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Peace a vocation for dean of new school

The priest will lead a University of San Diego program to train relief workers and diplomats.

August 26, 2007|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- How much world peace will $50 million buy?

That is not exactly the question facing Father William Headley in his first weeks as the founding dean of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego. But Headley is in the enviable position of leading an institution with that amount to train generations of diplomats, relief workers and experts in conflict resolution.

That's because Kroc, the billionaire McDonald's hamburger chain heiress, left $50 million after her 2003 death for a new peace studies school and a related, preexisting think tank at the Catholic university perched on the bluffs above Sea World.

She previously had given the university about $30 million that was used to, among other things, construct a 90,000-square-foot, Spanish-style building to house those programs.

Aware that many colleges offer traditional degrees in international relations, Kroc wanted something different, a place devoted to what she described as "not only talking about peace, but making peace."

Her motto seems to align with Headley's life story. "This is not a job for me; it's a vocation. It's in my bones," said the 69-year-old priest, who has vast overseas experience, in part from his previous high-ranking job at Catholic Relief Services.

A former counselor to the agency's president, he helped coordinate aid amid ethnic strife in Africa and the Balkans and in tsunami-ravaged parts of South Asia.

Headley is determined to show that peace studies deserves its Aug. 1 elevation into a full-blooded school -- one of six, including business and law, at the 7,500-student university.

Skeptics should take note of all the conflicts around the world today, Headley said.

"Particularly now and particularly in our country, there are some questions about how the standard military approach to these things is working," he said. "People are looking for some new answers," he said during an interview in the six-year-old Kroc building where a portrait of the late donor, who had owned the Padres baseball team in San Diego, is prominently displayed.

Headley declined to state his own position on the Iraq war. He described himself as generally, but not absolutely, pacifistic.

"I have to allow in my intellectual thinking for the possibility of supporting" a war, he said, adding that he has long studied the Catholic doctrine of "a just war," which permits war only as a last resort against an aggressor and only if it does not create evils worse than the one eliminated.

Many of his views were forged in the tumult of the 1960s. As a young, white, Philadelphia-born priest in the Congregation of the Holy Spirit order, he worked in African American parishes in South Carolina during the civil rights movement.

Although not an active protester against the Vietnam War, he said he remains deeply affected by the experience of his younger brother, a Marine who was badly wounded in Vietnam in 1968 and remains disabled.

Headley rose to become the leader of his order's eastern U.S. province and later headed its international efforts at peace and justice out of Rome. He has researched peace-making efforts in India, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Headley, who has a doctorate in sociology from New York University, established a graduate program in conflict resolution and peace studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where he taught.

Though he is still considering his plans for the San Diego school, he is expected to sharply expand a small master's degree program that began five years ago and was run through another academic unit. It enrolls about a dozen students and is expected to have about 30 within two years.

There are plans to hire about five professors initially while continuing to have some courses taught by teachers from other parts of the university. A peace studies program for undergraduates is to be upgraded from what is now a minor to a full degree major by next year, officials said.

Headley also hopes to raise the profiles of the related Kroc-funded think tank that has a solid track record of sponsoring a wide range of international research, exchanges and peace activism and of a separate center, also to be merged into the new school, that focuses on issues along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The peace school's mission goes beyond the formal diplomacy Headley describes as negotiating treaties at "mahogany tables."

Courses for the yearlong master's degree include international negotiations, comparative religious ethics, environmental justice and computerized geographic mapping.

Most of this year's graduate students spent much of July in refugee camps in Tanzania, on a trip they organized to do research and develop mobile health clinics. Alumni are working in international diplomacy, human rights organizations and at U.S. and overseas charities, among other places.

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