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Stanford Report, October 10, 2001

'What Matters' to Scott Sagan: Improved international security and dedicated teaching


It was the evening of Sept. 11 in Washington, D.C., and Scott Sagan wasn't sure whether to go ahead with the next day's schedule. After the morning's terrorist attacks, he doubted whether security experts from the RAND Corporation in Pentagon City, Va., would still be able to meet with a group of Stanford honors students.

So he called Nora Bensahel, a RAND employee and former student of his, who told him that she had already talked to all of the experts about the meeting. Their answer to the question of canceling the meeting was, according to her, "not just no, but hell no." The Stanford students and RAND experts met as planned, discussing the terrorist attacks and the appropriate U.S. response -- this, while the smoke was still rising from the Pentagon.

Sagan recounted this story Oct. 3 at an intimate gathering of students, faculty, and community members in the "What Matters to Me and Why" series. For Sagan, the story was an example of the two things that matter to him most: improving national and international security, and passing on one's own knowledge and dedication through teaching.

Sagan, 46, has been at Stanford since 1987. He is a professor of political science and co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation. He recently co-edited a book entitled Planning the Unthinkable: How New Powers Will Use Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons (Cornell University Press, 2000).

For his "What Matters" talk, Sagan reflected on his own path to a career in international security. He talked about the role models who have helped him along the way: his grandfather, his father and three professors who played key roles in his academic career.

Sagan's grandfather, J. Waskom Pickett, was a bishop in the United Methodist Church who spent much of his adult life as a missionary in India. "He encouraged me to believe that it is important, whatever you do, to contribute somehow to making the world a slightly better place," said Sagan. He also attributes his interest in South Asia to his grandfather. "I'd like to think that my grandfather would be proud to know that I'm at least trying to improve the security of that region that he loved so much," he added.

His second role model is his late father, John Sagan, who was for many years vice president and treasurer of the Ford Motor Co. Sagan says his father's advice was especially helpful when he was still trying to pick a career. "He used to say that the goal in college is to figure out what it is you like to do best, and then to figure out some way of getting paid to do that one thing," Sagan said. "I found out in college that I loved political science, I loved history, I loved reading and talking and writing about international relations, foreign strategy and foreign policies. Then I figured out a way to do that for a living."

Finally, there are his academic role models -- people like Phil Williams. Williams was Sagan's adviser at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, where Sagan spent his junior year of college. After Sagan left Aberdeen, and without telling him ahead of time, Williams had a paper of Sagan's published in the Royal Air Force Quarterly. "I think all would-be scholars have a sneaking suspicion that maybe they can't really do it, they can't really write stuff that other people would want to read," Sagan said. "[Having the article published] was a confidence builder."

Sagan also mentioned Stanley Hoffman and Sam Huntington, two of his teachers during graduate school at Harvard, as academic role models. "[Huntington] taught me how important it is to say and write what you think is right, regardless of whether it's conventional wisdom in Washington, regardless of whether it's politically correct on campus," he said.

After completing his prepared remarks, Sagan fielded questions from the audience, many of which, to no surprise, centered on the American response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Sagan emphasized the importance of balancing pragmatic and ethical concerns; the need for an international, non-religious coalition against terrorists; and the importance of maintaining cherished freedoms while taking the necessary steps to prevent a recurrence of such terrorist acts.

The "What Matters to Me and Why" series, which is supported by the Deans for Religious Life and the Associated Students, provides a forum for Stanford faculty and staff to talk about their personal beliefs, values and motivations. The next speaker in the series, LaDoris Cordell, is scheduled for Oct. 24 at noon in the Memorial Church side chapel. Cordell is vice provost for campus relations and special counselor to the president.

Photo: L.A. Cicero