Insights and Analysis

A Tribute to Renowned Asia Expert, Professor Robert Scalapino

October 20, 2010

By Gordon Hein

Robert Scalapino

Professor Robert Scalapino. Photo:

Note: This is an excerpt from a tribute to Professor Robert Scalapino, delivered at a symposium in his honor on October 14 hosted by the Institute of East Asian Studies at the University of California-Berkeley and co-sponsored by The Asia Foundation, The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), and The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The author of 553 articles and 39 books or monographs, Scalapino is the Robson Research Professor of Government & Emeritus of Political Science at University of California-Berkeley. He founded UC Berkeley’s Institute of East Asian Studies and is the founder and first chairman of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing Bob Scalapino most of my life. I had Bob as a professor when I was an undergraduate majoring in political science here at Berkeley. And when I was in graduate school, I took his seminars on Comparative Politics and International Relations. He also served on my dissertation committee, when I wrote on Indonesian foreign policy. Indeed, it was Bob who arranged a research fellowship position for me at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, which set the stage for what turned out to be a lifelong attachment to Indonesia and a career with The Asia Foundation that began in Indonesia. In my 29 years with the Foundation, I have had numerous opportunities to spend time with Bob, to travel with Bob, and to witness Bob in action in many different settings, whether Board of Trustee visits to different countries, numerous conferences from Bali to Ulaanbaatar, meetings with high-level officials, even a memorable 8-day trip to North Korea in 1992.

I first came to Berkeley as a 17-year-old freshman in 1969. The Vietnam War was raging, the campus was a hotbed of activism and debate, and of course I was caught up in all the excitement and drama over the war. But it’s safe to say that at 17, I had a lot more passion than knowledge. And at some point, in the next year or so, I decided that if I was going to have strong opinions about Asia, then perhaps I should start learning something about it. So I enrolled in Poli Sci 145C (I still remember that) which was Bob’s class on Politics in Northeast Asia. And in taking Bob’s class, not only did I become even more interested in Asia and U.S.-Asia relations – I also started to get smarter about it. One of the things I remember most from those undergraduate days was how much Bob was respected by the students, even by those who didn’t agree with him. In a political environment as heated and polarized as Berkeley in 1971, this was an incredible testimony not only to his academic standing but also his reputation for integrity and character as a person – and those of us who have known Bob know that that integrity and character have never waivered.

It has often been noted that Bob is an intrepid traveler. In my many travels with him, my single greatest challenge was just trying to keep up with him!  He could cut through a huge crowd at the airport in Beijing or Jakarta or Colombo faster than anyone else I know. Of course, the other thing about travelling with Bob in Asia is that, no matter where you go, there will invariably be some of Bob’s former students there, usually in very high positions of government or academia, and often out at the airport to meet him personally and pay their respects. And of course Bob has an incredible range of contacts in every Asian country – everyone wants to know what he thinks and everyone wants his advice.

This leads me to another important thing I learned from Bob – the difference between being smart and being wise. In the academic world, in the policy world, in the international development world – I have been fortunate to meet a large number of very smart people, and even a few I would characterize as brilliant;  people who can dazzle you with their intellect and their wealth of knowledge. But people who are both smart and wise are far more rare: People who can take complex issues and analyze and dissect them and then present them in ways that aren’t meant to dazzle, but to reveal and inform, to help you the listener to understand the issues better and increase your own knowledge. People who can sift through huge amounts of information and many competing points of view, and come up with conclusions that make sense and hold together over time, and do it in a way that is always collegial and advances shared knowledge and understanding. This is real wisdom, and it is a special quality, and Bob has more of it than anyone else I know.

One thing is clear in trying to summarize Bob’s career: that by advancing knowledge and understanding of U.S.-Asia relations in the way that he has, he has also contributed immensely to the expansion and improvement of those relations – perhaps more so than any other single individual we can think of. But, for me, even more than that is the sheer number of lives he has touched in significant ways on both sides of the Pacific: through his teaching, his writing, his institutional leadership, his policy analysis and advice, his mentorship, and by always being willing to share his knowledge, his experience, his wisdom with all of us, and with countless others.

I’ll always be grateful that I came within Bob’s orbit some 40 years ago. And, on behalf of all of your former students, Bob, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything you’ve done and for the example you have set for all of us.

Gordon Hein is The Asia Foundation’s vice president of programs in San Francisco. He can be reached a [email protected].


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