The Return of Civil Discourse?

Santa Barbara Institute on World Affairs to Offer Series of Speakers on Global Topics

If all goes as Ted Tedesco plans, Santa Barbara will soon become known as a center for global thought, and the former American Airlines executive just might save democracy along the way. That’s the hope for the Santa Barbara Institute on World Affairs, which Tedesco founded last year in order to bring prominent speakers to town, promote civil discourse from divergent standpoints, and engage the audience to ask questions and get involved in issues that matter. The institute’s inaugural event will be on Saturday, February 26, at the Lobero Theatre, where nine experts from UCSB will present their views on a variety of relevant topics.

“Issues that need to be discussed and debated and decided have been so polarized that there’s very little room, if any, for civil discourse,” said Tedesco, who retired to Santa Barbara in 1995 and quickly became involved in civic affairs and charity work. “So I’m trying to structure this institute with a prime interest in developing that civil discourse.”

Ted Tedesco
Paul Wellman

To ensure that the speaking engagements have impact, Tedesco will inform the audience about each speaker in the days leading up to the event. “They might know them,” said Tedesco, who plans to bring some of the world’s brightest thinkers to town, “but they might not know what they’ve been saying lately.” That way, the audience involvement and participation will be maximized, which is a key part of the insitute’s success. “There will be a lot of dialogue between the speakers and the audience,” promised Tedesco, who may be best known locally for being the chairman of the governor-appointed group that investigated the Santa Barbara County split. After each event, the audience — which will attend for free but may be part of an invited guest list, depending on the event — will be given instructions on how to follow up with the issues that concern them. On top of that, Tedesco will film, edit, and present the speeches as video clips and podcasts available for download for free online. He expects to use the institute’s Web site,, for this sort of dissemination.

Though it’s still a new idea, the cast of characters already lined up in support is impressive: attorneys John Busby and Brian Rapp, former SBCC president Peter MacDougall, publishing magnate Sara Miller McCune, tech wizard Mark Sylvester, and UCSB dean of social science Melvin Oliver round out the nonprofit’s board of directors. Financial support is already coming from both the Santa Barbara Foundation and Hutton Foundation, and the Channel City Club — which also puts on a speakers’ series — has given its endorsement. The region’s most prominent speaker’s series, UCSB Arts & Lectures, is not an official partner yet, but Tedesco said he would welcome such a relationship.

For the inaugural event, Tedesco was initially hoping to address the world’s economic woes with a financial powerhouse session, featuring such dignitaries as Alan Simpson from U.S. Deficit Commission. But when he ran into a “stone wall” when it came to scheduling such big names, he decided to tap Santa Barbara’s resources, and found a wealth of relevant talent at UCSB. In addition to Dean Oliver’s opening remarks on the importance of civic discourse for the future democracy, the February 26 event will feature Mark Juergensmeyer predicting the planet’s next 10 years; Richard Falk and Hilal Elver on climate change; Richard Appelbaum on the rise of China and the implications for American foreign policy; Benjamin Jerry Cohen on the future of money; Eve Darian Smith on human rights; Michael Curtin on media sources; Michael Stohl on shifts in political power; and Cynthia Stohl on cybernetworks and the Internet’s impact on the world. Each will have about 15 minutes to present, and then the audience will get to ask questions. The speeches will start at 8:30 a.m. and wrap up by around 1 p.m. Altogether, Tedesco says the morning’s varied topics will “set the stage for what we’re trying to accomplish with the institute.”

At the end of the day, Tedesco’s intent is to build the Santa Barbara Institute on World Affairs into something like the internationally renowned Aspen Institute. And he believes he can bring it, thanks in part to his varied career, which — in addition to his 14 years with American Airlines — includes work as a city manager in Boulder and San Jose and as a vice chancellor for the University of Colorado. That gives him valuable perspectives on modern life from the corporate, government, and educational perspectives, so he just might be able to attain his goal, which is “to be identified as a group that does things on a very sophisticated, knowledgeable basis with the best speakers we can find, while giving the community an opportunity to interact with those kinds of people.”


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