont, a city known for its “trees and PhDs,” and especially how close we are to campus and the village. The chance to be part of the larger CMC family has been very rewarding for all of us.
You’ve said that if CMC had been “just any liberal arts college,” you wouldn’t have left the S. J. Quinney Law School. Why?
I’ve found that many liberal arts colleges have a tendency to be remote—geographically and programmatically speaking. Higher education more generally and liberal arts specifically can seem too removed from the world, too self-absorbed. What really excited me about CMC was the level of its real-world engagement, whether you’re talking about the incredible speakers who visit the Ath every semester or the drive and motivation of our students—not just to succeed in the private sector, but to make a real, substantial difference in society. I really relate well to the impulse to put learning to work for others.
You started in higher education in 1993 as an educator and administrator at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University School of Law, then you went to the University of Utah to become Dean of the S.J. Quinney School of Law in 2006. Now you’re the fifth president of CMC. Your family has had to move around a lot—like a military family.
(laughs) I suppose so. Well, actually, it’s not quite that bad. I was in Cleveland for thirteen years, and in Utah for seven. We haven’t been in constant motion, but when the opportunity arose at CMC, I think the family recognized the opportunity to become part of an extraordinary academic community. We also realized how important it is for our whole family to learn new things and take on new situations. We all share that sense of adventure.
You’ve had quite a sense of adventure when it comes to your international reform work.
Yes, I’ve worked on some tough issues in some pretty tough places— places that seemed impervious to change and innovation.
Corruption in Indonesia; backlog and delay in the Indian court system; political and legal sectarianism in Iraq. My work in India is the longest-standing. In 1996, there was no such thing as mediation in the Indian legal system. Flash forward to today and you’ll find that thousands of cases are being resolved each year, and there’s a really innovative model, an Indian model, in place. The relaxation of some basic assumptions about mediation and an openness to grow new processes from Indian social conditions have driven that success.
Why are you drawn to tackling difficult issues in places around the world?
I’ve always had an interest in the different conditions under which people live and the conflicts that grow out of their interaction. This has been an essential question for me. Most of my work has focused on how to depolarize conflict. My early interest in foreign culture and language, intellectual history, and law, and my current commitments to mediating conflict have deep roots. People come at a certain topic or question from two or more different perspectives, identities, sets of conditions, and often fail to see eye to eye initially because their values are shaped by their identities and the places they’re from. Theater, law, mediation in parallel ways all seek to humanize that conflict through exchange and dialogue and conversation. In places like Iraq, you really see these issues, both the devastation and the humanity of continued hope for a more secure, safer, more prosperous society.
I think my commitment to these issues started much earlier in my life. My maternal grandmother was one of the first people in my life who really made me aware of this larger perspective, and that helped me understand much more clearly the conditions of conflict around me, when I was growing up.
Your grandmother? How so?
Her name was Rose, and we called her Nana. She was the oldest of her generation in my extended family, and I was the youngest of mine. We spent a lot of time together, playing cards at the table in her kitchenette. She told me lots of stories in order to make me understand how fortunate I was, stories about what little she had, stories about the violence she fled in the early 20th century, stories about the importance of family.
In an important way, she taught me to think about experiences beyond the immediate parameters of my own. That stimulated my imagination and anticipation of those worlds. I’m sure she wasn’t happy when I started traveling. When I told her I was going to study in the Soviet Union, I’m confident she was not pleased, but her humor helped. I remember her parting words before that trip: “say hello to the Tsar for me.”
You received an undergraduate degree in history from Wesleyan, but you didn’t head directly for law school. You worked for a while in a market research firm. You even flirted with acting and directing. Why?
I expected to end up in the academic world but I wanted to pursue some different experiences before I made up my mind. And I’m so glad I did, not just because of the complementary things I learned but also the self- realization I experienced. The business world taught me how much I loved negotiation, and theater taught me important social skills in active listening, the humanization of conflicting points of view, and how to improve the emotional dimension of experience. Yet neither had the intellectual challenge that I longed for, and law provided the opportunity to seek that greater challenge.
What did you like about acting?
It goes back to my fascination with how to reconcile the collision of different perspectives, emotions, experiences. I studied the Meisner Technique. It’s very focused on moment-to-moment responses of one actor to another, when their narrative and emotional lines bring them into direct collision. To be trained in it was really exhilarating, and again helped me work through the issue of conflict in a much more emotional and experiential way.
It sounds, in its way, like a form of mediation.
Yes, that’s exactly right. The mediator does for the colliding actors what they often cannot do for themselves and then moves them in directions where they can create better, forward looking outcomes (rarely seen in theater).
You mention the table in your grandmother’s kitchenette, and in your first remarks as President-elect, you also invited the CMC community to join you at “the kitchen table.” It’s more than a just a metaphor to you, right?
Yes, it’s much more than that. A lot of my intellectual training, actually, the core of it, occurred at my family’s dinner table, not in school. I think that was where I first really learned to pay attention to what was going on in the world and be engaged in conversations where I would be challenged.
My siblings and parents were very independent-minded, very critical- minded, and I just remember the debates we’d have at the table. As a little boy in the midst of a very forceful, intellectual discussion, I had to get my two cents in. I learned to have opinions and to be able to back them up. Argument in my family was a kind of sport. I think I’m really very comfortable with disagreement because of that. Sometimes I savor it for the ability to get to a deeper level of understanding, or maybe it just makes me feel like I’m at home.
It must have toughened your skin, especially for your future mediation work in India and elsewhere.
That—and having four older siblings, including three older brothers … Yes, it does toughen your skin. But it also gives you a greater sense of empathy—the confidence that you can disagree sharply with people you love, people you would do anything to support.
At Yale Law School, you met two important people in your life: your wife Priya and your mentor Harold Koh. In fact, you met Priya in one of Koh’s courses.
That’s right. We were both in our second year. Priya was working on a master’s of international relations and she bravely got into Harold’s course on “International Institutions, International Regimes.” She didn’t have legal training, but she knew the international relations literature well. I had to cut in line at the end-of-semester party to meet her. We didn’t start seeing each other until later that academic year, and that summer we sent Harold a postcard from Paris. “Dear Professor Koh: three points, we met in your class; we’re now in Paris; we toasted you last night. Perhaps you should add a third heading to your seminar (international romance).” Harold read that card to his seminar students for years to extol the virtues of taking his class. (laughs)
How does Priya feel about being First Lady?
She’s excited about it. She’s spent 20 years in and around higher education, not just with me but in her own right, too. She’s worked for an educational non-profit in NYC dedicated to helping kids (who didn’t have resources) to go to college. She taught political science (IR and Indian Politics) at Case. And she has two graduate degrees—in international relations and an MBA. She spent a lot of time with me reading through multiple-choice questions for the bar, so she could have easily had a JD as well. And as a communications and marketing expert, she’s worked in a variety of academic disciplines, from engineering to information technology. She’s very comfortable in the college environment. She’s been a great mentor and counselor to young people and to families, and I think that informal role will really appeal to her, and she already loves the students and the entire CMC family.
During your Utah deanship, you also shuttled between Salt Lake City and the Baghdad Green Zone to work on the Iraqi constitution. That must have added considerable pressures to your workload.
I traveled to Iraq, but I also did much of my work through videoconferencing. I’d juggle the duties of my day job, and then work at all hours of the night on documents to get them ready by the time it was morning in Baghdad. I worked as part of our thematic teams on many areas, including corruption, constitutional revisions, and judicial independence in particular. Our focus was to help find ways for Iraq to realize a vision of a federalist system. Sometimes, when videoconferencing wasn’t enough, I had to go there for special meetings or important work with my colleagues.
What did your family think?
The first time that I told them I had to fly to Iraq, my son and daughter said: “What? No way! That is the dumbest thing we’ve ever heard! Dad, you are not going to Iraq!”
Why did you go anyways?
My view at the time was, look, we’re sending these 18-year-old kids there to fight, and I have a real opportunity to make a difference. I didn’t feel that I could ever look one of those young soldiers in the face and tell them that I was too scared to spend time in the heavily-fortified Green Zone while they were getting into combat all over the country with much less protection. On that ethical basis, I just couldn’t fathom saying no. I had to go. I had to help. It was a real opportunity to use the experience and resources that I had to confront a serious set of problems.
Your work in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East also has had a deep effect on how you view the nature of work and the goals of higher education. You’ve gained real insights in the course of your travels, haven’t you?
Definitely so. My work has taught me about the major challenges we face around the world, and the kind of critical thinking, collaboration, and problem- solving we need. In this sense, higher education bears a heavy burden to supply the human resources we need to tackle our steepest obstacles. I’ve also learned a great deal from the resilience and ambition of the people I’ve met and worked with, even people I’ve met while on the street or in the markets.
I like to tell a story about a mason I encountered in Amman who described his work this way: “I am building the most glorious house of worship that humanity has ever known.” That story made me realize how we tend to collapse into the pedestrian functions of our daily work—the papers we correct, the Powerpoints we prepare, the meetings we slog through—and how we need to infuse all of that basic, important work with greater purpose. I believe that higher education would be more responsive, more successful if it committed itself to improving the human condition through its teaching, research, and service missions. Again, that’s why I love the ethos of the founders of CMC and the real-world impulse of the school, to put learning to work, to make a difference.
—Nick Owchar ’90
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