These interviews took place on January 29 and 30, 2016, in Mechanicsville, Virginia.Learn more about Richard Couto
SCARPINO: So, as promised when the recorders were off, I’m going to start by reading a little statement. Today is Friday, January 29, 2016. My name is Philip Scarpino, Professor of History at Indiana University–Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI). I’m Director of Oral History for the Tobias Center for the Study of Leadership Excellence also at IUPUI. I’m interviewing Dr. Richard A. Couto at a hotel near his home in Mechanicsville, Virginia. This interview is a joint undertaking by the Tobias Center at IUPUI and the International Leadership Association.
We will include a more detailed biographical statement with the transcript of this interview. For now, I’ll provide an abbreviated overview of Dr. Couto’s career.
Richard Couto has had an impressive career as a civically engaged leader and as a scholar of leadership. He earned his PhD in Political Science from the University of Kentucky in 1974. He has held a number of university-based appointments, including but not limited to the following: Vanderbilt University, Director, Center for Health Services, 1975-1988; University of Richmond, Founding Faculty Member of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, 1991-2002; James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership, University of Maryland, Senior Research Fellow, Higher Education, 1996-1998; Antioch University, Founding Faculty Member, PhD Program in Leadership and Change, 2002-2008.
He was a creator and promoter of service learning and public scholarship before those practices became widespread. Dr. Couto has practiced leadership and studied leadership and empowered others to be leaders. I spoke with several of his colleagues as part of the research for this interview. To a person, they identified him as an inspiring and motivating teacher and mentor. One of his colleagues with whom I spoke told me “I smile when I think of his name.”
Richard Couto has been prolific as a scholar. He has published 14 books and 73 articles and book chapters between 1975 and 2015. His first book was Poverty, Politics and Health Care: An Appalachian Experience (1975), and his most recent is Political and Civic Leadership: A Reference Handbook in two volumes, (2010), for which he served as editor, author of four chapters, and co-author of two more. Political and Civic Leadership was the winner in 2012 of the Leadership Book Award for Scholarship, presented jointly by the University of San Diego School of Education and Leadership Sciences and the International Leadership Association.
In addition to recognition for Political and Civic Leadership, Dr. Couto has won numerous awards for his work and his scholarship. A sampling of these include:
First Recipient of the Servant Leader Award of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies of the University of Richmond. (April, 2002).
Winner in 2002 of the Virginia A. Hodgkinson Research Prize of the Independent Sector for Making Democracy Work Better (University of North Carolina Press).
Winner of the Outstanding Book award presented by the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights in 1992; and finalist in nonfiction 1992 for the Lillian Smith Book Award of the Southern Regional Council for Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me Round (Temple University Press).
So, with that as background, I’m going to ask your permission to do the following: I’m asking your permission to record this interview, to transcribe this interview, to deposit the recording and the transcription in the IUPUI Special Collections and Archives where they may be used by patrons, including posting all or part of the recording and transcription to the website of the Special Collections and Archives, and also to deposit the recording and transcription with the International Leadership Association and the Tobias Center where, once again, all or part may be posted to the organizations’ websites. Can I have your permission to do that?
COUTO: You have my permission to do that.
SCARPINO: Okay. Now, just for the sake of anybody who uses this interview in the future, I’m going to start by asking you a few basic demographic questions. I’m going to follow those questions with some more in-depth questions about your youth, aimed largely at providing users of this interview with insight into a single question, which is: Who is Richard Couto? After that, I have some broad questions to pose to you. When we’re done with those, we’re going to work our way chronologically through your career, and that probably won’t be in this recording session.
So, let’s get started. I’m going to ask you the basic demographic questions about your childhood. When and where were you born?
COUTO: I was born on December 31, 1941, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Lawrence is a textile town on the Merrimack River about 25 miles north of Boston. Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill dot the Merrimack River as it flows from New Hampshire, Lake Winnipesaukee, into the Atlantic Ocean.
SCARPINO: Lowell of course is another famous textile town.
COUTO: Very famous textile town.
SCARPINO: Do you have any brothers and sisters?
COUTO: I have a sister and I have a cousin/brother. He came to live with us when his mother died and so he was in the household as long as I can remember.
SCARPINO: Are they older or younger?
COUTO: Older. Well, my sister used to be older, but she’s my younger sister now.
SCARPINO: (laughter) Oh, okay.
COUTO: That happens with age.
SCARPINO: I’m sure it does. And who were your parents?
COUTO: My father is Anthony Couto. He died when I was 11 in 1952. He worked the naval yards during World War II and was a welder, sixth grade education, quit school to help the family. He worked on stoves a lot as a kid and was known as a very strong man who could carry stove parts; we’re talking about these cast iron stoves, up two and three flights. I remember as a kid going with him to service some of those stoves, mainly old people in their homes, and never took any money except for parts. We spent a lot of time together. He would take me around after church on Sunday, and church was a big part of our life. He would take me to the bars where he had bought into the baseball pool to see how he did. He told me that he—remember, I’m younger than 11 now—he explained to me that he took me there to keep people’s cursing down. He knew that there would be less cursing in the company of a kid.
SCARPINO: Did it work?
COUTO: As best I can remember. I do remember his taking me to one club, again, Sunday morning. He said “Mac” (he always called me Mac) “Mac, I’m going to take you in here to show you the kind of places you should avoid when you get older.”
SCARPINO: (laughter) Good advice. You said that he was in the baseball pool. So, even in those days, you knew somebody who was betting unsuccessfully on the Red Sox.
COUTO: (laughter) Yeah, well they just drew teams and so it was a matter of chance, but yeah, we followed the Red Sox pretty closely. The Braves were still in Boston, also.
SCARPINO: I remember that. And the Brooklyn Dodgers.
COUTO: Yes. And my mother is Beatrice Couto. She kept home until my father died and then started working in different jobs, in retail. She then got a job at New York Toy Factory and essentially became the floor manager. She worked for minimum wage and would leave the house at 5:30 in order to make sure the place was open and running by 7:00, I guess. Then she got out at 3:30. She walked to and from. Her shop was in one of the mills that had been deserted and the factory moved in. She finished her high school at night. She was a very determined woman to get her education. She had left formal school in about the sixth grade in order to, again, support the family.
SCARPINO: So she was working minimum wage even though she was managing the floor.
COUTO: Absolutely, yeah. All my grandparents came from the Azores Islands. My grandmother and grandfather on my father’s side came from the same village, Vila Franca do Campo. The story in my family is that my mother’s mother would make a pilgrimage to the top of a hill where Our Lady miraculously appeared one time to pray that her daughter and my grandfather would not get married. It didn’t work.
SCARPINO: (laughter) Our Lady didn’t listen!
COUTO: I guess she listened, she just said “no.” And part of that was class. My father’s mother, her family took care of the property of a wealthy Portuguese person in Lisbon. So they had land, they farmed it, etc. My father’s father came from a fishing family and land was always better than fishing. Even though they were thousands of miles apart in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the people back home still realized that there was a class difference between these folks and they didn’t want to see that broken.
SCARPINO: So Couto, then, is a Portuguese derivation?
COUTO: Yes, very common in Brazil, but fairly unknown in the United States.
SCARPINO: When your family moved to the United States, did the Portuguese/Azores heritage remain important?
COUTO: Oh, absolutely. We lived just one block away from the Portuguese/American Civic Association Club. The weddings, the church festivals, we had all kinds of events there. There was a bar just below ground where I could always find my grandfather in the afternoon. A lot of special events; the one I remember most distinctly, was the time my father won a turkey in a raffle there. It was a live turkey, and we walked it home with a string tied to its leg and walked the block or so to our house and kept it there until it was time to prepare and serve.
SCARPINO: Which is what people did in those days.
COUTO: Yes. My mother’s mother lived with us and listened to the Portuguese radio hour from Lowell every Sunday. She spoke Portuguese as her preferred language and she thought I was pretty hopeless, not being able to speak the language. The adults in the house spoke Portuguese in order to keep secrets from the kids and so there wasn’t all that much incentive to learn.
SCARPINO: As you grew up and went on with your life, did growing up in that kind of extended family and Portuguese culture have a continuing impact on you?
COUTO: Absolutely. It gave me a sense of being both—a special set of bonds, but also being other. Lawrence was a very ethnically divided community. I took it for granted, but in my neighborhood, my neighbor upstairs—we lived in a three-decker tenement apartment—the neighbor upstairs was Italian, the neighbor downstairs was Polish, across the street was Irish, and then next to him was, we called them Syrian, but I’m pretty sure they were Lebanese. Then the rest of the neighborhood would be Irish, Lithuanian, Italian, German. This is in a one-block area.
SCARPINO: But most of them probably had their own churches, didn’t they?
COUTO: You could not fall out of the shadow of the steeple of a church in Lawrence without stepping into the shadow of another steeple. Are you Catholic?
COUTO: As I said, we were very Catholic at that time. I was very Catholic at that time. On the Thursday before Easter, you can visit seven churches and get plenary indulgence; all your sins are forgiven. It wasn’t a tough road in Lawrence. You could be done with that whole thing in 15 minutes. I walked past an Irish church to get to the Portuguese church or I could walk close to the German church to get to the Portuguese church, and reaching the Portuguese church was about the same distance as reaching the German or the Polish church, French Canadian church, the Irish church. South Lawrence was very Irish. My grandmother grew up disliking the Irish a great deal. It had to do with the language groups in the mills, and speaking English meant you had one up on all the other groups. The workers of these very early were organized into language groups. My grandmother grew up disliking the Portuguese foreman, who turned out to be the dad of—this is getting thick into the woods—the dad of the woman who married my uncle later on. My grandmother was not okay with that. She regarded an Irish-Portuguese wedding, or even an Irish-Italian wedding, as a racially mixed marriage. She had her prejudices.
SCARPINO: But you grew up in an environment that was ethnically divided and where there were significant prejudices present, and so on.
COUTO: Yeah, but a lot of it was taken for granted too. I think for the most part, I noticed the differences, but without the prejudice. Wonderful Lebanese bakeries, the foods were just terrific.
SCARPINO: So, just to remind people who might be listening to this interview in the future or reading the transcript, again Lawrence is in eastern Massachusetts. It had a long industrial history based on textiles, which as I understand it, was mostly wool. It was a scene of considerable labor strife. The 1912 textile strike comes to mind, but after World War II, Lawrence, like many other cities in that area, entered a period of industrial decline and not only did the industry go away, but the people did too, and the population fell. Why did your family stay in Lawrence in the 1950s under such dire circumstances?
COUTO: Let me go back to the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912. My grandmother was working in the mills. So, like every liberal progressive, I wanted a story of my grandmother standing next to Mother Jones and Big Bill Haywood and singing the old Wobbly songs, Union made, etc.
SCARPINO: Industrial workers of the world, for anybody listening.
COUTO: But that wasn’t her story. First of all, growing up, you never heard of the strike. It took an article from the Village Voice. A guy came up to Lawrence on an anniversary of the strike and started interviewing people and discovered that people had completely—it was erased from history—and people were afraid to speak about it. That encouraged me to talk to my grandmother. My mother had just been born in late December 1911, and we were very Catholic. So, here’s my grandmother who is not 20 yet, and she has two children now, and she’s going to baptize my mother. Now, to baptize my mother, you rented a horse and a cab, and the horse had its mane pleated and ribboned. This was a big deal. And you made a special garment for your daughter. That’s a real cash outlay for someone who’s working in the mills. It turns out that her husband had a drinking problem and the cash that they had for that got drunk up. So, there she was, without money, but she was determined to have this baptism, so they went ahead and had it, but there was no way that she could go on strike. She walked past the pickets during that strike, for the most part, and she still remembers being screamed at, and “scab,” etc. But it was her sense of responsibility to people from whom she had borrowed that money that came before any class solidarity. And she borrowed that money because her daughter was going to have the best that she could provide, again, in a church-centered, Portuguese-centered community. Believe me, when I was in high school and heard the Brothers and my teachers talking about the area where my grandparents and my mother grew up, which was Valley Street—they would call it Dry Gulch—it was just known as a place that everybody stayed out of except for your ethnic groups because it was so rough.
SCARPINO: That’s where they grew up and raised their families.
SCARPINO: So the reporter from the Village Voice came up to Lawrence on the anniversary of the 1912 strike, and found out that people didn’t talk about it out of fear.
SCARPINO: So, later on in your career, you wrote about memory. Did that suppressed memory that you learned about when that reporter showed up have any influence on you when you worked in that area yourself?
COUTO: What a great question. Until this moment, it never occurred to me, but yes. One of the primary reasons I write is to give voice to people who I think have a very interesting story that touches on the heart of who we think we are as Americans. I give them access to the printed page, such as you’re doing with me right now. And a lot of it was oral history, and a lot of it was done with respect, if not reverence, for their experience and to state it exactly as said. The profound wisdom that you come across in those instances—I wanted to hold that up and let other people see and admire these folks, as I did. Your memories, and how people hold on to those memories is such a fascinating question and a question of power and how we lose power.
SCARPINO: Can you talk a little bit about power and how we lose power?
COUTO: I forget her last name, but there was a young woman in the mill, and her hair got caught in one of the belts and it ripped the hair and the scalp off. The people at the mill said “go to the hospital.” So she walked to the hospital and that left a huge scar in her scalp. She testified to Congress about that incident and it was taken as an example of poor safety, poor medical care, etc. Her daughter used to brush her hair every night, so many strokes, etc., and always came across that scar, always came across that scar, and never knew where she got it. Here was a mother who had been part of a national struggle to change working conditions in a mill, and here was her daughter, touching upon the primary evidence of that experience, without even knowing much of it. Her memory of that was not passed on. And it was only when this reporter shows her the testimony, etc., that she got a sense of how powerful her mother was and pride in that, which can’t help but affect you.
So, we talk about lots of forms of power, especially in leadership; power over, power with, but it’s the memory that gives us the power within, and sometimes we can’t even share that. Sometimes, the locus of that power is in our mind and sometimes you feel it’s safe to share, sometimes we feel it’s not. So, a lot of these folks in Lawrence had that power within—they remembered that strike, they remember what they achieved—but they also remembered that it wasn’t safe to share after a while. I never learned of the Lawrence strike until I was in college. And then generally, it was a line about labor unrest in places such as, there was a New Jersey strike, and then there was the Lawrence strike, and that was it.
SCARPINO: So, the participants were unwilling to talk about that out of fear for losing their jobs?
SCARPINO: Adverse impact on them living in a community that was still controlled by people who ran the mills?
SCARPINO: The woman’s name was Camilla?
COUTO: Yes, Camilla—I think the last name begins with an “F.”
SCARPINO: That’s all right. And she was a participant in the strike?
SCARPINO: We’ve talked about what your mother did and what your father did. Can you talk a little bit about what your family life was like growing up in Lawrence?
COUTO: We lived on the second floor of a tenement. We had a gas-burning stove. My father was in the gas delivery business, big barrels downstairs, and we would run it up and put it into a burner and heat the house.
SCARPINO: He was delivering those great big cylinders of bottled gas?
COUTO: Range oil, you know, fuel oil. So a great big truck, and you would run the hose out and then fill up the tanks, and I helped him on the weekends especially. I really enjoyed that. So, he had that job on the weekends and then he was also a welder. We had no car. Our transportation was when he could borrow the pickup truck of his company. We were working class. So on holidays we would have lobster and my suits were tailor-made, which I protested; I wanted them bought off the rack like everybody else (laughter).
SCARPINO: (Laughing) Every teenager wants what he can’t have.
COUTO: My uncle would bring home bolts of fine wool from the mills, and we’d go to a tailor and snip-snip every Easter, and a hat. So, I was pretty well decked out. A lot of that changed when my father died. My father had a wonderful sense of humor. My cousin once dared him to do the vaudeville thing with the chocolate cream pie. So my father picked it up and pushed it in his face (laughing) and then we sent out for another one. He had a sense of humor like that. There was a strain between my mother and her mother, who lived us, and that was the cause of the strain. My mother had wanted her own home and didn’t want a mother looking over her. But my father got along with her very, very well and she had a wicked sense of humor also. It was good to see them argue because it would be so funny. They would get disgusted and impatient with one another. My sister was very, very studious, very successful in school. My cousin won all kinds of awards and was very athletic and I was somewhat envious because he exceled in his sports. I tried to imitate and had the curse of his name and all those expectations and I couldn’t stand under a fly ball long enough to catch it. We spent a lot of time at the beach, renting a house for two weeks, getting back and forth to the beach by this pickup truck. My grandfather, my father’s dad, loved fishing; probably some salt in his blood from the Azores. We would go to Rye Beach primarily in New Hampshire. He would rent a row boat and just stay out there for six hours, come in with lots of flounder, which we would fry up right there. You just can’t imagine the wonderful time. I’d go out with him also.
SCARPINO: Did he go out for the bluefish runs?
COUTO: We’d go out for mackerel runs. He was very successful at that. I mean, people would just wonder how this guy could be standing in a boat, nobody’s catching anything, and he’s up in front and he’s got two lines and he’s bringing in one and then bringing in the other. I think those were his happiest moments. My grandmother, his wife, would be there to cook the fish right there, just as fresh as can be. She was a very, very loving person. I could do no wrong. I could do no wrong! Then, the other significant person in our lives was, well—there’s actually two. (I need to take a break.)
SCARPINO: Queue is back up and we should be good to go. We’re back on again. I had asked you a question about your family and you answered that. What I wanted to follow up with is the kind of family experiences you just described, as you look back on it, how do you think that shaped the man you became? If we were trying to figure out who is Richard Couto, what role did that family experience play in the adult you became?
COUTO: I think my father’s death had a very profound experience. Well, I’m 11 years old, so how much do you realize at 11 years old? He was, I think, 39, and I thought he had lived a full life at 39.
SCARPINO: When you’re 11, you would think that, yes.
COUTO: Yes. So, I was standing with my daughter at his gravesite—I visit the family gravesite in Lawrence whenever I’m up there. And I was standing with my daughter at the gravesite and calculated the years as I always did, and realized that I was older than he was at his death, and I didn’t consider myself an old man, but I did consider every year since then as a gift. He had 39 years and I think I was maybe 42 at the time or something like that, and every day after 39 for me was a day of grace, given to me that wasn’t given to him. So, that was profound.
Burns criticizes the youth-centered suburbs as almost being too nurturing and too supportive, and that there seems to be in many leaders’ lives this traumatic disruptive experience that instills in them the lesson that life doesn’t go along a path, that sometimes things come along, you rode the path, shift the path, put all kinds of obstacles in the way. I think my father’s death was that. And that profoundly affected my mother too, who was always concerned about having enough resources, which I think in some ways made me insecure. Whereas my father—I talked to my father once about wanting to be a copilot when I grew up and he said “why not a pilot?” Those are the kinds of questions my father would ask. When I was teaching and standing in front of a class, I could picture my mother standing there and asking me, “Who do you think you are?” (Laughing) So, at one time that kind of eroded confidence, but as I grew older, I thought of it as an anchoring statement and a question worth asking. So, I became more appreciative not only of that question, but all that she did in shaping who I was and what I thought of myself.
Let me mention two other people who were very formative; my father’s sister, Mary, who was a nun, who was this heroic figure in all our minds because she belonged to the Grey Nuns of Montreal, and they were missionaries in Canada. So she spent her time at the North Pole. All we knew was that we had this Sister Mary who lived with the Eskimos in the North Pole. Then she came back to Lawrence and we saw a lot more of her. Then my Uncle Fred—my father’s older brother—who lost his wife, my mother’s sister—so my father and his brother married my mother and her sister, who were very close. Chrisellina had tuberculosis and Fred had a touch of tuberculosis, so they were both in the sanitarium, which is why my cousin came to live with us. My dad was larger than life and consequently Fred was smaller than life, until my dad died; and then I realized what a strong, loving man my uncle was. There are a few times in your life that you can remember word-for-word, a touch, just a presence. And when my father died, my mother sent Ed over to get my uncle to come to the house. They didn’t have a phone. My Uncle Fred came into the house and sat on my bed, and that was the only time I cried during this time, which is a shame. And he held me and said “Go ahead, cry. He was a wonderful man and he is worth your tears.” It was those kinds of insights, at times like that, that he provided me. He was a really, really good man.
SCARPINO: So, you grew up in Lawrence and you spent a bit of time describing what the town was like, but the question I want to ask you is how did growing up in that place—what did you take away from Lawrence when you left? How did growing up in that place influence the man you became?
COUTO: You know, I think humans are divided into two parts; those who want to stay in the place that they were raised and those who can’t wait to get away. I was one of those who couldn’t wait to get away. There was always something better out there, which is one of the reasons I think I wanted to join the Brothers as early as I could. The idea of going to New York for school and all the rest of it was very, very inviting. Then as I got older, there were just so many things about Lawrence that—I think I was looking for the things in Lawrence in other places. I think one of the central questions that inform a lot of my research, at least, is what are the social consequences of changing technologies? And, here you had in Lawrence in the 1940s incredible social consequences from new technologies in the mills, product substitution, competition from abroad. In many ways I took that question and applied it to coal mining areas, and I could apply it to Flint also. When you no longer need the labor of people in the United States, and given our economy, you no longer need those people, and you disinvest in their schools, their hospitals, their water systems, and all the rest of it because you don’t need their labor anymore, and that’s what happened in Lawrence. Everything just comes down to the level of the cost of the labor force, which has declined from what it was before.
SCARPINO: From the description that you provided earlier, it was possible when you were growing up for a working class family to have a reasonably good life. I mean, you went to the beach for two weeks in the summer, you had tailor-made suits, your house was warm, you had food on the table. Do you think that possibility has eroded as a result of the technical changes and shifts in the labor force and globalization?
COUTO: Yeah. The other thing we had was that when we went to the beach and we rented a house, it would be my grandfather, my grandmother, and then sometimes Fred. There could be two or three families sharing that cost, and that was just taken for granted. What was the other part of your question?
SCARPINO: I asked you if you thought it still possible, given the changes in technology and labor and globalization, for working class people to live like that.
COUTO: No. Lawrence is a wonderful example of community development and there’s a lot of good organizing and housing development going on; New Balance has a manufacturing headquarters there, but it’s not the same. It’s a real interesting thing to go and know the old neighborhoods, see them all razed to the ground so that there’s nothing there except the Portuguese church was standing there, and there were vacant blocks with nothing, and then to come back in another 10 or 12 years to see apartments generally for the elderly or some other vulnerable population. So it’s a very, very different town; again, international, heavy Latino population, Spanish-speaking. But it was a town where arson prevailed for a long time. People owned property that was worth more for the insurance than any other use. There were times when I’d be watching the news and see Lawrence and there’s a police line around a district that was just two blocks away from the neighborhood in which I had grown up. By the time I was teaching high school in the high school that I had attended, when we had a canned food drive, my students expected to be delivering canned foods to my mother, not collecting canned foods. She was waiting for people to come by so she could make her contribution and the kids told me “no, we bring canned foods to those places; we don’t take them.”
SCARPINO: One of the people that I talk to when I was doing my background on this interview was Steve Fisher, whose name you provided. He told me that you and he, at one point, attended a conference somewhere in the Boston area and that you took him and some other people to see Lawrence. My first question is, do you remember doing that and he said you do, but, why did you do that? What did you want them to learn?
COUTO: I wanted to share with them, first of all, we all shared the same politics. They would all know the strike of 1912, Bread and Roses, and I wanted to show them what the technology was like because I had just figured it out myself. What were the canals like, how did they turn the turbines, dump the water—have you ever been in this part of New England?
SCARPINO: Absolutely, in fact, I’ve been to Lowell several times and one of my former students works at the park. So what you’re talking about is the original water powered mills and the canals that delivered the water to the turbines.
COUTO: Right off Broadway in the Merrimack River. You can park and you can see the dam and then you can walk over to the side and see the water sifted off into the canals and it flows down the canal, but then also across to turn the turbines. It’s just hard to conceive of a river whose banks have become brick walls and lining that river for a mile or two miles, just that incredible infrastructure. Lawrence was built as utopia, at least the idea that this would be different from other places. There was housing for workers, boarding houses. Of course, the managers had the better houses, but there was a respect for the workforce that they had brought in. I also wanted them to have some of the best Lebanese food in New England at Bishop’s. I’m so glad that he remembers that.
SCARPINO: He had asked me to ask you about it. You studied with the Marist Brothers. I’m going to mispronounce this, but Esopus, New York? You went with them in your last year of high school, which I tried to figure this out, must have been about 1958 or something?
COUTO: ’58 or ’59.
SCARPINO: So, you followed that with two years in the novitiate in Tyngsboro, Massachusetts?
SCARPINO: So that must have been about ’59 to ’61. Marist Brothers were founded in France, dedicated to educating youth, especially disadvantaged or neglected youth. I’m going to ask you about that. Before I do that, I want to ask you about your first three years of high school. What kind of a student were you during your first three years of high school?
COUTO: I went to public school for the first eight years. Then my sister, who went to a Catholic college, got this bug that they should be sending me to a Catholic school. Then, because my dad had died when I was in the sixth grade, they thought it would also be best to be in a Catholic school with male models. So, my sister put a lot of pressure on my mother to send me to Central Catholic. I did not want to go to Central Catholic. I wanted to go to Lawrence High School with the rest of my classmates. So, the deal was that if I went to Central Catholic, they would let me play football. So, I agreed to go to Central Catholic. Because I went to public schools, the assumption was that I needed to be in the dummy class, regardless of grades or anything else. I was in class with a kid who drove to school from Derry, New Hampshire. Now, in public school, in the seventh grade, I had a classmate who drove to school also, had his own car. He was a bit advanced. Then in this freshman class, I just excelled. The teacher would give us a chance for extra credit, I took them all. I built a model of the Strand Theatre in Shakespeare in Stratford? No, it was the theatre in London where he produced most of his plays. I got a 100 average on a quarter marking period, six subjects, 100 average. The next one came up, another 100 average. I made the newspaper. I was an academic star in this, got along with the teachers, mainly. My sophomore year I went into a slump. I played JV football that year. I didn’t get the encouragement to stay with football in my junior year, although I could have been successful, I think—could have been a contender. But my dad wasn’t there. I loved it. We started a newspaper in junior year and they would do two student profiles an issue. The very first issue of the newspaper, I was the student profiled. I never thought of myself as popular or anything, but evidently other people did. I loved high school, I did well at it, tried to start a hockey team. There were just so many wonderful things that I really loved about it.
SCARPINO: When you were in high school, do you remember what you imagined you would be when you grew up?
COUTO: I always wanted to be a teacher. I always wanted to be a teacher. There was a time I wanted to be a lawyer, I think, but teaching just took over.
SCARPINO: So then you did decide to study with the Marist Brothers, and… why? What attracted you? You mentioned that you wanted to travel, but was that the only reason?
COUTO: I was just really attracted to the men that I saw as Marist Brothers. They took great interest in the kids. I guess I wanted to do for other kids what I found those monks doing for me. They seemed to like one another. They seemed to have a great deal of community. I was still religious centered at that time, so it seemed to be a good way of expressing that desire to serve others. This is before the Peace Corps, this is before Vatican II or Vatican I. This is before a great deal of changes in the church, which no longer made membership in a religious order the necessary avenue to do these things. There were many more avenues to do them. I still get together with many of the monks from that period of time and we have an online network, as well as face-to-face time. 75% of us left.
SCARPINO: Those are the 75% of the people who were in class with you or that taught you?
COUTO: That were in class with me, and taught me as well.
SCARPINO: So most of them went off to actually become brothers?
COUTO: Say that again.
SCARPINO: Many of them went on and became brothers and then stayed with it; they remained brothers.
COUTO: I would say 25%.
SCARPINO: So, then you served two years as an officiate? What did that involve?
COUTO: Yeah, the first year is a college year. The second year is all religious studies. Then we move to Marist College, which was sophomore, junior, and senior year of college.
SCARPINO: Is that the Marist College in Poughkeepsie? So it’s no longer…
COUTO: It was changing when we got there. They had introduced lay students and then a couple of years after that they introduced female students as well.
SCARPINO: But at the time you attended, it was really an extension of the training and all male.
COUTO: All male. It had just transitioned, so they were bringing in non-trainees.
SCARPINO: So you attended Marist College; you earned your B.A. in 1964. You majored in history. Why did you pick history?
COUTO: I loved it. They had some of the best teachers also. They had two-credit courses instead of three-credit courses, and so you covered a lot more topics, perhaps not with depth, but I just loved history; still do. I got a little fed up with it because it just seemed to be endless perspectives on the same events and I wanted something a little more definitive.
SCARPINO: So, you spent three years at Marist College. What did you take away from that experience that stayed with you?
COUTO: A lot of learning. I just can’t imagine a better education. And everything we’ve learned about education suggests that the most profound effect of education is the cohort with which we go through. Here, you had 120 men who all were dedicated in various degrees to something bigger than themselves and they all want to be teachers, so they were all interested in learning and teaching. There wasn’t all that much competition among ourselves. This was just the spirit among us. It was a common spirit. It extended beyond the classroom too because you had to live with these guys. It was a dormitory; no rooms. I had a bed, I had a closet, there was a bed-closet; woke up at 5:30, prayers at 10 minutes to 6:00.
SCARPINO: Discipline and regimen.
COUTO: Yes. Sundays we slept ‘til 6:30.
SCARPINO: What drove you that was bigger than yourself?
COUTO: I always thought I would be part of this very dramatic narrative of—I guess redemption comes to mind—but that I would be part of making things better than I found them.
SCARPINO: Do you feel as though you’ve done that?
COUTO: Not as much as I would like, but yes.
SCARPINO: Is “not as much as I would like” Catholic guilt? I mean, you had quite a remarkable career.
COUTO: It plays a big part, doesn’t it? I’m a Unitarian now.
SCARPINO: But we did talk about memory earlier.
COUTO: Yeah, there’s a big change. I was going over my vita yesterday and, boy, there were parts of it I couldn’t even remember. But then I think, okay, what is it I take the greatest pride in? And I tell people this; when I was teaching at Mount St. Michael’s in the Bronx, and also Central Catholic, I started taking high school kids down to Appalachia as volunteers.
SCARPINO: That’s how you connected with Appalachia the first time?
COUTO: Yeah, right. So, in the first year I was down there, I worked on the dairy farm. We were clearing land. Then the next year I got down there and we built a pole barn. In my worst moments when I would think ugh, I haven’t done anything, nothing’s changed, I think of some 50 or 60 cows that are dry, that are cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and whose cottage cheese I can go and buy on a Kroger shelf from the dairy parlor. It’s not grade A, so it’s not dairy milk, but they sell it as cottage cheese. And I think, well damn, that’s something I did. And then I also had a hand in starting this program called MIOW– Maternal Infant Outreach Worker.
SCARPINO: Maternal Infant Outreach Worker.
COUTO: And the idea was very simple. We found one woman in the community; we worked with her to find four or five other women, and then they did a baseline survey, participatory action research among 30-40-60 women who were at risk for problem pregnancies. Now, that helped us locate other women who might be organized around this issue. It helped educate them about the problem. It helped us learn about the problem. Then we made small grants of about $30,000.
SCARPINO: And who are “we”?
COUTO: The Center for Health Services at Vanderbilt University. We did this in six sites. One of those sites is in Gary, West Virginia. This is where the coal wars were fought. When you think about Appalachia, this is what you think of. I was at a conference in Steve’s neck of the woods, on Appalachian studies, and the woman we first hired for that program came up to me and she said, “Do you know that we have women who are advocates for children in the public schools who were born in the MIOW program?” So we’re seeing a generation. And she said, “we just served our thousandth person.” So, I think of this guy at Virginia Tech, Mark what’s his name who received a lot of attention for the work he did in Flint, and he’s working on very, very big canvas. My work never made it to that size of a canvas, but I’m pretty sure that if it’s not a huge landscape campus, then it’s been—what do you call a much smaller painting?—it’s been a smaller painting, but in terms of the effect on people, it’s been as profound. Yesterday in the New York Times, they’re talking about… Nicholas Kristof had an op-ed piece about Republicans and poverty. He said they’re good in terms of helping low income parents with parenting skills; that’s something that we need to do. That’s what we were doing in MIOW 25 years ago. In many ways, when you ask the question, do I feel I have been part of some redemptive effort, I feel yes, but also I have this feeling of déjà vu that we reinvent solutions to problems rather than building on what others have done sufficiently. I think the home visit, for example, is key to any antipoverty program. And we proved it in this case; hard, hard evaluation.
SCARPINO: So, you were teaching high school in the Bronx and then in Lawrence, and as part of that endeavor you took your students to Appalachia.
COUTO: Right. Why?
SCARPINO: Why Appalachia? How did you end up there? If you wanted to do good work, there are lots of places you could have picked, so why Appalachia?
COUTO: Yeah, as a matter of fact, people in Jackson County asked: Why didn’t you just stay in the Bronx?
SCARPINO: (Laughing) That would have been possible.
COUTO: I got into this like I got into so many other things that I was the—people worked down to me in the food chain. So Brendan Mooney had watched this film in religion class about the singing priest, Les Schmidt, down in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, and this was the whole hootenanny thing. He was a Glenmary priest and he was standing on a swinging bridge in eastern Kentucky or southwest Virginia with his guitar.
SCARPINO: What was his name again?
COUTO: Les Schmidt. I still hear from him every Christmas. So Brendan says, “I want to do something. I want to go down there and do something.”
SCARPINO: And who was Brendan?
COUTO: Brendan at that time was a junior.
SCARPINO: So he was one of your students?
COUTO: Not mine. Not mine.
SCARPINO: Okay, so a student.
COUTO: A student. So he wants to do something. So he talks to his teacher, “Talk to so-and-so.” He talks to another teacher, “Talk to so-and-so.” And then finally he works his way down to me, and I said, “Okay, let’s do it.”
SCARPINO: And you wanted to travel anyhow… (Laughing)
COUTO: I wanted to travel. So I had gotten out of Lawrence and now I was in the Bronx, and now here’s another chance to go somewhere else. So there were five of us that first year; Paul Brown, who’s now Vice President at Notre Dame for Government Relations and Press. He had been the Press Officer for the Police Commissioner in New York. Danny DiNatale, whose father is very big in the clothing industry in New York, women’s apparel. And he eventually went home and he’s a cook in a diner and he loves it. Richard Sanchez, who, I heard from him about six months ago. Brendan Mooney, who became with Marist College and its alumni efforts. And there was one other in that group. So we went down there and we stayed two weeks and I got hooked. I brought a larger group the next year and starting staying the whole summer.
SCARPINO: And where did you take them the first time?
COUTO: Christian Appalachia Project.
SCARPINO: And that was located where?
COUTO: It had four centers, but where we reported—it wasn’t its mailing address—but it was Berea, Kentucky. I spent my time in McKee in Jackson County. Other people were further down in Rockcastle, but its mailing address was Lancaster.
SCARPINO: So, you went there…
COUTO: It’s amazing my brain is working like this.
SCARPINO: Well, but I mean, you went there really not knowing what you were going to find, I assume, and you were hooked. I’m going to point something out for the benefit of people who use this thing later on, and this is following up on a question I asked you about redemption and impact. You just recited the names of four of the five students that you took to Kentucky the first time, down to Appalachia, and not only did you remember their names, but you know what they’re doing now. That’s impact.
COUTO: Yeah. Paul Brown, he was the fifth one. No, not Paul Brown, um, Jack Meehan—it’s not Jack either. Jack is my friend and his brother, maybe Jim, was the fifth.
SCARPINO: So, one other thing occurs to me as you describe what you did. So you took these students down there, obviously it was a part of their educational experience; is that where you first began to experiment with what we later call service learning?
SCARPINO: I don’t think it had a name then.
COUTO: No, no.
SCARPINO: Experiential learning.
COUTO: You know, I don’t think it had a name. Geez, there’s a lot to say about that. First of all, this group in McKee had graduate students from Yale architecture school who were down there building a summer camp; very smart guys. Most of the kids there were high school kids. But, what I said about Marist College and how you have this cohort of motivated people and common values and a sense of wanting to give, these kids were extraordinary, from all over the place. They took offense at the same racist remarks, they had the same compassion for people in poverty, they woke up at 5:30 to be out in the cucumber fields to be picking cucumbers before the heat of the day, just extraordinary kids. I wanted to be part of that. And I guess this takes a big jump because eventually it leads me to my degree work at the University of Kentucky, and then that leads me to the job at Vanderbilt where I remember getting this newsletter about experiential education. I wrote them, I said, “I don’t know where you came from, but I am so happy to have a name for something that I’ve known about for at least 10 years but never had a name for it.”
SCARPINO: I’m going to come back to that, but I want to ask you—so you earned an MA in Political Science from Boston College in 1969? What drew you to political science?
COUTO: I wanted answers. History seemed to be recurring narratives. I could study the French Revolution and come up with four different interpretations. Political science seemed to offer me a better path to perhaps narrower questions, but also more certain answers.
Interesting story about Boston College. I went to City College first in New York and prided myself because after a whole semester, I knew enough to ask a question. I did poorly there.
SCARPINO: PAUSED FOR PHONE CALL…
Okay, so we’re back on. Boston College…
COUTO: CCNY was a bust. I went to Fordham in history; did better, but dissatisfied with history. Then I got transferred to Lawrence and decided to go in political science. I made application—what was the sequence now? Um, there was a snowstorm, I know, and I was talking to the Chair as he was trying to get out of the campus, and he told me that I had been turned down. So, I pleaded my case and he said “All right, we’ll give you a provisional admission and we’ll see how you do.” So at the end of the semester, I went to him, I had an A and a B, and he said “Yeah, we decided to turn you down.” And I said, “I got an A and a B. What more do I need to demonstrate?” So, he reversed himself and I got into the program. The professor that I got a B with, I took another course with him and I got another B, and in that course on methodology I was tutoring other students who got As and I got a B. Now, I was a cleric and I wore my collar, and I’m sure that had something to do with that. Those were the only Bs I got in the program, both of them from him. I graduated with all As and passed the exams and all the rest of it very, very well. The department head later told me that they adopted the Richard Couto corollary in their admission; that they were a lot more cautious about saying no up front, given the record that I had compiled.
Then, the reason to go for the PhD was that I had a professor at Boston College, Richard Faulkner, who was much more conservative than I was. He was a scholar on the Supreme Court, the early Supreme Court, the very early Supreme Court. I looked at him and I thought, man, if a PhD does this for you, I want a PhD. By that time, I had been going to Kentucky for several years so I decided to look at a school where I could study Appalachia. I chose the University of Kentucky. Now, I didn’t know that I would get more leeway to study Appalachia had I gone to Yale than I did at the University of Kentucky. They did not want me going anywhere near the Appalachian region.
SCARPINO: Why was that?
COUTO: Because it would cast them as a regional university and they wanted to be national in scope. So they would send me to Bangladesh in a heartbeat, but they didn’t want to send me down to Knox County.
SCARPINO: So, their interest in becoming a national or international university prevented them from engaging with a place in which they lived and worked.
COUTO: Right. So, I pointed out to them that Robert Dahl, who wrote one of America’s classic studies, Who Governs?, based on New Haven, where Yale happens to be located, but I persevered with a lot of encouragement and was the first student to write their dissertation on politics in eastern Kentucky.
SCARPINO: What was the topic—or the title?
COUTO: That was the first book, Poverty, Politics and Health Care.
SCARPINO: So, your first book grew out of your dissertation.
SCARPINO: You went to the University of Kentucky, not only interested in political science, but also intending or expecting to continue your interest in Appalachia on a scholarly basis.
COUTO: Very much so. I sat down with the department chair and I listed out my first few courses, and he said “You don’t want to take this, you don’t to take this, you don’t want to take this; you want to take this, you want to take this, you want to take this.” (Laughter) Boy, I got so depressed that first month. It just seemed that this was not going to be anything like I expected.
SCARPINO: But you made it work for you.
COUTO: I made it work for me. Yes. And, when I started teaching, especially graduate students, I would give them the “days of October” talk, especially those who were in there for the first time, and counseled them that with patience they would look to other students, zone in on a few professors and make it work for you.
The Red Sox had lost, so they weren’t in the playoffs. This woman I had a crush on was seriously involved with another man, and everybody was trying to cram quantitative behavioristic methodologies down my throat, except my primary professor who was a phenomenologist, who might as well been a visitor from Mars.
SCARPINO: And his name was?
COUTO: Herb Reid. Do you know Herb?
SCARPINO: I’ve heard of him. And his name also came up when I talked to Steve Fisher. So, while you were at Kentucky, you withdrew from the Marist Brothers.
COUTO: That’s right.
SCARPINO: And why did you elect to do that?
COUTO: I was hesitant to make my final vows and I put those off for a year and then I took them - I kept thinking, I’m going to stay and change things and then I realized that these people don’t want to change. And that’s not a bad thing. Why should I take on the task of changing them if they are happy?
SCARPINO: What did you want them to do?
COUTO: Be more like me. (Laughter) Look outside the community; look outside the school. You talk about a teaching order of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds; we weren’t teaching kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, we were teaching affluent kids. Now granted, affluent kids have issues and problems as well, but I wanted to get closer to where the social problems were, Appalachia, looking right past Lawrence, and to their credit, many monks saw the problems of Lawrence and addressed them. That was one thing. Then there were two occasions that kind of brought things to a head. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were shot.
COUTO: We were in the room with a common television and one of the monks came in—a monk who I was not very close to at all—and somebody said “They shot Martin Luther King,” and he said, “Well I hope they killed the bastard.”
SCARPINO: One of the monks said that?
COUTO: One of the monks said that. Now, I’m sure he would take that back and everything else, but I was just beside myself. How can you say something like that? So I thought, man, this is something—there is something going on within this community that is really bad. And this guy has a lot of respect and everything else, you know. That was a Thursday and the next day was a Friday and we had a voluntary mass in the gym. So, without telling anybody, at the time for the sermon, I got up and I walked to the microphone and I gave a talk on Martin Luther King. There are times when things need to be said. I didn’t make reference to the monk, but that’s what inspired me. And I think it was the same day that for the offertory they arranged this plate of fruit and this was the time of the grape boycott also. And I said, “I just bet that they have grapes on this plate of fruit without any mindfulness that there’s this boycott going on.” So I found the plate of fruit, and sure enough, there were grapes. So I took the grapes and I put them down the garbage disposal and the guy who arranged that plate, another monk, God, he chased me all around the school. “I know it was you, I know it was you.” So, the priest came up to me after mass and he said, “Well, I didn’t know you were going to do that.” I said “Yeah, it was just kind of spur of the moment.” Then when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated a month later, he asked me to give a eulogy at that mass. So, those kinds of events kind of showed me I was going in the right direction in terms of leaving. And then when I was at the University of Kentucky, I just felt pretty comfortable being out of community and it just felt like the right thing to do. And I also could envision a lot more redemptive roles, if you want, within institutions, like higher education.
SCARPINO: So, after you made the decision to leave, what about that experience continued to influence you as you moved forward with the rest of your life?
COUTO: The Marist Brothers?
COUTO: A sense that my life should have purpose. I guess that is the major thing. Not so much, what is my purpose in life, but does my life have a purpose, and I would have to say I always had that sense of purpose up until the past few years in retirement, and that’s when my grandkids have come in. I was sitting with Cayden waiting for his school bus just yesterday, and we were talking about this, I said, “you know, Cayden, it’s just amazing, my dad died when I was 11, your age, and now I’m 74, and someday you’ll be sitting and you’ll be 74 and you’ll be looking back at 11 and you’ll say ‘What the hell happened between all those years and where did they go?’ and we call them life.” And Cayden is a deep thinker. So we just had a wonderful conversation about that.
SCARPINO: Obviously the Marist Brothers are a religious order. After you left, did religion or faith continue to play any role in your life?
COUTO: It played a big role in my life. When I went to Vanderbilt, I met the most extraordinary priest, Jack Hickey, Dominican, and he had chosen prison ministry. So he worked on a project called Dismas House.
SCARPINO: Dismas House?
COUTO: Dismas. They bought property near universities, houses, and they brought in three or four students and three or four ex-offenders who were in transition from incarceration to the free world and they lived communally; meals, separate rooms, each contributing to the other. They did that at Vanderbilt, University of Tennessee, and a couple of other places. He was an extraordinary man. You know when you see somebody enjoy their work, like the conductor of a symphony orchestra…
SCARPINO: With the enthusiasm of the spark…
COUTO: Yes, but no flamboyance at all. He was just deeply engaged in it and it was very meaningful to him. That’s what it was like with Jack. Deep sense of commitment to what he was doing, deep sense of commitment to Christianity. He enjoyed being a priest. He could be embarrassed by the woman trying to seduce him, straight as an arrow in that regard. He developed stomach cancer. He was in incredible pain at the last years of his life. When he died, I took off three or four days to go to Memphis where he was buried and then back to Vanderbilt for his memorial service. I was never close to the church again because I never found anybody like that. Do you know MacIntyre, the philosopher? Alasdair MacIntyre?
SCARPINO: I’ve heard of him, yes.
COUTO: Well, MacIntyre was at Vanderbilt at that time, and MacIntyre had been a Marxist and this is his Thomist period, and St. Thomas is a Dominican. So, there’s Jack. And MacIntyre would be there every Sunday. So there’s Jack preaching to MacIntyre and Jack would get self-conscious every once in a while and you could see that a little bit into his sermon, either his mother was in his head saying “Who the hell do you think you are?” or he was saying “You know, Jack, this is kind of getting like bullshit; maybe you should just wrap it up.” But he would also monitor himself by looking at MacIntyre to see how he was taking it in. That’s a big audience to have every Sunday.
SCARPINO: That would be an interesting audience to play, wouldn’t it? You said he had incredible commitment. Does that also describe you?
COUTO: Yeah, I gave myself 300% to my work and to other things that were important to me.
SCARPINO: Okay, so I’m going to ask you some big picture questions and the first one I’m going to ask you…
COUTO: I need to take a break…
SCARPINO: All right, let’s hit pause…
So I had just said that I was going to ask you some big questions and the first one’s either going to work or it’s not. So we’re going to give it a shot here. The first question I want to ask you, just to see how you respond to it, is the question that I integrated into my introduction of you. And that is: If I were to ask you who is Richard Couto, what do you say about yourself? Who are you? How do you think of yourself?
COUTO: The immediate response would be self-deprecation. A Boston Red Sox fan who has learned that life can be filled with bitter disappointments.
SCARPINO: And then comes the World Series.
COUTO: So I was a Boston Red Sox fan before the Boston Red Sox were the Boston Red Sox. Then I’ll sometimes introduce myself as having risen to the top ranks of obscure academicians. But who is Richard Couto? Um… I think primarily a teacher, a learner, a husband, father, grandfather, and a person who enjoys interpersonal contact of a kind of serious nature. Good sense of humor; I love to play; I love that my granddaughter has a sense of play. I love that my grandson has a sense of humor. We’ve done all these cow jokes based on inspiration at Chick-Fil-A. Why did the cow go to Hollywood? To be a moo-vie star. We have about 40 of them now. I try not to be—I’m a serious person, but without being—but being proportional and taking things in stride rather than getting overdramatic. I’m better than that. I think age brings that about. I’ve always had trouble with this problem and I’ve always had problems with this question. It was when I was writing my application for the Kellogg National Leadership Program, and it said “Tell us who you are.” So I sat down and I wrote this thing and I showed it to my wife and she said “You didn’t tell them who you are; you told him what you think. They want to know who you are.” So I started writing who I am and all this spirituality came out and I ended up saying who I am is summarized in the aspirations of the Sermon on the Mount. My other favorite prayer is the prayer of Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me bring love; where there is doubt, faith; where there’s despair, hope.” That’s who I am.
SCARPINO: Talk a little bit about the Sermon on the Mount because there will be people who listen to this or read the transcript that don’t really know what that is.
COUTO: Have you seen The Life of Ryan?
SCARPINO: I have, yes.
COUTO: Well, apart from that, Jesus is on the Mount and there are thousands gathered round him and it is the paradox of not only Christianity, but of life. “Blessed are the meek because they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the peacemakers for they will see God. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst, in my name”—which is not necessarily in Jesus’s name, but putting a Unitarian spin on it—for the sake of others, for some higher purpose. It just speaks to the paradox of life, which I think I’ve always been comfortable with; those who are first shall be last; those who are last shall be first. So I don’t mind going to the children’s table when there are too many bigshots and they fill up all of the spots. So I don’t mind going to the children’s table. I just think that sermon is probably the common denominator with the world’s greatest religions. I think you could sit down and come to some kind of understanding with Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, about what it means to be human, fully human, and I’ll just leave it at that.
SCARPINO: We’re going to talk a great deal about leadership in a few minutes. You know a tremendous amount about leadership as a scholar of leadership. When you think about the state of leadership today, how do most leaders measure up against that standard that you just articulated?
COUTO: Oh, very, very poorly. Yes and no. It depends upon what you mean by leaders also.
SCARPINO: It does, doesn’t it?
COUTO: When you look at people in authority, you look at the Governor of Michigan, about Flint, and you look at the mayor of Flint, Michigan, you look Rachel Maddow, there are people who approach that question from different perspectives, different positions of authority. Some are doing very, very well and some are doing very, very poorly. Mona, the pediatrician there, was the kind of leader and the kind of leadership that I try to support in my work. I was so interested in Mark Edwards’ work at Virginia Tech because, in a sense, that’s what I was doing at Vanderbilt in a number of environmental issues, but always on the side of the people. There were those who calculated the risk and those who incurred the risk. Mona was one of those people who sought to give voice to those incurring the risk. And that’s the side I would take, both directly with those incurring the risk, but also with supporting people like Mona.
SCARPINO: And she’s the pediatrician who did the lead research.
COUTO: She’s the pediatrician, right. And so we can focus on the failure of the authority, Governor Snyder and others in Michigan, and there’a a whole lot of them, but we shouldn’t overlook the leadership of people without authority in this case, who stepped forward and said to them, “This won’t stand.” She was the most outspoken. I was sorry to see that Mark Edwards became more of the academician, but it’s the role that we’re taught. We’re trained to do no false positives and all the rest of that. But he’s still heroic for what he did and gives people a leg up, but there’s more that he could have done in his leadership I think.
SCARPINO: I notice that you drew a distinction between authority and leadership.
COUTO: Oh, it’s absolutely key, isn’t it? That’s what Heifetz wanted to title his book, Leadership With and Without Authority, but they wouldn’t let him. It’s when we conflate the two that we get into all kinds of issues. And it’s not that you can’t have people in authority exercising leadership, but you can also have people without authority exercising leadership.
SCARPINO: Do you think that in many of the ways that we teach leadership now that leadership and authority are presented as synonymous?
COUTO: I guess the vast majority, yeah, and it depends on what venue you look at. If you look at all of the folks over here for whatever is going on, a lot of it is leadership training I’m sure.
SCARPINO: Yeah, there’s a conference here at the hotel.
COUTO: Right, the place is packed! I’m sure that there’s an assumption of authority there. I’ve come to the position that a liberal arts education is probably the best foundation for leadership and that we would be much better off with people who are willing to put their thumb into a leaking dike than wait for some big cataclysm to happen and then step forward with some kind of saving paradigm or whatever. This is the distinction between eventful and event-making people, heroes and non-heroes. I think when you look at the most profound change that has happened in this country and the world, it’s when ordinary people undertook extraordinary action, sometimes for common sense goals, but that’s always been the thing that really brought about change.
SCARPINO: I’m going to follow up on that in a minute, but I want to step back and ask you why you think a good liberal arts education is a foundation for leadership.
COUTO: Because it helps you explore your values and it helps you understand yourself, and I think that’s the beginning of leadership. I’ll give away the line here, but I was doing a consulting job in Iowa, Morningside College, and the president was arguing for a leadership program that would select 40 kids and take them through leadership, etc. And he said, “Now, this one, his person in charge of the program, doesn’t believe in that. She thinks leadership is for everybody, but I don’t. What do you think?” I said, “Well, if you go that way with the 40 kids, you have a real problem.” And he said, “What’s that?” I said, “Look at your mission statement, and your mission statement says ‘Morningside College trains students for a life of civic leadership… lifelong learning…’ It doesn’t say Morningside College prepares 40 students a year for a life of civic leadership, or whatever.” So he said, “All right, all right, I get it.” So what is leadership? I guess it had been cooking in my head for a long time, but I said, “Leadership is taking initiative on behalf of shared values and the common good.” I’ve pretty much stuck with that, and the liberal arts education helps us understand values, helps us understand those who share with others and where we don’t share, uses some perspective on the common good and reaching it, so taking initiative on behalf of shared values and the common good. So, that why I think the liberal arts—and I’ve done some serious work on this. When I was in Maryland, we worked with the federal agency, the Office of Personnel Management. They have competencies, and when you line up the competencies of successful executive leaders within the federal government and you line up the goals of liberal arts education, it’s not very hard to find that you can begin lining them up with one another.
SCARPINO: So you actually just segued into the next question that I want to ask you. As I was doing the background reading for this, I ran into numerous quotes from you about leadership, as you might imagine, just hit Google. But, it occurred to me pretty quickly that there are some common themes to those quotes and to your work on leadership. Because not everybody has done the reading, I’m going to share three of those quotes with you, and one of them is the one that you already mentioned, that “Leadership means initiating action towards shared values and purpose” or “Leadership is taking initiative on behalf of shared values” and “Any action, no matter how small, in pursuit of shared values and purpose is an act of leadership.”
Obviously, one of the themes that stands out about your writing on leadership is themes of shared value and shared purpose. I want to follow up on that. The question that occurred to me is when you talk and write about shared values, which values do you have in mind? What do you have in mind when you talk about shared values?
COUTO: For me, the values I hold most are the increased forms of social, economic, political equality. Now, I know there are people with whom I share those values. I know there are people who do not share those values. So conflict becomes part of leadership. But, let me stick on those values and who I share those with because it’s very important. I share those values with the people from the Bread and Roses Strike. I share those values. I understand the conflict that was going on in my grandmother’s head as she walked past the lines crying “scab.” She was for those values also. She wasn’t against those values, but she also had another shared value of personal responsibility for her debts and her commitment to her daughter, so that they were conflicting at that particular time. I also share those values with my grandchildren, certainly my daughter, although she’s more Independent than Democrat these days, but I share those values with my daughter as well. Sharing is not just the contemporaneous sphere, but it’s the history that we take from others and the history that we leave for others. I think you—it was somebody else who picked up on my teaching from Hesse, Journey to the East. We were teaching it at one time when one of my students had gone to Washington to protest the IMF and some of the…
SCARPINO: International Monetary Fund.
COUTO: Yeah, and some of the big wealth controllers of the world and she ended up in jail. Then they started releasing people and she refused to leave until everybody was gone. So, everybody in the class knew that Jane was in jail in Washington. It was a class of about 22. We were talking about Hermann Hesse and Journey to the East and the number of people who had gone to jail for standing up for the values that they shared. In Hermann Hesse’s book, he is sharing values—this is a guy trying to join The League, which was this collection of super-people across time with whom he hoped to share values. And then we started talking about people in that group and people who had gone to jail for their beliefs. We started talking about Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Socrates, and we started talking about all these people who had gone to jail for their beliefs. And it dawned on me, I said, “Damn, Jane is in better company than we are!” So another example of sharing values and taking that initiative and also grounding it in liberal arts, I guess. I may have strayed from your from question.
SCARPINO: You actually mentioned something about a teacher, and I noticed when I asked you who you were, the first word you uttered was “I’m a teacher” and then you went on from there. So, is it possible under your definition of leadership for people to share values that are quite different than the ones you just articulated and they would still meet your definition?
COUTO: Yes, oh absolutely.
SCARPINO: Even people that you may disagree with or find reprehensible.
COUTO: Yeah, and I forget what book I was working on, but I was writing and words were appearing on the screen and I said, “Do I really believe this stuff?” And I had that moment in finishing this paper that I’m working on. I’ll use the Montgomery bus boycott as an example, and Rosa Parks was in conflict with the bus driver. They did not share the values of segregation, but he was as much a leader as she was because he was taking initiative on behalf of shared values and the common good as she was, but they were just different values and the different vision of the common good.
SCARPINO: So, is part of understanding leadership kind of trying to come to terms with different sets of shared values, different understandings of the common good?
COUTO: That’s part of it. Another part of it is taking initiative on yours, not to be paralyzed by analysis, but to understand that this person may be coming from good will, but that the values are not yours and that there is a common good that is better than the status quo. Here’s the question that Barbara—I’ll get her name—but…
SCARPINO: At the Burns Center? That Barbara?
COUTO: No, no, this was from Union. She always talked about the New England Poet who all her writings were only posthumously published, “The Maid of Amherst” …
SCARPINO: With that much information, we can look it up.
COUTO: But, was she a leader? Was she—shared values for the common good? I mean, she just spent her time in her room writing poetry, putting it in the drawer, and then only later was it shared. So was that leadership? That’s a much more interesting question than was Hitler a leader? The old chestnut that we fall to.
SCARPINO: I’ve heard that few times. Well, I was actually thinking of a situation where a demagogue appeals to shared values, fear, anger, racism, resentment; is that leadership?
COUTO: The problem with my definition is that it does not allow you to distinguish effective/ineffective leadership, good or bad leadership. But I would say, yes. For that reason, Hitler was a leader. For that reason, Donald Trump is a leader. He is taking initiative on behalf of values that he shares with others.
SCARPINO: And then part of your definition also talks about shared purpose. How does any group identify shared purpose? Or purpose to what end?
COUTO: What I do know is that you have, let’s say in the Montgomery bus boycott, segregationists and anti-segregationists, that you’re going to have conflict between those two groups. Then within those groups you’re going to have conflict.
Are you good for a few more minutes?
SCARPINO: So, just some general questions on leadership because this is Tobias Center and International Leadership Association…
COUTO: How does the group come to a purpose? You have the boycotters and the segregationists conflicting with each other, but within each group there’s also going to be conflict. And I think people come to a sense of common purpose through working together, through conflicting with each other, and in working towards change. There’s this adage, “We make the road by walking,” and that can describe the goal or the destination of the road, but it can literally also describe the method, in this sense that the purpose—that we make purpose by engaging that effort and it’s always changing. One of the people that I learned so much from was Myles Horton. He led the Highlander Center which did a lot of training of labor in the ‘30s. He was way ahead on racial issues in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
SCARPINO: I was going to ask you about Highlander later, but you actually knew Myles Horton who was the founder of the Highlander Center, the original one before it was shut down and moved and everything. I’m going to back up and ask you, when did you meet him? And then tell me what impact he had on you, but how did you meet Myles Horton?
COUTO: We went out to Highlander. When I first took over the job at Vanderbilt and we were going to be working in the Appalachian region and we went out there. Mike Clark was the Executive Director there. Myles was still on the property. And there was a time when my kids thought they were on the staff of Highlander because…
SCARPINO: Your kids being your students or your actual kids?
COUTO: My actual kids. We were out there once or twice a month for the weekend. We traveled around. Myles came to Nashville and spent nights with us. We knew him pretty well.
SCARPINO: So, now could you talk a little bit about what kind of an impact—there’s a book on the history of Myles Horton and Highlander by John Glen.
COUTO: John Glen, sure, I was on his dissertation.
SCARPINO: Were you really? When the tape isn’t on, we can talk about this, but I was on the faculty at Southwest Texas with him when he defended his dissertation. I read it. All right, so, but talk a little bit about what Myles Horton taught you, or what you learned from him by association.
COUTO: Where I was going originally was—his estimation is that about every 15 or 20 years you have to start and begin organizing against the groups that you helped start; I guess the iron law of oligarchy that he was citing, although he was not a theorist much at all. That was one thing. He was a very simple man. Rosa Parks thought he was borderline crazy because of just the simple assumptions. People asked him, “How do you get black and white people to sit down at the table and eat?” and he said, “Well, there are three rules; prepare the food, set the table, and ring the bell.” Of course, he did a lot of oral histories and especially that one of Paulo Freire and Myles Horton. I had the great honor of interviewing Paulo Freire once, meeting with him and doing an interview for about a half-hour or so.
SCARPINO: For anybody who won’t know what you’re talking about, could you…
COUTO: He’s a Brazilian educator who inspired popular education, a Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It was banned in Brazil because of his pedagogical methods and he linked education to coming to consciousness of one’s own state of affairs. I guess if we link this back to a definition of leadership, he was a person who saw literacy as one way of people beginning to understand what shared values they have, what values that conflict with others, and what are some of the sources of those values? How are they grounded in economic, social, and political conditions?
SCARPINO: And he also had an influence on Highlander?
COUTO: Myles was the Paulo Freire of the United States, and I would say that that would be true because Paulo had much more influence around the world than Myles did.
SCARPINO: You went to Highlander obviously just because it was there, I assume, and you heard of it, but what impact did Myles Horton or Highlander have on you as you developed?
COUTO: Myles was first and foremost an educator, a teacher. That gave me a lot of confidence in teaching as an organizing tool, as a personal development tool. I have a poster on my office wall that says, “Teaching is like gardening; the fruit is within the seed, you just need to cultivate it,” and there was a beet as an example. By the time I knew him, he was a very gentle guy, and by the time I knew him, also I had run my gamut of heroes, so I wasn’t looking for a hero. I was okay with the clay feet and shortcomings; I was okay with them.
SCARPINO: Teaching as an organizing tool; does that define you as a teacher?
COUTO: My early career, especially at Vanderbilt, yes. Let’s go back to leadership. If I’m teaching, as I was at Vanderbilt with community groups, we’re very clear on the shared values. We want this pumping station to stop putting polluted water into the creek that runs by people’s houses. We’re very clear on that. We’re not doing seminars, we not doing epidemiology. We’re getting enough information to support our views and why we’re taking initiative on that. When I go into a classroom, there a much broader width of values. I have to respect the conservative Republicans in my classroom and the very progressive Democrats in the classroom, and I have to find common language that all of them can relate to because I’m not so much trying to organize them, as I’m trying to get them to come to a deeper appreciation of who they are and what their intrapersonal values are, as well as the ability to work with one another, interpersonal. But the more I taught, the more I came to understand the importance of the intrapersonal and working on that, that sense of being, first, again, going back to the liberal arts. That can be very frustrating. I do have this wonderful anecdote, well, a lot of wonderful anecdotes from teaching.
SCARPINO: (Laughing)… I can see, and will that be on the test?
COUTO: We had a discussion going on and it was going splendidly, and I generally left things up in the air and one of my shortcomings is not bringing things to closure. So, here we’re coming to the end of the class period and everyone is in small groups, the energy level of the classroom is sky high. So, I stop and I ask, “Okay, what do you guys want to do? Do you guys want to come back together and make brief reports or do you just want to continue talking in small groups?” This young woman, one of the smartest students I’ve ever had, Yale Law School, Law Review, all the rest of it, she put up her hand and she said, “Will you teach—will you just teach?” So, when she graduated, she brought me a graduation book, Teaching for Dummies.
SCARPINO: (Laughing)… We talked about your definition of leadership. Do you think that there are any essential qualities of an effective leader?
COUTO: An effective leader?
COUTO: Well, we have to start with the basics; willing to take initiative, some sense of values, some sense of the common good. Now once you get past those, what makes some initiatives effective, successful, and others not in that they are not all bound to the leader, obviously; it’s the context. Why was Rosa Parks’ effort successful and a woman six months earlier, her effort not successful? It has to do with the characteristics of the people. Mary Uhl-Bien is the person and her colleagues are the people looking at complexity and trying to understand the context of leadership as a dynamic system in which leadership is a necessary, but not sufficient, component. It’s a catalyst for change. The leadership of a particular person is a catalyst for change, not the prime agent. And I’m drifting here, so bring me back to your question.
SCARPINO: I asked you about essential qualities of a leader.
COUTO: So, the effective leader understands that their actions are part of a whole and how they have to interact with that. You know, the more you know about the leadership, the more hesitant you might be to undertake it because everybody who studies it over a long haul; Max Weber to go back to an early example, says that you know, go ahead do your best, try to bring about change, but just be aware that in most cases the change you seek bears no resemblance to what the outcome is going to be. I know that Max Weber observed that, and then Larry and Sheila Wilson, two people who lived on Yellow Creek who found that their goats were dying from drinking the creek water. When I asked him, “Would you do it all again knowing what you did?” and he said, “Probably not.” You get into it and then incrementally you keep going until you can’t stop. I guess it comes down to a question of perseverance; an effective leader perseveres. That’s one thing. An effective leader communicates those shared values well. An effective leader inspires others to take their own initiative, not follow, but to take their own initiative. Martin Luther King inspired people to take initiative that he never came in contact with and those people never felt that they were following Martin Luther King. They felt that they were taking their own initiative. Now, King could also be instructive in terms of the nonviolence and the direct action and all those kinds of things. I think the whole field of leadership studies is devoted to that question about effective leadership and, more narrowly, effective authoritative leadership, so there’s already an assumption of hierarchy and control, which is a real limit because it assumes power relationships. And I think in order to get to effective leadership, you also have to deal with that question of power within and also a sense of power, too, which brings us back to the question of shared values and the common good.
SCARPINO: What question do you think leadership programs should be asking?
COUTO: The question that we talked about some time ago, who are you? What do you stand for? Does your life have a purpose beyond success at work; if so, what is it? What makes for effective leadership, and we’ve discarded competency in the field, but I really think the OPM’s work on competency is really, really useful. It’s probably the best research done in leadership. You have a sample of tens of thousands of people over 30 years. When I went into that work, I thought, oh my God, federal bureaucrats talking about leadership, this is going to be a yawner. And then you see creativity, collaboration, conflict, just wonderful stuff that these people have identified and their ability to reflect on it, also. I think competencies, especially the work of the OPM, needs to be in there. A lot of attention to conflict, especially conflict that ends in collaboration. I interviewed some people who were exemplary community health leaders. I think there were 12 of them. Six of them would drive 80 miles out of their way to avoid conflict. Others would drive up onto your porch in order to have in order to engage in it. (Laughter) And Jackie Reed in Chicago told me she loves conflict. She said it’s the only way to clear the air and get straight what the assumptions are so that you can truly work together.
SCARPINO: Now, is this work that appeared in Making Democracy Work Better?
COUTO: No, To Give These Gifts. So, her idea and the idea of successful conflict is that it’s always a prelude to collaboration. Now, you can engage in conflict just for the sake of conflict, and you have no idea how we’re ever going to come together and work together, and that’s not the goal of the conflict. But these effective leaders, in my mind, engage in conflict as one way of reaching a sure base for collaboration.
SCARPINO: Do you consider yourself a leader?
COUTO: Geez, I avoided that term. When I received the Kellogg National Fellowship Program, we all showed up in Minnesota for a retreat, 40 of us, maybe 50. Half of us were shocked and dismayed that it was a leadership program because we had spent all of our time bucking leadership. We didn’t want to be leaders. My place in the university was as this marginal program constantly kicking the butt of the university and asking it to be more relevant to the problems within the community.
SCARPINO: So, this is when you were at Vanderbilt?
COUTO: When I was at Vanderbilt, yeah. And I went to Jepson because it seemed to be an institutional support for that kind of role. And here I was with these other people saying, “Man, we’re always complaining about leaders. Why the hell would I want to be one?” I have come to accept the fact that others view me as a leader. I have avoided authority, but I also see myself as a leader as one who takes leadership action, and that’s that definition of initiative on behalf of shared values and the common good. I wish I had taken more initiative and I wish I still felt freer to take initiative, but I think I’ve done a good share and taken advantage of those opportunities I had.
SCARPINO: Why do you think it’s important to study leadership?
COUTO: You know, I’m not sure that you could reach a fully human life without having some sense of your capacity for leadership, your capacity to take initiative on behalf of shared values and the common good. That’s because I don’t think you could lead a fully human life without some sense of what is the common good, what are the values you share with others in relationship to the common good, and when and how can you take initiative on behalf of that. That’s why I think it goes back to the goals for the liberal arts, too. A lot of it has to do with the intrapersonal development, I think.
SCARPINO: How do you balance the study of leadership with the practice of leadership? I’m thinking maybe those are not the same thing.
COUTO: I’m not sure about the study of leadership. I’m a little more sure about the teaching of leadership. When I walked into the classroom, I never thought of myself as walking into a classroom, it was always a workshop. How are we all going to come together around some understanding of the material? My best classes were when I went into a class with an index card and four words on it. These were just the central topics that we needed to get to. In that way, we were modeling a leadership that was participatory, to get away from the sage on the stage approach to teaching and get to a much more participatory, asset-driven—“All right, here’s what I know about this; what do you know about this?” So I see a very direct parallel between leadership in practice and maybe I would say teaching and learning. I think that’s where I did most of my practice of leadership, was within the classroom. The other place that I did it was working with communities. I always needed this balance, that I needed to write about what I was doing and I needed to do something to write about. If I went too long with one and not the other, I kind of lost the sense of balance. I only started teaching full-time when I went to Jepson and that gave me a chance to do some more reflection on the work that I had done, both writing and bringing it into the classroom. This balance was very important to me. Fortunately, I was able to, in most positions I had, have a foot in the community and a foot within academia as well.
SCARPINO: Was that customary for the other faculty at Jepson?
COUTO: No, I think I was the one who suggested service learning be a requirement, and then I was the one who suggested that we have a giant-sized internship. I worked with the rest of the university to start a LINCS program, Learning in Community Settings, where we would provide assistance to faculty who wanted to put students in community settings to work on projects related to their course work. Business majors would do marketing for nonprofit organizations, psychology majors would go in and teach modules in public schools on the brain and other things. What we found was that at least 10% of the faculty were immediately willing to take this up if they could just have the logistical support of making the arrangements with the community partners, orienting the students, helping with the transportation. These things that the faculty didn’t want to do, and we would do that with them. Not only was I unique in that, but no good deed goes unpunished, which I thought was my provost’s joke, but that was actually his philosophy.
SCARPINO: In the end, was the fact that your approach was a minority approach one of the reasons you left Jepson?
COUTO: No, that was a two-step process. The first step was when we finally got money for this program, LINCS, it was on the condition that I could no longer be in charge of it. Then the other thing that happened was we got a new president. The new president fired the dean and I took initiative on behalf of shared values and the common good and they were not terribly well-shared and I had a unique perspective on the common good, and I also made the mistake of copying the president. It wasn’t a mistake, my value was transparency, so I copied the president on a letter to the Board that I sent. And he put in a new dean with the instructions, “Keep Couto in the box, that’s your job, keep him on a leash.” There was no future there as long as he was there, so Antioch called and I thought that would be a wonderful opportunity.
SCARPINO: So, you spoke your mind on behalf of what you believed in.
COUTO: That’s right. A very dangerous thing. Oh, and I’ll tell you another thing…
SCARPINO: So, if I was one of your students, and I asked you, “Should I speak my mind on behalf of what I believe in?” what would you tell me?
COUTO: How effective will it be?
SCARPINO: Pick your battles?
COUTO: Pick your battles. If you feel this is one battle you want to deal with, just be aware of the ramifications, what can happen.
SCARPINO: We’ll come back to that. I’m going to ask you a couple of questions and then I think we should probably take a break. We’ve been talking for a while. On your resume, under current research, you mentioned a project called “Leadership and Social Change” and as part of that you are analyzing the answers to questions that were included…
COUTO: Yeah, I noticed that yesterday. I may have finished that but I’m not working on it now.
SCARPINO: So you did work on it? There were the 68 interviews with former Kellogg Fellows, so you were looking at these questionnaires?
SCARPINO: Okay. So we’re going to talk about your scholarship later, but I actually want to try something out and see if this works. So, there’s the Kellogg Fellows program, which is actually sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan, and I believe Larraine Matusak had something to do with that.
COUTO: She did.
SCARPINO: Okay, and I’m going to talk to her later. So, you decided to use these interviews and you talked about the selection process because you were a Kellogg Fellow. You filled out the questionnaire and all that stuff. And you obviously do have experience as a leader. I actually looked at your Director for the Center for Health Services at Vanderbilt where you actually had all of these people you were responsible for and everything. I want to ask you the questions that they did, three of them, and just see what’ll happen. One of the questions that these Kellogg Fellows had to respond to was: How do you know your leadership has been effective? I’d like to ask you that.
COUTO: Has it made a difference in people’s lives? Is there that intrapersonal development? Kevin McDonald and his wife drove by and stopped at our house about three weeks ago. Kevin was active at the Center for Health Services in maybe 1978, 1980. We had done some exchange, but this is the first time I had seen him. He had 37 years, so it was 1978. He said I was the only faculty member he’s ever looked up. He went to Columbia. He went to a couple of other places. I’m not sure that that tells me my leadership has been effective, but it tells me that there are students who value the interaction that we had. I like to think that may be a measure of effectiveness.
SCARPINO: What keeps you going?
COUTO: Let me say one other thing about that. I took a group of Kellogg Fellows and some Foundation people around the Appalachian region and we got back to Highlander, I think was our base, and people started debriefing about what that experience was like. They said, “Well, it went this way. We would walk into this place and all the women would get up and run and hug and kiss Dick Couto.” We were going to places that had started clinics, community development efforts or whatever. Or when that person says, “When I think of Dick Couto, I smile,” I would like to think of those as measures of effectiveness as well.
SCARPINO: You touched people’s lives.
COUTO: Yeah, yeah.
SCARPINO: So what keeps you going?
COUTO: Complexity. Paulo Freire said, “We always have to problematize the future,” because if we think of the future as simply an extension of the present, things don’t look good. Things do not look good at all. So, it is our job to recognize that we can problematize the future, to say the future does not have to be an extension of the present. And not only can we say that’s possible, but we know it’s inevitable because complexity theory and chaos theory just tells us that the unforeseen in always going to happen. There are going to be new patterns and the things that we find in the patterns presently will reveal new realities that we didn’t expect, and that is our hope. Our hope is in the unknowable about the future, the problems of the future.
SCARPINO: And you just connected chaos theory to the liberal arts.
COUTO: Yes, and to welcome it and to recognize that this is what makes us human, to deal with these things.
SCARPINO: So, last question…
COUTO: Let me just say, I had conversations with Margaret Wheatley about a year and a half ago, two years, at the ILA. Talk about a downer!
SCARPINO: Your conversation with her was a downer?
COUTO: When you were in…
SCARPINO: I interviewed her in San Diego.
COUTO: San Diego. She doesn’t use the word “hope.” Do you remember that?
SCARPINO: I don’t, actually. I was there, but I didn’t…
COUTO: She had a small session of us after the Legacy Award and then she gave a talk and she kept stressing that she does not use the word hope. And, I can be discouraged, but I don’t know, there’s a resilience there that I can’t take credit for, it just happens. And after a little while, I say “I have to do something, I have to do something.” I just don’t think we can live without hope, and I think our hope is in problematizing the future.
SCARPINO: So, when I ask you who is Richard Couto, hope is somewhere in the heart of the man.
SCARPINO: What’s the one piece of advice you would offer someone interested in a leadership position?
COUTO: Start where you are. Leadership and position may be oxymoron. And don’t think that you have to assume a position before exercising leadership. You exercise leadership in the classroom as a student when you come in. Do you take initiative on behalf of making this class a success, not your own grade, but the common good within the classroom?
SCARPINO: We’ve been talking for more than two hours by quite a bit.
COUTO: It doesn’t seem it.
SCARPINO: So, I think we should take a break and I want to thank you and look forward to talking to you again.
COUTO: Wow, this is wonderful. Wait until we start talking about our grandkids.
SCARPINO: It’ll be longer than two hours, won’t it?
SCARPINO: All right, let me just stop the recording.
SCARPINO: And we’ve got a second live recorder. So, to orient people, this is the second session with Richard Couto. We are in a hotel near his home in Mechanicsburg, Virginia, on the afternoon of January 29th. As I said when the recorder was off, I wanted to ask you one more question about growing up and your youth, and so on, and that really comes out of something that I read in your book Making Democracy Work which you published in 1999. One of the things, in addition to the content, that caught my attention was, in the acknowledgements where you said, and I’m quoting from you, “I thought a lot about Brother Michael Kiernan, F.M.S., who taught me English in high school.” And in reflecting on Brother Kiernan you also said that he taught you, and I quote again, “the ability to laugh at ourselves, made the serious business of life manageable and success at it possible.” Can you tell me a little bit about who must have been a very remarkable man that he…
COUTO: He was, yeah, and he was the best there was about Marist education. He was from Lawrence himself and working class family like the rest of us, but reached for that intellectual life and encouraged others to do the same. Very funny, very friendly. I don’t remember him carrying a book bag, but he would carry an armful of books and put them on the desk. He had an advanced class we would call the brain class, sophomore year, and we were to read a book a week. Now, a high school kid, reading a book a week as an assignment, but that was the expectation that he had and we met it. He was the first to meet you after class and talk with you and encourage you. He was just everything you would hope for in a teacher. The bell rang, you were off to a fast start and you didn’t stop until the bell rang to end the class. And in between time it was all content and humor as well.
That reminds me of another story. I wasn’t very good in science and I had a physics teacher who was also the basketball coach. I had become involved with the basketball team somehow. So, I would go into physics class and he would call me down and give me all the clippings for our next opponent from the newspaper and it was my job, during class, to sit there and read the descriptions and summarize the box scores so that he knew who were the leading point scorers and all the rest. So, essentially, I was doing some scouting for the team every class—or, every time, we’d play two or three games a week, so as often as that. And no matter now lousy I did in physics, I always got an 88. I could not even hand in a test and I would have gotten an 88, which was fine until when I really started studying for it, he gave me an 88 and I thought I deserved better.
SCARPINO: (Laughter) When you talked about Brother Kiernan again, you said the ability to laugh at ourselves made the serious business of life manageable and success possible. So, did he teach you to laugh at yourself? Is that one of the keys to you?
COUTO: Yes. I remember we had to write a description of this picture and he read my handwritten word “lonely” as “lovely.” He took me up on it and said, “That’s not a lovely country road.” And I got into it with him, “That was a lonely country road,” and we went back and forth. He laughed at my mistake, but I didn’t take offense at it and I could come back and he would come back. He took it very seriously that we had great things within us and he was not going to let them stay there undisturbed. He was going to call them out.
SCARPINO: Do you treat your own students the same way?
COUTO: Yeah, I am often first to see something in them that they don’t.
SCARPINO: So, if he taught all of you to laugh at yourselves, to make the serious business of life manageable and success at least possible, do you consider yourself to be a success measured against what he might have imagined for you?
COUTO: I went to a reunion of the high school sometime past, and I didn’t realize it but many of the Brothers who I really looked up to—these were our intellectual leaders—they looked back and they said, “You know, it was clear that you were the marked one in class.” I never knew that. And many of them have followed my career so they know that I’ve been published and been around the academic circles. I guess for the class that we had, I’ve reached as high as you go in academia.
SCARPINO: I’m going to do something real quick here. I’m hitting pause…
I’m going to trade pens with you. The clicking…
COUTO: Oh, have I been clicking?
SCARPINO: I listened to the recording, and well, I do it too, that’s why I—I’ll sit here and… I don’t want to be rude or anything, but I just thought maybe we’d just give you a different pen.
SCARPINO: As promised, I want to talk to you about Kentucky. Just in case somebody is just listening to this part of the recording, you earned your PhD in Political Science in 1974 at the University of Kentucky. We have already talked about your advisor some, the person that you worked with. Were there any other individuals on the faculty while you were there who had a significant impact on your studies?
COUTO: Gene Mason. He was one of the reasons I went to the University of Kentucky. He had an article in The Nation about a house raid on some Appalachian volunteers. The Appalachian volunteers were a group somewhat comparable to SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. The AVs were Appalachian volunteers. They started out working and repairing school buildings, but they ended up with community organizing anti-strip mining. And in Pike County, there were a couple of them, and the sheriff came and raided the house, found call it all kinds of communist literature. Gene Mason wrote that up as local oppression of community organizing. So when I got there, Gene Mason is one of the guys I wanted to look up and study. By the time I was there, it was clear he was not going to get tenure, that he was way off the track. So he was not going to be available to me for studies.
SCARPINO: Was he in Political Science?
COUTO: Political Science. He had decided to run for political office, and that got him into all kinds of trouble, too. He was running for congress. And then there was this thing about his buying an electric typewriter that had been stolen, and so there were these criminal charges. He got into a real mess. So I was over at his house and he asked me, “What are you writing your dissertation on?” And I said, “I’m going to write it on Cesar Chavez and the grape boycott.” And he said, “Well, that’s not what you came down here for. You came down here to write something on Appalachia.” I said, “Yeah, but I can’t find any encouragement. I was spending half my time writing the dissertation and then half my time defending my choice of topic.” He said, “Well, so what? People down here need that education.” That is in the faculty, in the department. And so I kept pushing back and he kept pushing back until he finally wrung out of me a commitment to do something on the region. So I would say he was the prime force in the selection of the dissertation.
SCARPINO: But he did not get tenure, I assume.
COUTO: He did not get tenure.
SCARPINO: So who did you persuade to serve on your committee.
COUTO: Herb Reid. And the dissertation was a combination of oral history – well, it’s more involved now – but phenomenology was the methodology, if we could call it that, and I was interviewing different sets of people to look at the concentration among them on terms such as representation, healthcare, poverty, etc. And there was an organized group of poor people, the Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Organization. Then there was the medical establishment. Then there were the health professionals within the Floyd County Comprehensive Health Program. Then there were the OEO advocates in Washington. The program was one of the two programs ever to be defunded by OEO, almost unheard of.
SCARPINO: Which program was that?
COUTO: The Floyd County Comprehensive Health Program. Then the funds were restored and the chief opponent of the program, Eula Hall, who was with the Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Organization, became one of the main people shepherding the new clinic. I’m pretty sure the clinic is named after her now. She and Carl Perkins, who had been the democratic representative from the region, they would go at loggerheads all the time. But at the dedication of that clinic, all was sweetness and light between them.
SCARPINO: It’s Eula Hall?
COUTO: Yes, E U L A.
SCARPINO: Okay, so you and I have talked about her before, and you have also written about her.
SCARPINO: So you first met Eula Hall when you were a graduate student working on your dissertation.
COUTO: Oh absolutely. Yes, right.
SCARPINO: She is quite a figure in community organizing in that part of Kentucky or the Appalachians, and she has a national reputation. Can you tell us a little bit more about her?
COUTO: Yes, there are books on her now. I wrote an essay and she was one of the first recipients of the Wonder Woman Award.
SCARPINO: That’s quite an award, isn’t it?
COUTO: Yes. Ms. Magazine was just starting it, and she was in the first cohort to receive it. The first American Public Health Association meeting I ever went to, I walked into final recession and there she was receiving a Presidential Citation for her work there. Much of her work centered around black lung eligibility. She was a paralegal for people. Then she had a chance to start this clinic. They started it in her home, but the home was burnt to the ground to cover up an attempt to steal drugs. The next day, the clinic opened, sheets hung from ropes by the burnt house, telephone wires attached to trees so that they could still take calls. I mean nothing stopped this woman. She was a force of nature. And then she’d come home to this huge garden. She would call it garden; most of us would call it a small farm. Her house and her family were the center of activity. I also, based on that essay, ended up going back there and being part of a program ABC did, Morning America or something like that, and they would feature people, and she was one of the people featured. That was about the mid-1980s. Involved, intelligent, tough. No problem conflicting with authority even though she might not have any authority herself. So she was very active in the black lung movement and Arnold Miller, who led the black lung movement and then got elected as the United Mine Workers chief, was in Washington. And Eula goes to Washington to talk to him and says, “Arnold, you have to do this. Arnold, you have to do that.” And he says, “Oh Eula, you don’t understand. This thing and this other thing, this other thing.” And she said, “Arnold, what you need is a job description.” And she was very ready to prepare him – to give him one.
SCARPINO: You first met her as a graduate student.
SCARPINO: What impact did she have on you? What did you learn from her?
COUTO: Well, I remember going back to seminars in state and local government. And Malcolm Jewell, who was one of the bright lights and a really fine guy within the department, he would be going on and on. And then he would look at me and he would say – he could just look at the expression on my face and he said, “What are you thinking?” or “What’s going on?” I said, “Well, that’s not the way it works.” And then I would start talking about the local politics that I knew from Eula and talking to people like her, and would do my best to explain how some people are were in and some people were out and what the unorganized and organized people, poor people, were doing in the county. So she was my best instructor in terms of politics. And also, you know, taking the initiative on behalf of shared values and a common good. She was a person who took a lot of initiative. And if she didn’t share your values, it was because she shared values with others who were too often not represented. She was just dynamic that way. I don’t know if you had a chance to read Citizen Leadership, but she was one of the three profiles that I used in that essay.
SCARPINO: At the time that you were working on your dissertation and doing your fieldwork out in Appalachia, did you see a connection between the local people that you were studying, the activities that they were interested in, the issues that they cared about and leadership? Were you thinking about that connection at that time?
COUTO: No. I was thinking of Eula as an anti-lead person. I was in the mindset that the people in authority were the people you opposed because they were responsible for the conditions you were trying to change. That was my mindset on leadership. Now what that resistance was and what that opposition was never occurred to me as leadership until much, much later.
SCARPINO: Do you remember what caused you to connect those dots? COUTO: Yes, very, very precisely. I was in my job interview at Jepson and James MacGregor Burns was on the visiting faculty. Essentially he was a PR move for the Jepson school, that they had this…
SCARPINO: Pretty good PR actually.
COUTO: …they had this marquee name.
SCARPINO: This was about 1990 then?
COUTO: 1991. So we were at lunch and we’re talking about leadership and Jim is bemoaning the quality and dearth of leadership in the United States. And I was saying, “Well, I disagree. I think there’s a lot of good leadership in the United States.” And so we started talking and it became apparent that he was talking congress and presidents and people in those positions, and I was talking Eula Hall and Larry and Sheila Wilson and people who were on the ground dealing with problems in their own backyard. And I quickly shut up because I realized that here I am talking with the patriarch of leadership studies about leadership about which I know very, very, very little. So we agreed that we were talking about different foci when we made our judgments about leadership. About four months later, either in the fall or in the spring, he asked me to take a trip with Georgia Sorenson, and we got in the car on maybe Thursday or Friday. We drove to Emory and Henry College. We met with a woman from Dungannon and other places that had done organizing, started a health clinic, a community depot for education and other human services. We had dinner with Art Van Zee, a physician who is now very prominent in fighting opiates.
SCARPINO: Van Zee, you said?
COUTO: Art Van Zee, yeah. Fight opiates in Southwestern Virginia. We met up with Larry Wilson and his wife, Sheila. We spent the night with Maurice Rillo, who is a long-time community development person down in Rose Creek and who happened to be a mentor to Helen Cook, who was the stepdaughter of William Vanderbilt, who knew Jim from Williamstown. So that was like a homecoming for Jim. Then Jim found that there was a coal miners’ strike going on at the Halls. So Sunday morning we drove up there and Jim stood on the picket line with the miners. And for the soul, FDR, nothing could do more for his heart than to be on that line with them. We hooked up with Larry and Sheila and drove down to Highlander, spent the day at Highlander and then the next day went to TVA Watts Bar Nuclear Plant. Then he left for Auburn University, and Georgia and I drove back. But I think in that trip, he came to see a lot of leadership at the very local level and had a much better idea of what I was talking about.
SCARPINO: So he asked you to go on that trip?
COUTO: Yes, right.
SCARPINO: Because Georgia told me about that. I’m going to open my notes here and ask you some question in a minute, but she told me about the trip, but she had no idea – she knew she had been invited to come along, but she didn’t know who started it.
SCARPINO: She said, “Ask him.” And he asked you to do this because he was interested in grassroots leadership, or he just wanted to see the area?
SCARPINO: So in the end, you helped to influence the way he understood leadership as much as he had done for you.
COUTO: Well, you know, he had this book Cobblestone Leadership, and in the booking Transforming Leadership, he sites this woman who came to the town meetings – I forget what town it was – and she just had the whole town council intimidated because they knew she was watching them, she was reporting on them. She was a higher moral authority than any of them had. So those kinds of examples always snuck into his work. But this is really a case of where – and you know this very well as an academic – you have one intention for your work and then you put it out there, and within the mix of everything else, people interpret it differently.
SCARPINO: Yes, they do.
COUTO: If you ask people Burns’ work, they’ll say, “Oh, transactional and transformational leadership.” Well, he doesn’t use the term transformational leadership. When he does, it’s a slip. It’s transactional and transforming leadership. And that’s very, very deliberate, but it’s ignored largely because the field of leadership studies is largely formal organizations, for-profit organizations, male oriented, etc. And Jim is working from the paradigm of social change, collective action for social change. So consequently a lot of his work just looks over some of those examples of ordinary leadership and the leadership of ordinary people. Now I wrote that experience that I had about both the job interview and our visit to the Appalachian region; I wrote up in the very first piece I did about leadership that that was very deliberate in defining a citizen leader. And that’s gotten reprinted a number of times. But then I have a bookend for that, which I just finished. R. Goethals will be editing the book based on papers we gave at Mount Vernon on Jim’s intellectual legacy. And where I knew nothing about leadership, this last paper I wrote probably indicates that I’ve learned a lot since then, but enough to challenge the paradigm more. The title is “Leadership without leaders, followers, or causation (causality)” and it explains this idea that leadership is taking the initiative, and it’s not about leaders but it’s about people taking initiative. So that Rosa Parks doesn’t become a leader of the Civil Rights Movement; she becomes a person who took initiative on one day by a certain set of values. And that followers are not followers because they line up behind somebody else, but they are also leaders in that they take leadership – they take initiative for the same values that others have exemplified. So those people who boycotted the buses weren’t doing it because of Martin Luther King or anybody else; they were doing it for that leadership within.
SCARPINO: In Montgomery.
COUTO: In Montgomery, yeah. And then leadership without causation, Jim makes as the primary test of transformative leadership real and tended change, but that’s too high a bar. You can take initiative and have some intentions in mind, but they may not work out the way that you intend. That fruit vendor in Tunisia who immolated himself to protest the police taking away his scales and his livelihood. He never intended the Arab Spring, but that was one of the consequences of his actions. Others saw that immolation and said, “We, too, are suffering under these conditions. We, too, need to take initiative.” And then that just spread across Northern Africa.
SCARPINO: Is part of really understanding the process of leadership being aware of unintended or unanticipated consequences and the role that they play?
COUTO: Yes, all of those. But – and this is where hope comes in. I was talking with a friend of mine from Ireland about unintended consequences, and especially with the Resettlement Administration, the New Deal. One guy wrote saying, “If all we’re doing is building homes and putting people in new homes, that’s not enough,” and they didn’t know what would be enough, but they knew there needed to be more. As part of the Resettlement Administration, they paid the poll tax for people to register to vote. They did extraordinary things. And my friend said to me, “So they were intended but unspecified outcomes.” I said, “That’s exactly right.” They knew there was something more to this, but they couldn’t specify it. And so those Resettlement Administration projects, especially those designed for African American farmers, those farmers became property owners who supported those people attempting to register to vote. They were kicked off their land when they attempted to registered to vote. That is the tenant farmers were kicked off their land, and they set up tent cities on the land of those property owners established by the Resettlement Administration 20 years earlier. It’s just an incredible story.
SCARPINO: So the tent cities were set up there in the New Deal, or afterwards?
COUTO: Afterwards. The Resettlement Administration in Haywood County, for example, the Resettlement Administration located some 40+ African American families on 90 acres, a house, and an outbuilding for farm machinery, etc. This was in late ‘30s maybe. In the late ‘50s, they began inquiring to register to vote. So let’s just stay with the Resettlement Administration for a minute. That was an intended but unspecified consequence. They were hoping that their efforts in the ‘30s would lead to political, economic, and social change down the line, but they could not have specified that in 1958 and 1959 there would be these efforts to register to vote. And one thing that had changed – this is the Eisenhower Administration, mind you – and John Doar comes down from Wisconsin, I think it was, midwestern republican. He is put into the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. He gives the people in Haywood County his phone number, and these people all of a sudden could call a Washington official direct, and he took up their cause. I wrote some about heroic bureaucracies, and John Doar was clearly one of those heroic bureaucrats, kept on by the Kennedy Administration. And during the Civil Rights Movement, wherever the contest was greatest, George Wallace at the school door, there was John Doar right with him. In Mississippi, just name a place, John Doar was at the heart of the action.
SCARPINO: So the Eisenhower Administration actually did have a Civil Rights Division, and Father Hesburgh was on that.
COUTO: Is that right?
SCARPINO: Did Doar have anything to do with …
COUTO: …I’m not sure.
SCARPINO: Okay, because I always wondered why Eisenhower would have ever appointed that commission. So Georgia Sorenson did talk to me about the trip that you described, as I mentioned a minute ago. I had some questions that I wanted to ask you about that. So in interviewing for the job at Jepson and then taking James MacGregor Burns and Georgia Sorenson on this trip into western Virginia and eastern Tennessee, your own ideas on the connection between community activity and leadership sort of crystallized.
COUTO: Coming together, yes.
SCARPINO: You said a minute ago that you really didn’t know anything about leadership, but I’m going to challenge that. It sounds to me like you spent years in an environment in which you were thinking about issues, and it was like you went through these two events and it was like you did a last turn on a kaleidoscope and the picture came into focus. I mean it had been there all the time, and is that a fair assumption?
COUTO: I think that’s a fair conclusion because it was almost immediately after that that I wrote “Defining a Citizen Leader.”
SCARPINO: That’s your first publication that sort of…
COUTO: That dealt explicitly with leadership. And it also articulated that alternative view of leadership away from positionality and perks and influence and authority, and focusing on other aspects of leadership.
SCARPINO: When you published that article – and I’ve actually got the citation in here, I was going to ask you about it – how was that received by people who were already in the field?
COUTO: It’s hard to say how anything is – I always talk about scholarship publishing as a very lonely, lonely enterprise like dark holes in space that you produce something and you put it out there and neither sound nor light that’s ever heard again. I was on Google Scholar yesterday looking up something and, you know, you take Flint, for example, I dealt with those issues that they’re dealing with in Flint in my work on Yellow Creek. And at the same time, people at Harvard were working with groups in Woburn, Massachusetts. So I got in contact with them to see how they were working with a community group around toxic exposures. And I thought through the difference between epidemiology and common sense health risk assessment. Epidemiologists will come down and say there is no significant co- relationship between this toxicity and the condition of the children. Alright, granted. But then you get a jar of the tap water and you put it in front of them and say, “Would you drink that?” and they would say, “No, not in a million years.” “Would you give it to your kids?” “No.” So as an epidemiologist, they’re figuring out the probability of the nonrandom association of a dependent and an independent variable. As a human being, they’re looking at something to say, “Is this a risk to my health?” And in Flint, the best test of the governor’s sincerity would be if he moved to the town when his family and when he says to the community, “Look, it’s safe to bathe, it’s safe to drink, and that’s why I’m moving my family here because we have all the confidence in the world.” He’s not going to do that in a million years. He’s going to give them assurances based on one set of calculations, but his common sense tells him stay away.
SCARPINO: Why do you think that is? This is the second time you’ve mentioned it. It seems like we just fight the same battles over and over again, and common sense seems not to prevail. What does prevail?
COUTO: I think in this case power. I don’t know the specifics, but you would know better than I, being closer to Michigan. But there’s a surplus there based on tax cuts. Flint owes tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, to the state. There’s just a set of policies right now aimed at a redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, and there’s a toleration for both social and political inequality probably greater than I’ve seen in my lifetime.
SCARPINO: Let’s go back to Kentucky. You talked about meeting Eula Hall while you were doing your dissertation research. Did you have any other experiences or meet any other individuals while you were engaged in what amounted to fieldwork for your dissertation that had a significant influence on you, on your professional development or the way you saw the world or understood human beings and the human condition?
COUTO: Clark. I forget his first name. He was the superintendent of schools, and I began to talk with him. He said, “Richard, we know you’re in town. Everybody knows you’re in town and no one is going to talk to you. I’m willing to talk to you, though. I’m the only person ever to receive a Purple Heart in the War on Poverty. EKWRO and those people, Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Organization and those people came into my office and they struck me.” And after that, he took to wearing a football helmet in his office. He said, “Now, Richard, I’m going to talk to you but I’m telling you I’m going to call up the University of Kentucky, I’m going to check you out. And if I find out that you are not who you are and you’re misrepresenting yourself, I will hunt you down.”
SCARPINO: And he was superintendent of schools where? COUTO: Floyd County, Kentucky.
SCARPINO: Same county as you, oh yeah.
COUTO: Oh yeah, they had no love for one another. Then I just happened upon George Archer, who was the chief physician and the leading physician in the area, and I think mayor of the town as well. And so I said, “Dr. Archer, my name is Richard Couto. I’m from the University of Kentucky and I’m doing my dissertation. I’d love to have a chance to interview you and talk with you.” He said, “Where’s your home?” I said, “Lexington.” He said, “I mean, where were you born?” I said, “Lawrence, Massachusetts.” He said, “I don’t think I have anything to say to you.”
SCARPINO: Because you’re a Yankee?
COUTO: So have you run into things like that in your oral history? SCARPINO: Yes. I’ve clearly run into situations characterized by mistrust, yes.
COUTO: And then there was the dentist who was kind of an outlier in the whole health professional group. He introduced me to the politics of welfare. He said, “Carl Perkins just keeps the poolhall crowd loaded with money and he turns that into votes.” And it was the first time that I had heard, and then I went and checked the records, but there were more people who voted in some precincts than there were eligible voters. With the outmigration and not purging polls, he would have 130 people at this precinct voting even though there were only 75 eligible voters. And he pointed that out time after time, and he said, “You just have to laugh.”
SCARPINO: But that was, at that time, politics as usual.
SCARPINO: So you got your PhD and you took at job at Northern Kentucky State University, I assume because you needed a job.
COUTO: Needed a job. When I went into graduate school, I started in ’69, the people finishing were going to the American Political Science Association meeting with a week’s clothes because they expected to be interviewed and hired on the spot, and they had to be ready to go back to the conference to work. We’re talking Duke, Rice, we’re talking schools like this when I got there. In 1972, three years later when I went on the market, I was the only person to get a job offer at Northern Kentucky State College. It had changed that quickly.
SCARPINO: The same thing happened in history.
SCARPINO: So you were on tenure track there?
COUTO: Yes, I was.
SCARPINO: And you stayed three years, ’72 to ’75?
SCARPINO: Then you moved on to Vanderbilt, where you took your main appointment, which appears to be Director of Center for Health Services. You had a number of other appointments, but …
COUTO: Lots of other appointments, but that was my main job. A couple of things about Northern Kentucky. We ran into – well, the faculty senate forced the resignation of the president. So it wasn’t the first time I got into battles with school administrators, but this one was particularly egregious and the board finally decided that the president had to go. He made some careless mistakes. Then at Vanderbilt, the Surdna services need some explanation because it’s an outgrowth of the student movement, and the term health services is very, very misleading. In the late ‘60s, mid ‘60s, late ‘60s, the Surdna Foundation gave Vanderbilt a small grant…
COUTO: …Yes, it’s Andrus spelled backwards….gave Vanderbilt a small grant to start a community health doctors program. People were very concerned that the student unrest on campus would eventually reach medical schools and disrupt medical education. So this money was intended for those students who wanted to raise hell to go off- campus…
SCARPINO: It sounds like cooption.
COUTO: …oh absolutely… to go off-campus and do it. So they did that successfully and they started a student health coalition. They would do health fairs and then work with the local people who helped stop the health fairs to start primary care clinics often staffed by nurse practitioners with a supervising physician maybe looking after three or four of those clinics. We were successful in starting clinics where we shouldn’t have. I say we, I wasn’t there yet. But maybe 21, 22 rural primary clinics. Really, there was nothing like it in the history of higher education, where students and community leaders and some faculty members worked together. And then one thing led to another. Out of these clinics, we had the Tooth Fairy Project, where kids’ teeth would be sent to the chemistry lab at Vanderbilt to be analyzed for lead, something that they’re going to be doing in Flint more or less. The blood is not a good metric, but the teeth will hold onto lead longer. Then we started a farmers market, organizing local producers with churches to sell directly to consumers. Way ahead of its time. Well, all of these had models, but in some cases brought them up to scale. The Occupational Safety and Health Project. The Tennessee Primary Care Association. We just kept building on the next organizational need, the next organizational infrastructure to support what we had started before. When the nurse practitioners got in trouble because they couldn’t prescribe medicine, we went to Congress. And the Tennessee Primary Care Association came into being to protect these and other clinics that we helped start.
SCARPINO: When you went to Congress, were you actually involved in that?
COUTO: No. I was just coming on. So from ’75 to – I left the Center around 1988, I think.
SCARPINO: Yes, I copied it out of your resume, that’s how I know.
COUTO: I always wanted to combine teaching with all of that work, so I finally got a job opportunity to do some teaching at Peabody and then over at Tennessee State University. But it was the best professional experience of my life, the most formative experience. I used to say that at the Center, we had done the impossible, but it was also being screwed by the inscrutable. We were very marginal. We were entirely soft money. A lot of the most liberal people on campus who would be our allies were jealous of our freedom. And I said, “You want this kind of freedom? Just give up all the university funding.” I was bringing in 7% of every foundation dollar to the university. The Ford Foundation told our chancellor, “Look, we’re never going to fund anything on your campus except Couto’s shop.” And the chancellor came out, wrote me a handwritten note. This was pretty impressive. I’m not sure even knew that he ….
SCARPINO: The chancellor still gets to take credit for it. You know, he’s chancellor of the whole university.
COUTO: Yeah. And when the dean was called before a Senate Committee and Kennedy asked him what we were doing to help impoverished communities, etc., they would trot out the Center for Health Services.
SCARPINO: John Kennedy? Senator Kennedy?
COUTO: Senator Kennedy, yeah. And I got woven into networks that I couldn’t believe; John Seigenthaler at “The Tennessean” and his national networks. And the organizers for AFL-CIO would come through on a health insurance effort and I’d be brought in, had the chance to make a wonderful documentary on the Tennessee Valley Authority. It was just an incredible creative experience, almost too much to keep up with. Contrast it now, I look at my calendar and if there’s something coming up this week, I see it as a real impediment. Back in those days, there was never a clear spot on it. And it was also those days where I would go into work with my bookbag filled with things to do and I would leave work never once opening them because there were just brushfires all the time. Calls from West Virginia about water quality safety and how our students had warned presidents there that there was a danger in the water, and now public health officials were calling the chancellor and the chancellor was calling me, “Handle this,” and etc., etc.
SCARPINO: What was your area of operation? How far did it extend outward from Vanderbilt?
COUTO: Directly, into West Virginia, down to Memphis, Chattanooga, eastern Kentucky, east Tennessee, southwestern Virginia, and southwestern Kentucky.
SCARPINO: Just based upon what you’ve told me and what I’ve read…
COUTO: It was about the size of Scotland to Wales.
SCARPINO: That’s multistate huge area, mostly impoverished.
SCARPINO: A lot of the Cumberland Plateau.
SCARPINO: So you took students to Appalachia when you were teaching high school sort of on a lark, I mean kind of, “I wonder what’s there.”
SCARPINO: You got hooked and you kept going back and going back and working and working, and you went to Kentucky and did your dissertation and then you got crossed up by the university president and left a tenure track position. It sounds to me like this job you took was like the capstone for all that work you did in Appalachia. I mean it was like it all came together in one place and you finally had some institutional support.
COUTO: This is where?
SCARPINO: When you were the director of the Center for Health Services.
COUTO: Oh yes, right, right. I didn’t realize that, but it wasn’t so much a capstone as a beginning. It had the content I was really interested in, but I had to learn a lot about the process. When I say this was the outgrowth of the student movement, that’s good and bad because the student movement had a heavy emphasis on democracy. And in some cases, democracy meant what’s yours is mine and what is mine is mine. And I was the director of a program, and that program had let’s say six projects underneath it. It was an umbrella holding some of these together. And the projects had – there was always a tension between the autonomy of the projects and holding them together under some kind of policy, coordinating funding efforts. They didn’t pay any indirect cost initially to the Center, so the Center was responsible for raising its own money. We had a board that could vary between 15 and 20 people. On that board were some of the project members. So you’d go into a staff meeting and agree on something, then the staff member would come back as a board member and object to the staff decision. And so it was an endless round of conflict. I mean literally we didn’t go a month or two within some big blowup about something. And I learned how poor I was at that, but I also learned how to get around that. We brought in management consultants who worked precisely with the democratic organizations like we had. And that brought us in touch with the Center for Community Change and Pablo Eisenberg for one of the brightest minds in organizing.
SCARPINO: Pablo Eisenberg?
COUTO: Yeah. And Carl, I forget Carl’s last name, and he had a woman associate. They just did wonders in helping us with strategic planning and all. So I learned how to manage a very volatile organization, and that was a terrific lesson, but it literally wore me out by 1988 and I just needed to leave. As rich as the opportunity was and I had finally brought it to a place when it had about three years of solid finances ahead of us. And you need to realize that sometimes we had three months of finances ahead of us, all soft money all the time. And I finally had brought it to a place where it had three years of funding. Some of that funding included the first university funds into the Center for Health Services. And I lost those, or I was threatened the loss of those when we did a participatory action research project, and the students decided to look at diversity on campus, but not diversity so much as inclusiveness. So we called it Vandiversity and we looked at all kinds of measures, and it just happened – you know how we talked about you can be looking at something and it’s innocent enough and then you enter that into another dynamics, another system dynamics and then it becomes very volatile and explosive. Well, the chancellor had just hired a provost. The provost and my boss, the Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs, were in a pissing contest over influence with the chancellor. So along comes this news of a study on diversity within the vice chancellor’s shop. And so the provost is raising all kinds of hell, “What’s going on here? What are you people doing?” So he calls me in and he says, “There’s noise in the pipes. Shut it down.” And I said, “Well, I can’t do that.” And I explained to him it was a class project, etc. It was the only time I was ever threatened with academic freedom. He said, “Academic freedom? Academic freedom? I’ll show you academic freedom.” (laughs)
SCARPINO: That’s what he said to you?
COUTO: Yes. And he said, “A dog does not shit in his own yard,” which was very funny because we just had got a dog who would bark when he wanted to come in and then shit on the carpet and then bark to go out.
SCARPINO: I was going to say, I don’t know what his dog was doing, but mine does it in his own yard.
COUTO: But the dog wasn’t shitting in his yard, he was coming in the house and then going out to the yard, which was a whole different version of that story than he had ever had in mind. So all I could do was stop from laughing. So at that time, I told him that I would offer to resign and do all these other kinds of things. The paradox of that story was I was teaching and it was one of the best teaching experiences I ever had because I showed up about 15 minutes late one day and my colleague showed up at least as late as I was. The class had started, and they decided they couldn’t wait for us and there was too much to get done, so they had started the class. And we both got there and we knew better than to interrupt it. He won the President’s Cup for Excellence in Teaching and I resigned my job. So it’s the yin and yang.
SCARPINO: I want to ask you, you mentioned that you had a number of projects going on. Could you just explain just briefly what the projects were?
COUTO: Within the Center for Health Services?
COUTO: We had Student Health Coalition – the Appalachian Student Health Coalition. They worked in east Tennessee, southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky. We had the Landowners Assistance Project, which provided paralegal assistance to black landowners. The erosion of black land ownership was a very serious problem. We had the West Tennessee Student Health Coalition. We had the Tennessee Occupational Safety Health Project. We had the farmers market project. We had the Tennessee Healthcare Association, and eventually spun off and became their own 501(c)(3). We had the Urban Student Health Coalition that worked in Nashville. Those are the ones I can remember.
SCARPINO: Every one of these projects put students of some type, medical students, legal students, graduate students, undergraduate students out in the community.
SCARPINO: So one more time you were on a cutting edge of what we now call service learning or experiential learning.
COUTO: Experiential learning. At first, I became very active in the National Society for Experiential Education. Then it became service learning. People did a book called Pioneers in Service Learning, and I was included in a retreat at Wingspread. I was up there and they talked about the different routes that we took to get there, and I was a social justice route to get to service learning. Then I got associated with the community service effort by Campus Compact. And then COOL, Campus Outreach Opportunity League, were very suspicious of faculty, but worked some with them. We were going in many different directions, service learning, community service, and I wanted to get service learning more and more integrated into the curriculum. Hence, the requirement at Jepson, also the LINCS effort at the University of Richmond to help faculty integrate community-based action programs.
SCARPINO: LINCS stands for what?
COUTO: Learning in Community Settings. Then I did a summer project called COMPS, Community Problem Solving. I wrote up some of that in a book called Teaching Democracy by Being Democratic. I walked into a meeting of the New American Colleges out in St. Mary’s in California and somehow I got introduced, and one of the people from the Midwest said, “This is a dangerous man.” And I looked at him and he said, “I used your book and I used it seriously, and it just turned over my classroom.” So what he was saying is how authority works, and if you’re talking about empowering students, watch out, because this will do it.
SCARPINO: Well, then it works.
SCARPINO: You did create the Student Environmental Health Coalition.
COUTO: I forgot that, yeah.
SCARPINO: What did they do?
COUTO: Primarily they provided water testing and other forms of testing. We had a wonderful chemistry professor, David Wilson, who used his lab to do some of the early analysis. Now, it was not a certified lab. We could not say positively 100% here are the results, but we could tell them, “We ran the sample, these are our results. There’s enough concern here that we suggest that you have this done by a certified lab.” We did a household survey on Yellow Creek. We used participants. Hortense Quillen told us, “It’s a good thing that you used local residents. We got answers from people you couldn’t have pulled out of them with a gun.”
SCARPINO: And Hortense’s last name was?
COUTO: Quillen. Let me just say a couple of other things. People sent us vegetables and they had been using sludge from the water facility, the cleaning plant. And our students called them over the weekend, and said, “Don’t eat those vegetables.”
SCARPINO: They were using sludge from the water treatment plant to grow their vegetables?
COUTO: Right. Now, it’s supposed to be organic matter and it’s been treated, but there were heavy metals in there.
SCARPINO: I was going to say it didn’t take out the heavy metals, did it?
COUTO: No. And the heavy metals were coming from a tannery that was using mercury – I think there’s something else – and it overwhelmed the facility, and so a lot of stuff was just passing through without being treated. I’ll never forget the residents saying, “Now, what kind of lab calls you on a weekend to tell you to stay away from those vegetables?” And they thought the world of what the students were doing. I remember going to some of those citizen hearings when the EPA and CDC came up from Atlanta. I have to give them credit; they were genuine human beings. Their role was as epidemiologists, but they were concerned human beings as well. I sat there and I just saw parents with kids in their laps wondering what’s going to happen to this child, given the water that they’ve ingested and the baths that they’ve taken. And I cried. I cried because of my own daughter.
SCARPINO: You won or were a runner-up for the Ehrlich Prize for Campus Compact.
COUTO: I should have won that.
SCARPINO: You probably should have. What was the Campus Compact? What did you do with the Campus Compact that brought it to the attention of the Ehrlich Prize Committee, for one thing?
COUTO: Well, I think I self-nominated for that. But I was there at the beginning of the Campus Compact when the first 13 presidents met at the Georgetown old library. The chancellor of Vanderbilt was there because Vanderbilt had gotten the reputation for community service through the work of the Center, the Health Services. Brown University was one of the leaders. Stanford University was one of the leaders. And Frank – I can’t remember Frank’s last name, may it was Carnegie– and he was one of the leaders as well. And then they brought in 10 other presidents. By the time I had left any formal relationship with them, they were well up to around 300 presidents, all of them endorsing community service, which is a little bit like kissing babies and endorsing apple pies and Mother’s Day. They didn’t have the courage to say this needs to be integrated with the curriculum, we need to give credit for this.
SCARPINO: They didn’t want to give faculty credit for the work they do in those areas.
COUTO: That’s right.
SCARPINO: Universities find that hard to do.
COUTO: Right. So this would have been chalked up to service for their promotion and tenure, maybe.
SCARPINO: Campus Outreach Opportunity League. That was one actually that I think Steven Fisher mentioned when I talked to him. What was that about?
COUTO: That was more of a student-led effort to promote community service. The Bonner Foundation, it eventually ended up in the Bonner Foundation. Emory & Henry may be one of the schools that has Bonner scholars, where they get a certain amount of their tuition paid for a certain number of hours of community service. Wayne Meisel was kind of the Johnny Appleseed of this and took a highly publicized walk from maybe Colby in Maine down to New York City, stopping at campuses and encouraging people to do community service; refereeing inner city basketball programs, tutoring, all those kinds of things. They didn’t want the faculty anywhere near it. Wayne was a protégé of Derek Bok. Lived in some backyard apartment that he had.
SCARPINO: And who was Derek Bok?
COUTO: Derek Bok, president of Harvard. Wayne has his own pipeline to the New York Times.
SCARPINO: Did you bring the Campus Outreach Opportunity League to Vanderbilt?
COUTO: No, I kept distance. I got much closer to them when I was at Richmond because they had left an imprint there and I worked with the director there. I came to know some of the previous leaders of that program. Mara Wolff and Addington – I forget her first name. I was the person that built Campus Compact and who Wolff trusted to mediate a meeting between the two of them in Highlander, 1992 in the spring. So we came together to find out what was common ground, what were the obstacles to working together, etc.
SCARPINO: You got involved in a project with the TVA, created obviously in the ‘30s, touted to bring electricity and economic development to rural south and so on. There’s that lovely book by David Lilienthal called TVA Democracy and Moral Authority. But why the TVA and what conclusions did you draw about the TVA as it existed in the 1980s?
COUTO: Up until the 1940s, TVA was without parallel, an amazing success. World War II began to sow the seeds of destruction, turning a lot of the electric production from consumers to the defense industry. Then in the 1950s, with a republican administration especially, the criteria of effectiveness was low rates. One way of getting low rates when the hydroelectric had been used up was to buy another cheap form of energy, which was coal. TVA pioneered in low-cost coal mining, AKA strip mining. So here’s an organization glorifying its environmental record from the ‘40s and Author Morgan’s genius of combining dams, recreation, and hydroelectric planning and flood control, putting them altogether with the single measure of low-cost coal. TVA was everybody’s – everybody in the coal fields at least, everybody opposed to strip mining in the coal fields – was their number one enemy. I got introduced to TVA that way. Then I learned a lot more about TVA and got a small grant to teach a seminar on TVA. Then I thought this would be a wonderful film, so I started making inquiries about a film and was told that there’s somebody already making inquiries about a film, Ross Spears. He and I teamed up and did the film, The Electric Valley.
SCARPINO: When I talked to Steven Fisher, he told me that he thought your most important publication related to your work in Appalachia was Making Democracy Work Better: Mediating Structures, Social Capital, and the Democratic Prospect. I don’t know if you think that, but he did. It came out in 1999. Just for the sake of anybody who is going to use this recording, Robert Putman had written a book, Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, in which he sort of raised the level of interest in the term social capital. Then when you wrote your book, you acknowledged him, but you also said that you owed your view of social capital to Clifford Geertz and what he called “local knowledge of people who provide social capital rather than the social scientists who study it,” which sounds like what we’ve been talking about.
SCARPINO: And you said, and I’m quoting from your book, “I present social capital as the moral resources and public goods that we invest to produce and reproduce ourselves in the community.” You go on to say that what you called your “sources of local knowledge” persuaded you that public programs were part of the cause of poverty in Appalachia and, in fact, that those programs are responsible for the lack of social capital. Why did you believe or did you conclude that democracy was not working in the poor areas of Appalachia?
COUTO: I think the poor areas of Appalachia and the indication that democracy is not working in this country, let’s go back to the title, Making Democracy Work Better. UNC, University of North Carolina, wanted a title, wanted something that tied it to Putnam. They wanted to ride on Putnam’s tails. So that’s when I came up it. The original title was Which Side Are You On?
SCARPINO: That was a song.
COUTO: Yes. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is Appalachia is an indication of what happens when you no longer need a labor force. And when you don’t need a labor force, you disinvest not only in the production process, the mills run down, whether it’s Lawrence or textile mills in the south or the steel mills around Pittsburgh. Then you disinvest in the environmental quality. Then you disinvest in the schools and the hospitals. So you can go to the Appalachian region and go to St. Charles and here a town of 8,000 or 10,000 in World War II – granted that’s more than 60 years ago – and now there’s just a shell. There’s just a remnant. And Appalachia is not so much an anomaly as it is a precursor to other regions and what happens when you change technology, what are the social consequences of changed technologies. Now some regions are winners, some regions are real losers. And within the Appalachian region, you see a region where the cost of changed technologies are accumulated and very, very severe. Flint, Michigan, is another case, many of our inner cities. Richmond is another case.
SCARPINO: Flint would be obviously automobile related deindustrialization.
SCARPINO: In Appalachia, are we talking about closing of hard rock mines and switching to stripping? Or what are the technological changes that we’re talking about?
COUTO: We’re talking about technologies that require fewer and fewer people, from deep mine to strip mine to mountaintop removal.
SCARPINO: So basically, mining becomes a few people in a construction job.
COUTO: Yeah, big heavy equipment, mechanized. We had that myth for a long time about, well, in mechanization for every job you lose, you create two or three. It’s not the case. You lose jobs. You lose jobs essentially.
SCARPINO: So it results in the de-investment along a broad spectrum in the area in which the technological change takes place.
COUTO: That’s right. In our country, social capital, we invest social capital in people as they are valuable to the labor force. That’s why I took the perspective that social capital are the moral resources and public goods that we invest in one another as members of the community. And we are so far from that. Social Security comes a little bit close to it. These are moral resources and public goods that we invest in people somehow because they’ve earned it, so Medicare and Social Security. But when you’re working force age and children – the labor force age especially, if you’re not working we’re very, very reluctant to invest in you as a member of the community. Moral resources is a part of Social Security that Putnam does not emphasize even though it’s there in the sources that he uses. Moral resources are a unique form of resources that increase as you use them. Your pen is eventually going to run out of ink because you use it. Moral resources, like kindness, will run out for lack of use. The kinder you are, the more kindness you have. And the more you use your kindness, the more you have of it. So yeah, you can’t use up your courtesy for the day, for example. I wouldn’t cut you off in traveling except I’ve been kind as much as I can today. Sorry, I’m all out of my kindness. The other thing about Putnam, and I don’t think I ever developed this in writing, but Edward Banfield wrote a book in the ‘50s called The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. He contrasted a city in Italy in the north and a city in the south of Italy. One had good values and the other had poor values. The south was a backward society, and he was explaining the cultural phenomena of what’s the cultural background of this backward society. Now, Marian Piersall took that work, but also it was Jack – whoever – yesterday’s people – and he used the same thing, that the people of Appalachia were poor because in a sense they were backward and had not taken on modern society’s values. Putnam does that again. I mean his book is out of that tradition. And although he cites Banfield, he doesn’t give Banfield enough credit for shaping his perspective that poverty is rooted in the conditions of the poor, which is one of the reasons that I wrote that book. I think it was just phenomenal to me to see the success of that work and people like Benjamin Barber saying this is social science at its best, when in fact it’s little more than blaming the victim with a much more sophisticated turn. Later on, when he wrote Bowling Alone, when he says what do we do about this, very interestingly the one concrete suggestion that he makes is service learning. So I’ll give him credit for that.
SCARPINO: In the introduction to Making Democracy Work Better, you referenced Florence Reese, who was the wife of a striking coal miner, union organizer for United Mine Workers in Harlan County, Kentucky, in the ‘30s. She wrote became an important protest and organizing song titled – or became titled – “Which Side Are You On?” which you wanted to also use for your book, which she based on, without going into a lot of details, a particularly harrowing experience with strike- related violence that involved her family. What inspiration did that song provide for you? There are a lot of protest songs. I don’t mean that to sound flip, but there a quite a few you could have selected from, but there was something about that that attracted you. What was the inspiration?
COUTO: I guess it was a preconscious expression that leadership is taking the initiative on behalf of shared values. So it was a question of what values do you share, which side will you be on? Will you be a union man or a thug for J.H. Blair? He was the sheriff at the time.
SCARPINO: According to your definition, she’s a leader.
COUTO: Oh absolutely, yeah.
SCARPINO: One of the things as I read in there was that you also seemed to be saying that you were giving voice through your book to this woman who wrote this song, that you’re allowing an ordinary person to speak through your pages.
SCARPINO: Is that something that you’ve done over the course of your career?
COUTO: Yes. I write for three reasons. I’m curious about something, and so race always fascinated me. So, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round. Then I had enough material left over to do Lifting the Veil, another book on race relations. I became quite knowledgeable about race relations in history.
SCARPINO: You were doing history, by the way. I just thought I’d point that out.
COUTO: Yes. Second, I write to give people voice to tell important stories. I deliberately chose organizations in the Appalachian region that had not acquired national reputations as such. SOCM, Save Our Community Mountains. Kentucky Fair Tax Coalition. There are a number of other wonderful organizations within the Appalachian region that might have been included, but I thought they had their notoriety so I wanted to select others. And then the third reason I write these days is to help former students, younger colleagues get their first publication. Sometimes it’s just a matter of assisting them and shaping the text. Other times it’s name recognition. But for the most part, I’m always listed as the second writer.
SCARPINO: But that’s something that you’ve done relatively frequently.
COUTO: And relatively recently, too.
SCARPINO: Do you see that as a part of your role as a mentor?
SCARPINO: Do you think of yourself as a mentor?
COUTO: Boy, that term really scares me.
SCARPINO: Which one do you like?
COUTO: I’ve had people come to me and say, “Would you be my mentor?” and I said, “Can I just be your friend? And why don’t you come by whenever you need any assistance and we’ll just talk, but do we have to give it a term like that?” I think I like the term leader. People have given me that mantle and I wear it, but I wouldn’t apply it to myself. Maybe it’s like the term philosopher or poet. It’s a term that’s applied to you by others.
SCARPINO: As I look at your career, I see a teacher who takes that extra professional step more than once to give his students a leg up in the profession they’ve chosen. Whether you call it mentoring or being a friend or just roll it into your teaching…
COUTO: Yeah, isn’t that just part of our job? I bet you’ve done that any number of times.
SCARPINO: I certainly have, yes. Yes. A couple of the people I spoke to, and I’ll let them remain anonymous, mentioned to me that they thought that you went out of your way to assist your female colleagues, to make sure that they got their say, so to speak. Do you think of yourself that way? Is that something you set out to do?
COUTO: (PAUSE) I don’t know what it is. Yes, I’m deliberate in helping female students. My daughter had a terrible time in college. False starts in two or three different programs. Dropping out. Then when she got started, she just took off and did all kinds of wonderful things. And I just think that I want to be the instructor that my daughter needed. Also, part of it is just responding and reacting. So if a person comes to me and asks for me to help with their dissertation or to help with this particular paper, I’m more inclined to – I’m very inclined to help. If it’s a woman especially, I know that my work will have increased value added. Then, the men in my undergraduate classes especially always felt that I just gave the women much more attention. It was clear that when the students wanted something, like to go outside on a spring day for class, they knew who to send up. So I guess I had favorites in that regard.
SCARPINO: We were talking about your book, Making Democracy Work Better. In 1988, you published an article, the same year that you left Vanderbilt, published an article called “The Art of Teaching Democracy,” which you published in Change.
SCARPINO: Why did you consider it to be important to teach democracy?
COUTO: Ted Becker came to me with a book pretty well fashioned and in hand and asked me to help him finish it up. And it’s the same thing as making the road by walking or teaching leadership by leading, to a certain extent. I don’t think you can teach democracy in the ordinary autocratic way that our classrooms are set up, with grades and this hierarchical difference that you start off with. That was always the hardest part of teaching for me, you know, to develop the sense of community and collegiality, and then at the end of the semester say, “This is a B-,” and “This is a B+.”
SCARPINO: Did you ever figure out how to get around that?
COUTO: I did a couple of times, but it’s far too painful. I would say, “Alright, at the end of the semester, we’re going to treat this like the World Series in shares and part out how players vote shares to different team members based on the total that they have. And so here’s your total. We have 100 points. There are 10 of you. Here are your names.
Give me a list with how you want to allocate these 100 points among the 10 of you.” They couldn’t do it. They couldn’t do it. And I spent one whole semester on politics or political theory, something like that. And we used every political theory that they could think of, and they begged me to take that responsibility away from them.
SCARPINO: One of the things again related to democracy and community that you have written and…
COUTO: Oh, can I just say one other thing about that?
COUTO: I also always used peer grading in coming up with grades, and at least 10% of the final grade would be a student’s assessment of every other class member. Often it came down to a popularity contest, but not always. I think most students took it pretty seriously.
SCARPINO: So you had written about an idea in terms of like striking miners and other situations about that, civil rights, that you called free spaces. Could you talk a little bit about that, and how does that idea of free spaces fit into your vision for making democracy work?
COUTO: Free spaces is actually a concept that Sara Evans and Harry Voight (SPELLING???) first wrote about many years ago. Sara has written subsequently and, of course, Harry Voight (SPELLING???) has gone on to make a whole career about the citizens movement, etc.. Free spaces are those spaces within a social movement where repressed and oppressed people came come together and share their counternarrative without fear of criticism or reprisal. It’s a place where a minority group or disparaged group comes together to recognize and celebrate their self worth. The African-American churches in the Civil Rights Movement were in some instances free spaces. Locals of labor unions would be free spaces. The Montgomery Improvement Association created a free space. It has a lot to do with power because when people are without power and feel themselves vulnerable to those with power, their free spaces are going to be hidden, you’re going to need cohorts to get in. But as a social movement grows in power, the narratives that are shared in a free space about the worth of a group and the achievements of a group, as that space becomes more and more visible, it’s a measure of a movement’s success. So when Martin Luther King gives his “I Have a Dream” speech, he created a free space in the reflecting pool and on the Lincoln Memorial that had been – I mean you think about the 1890s, it would have been a secret society, it would have been held within families, churches, very small literally safe spaces. It’s a very, very powerful concept and one of the concepts that I’ve always tried to bring to the classroom also. How do you make the classroom into a free space? And not just a classroom, but any group of people you’re working with and you’re leading as a workshop or whatever. But one of the first steps is to recognize people in that group for their assets, that they bring something to the group, and that you want to do your very best to bring it out. One of the best assignments that we ever did was a Women in Leadership course on the grassroots and we asked them to interview their grandmothers and to talk about what life was like for them when they were 20. They came back with stories about grandmothers who flew planes coast to coast to deliver from the armed forces from the manufacturing, and all these different stories. I mean they knew about their grandparents, but they never knew the full asset and lives that their grandparents had. So that’s one of the things about the classroom and free spaces, to allow people to kind of celebrate their backgrounds, to learn about their backgrounds. It was a very empowering thing.
SCARPINO: You were a little bit like that reporter that showed up in your hometown asking about the 1912 strike. It sort of opened the door.
SCARPINO: I’m going to ask you one more thing about Vanderbilt. You left in 1988, and we’ve talked about the things that you did and so on and so forth. As you look back, is there one particular activity that you engaged in or one particular thing that you did that you’re most proud of?
COUTO: At Vanderbilt, a couple of them. Believe it or not, when the women on campus wanted to get together to talk about creating a women’s center and a women’s studies program, they found no one willing to host the meeting. And I did it without a second thought. It’s almost inconceivable, isn’t it?
SCARPINO: In 2016, it’s almost inconceivable, isn’t it? Yes.
COUTO: Then I was in a big brouhaha with my boss, the assistant vice chancellor for medical affairs, about work that students were doing in eastern Kentucky. What was the name of the place? My boss’s former assistant was now public health commissioner in Kentucky. And he was calling down to complain to my boss that Vanderbilt students were in Kentucky doing testing and raising alarms in the community. It was Yellow Creek. So my boss pulled me in and said to me – and he pulled in the head of the community health department – and he said to me, “No self-respecting epidemiologist would do this work.” So I said to myself, well I know I’m not an epidemiologist and god knows I don’t have much self-respect, so he has me there. So I said, “Well, it’s not epidemiology.” And he said to me, “What is it?” I said, “It’s a community health risk assessment.” And I guess it’s one of those times where inspiration just hits you, and I’ve seen the term used a lot more and I think it’s a lot more accurate. I guess that was a proud moment because I was encouraging people in communities to stand up for themselves and defend alternative views. And when called upon, I had to do the same. That, and offering to resign rather than lose funding for the Center or anything else. I took some principle stands.
SCARPINO: You’ve done that more than once.
SCARPINO: Between 1988 and 1991, you held a position at Tennessee State University, which I guess what we would call a traditionally black college in Nashville.
COUTO: Under a federal court order to integrate at the time.
SCARPINO: Oh, okay. I actually looked at their website. I mean clearly they have a diversity of students now.
COUTO: But it was an 1890 institution and the federal court took it under its wing and said: You will start an institute for government. It’s going to have this many professors, this percentage of students, it has to be this percent white. But it was very exacting standards, and I got hired into that initially a real mess, but it worked out pretty well.
SCARPINO: You have an interesting description of this on your resume, and it’s only just two lines long. It says: “Responsibilities included teaching graduate seminars in public policy, community development, and health and human services; administering externally-funded programs of $300,000 per year, one of which assisted African-American undergraduates to pursue graduate studies and to begin careers in public service. The other assisted community-based health promotion programs and developed a statewide initiative to promote school- based health programs.” So you clearly are following the pattern that you’d already developed and moving your students out into the community and so on. So you moved to Tennessee State because the position opened up as a result of the state mandate and you were ready to move on.
COUTO: Right. It was a tenure track position. It was more security than I had at Peabody, and I was ready to get into teaching. It was public administration, which allowed me to do some of those things and I had an opportunity to do – what’s the name of that? It was a foundation out in California that they were doing community-based health promotion and so I had a chance to do work with six sites, I think.
SCARPINO: You stayed there for a few years.
COUTO: Three years, until ’91.
SCARPINO: And left a tenure track position to join the faculty at the Jepson School.
COUTO: At Jepson.
SCARPINO: What did you learn at Tennessee State? Because even though they may have been under a court order to do these things, they still had a long tradition of being a university that served black students and had largely a black faculty.
COUTO: Right. I learned that there were various stages or phases or modes because there’s not a progression of race relations within the institution. And a lot of the anger within Tennessee State was over conflicts of whether the goal was assimilation, whether the goal was integration, whether the goal was separate but equal, and there was at least one other. I would have civil conversations with the angriest black nationalist on campus who was next door to my office, who invited me to speak to his black nationalist class because I knew more about his home county than he did.
SCARPINO: And his home county was?
COUTO: Haynes County in Alabama. I did Hayneville and he was from that area. So we came to a real respect for one another, and I knew very little of the history. I would be in a meeting and then realize I was the only white person in the room, and that was okay. Then it was within a week that I left Tennessee State, maybe a month. And my daughter and I were traveling to come to Richmond, we were in a diner, and two black people walked in, and I noticed immediately two black people walked in. I would have never noticed that at Tennessee State University. I felt so bad that a change of environment changed my perceptions so. In Hanover County here, very, very predominantly white, I notice when there’s a black person, whereas at Tennessee State it sometimes would take me a while to realize that I was the only white person in the room, and then it was just a fleeting perception. It didn’t make any difference. And then I learned that things aren’t black and white, that there’s lots of differences within the African-American community by skin color and church affiliation and all the rest. So I came to appreciate the differences within groups and not just between groups. And I had graduate students, and many of them in state government, so it was a whole lot of fun.
SCARPINO: You left Tennessee State, you were going to go to Jepson. Even though this isn’t exactly in chronological order, I think it fits here. I want to ask you a few questions about a seminal book in leadership studies and the author, and that’s James MacGregor Burns and the book Leadership, which actually came out in 1978. Did you read the book when it came out?
SCARPINO: Do you remember when you did read it?
COUTO: Yes, driving down…
SCARPINO: I don’t want this to sound like your comprehensive exams, but I’m trying to…
COUTO: …I was driving my daughter down to her first semester in college. We were just getting started at Jepson, so it might have been ’92. Yeah, it was ’92, and that’s the first time I read it.
SCARPINO: So you had basically read the book after you met the man.
SCARPINO: And you met him for the first time at Jepson and he was a part of the team that interviewed you.
SCARPINO: And he also helped them set up the program.
SCARPINO: In 2007, you published a volume titled Reflections on Leadership. You had 15 scholars critically analyze and pay tribute to…
COUTO: That’s a good book.
SCARPINO: Yeah. In addition to editing, you also contributed to that. But it’s a tribute to Professor Burns and his classic…
COUTO: Tribute and tribulation because they were all critical perspectives. Barbara Kellerman doesn’t think the values fit in.
SCARPINO: I mean I guess I used the word tribute in the sense that if what you have done is significant enough to have 15 good scholars write about you, that’s a tribute even if they don’t agree with you.
SCARPINO: So that’s the sense in which I was using it. So in addition to doing the editing, which is a lot of work – I’m working on editing a book now – you wrote the introduction, Chapter 15 and the conclusion. Unless I miscounted or misread, those three are yours.
COUTO: Right. That book was initially entitled Leadership at 20 and it was based on a conference at the University of Maryland in 1998. But as the editing on the chapters took more and more time, I didn’t want to do Leadership at 25 because that didn’t make any sense. So we changed the title of the book. But at that conference, Jim Burns just happened to be on campus. We didn’t know he was going to be there. So he learned of the conference and he came over unannounced and all the rest of it. He just went up to the podium and he said, “Tribute and tribulation, I like that a lot. Whiz to Couto, the iconoclast,” which is a term I took to heart. I love it. And then he went into three criticisms of the book that he had. He had three criticisms of the book.
SCARPINO: The book that you were writing.
COUTO: Yes. The papers became the book, right. And his remarks became the introduction to the book. But it was just brilliant and it started off the volume very, very well. As much as the book achieved, he learned of some of his shortcomings.
SCARPINO: Why did you think that it was important to not only have this conference and have people give these papers but to edit a volume centered around Burns?
COUTO: You know, remember when you were in graduate school and you learn about replication and you learn about discovery and you learn about different forms of scholarship. And you learn that replication does not add to your stature as a scholar. What adds to your stature as a scholar is you come in with a new adjective to describe a phenomenon, that you make a discovery. It’s not replication so much, but I really feel that we move on too quickly and that we’re always looking at the new object. So if we can come up with a new adjective for leadership – do you know how many adjectives we have for leadership?
SCARPINO: Honestly, I don’t.
COUTO: Workshops, books, you know, it just goes on and on, so much so that I was interviewing a heavyweight, she’s a real heavyweight in the field of leadership studies, and she’s using the term adaptive leadership. And I said, “Well, that term brings to mind Ron Heifetz’s work on leadership as adaptive work.” And she said, “You know, I’m going to have to look into that.” And I thought to myself, are we in such silos in such a small community that your work is very prominent and now I’m guessing Heifetz probably is not familiar with it. And Heifetz is very prominent and you’re not familiar with it. I mean I don’t get it.
SCARPINO: You were involved in the series of events that led up to the creation of the International Leadership Association.
SCARPINO: Was one of the goals of those series of events to break down those silos, to get people talking to each other?
COUTO: I believe so. It was to be a Center where people could come. It was originally named CASL, Center for the Advanced Study of Leadership. Barbara Kellerman was heading it up initially, and the idea was to make it precisely that.
SCARPINO: Based on a Kellogg Grant, a summer institute.
COUTO: Yeah. And then we had the Kellogg Project which was driven from the ILA, and I guess the Kellogg Project came before CASL. But the idea was to take stock of the state of leadership studies and we do we go from there. Over the course of about three to five years, we’ve gotten together 40 or 50 leadership scholars. There were probably 20 of us who were the hard core of that. We did more integration than we give ourselves credit for, but we didn’t want to give ourselves much credit for integration. One of my students observed once that social scientists would rather use somebody else’s toothbrush than their theory.
SCARPINO: I’m going to steal that, I’m sorry.
COUTO: It’s a good one, isn’t it? And so I offered an integration of the work that we had done, that all leadership involves conflict, collaboration, and change, all of it. That’s the common elements of leadership. Leadership differs by inclusiveness, creativity and two other factors. I came up with a 12-cell analytical diagram that was far too static, so then I started putting lines and stuff like that. But eventually you have to come to a quantum where it’s a nucleus of values, is one of the differentiating things. Values is at the center of leadership, and around it is change, conflict, and collaboration. And around that is inclusiveness, creativity and that fourth factor. So that you have conflict over inclusiveness; who’s included, who’s not included, etc. And I think we could have forged some consensus over that, except people were just too wed to their own theories. One person wanted followership. Another person wanted to eliminate the term followership. Everybody had their prize adjective. So it was a good example of how scholars could not collaborate. When I undertook this– SAGE came to me, working it’s way down the food chain I’m sure, just like the students at Mont-Saint-Michel.
SCARPINO: I doubt it.
COUTO: They worked their way down and finally reached me. I had to come up with 100 chapters.
SCARPINO: You’re talking about the handbook now.
COUTO: The handbook, yeah. Have you seen that?
SCARPINO: I have not.
COUTO: I have copies at the house so tomorrow we can take a look at it. The greatest concern I had about undertaking that work was the prickly egos of academics. How am I going to work with 100 scholars? We eventually reached 120 chapters, so I had 108.
SCARPINO: It’s in a couple of volume, right? Two volumes?
COUTO: Yeah. Almost a million words. I found two prickly egos among all of them. I had a lot of people turn me down, big names. And what I found out was the bigger the name, the faster their response was. And however short, they were helpful. “Sorry, I can’t help you but check with so and so and so and so.” Steve turned me down on it, but they were all helpful. The two prickly people were not very bad. It didn’t amount to anything and so I could have fought it, but it really didn’t amount to anything. And that was very insightful for me because it was an instance where in contrast to the Kellogg work, I found that you could collaborate and these folks could collaborate pretty well. Well, of course, it was one on one, so we weren’t trying to forge a consensus.
SCARPINO: Each author collaborated with you.
COUTO: That’s right.
SCARPINO: Tomorrow I’ll ask you some more questions about the handbook, but we’ve been going for two hours. But I want to ask you one more question and we’ll get to a stopping place. James MacGregor Burns, following his death you wrote one of many tributes, but yours was in Integral Leadership Review. In there, you said I think some interesting things that might apply to your work as well, but you mentioned that Burns was interested in, and I’m quoting from you, “a general theory of leadership and maintained hope that rigorous scholarship would eventually uncover it.” Do you think it’s possible to come up with a general theory of leadership?
COUTO: No. Except I mean I tell my kids that there are very few safe generalizations in life. Never eat yellow snow.
SCARPINO: That would be a good one.
COUTO: Don’t drink downstream from the herd. The saxophone is the secret to great rock and roll. But once you get beyond those, there are very few safe generalizations. I think Jim is a child of enlightenment, and I think if there is hope for a general theory, it is along the lines of the new science in complexity and the principle of uncertainty and those kinds of things. We were talking about hope before.
SCARPINO: We talked about chaos theory before, too.
COUTO: You can hold onto hope if you believe in the principle of uncertainty, that we distort our understanding of things as we approach them with certain theories and certain instruments of measuring. And we have to respect the freedom of reality to take its own shape.
SCARPINO: Okay. We’ve been talking for a little over two hours and I think I’ve used up all my credits for today. So I’m going to thank you.
SCARPINO: All right, so our primary is up and running. My name is Philip Scarpino and this is the third recording session with Richard Couto. Today is January 30, 2016, and we are in his study in his home in Mechanicsville, Virginia. I said it wrong yesterday too, didn’t I? So, even though this is a continuation of our recording sessions, I’m going to ask your permission to record this interview, to have the interview transcribed, to deposit the recording and transcription and related materials with the IUPUI Archives of Special Collections, the Tobias Center and the International Leadership Association with the understanding that they will share those with patrons, and that may include posting to the internet.
COUTO: I give my permission for all of that.
SCARPINO: Thank you. All right, so yesterday, as we wrapped up, we were talking about James MacGregor Burns, we talked about his book on leadership, we talked about your work on his book on leadership. I want to ask you one more question that’s tangentially related to that. Most people would probably agree that on the must-read of books on leadership if you’re studying the topic is Burns’ book Leadership. What two or three other volumes would you say would be essential must-reads for somebody that’s interested in leadership?
COUTO: You know, when I first went to Jepson, that was one of the questions on the job interview. They listed 10 books and that question was: What should all undergraduates have read by the time they finished the Jepson program? They had Plato and they had Plutarch. I said, “Well, I wouldn’t start with any of those, very iconoclastic.” And they said, “Well, what would you require?” I said, “I would want to make sure that all the students were familiar with story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, speaking voice to power, and then I said I would also want to make sure that they knew the Sermon on the Mount. So, then as we prepared to start teaching the program, I became more aware of the literature, I quipped, and unfortunately got quoted in some embarrassing cases, where half the literature in leadership seemed like it was written to be read in airports, and the other half read like it was written in airports. But since then, we’ve had marvelous, marvelous studies. One of the most recent ones that I would recommend without hesitation is Joseph Nye’s work, The Powers to Lead, a wonderful synthesis. Brad Jackson and his colleagues put together a book called A Fairly Short, Inexpensive, Rather Interesting Book—a title something like that, which is a very good synthesis (Note: the title is A Very Short Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Studying Leadership, by Brad Jackson and Ken Parry). Peter Northouse offers a wonderful synthesis of the field, as well. So, in order to get some kind of background on what are the confines of the field, books like that I would recommend. Margaret Wheatley’s work, Leadership and the New Science is now somewhat dated, but it’s still a good place to start. Mary Uhl-Bien and her colleagues, who have looked at complexity and chaos, is a much tougher row to hoe, but it is Leadership and the New Science updated. Then I think classics that I would recommend to anybody would be Ron Heifetz’s work Leadership Without Easy Answers, Howard Gardner and Emma Laskin’s book Leading Minds. Those are the ones that jump out.
SCARPINO: So, speaking of books, we just happen to be sitting across from each other at your desk where you work, and I selected one of your books to rest my microphone on, Lifting the Veil: A Political History of Struggles for Emancipation. That came up yesterday as we spoke, but when we had the recorder off, you were telling me about how you did the research for this book and some of the people you met and a particular story about an individual who had documents that he passed to you. Could you lift the veil a little bit on what you did in order to produce the book Lifting the Veil?
COUTO: Sure. I was finishing the book Ain’t Going to Let Nobody Turn Me Round and I was aware that there was a pattern in each of these four communities. I was trying to find more information about a lynching in Brownsville, Tennessee, in 1940. So I went to…
SCARPINO: And who was lynched?
COUTO: Elbert Williams was lynched. I went to the National Archives and pulled out the records of the Brownsville NAACP in 1940, and they were just loaded with correspondence from this man, Elijah Davis, who was one of the leaders of the Chapter. They began to inquire about registering to vote for the 1940 election. That set off a reaction in the white community where a mob, led by the sheriff, went on several nights to the houses of the NAACP members, pulled them out, warned them to get out of the county, and most of them fled. On the last night of those raids, they went to the home of Elbert Williams. He might have given them some lip or something, but they took him and they beat him to death on the banks of a river, and that was a lynching. Now, I got involved in the story because of Elijah Davis and found an address in Niles, Michigan. I was going up to Michigan for the Kellogg Program, so I went over there to visit with the Davis family. That was an incredible story. I mean, these people lived underground for months for fear of the mob. They didn’t know where their father was. He was living underground and then took off to Michigan. They fled the county in a truck covered by vegetables. I mean, they were in fear of their lives. So I got up to Michigan and there were maybe 20 cars parked outside. The whole family had assembled. As an oral historian, you would appreciate this; I had my tape recorder out and I started asking questions and six or eight people would start answering at the same time, one correcting the other. All I could do was laugh, and then we finally got it down to one at a time, and they were so into it. I remember one of the daughters telling me, “Now, if Daddy knew you were coming, he would have lived to see this day.” And then they said, “We have get him in touch with Uncle Milton.” Milton Mitchell had been an underwriter for insurance in the area. Because he traveled around, and because he dealt with a more successful working class African American group, selling insurance to them, he also encouraged them to join the NAACP. So, they said, “We have get you in touch with Uncle Milton.” So, I got a call one evening and he explained who he was, and I said, “Well, it’s good to hear from you.” He said “Well, I have all of these documents from that time and I want to send them to you. I’ve been carrying them around in a trunk, they’ve survived floods, I moved from place to place, I still have them, and the depositions from lawyers, Justice Department and all the rest.” And I said, “Well, they seem to be very, very valuable documents; why don’t you send them to an archives and I can visit there?” He said, “Oh no, I’ve been carrying these around for 40 years. You are the Moses who has come to deliver them from the wilderness.”
COUTO: Yes, amen. I used that material to put together a short 60-page account of the repression of the NAACP chapter. The University of Tennessee Press was interested in it, but they wanted more. So, I went back to the Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction in the county and I brought it up to date with some of the work that we had been doing with some of the community organizations in the region. It became a whole book, tracing almost a century of the pursuit of racial equality.
SCARPINO: Remember when we started this, one of the words that you brought up was “redemption”?
SCARPINO: I thought about that when you were telling that story.
COUTO: I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I know where that came from now.
SCARPINO: Where was that?
COUTO: The Jewish virtue of Tikkun—T I K K U N, I think that’s the term—and it means our responsibility for healing the earth.
SCARPINO: Do you feel like you did that? I mean, there’s been someone you mentioned who has sort of taken up the work and moved it forward.
COUTO: Yeah, we’re bringing attention to that. I’m a family member of the Davis family, invited to their reunions. So yeah, I’ve been welcomed into that family and that family has documentation that they can take a lot of pride in, in that their family members—going back to what we said yesterday—the book provides them the material for free space. No matter what is said in a derogatory way about African Americans, they can open this book and say, “What set of Americans do you know who have done more or suffered more for basic liberties?” That story is now on the printed page and it wasn’t before.
SCARPINO: How does that make you feel?
COUTO: It makes me feel great. And also to find a photo like this which tells more than a thousand words, and the pride—it just makes me feel honored to be part of the efforts of people like this to bring about change.
SCARPINO: As a scholar, this is you combining the creation of a free space with your scholarship.
COUTO: Yes, my own free space. There are times that I’m writing and I’ve asked a fiction writer friend of mine, “Do you ever feel like you’re channeling?” She said, “All the time.” Sometimes I’ll be writing and words are appearing on my screen and it’s almost like I could stop and that the words would keep going, that I was simply channeling from somewhere through me through the keyboard onto the screen. That happened especially with the book To Give Their Gifts. I had 12 community health activists who had won awards and did interviews with them and were writing them up. I was determined not to turn them into Mount Rushmore figures; heroic, etc. Then I started writing it and I felt like I was writing the lives of the saints, a very Catholic thing, that these were just extraordinary, extraordinary people.
SCARPINO: What is the name of the man who has sort of taken up the cause of investigating the lynching?
COUTO: Jim Emison.
SCARPINO: All right, as promised, we’re going to talk about your time at the Jepson School. In 1991, you made a huge change, moving from Kentucky and accepting a position at the University of Richmond’s brand new Jepson School of Leadership Studies. We talked yesterday about how the interview is actually one of the pivotal events that caused you to realize that you actually had been doing leadership yourself and studying it. You are a founding faculty member of the Jepson School, serving as Professor of Leadership Studies from 1991-2002, and the George Matthews and Virginia Brinkley Modlin Chair in Leadership Studies from 1998-2002. I want to start with two bookend questions. The first one is: What attracted you to that job?
COUTO: The job description was just—I mean I couldn’t believe it. The school was aimed at the moral, as well as the cognitive development of students, a heavy emphasis on experiential education, interdisciplinary. Now, I never thought of myself as—these were all the things I was looking for, but generally I was looking for them in maybe peace studies, maybe community organizing, but never leadership, because I had this bias that leadership was something that goes on in hierarchies, bureaucracies, military forces, etc., and that’s not what I was looking for. I was looking for social change efforts, etc. But everything else was spot-on and I was ready to move from Nashville. I wanted to stay in the south, I wanted to be in a state’s capital, I wanted to move closer to family, and my wife’s family is close by. So, Richmond had everything that—it never occurred to me, I always thought Atlanta—but Richmond had everything I was looking for, including more proximity to the ocean and the mountains. The job was just tailor-made. It was like I had written the description of a dream job. I came here for the interview and we drove to Jepson Hall and it was a hole in the ground with iron piers coming out of the ground. So, it was an opportunity literally to build a school from the ground up; no curriculum, no schools, no building. There just wasn’t anything not to like about the opportunity.
SCARPINO: So, on the other end, why did you leave in 2002?
COUTO: Things had played out. I’d had a lot of success with teaching. I won a teaching award, an endowed chair. I minimized the importance of financial security at that time.
SCARPINO: (Laughing) It’s amazing what it’ll do, isn’t it?
COUTO: When I turned 60, I signed up for adult hockey leagues and I started playing hockey again at the age of 60. So, it was a very important turning point and for me the thought was, if I don’t make changes now, when will I make them? And I ran afoul of the president of the university. He fired the dean, who was just about the best boss I ever had.
SCARPINO: That was Dean Prince?
COUTO: No, that was John Rosenblum. Howard Prince had left by that time. John was just the best boss I had and we were doing remarkably well. He had applied for the job of president and the new president didn’t want him. They didn’t get along. I intervened in the sense of encouraging faculty to protest the dismissal. Students came to me for advice about what to do. All of that ticked off the president a little bit. Then when he started making comments in the press about John, I wrote the Chair of the Board of Trust and a couple other people, saying, “Everybody understands that he has a right to his own team, etc., but he doesn’t have the right to undermine somebody’s professional career and suggest wrongdoings.” And so, evidently somebody yanked his chain because it stopped and I had a target on my back after that. So, the question was, do I hang around here pretty much impotent in terms of making any more change? Apropos, the president had—he didn’t call it strategic planning, but he was encouraging new ideas, and so I proposed a Center for Civic Engagement. It was going to be everything that I been working towards, encouraging faculty and students to integrate local problem solving into coursework. I wrote it up and proposed it at a meeting, and the faculty member who was coordinating the meeting said, “Dick, that’s not going to happen!” And he said it as firmly; it was like, “How many times do we have to tell you, you’re thick as a brick wall.” So that wasn’t going to happen. I left, and the year after I left, they started a Center for Civic Engagement. So I was in the way of getting some things done, and I got a call about that time; Antioch was recruiting for faculty for its new program. So, the timing wasn’t perfect, but the timing was pretty good.
SCARPINO: It was a doctoral program in leadership?
COUTO: It was a doctoral program in leadership below residency.
SCARPINO: So a lot of the work was done online?
COUTO: We met four times a year, and the rest of the time was done online, right.
SCARPINO: So, I actually looked up Jepson School’s official website and this is the statement about your leaving: “Dr. Richard Couto, a member of the early faculty, announces he will become a member of the founding faculty of Antioch University’s new PhD in Leadership and Change.” One sentence, that’s what they said.
So, I was originally going to talk to you about the trip that you and James MacGregor Burns and Georgia Sorenson took to the south, but we talked about that yesterday at great length. So I guess I’ll simply call the attention of anyone who’s just listening to this part of the interview to the fact that we talked about that yesterday, and it’s a very, very useful story and they should go and listen to it. But, if you step back from that trip for a minute, when you look back on all the years you spent working in Appalachia that went all the way back to the time you taught high school, what stands out in your mind about that experience? What really stays with you?
COUTO: I wrote a book called Appalachia, an American Tomorrow. I saw in the work that I was doing within the region, and I saw within the region events that were a decade or two ahead of events in the United States. You have within the Appalachian region this curious rural industrial economy, and you have the steel industry concentrated in the Appalachian region and you have the coal industry, and they are undergoing changes, foreign competition, product substitution, new technologies, etc., and how does the American economy react to those? Largely, by lopping off labor costs as much as possible, including benefits. I mean, the coal miners had the best health care in the country by contract in the 1950s, and almost immediately they started cutting back because they had woefully underestimated the dimensions of the problem, the number of paralyzed and disabled miners, for example.
SCARPINO: Black lung.
COUTO: Yes, right. And black lung is one of the few occupational diseases recognized, and it had a history of generous benefits, low thresholds and then very high, it went back and forth. And it wasn’t so much policies aimed to solve the problem as policies aimed to contain costs. Some of that involved blaming the victims for their own personal habits of health. So, what I carried away was that if you want to know what’s going to happen in this country 20 years from now, look at what’s happening within the Appalachian region right now. It’s also a place where you can look and separate race somewhat. There are African Americans in the Appalachian region. Their status is lower in many cases, but it’s not that significant population that we look at the inner city and say, “Well, it’s race that’s causing these problems.” No, there’s something else. As I mentioned yesterday, and this is straight out of Adam Smith, we will only pay as much or as little for labor as is required, and he says this very clearly, that when the demand for labor drops, wages will drop to the subsistence level where the supply and demand of labor is brought into balance. In other words, infant mortality is one means of regulating the labor market, according to Adam Smith, and he saw this in Scotland. So, the only reasons that we don’t have this savage form of capitalism are some of the progressive legislation of the early 20th century and some of the New Deal. And we’re engaged in taking that away because we don’t need the labor force; we have a bipolar labor force which you can see in the Appalachian region as well, an erosion of the middle class which you can see in the Appalachian region. So, for me, the Appalachian region was a precursor or a region that foretold what the rest of the nation was going to be experiencing.
SCARPINO: Do you ever regret leaving there?
COUTO: Um… Yeah, like I said yesterday, I write for three reasons and one of them is, what am I curious about, and I was very curious, I wanted to know about race and race relations, and so I had to go outside of the Appalachian region to do that. I also had laid what I thought was the best foundation that I could on Appalachian studies. Vanderbilt gave me an entree into the community where I wasn’t a visitor from outer space. I came in there with a role and that role extended to documenting the efforts of which I was part. When I went to Tennessee State, I was working in six different communities, not all of which were in the Appalachia, some of which were in west Tennessee, Memphis. Then, coming to the University of Richmond, it was too far a reach, but I had a new pool to swim in. I mean, here I was in a city, I had a tenured position, I had a school mission that talked about teaching for and about leadership; a very important combination. So, on balance, yes, I regretted leaving but I also was very happy with how the field was developing and degrees in Appalachian studies and new people coming along. My wife would comment that I was like a rock star when I went to the Appalachian Studies Conference. People recognized my name and they had read my stuff. So, I felt I had provided a legacy.
SCARPINO: It is my understanding that Jepson was one of the first leadership studies programs in the country.
SCARPINO: West Point had been teaching leadership.
COUTO: They had a department but this was the first school.
SCARPINO: Just for the benefit of anyone who doesn’t know about this, in May of 1987, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Jepson, Jr., announced to the university that they were going provide a $20 million challenge gift to develop a leadership studies program, and they did that. Mr. Jepson was involved in writing a kind of founding document that went through at least four drafts, and I think I read the fourth draft. Jepson’s website currently posts that fourth draft. It’s titled “Notes on the Founding of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies: An Abridged Draft Number 4.”
COUTO: If you’ll excuse me.
SCARPINO: Let me hit pause here for the record.
SCARPINO: All right, let’s see if I can make this work again. So, I had just mentioned the fourth draft of the document creating this program and you were saying how you went back to that fourth draft.
COUTO: It was a wonderful statement of undergraduate education, its purpose, and the whole university and the faculty took part in that. Some faculty were happier with the decision to adopt it than others. There was a threat over the faculty that the administration said, “Look, if we don’t get in this game and do this, we’re just going to remain small ball and you know, it’s time to put on our big boy pants and get into this.” And there was that argument, well why do we need a school to do this since we’re doing it—this is what we should be doing already anyway. It was a very important argument. And the faculty of the Jepson School found, in that fourth document the clearest statement and our best ally with the rest of the university that we’re on the same page in this regard.
SCARPINO: Did either Mr. Jepson or his wife play any role in the development of the curriculum or the hiring of the faculty or shaping of the philosophy of the school?
COUTO: Uncle Bob would come in…
SCARPINO: That was Jepson?
COUTO: Bob Jepson, and keep the pulse, “Are we happy? What do we need? What’s going on?” Nothing heavy-handed. His guiding principle was that what he got from student government and what he got outside the classroom and what he got by participating in other parts of the university were as formative of his success in business as anything he learned in the classroom. So he wanted a school that was deliberate in bringing this in; he didn’t want a department. He was very aware that he wanted something with enough autonomy to stand on its feet. So, he wanted a school. The only things that I can ever remember talking to him about was his concern that we had what we needed to get our goals done. I don’t remember his ever pushing for one policy or one person over another.
SCARPINO: Did you ever ask him when he decided that he was at a point in his life where he could afford to contribute $20 million, why did he pick leadership as opposed to the business school or anything else he could have funded?
COUTO: That’s an interesting question and it’s a little bit hazy in my mind now. The provost at the time had a background with leadership. His mentor from Buffalo, I think, had just become president of the Center for Creative Leadership, the CCL. So, he knew of leadership and I think he might have had a hand in shaping that gift towards an explicit attention to leadership, but I don’t know why. I’m not sure that his view was much broader than business, I’m just not sure.
SCARPINO: I also found a document perusing the university’s web page called “Notes on the Founding of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies,” and there’s some really interesting statements on this. I want listeners to have a flavor of this. One sentence said: “The fabric of democratic civilization depends upon citizens who understand that leadership means service and that their very citizenship carries an obligation to lead when circumstances demand.” That’s the opening sentence. The last sentence is, on the last page: “The primary task of the school is to provide a rigorous and disciplined education with a focus upon ethical and responsible leadership.” And it goes on in that vein. Now, it sounds like you could have written this. You didn’t, I don’t think.
COUTO: No, no.
SCARPINO: So, clearly this seemed to be a good fit for the way you look at the world.
COUTO: Absolutely. And seeing that this was the faculty welcoming us with open arms.
SCARPINO: I also looked at a document, basically the history of the Jepson School, and it starts in the late 80s, but 1990 through ’92 was when a lot of the groundwork was laid. So they hired the dean, Howard T. Prince, who came from West Point. On the face of it, a man who comes from a military background doesn’t seem to be a good fit with you at all. How did it actually work out on the ground?
COUTO: Pretty lumpy. We ended up in couples’ counseling.
COUTO: There was a question about my promotion and staying on, and it was decided that I would, but it was also decided that the dean and I had to work out some of the conflicts between us. So, we met in sessions until we could formulate a way that we could work together. That lasted a year and then he stepped down, and then he stayed on a year as a faculty member and then went to the University of Texas where he has been very, very successful. It think it was a much better fit for him. I was a pain in the ass, too.
SCARPINO: But he was then replaced by a dean who was intellectually a much better fit with you.
COUTO: Right, right.
SCARPINO: So, also in that 1992 period, the first four faculty; there was yourself, of course, and then Joanne Ciulla—C I U L L A—Karin Klenke—K L E N K E—and William Howe—you began to design the curriculum. Was there a mechanism in place for deciding who they were going to hire? I mean, did they have a search committee? Was there job descriptions?
COUTO: We had job descriptions, we had areas that we were looking into, we had a hiring schedule. I think we hired maybe two people the year Gill Hickman came in, Tom Wren came in. I think those were the next two hires. We wanted a historian.
SCARPINO: And which one was the historian?
COUTO: Tom. Gill was public administration.
SCARPINO: Okay, and of the first four, you had been trained in political science, but my assessment is that by the time you went to Jepson, you weren’t doing political science anymore. How do you feel about that?
COUTO: I was public administration at Tennessee State. The things that interested me in political science were still there; public issues, local change efforts. This was my perspective on political science and I found it pretty consistent with what I wanted to do at Jepson. There was very little attention to political leadership. Political leaders, yes, but political leadership not so much. It was a very hard course to teach and to find teaching material.
SCARPINO: What about Joanne Ciulla? What was she?
COUTO: She’s a philosopher, an ethicist.
SCARPINO: And Karin Klenke?
COUTO: An organizational psychologist.
SCARPINO: And William Howe?
COUTO: English major.
SCARPINO: So, how did that group of four, in the beginning, go about developing a curriculum?
COUTO: Add two more; the assistant dean, Stephanie Micas, who had more experience at the University of Richmond than any of us, and then Howard. We sat in a windowless room for two and three hours at a time to develop a curriculum. Howard wanted a curriculum that at any time, 11:15 on a Tuesday, he’d be able to point to the wall and say, “Our classes are teaching this right now,” and so each of us would have a curriculum and a syllabus which you would go in and this was the day that we would cover this or that. It just struck me the wrong way.
SCARPINO: I can’t imagine that. (Laughing)
COUTO: But it had the advantage of making a core curriculum, because otherwise we were going to have four to six faculty who were just going in and making this field up as they wanted to.
SCARPINO: So you did end up with a core curriculum?
COUTO: We ended up with a core curriculum and I think that has dissolved a lot towards what is the preference of each faculty member, which Howard wanted to avoid at all costs, which I thought was the way we were going to go. How am I going to put together an Introduction to Leadership course? I was going to use the sharecroppers in Arkansas, and that’s how far afield I think I was from building a curriculum. I think Howard was very, very correct on that. He was also very correct on the mode of teaching, although we agreed a lot; tables and loose chairs, nothing was attached to the floor. So if you went in and we wanted to have a small group discussion, we would have set up six tables with four people around them, and that’s how we held the class. Everything was modular and could be moved around. Television cameras in the classroom, so that we could record presentations. He brought a lot of really good experience about what the actual pedagogy should be and how the school needed to be set up. I think the emphasis on context, we agreed to the nature of the courses and then we started drilling down into each course and what would the material be in that. Then we got into silly petty fights as to whether to use this person’s work or not to use this person’s work, and a lot of intra-faculty intrigue and fighting and voting on this and voting on that. That got too petty.
SCARPINO: Did the founding group have the ability to agree on any definition of leadership?
COUTO: No, and that was the thing that surprised me because I knew so little about leadership and Karin was probably the best-read on leadership, and Howard also the best-read on leadership. Both of them came out of organizational backgrounds, however, and we would have discussions and for me it was a seminar, I was learning. I would learn things about charismatic leadership on Tuesday and then come in and learn that everything we learned on Tuesday was no longer accurate on Wednesday about charismatic leadership. It was also the old dodge; well, the literature says—and so it was always this appeal to authority that if you didn’t know something, then the literature says. Well, I wasn’t familiar with the literature, so I was taking people’s word. But the more you got into it, the more you realize that, yeah, the literature says that, and the literature also says the opposite. There were a few people who knew a lot and the rest of us were spending time catching up. As I explained yesterday, it was almost a whole year before I started reading Burns’ book as a serious introduction to leadership.
SCARPINO: Of course, you actually knew the man before you read the book.
COUTO: That’s right.
SCARPINO: Looking back on those first few years, did those initial faculty members actually engage in interdisciplinary collaboration?
COUTO: Not as much as we could have, but yes, the construction of that curriculum was interdisciplinary collaboration. We visited places like the Center for Creative Leadership.
SCARPINO: And where was that located?
COUTO: Greensboro, North Carolina. We had visitors coming in.
SCARPINO: Do you remember who some of those visitors were?
COUTO: Once the courses started, a Wall Street Journal reporter came in. People from Maryland, Susan Komives came down. We had people who were interested in starting leadership programs come in and visit with us. We went to the American Council of Education in D.C. and made a presentation on the program. We were the new kid on the block and there was a lot of interest in what we were doing. You know, the first question is: Well, if we wanted to start a school of leadership studies, where do you suggest we start? I would say, “With a $20 million gift.”
SCARPINO: That would be a good start. So, jumping ahead a little bit, 1992-93 was a big year; Jepson Hall opened, you had General Norman Schwarzkopf speak at the dedication, the first class entered. How were those students selected? How did they end up in that first class?
COUTO: They applied as sophomores. So, we had a little bit of their first and second year, I think, to go by. They wrote an essay. We wanted to hold to a 50/50 split of men and women. We didn’t have a serious minor, so we took 40 majors and then something like 15 minors or something. Some of us just used grade point average. We had this intricate matrix that we put this and that and we weighed things, but then you could see a pattern in some of the faculty; at least one faculty member that, “At the end of the day, what was a grade point average?” And those were the people who got selected. I looked at the essay that dealt with some significant challenge that they dealt with; a sibling with developmental delay or physical handicap, loss of a parent, things like that, how had this person been tested. And a very good friend of mine, Bob Innes at Peabody College, ran a very, very successful undergraduate program, just one of the best in the country, organizational personal development. He said the thing that he looked for was the pursuit of excellence; had this person pursued excellence in one field? And it didn’t matter what it was. If this guy kicked the point after touchdowns and he worked at it and he was successful, that was the kid that he wanted. So, I looked at that also. Where’s the pursuit of excellence in your life?
SCARPINO: How you face adversity and pursuit of excellence.
SCARPINO: That 1992-93, that’s when Gill Hickman and J. Thomas Wren joined the faculty and you founded the Learning in Community Settings program.
SCARPINO: The Jepson website now describes that as “a symbol of Jepson’s commitment to service and a forerunner of the Campus Community Partnership.” That was you putting into practice what you’d been doing in Appalachia? What you learned to do? Service learning?
SCARPINO: Susan Komives—K O M I V E S—told me that you had your students introducing legislation.
COUTO: I know that at TSU, it wasn’t students, but we got a school nurse bill passed. I’m not sure what she’s referring to. She may remember it. I know that we helped start the newspaper that the homeless in Richmond printed and sold. I can’t think of the legislation.
SCARPINO: What other issues besides homelessness did you have your students engage with?
COUTO: We worked with a lot of fledgling organizations; the Virginia Breast Cancer Coalition, the Virginia Mental Health Association, domestic violence, SCAN—Stop Child Abuse Now, homeless, family shelters, food and hunger, housing. After several years, we pulled together a breakfast meeting of community partners that we had, and we had like 65 people show up representing agencies and organizations. It was a pretty broad band of needs and services within the region. Environment was included. There was very little that wasn’t included. If it was a community group, if it was effective, if it was working for social change of local residents, if it had a good degree of representation and participation, those were the partners we were looking for.
SCARPINO: So, in 1995, just looking ahead a little bit, you coauthored and published an article titled “The Fruits of Our Labor: Experiential Education in a Leadership Curriculum.” You had a couple of coauthors, Marc Swatez and Anne W. Perkins. First, who were your coauthors? And then I want to ask you about the article, but who were those two people that you coauthored with?
COUTO: Anne was an assistant dean and Marc was a faculty member.
SCARPINO: So they were involved in—(pause…)
SCARPINO: All right, let me see if I can get this thing back on. There we go, so it’s now running. We were talking about an article that you published titled “The Fruits of Our Labor: Experiential Education in a Leadership Curriculum,” and it appeared in the National Society for Experiential Education in the winter of 1995 and you asked me if I could locate it and the answer was no. But, the question I wanted to ask you was, what did you want to tell your readers about the fruits of your labor?
COUTO: I think for an undergraduate program in leadership studies, you have a very different challenge than leadership education and development for adults. At Antioch and later at Union and in workshops and training sessions with adults, what you’re trying to do is get to a point where they can reflect on their experience and get to a higher level of generalization and abstract thought about their experience. That’s what they’re looking for. They have this realm of experience. How do they make sense of it? With undergraduates, you have to construct experience for them to reflect on. Either that or you’re talking about fraternities or sororities all the time. That’s their organizational life and that’s what they know. So, that’s the importance of service learning, that’s the importance of internships, and that was the importance of group projects within the classroom, to give students a chance to work together, learn collaboration and conflict, but then also make the boundaries of the classroom permeable and bring experience back in there and give students a set of experiences that they wouldn’t have before. So with older adults, you’re helping them interpret and reflect upon their experience. With undergraduates, you’re trying to construct experiences upon which then can reflect.
I had a student, for her group she was working with a labor union. The labor union was protesting the policies of a particular oil company, so they had a picket line at a gas station. Now, I never required students to go into—they had to select a group, but there was always a variety of a group and I never asked them to join a group with which they disagreed. So, she went into this labor group not knowing much about labor, but also voluntarily. So she’s standing on the picket line and they’re holding signs, “Honk if you support us,” and damn it if some truck drivers didn’t honk, and that just gave her chills. I’m sure she couldn’t say this, and I didn’t even think of it until now, but there was an initiative on behalf of shared values and this guy shared the values that she was expressing. She didn’t know him, and she didn’t know what background he brought to that, but there they were sharing a bond. All the stuff that she had heard about, she felt in the blast of that person’s horn. There were so many powerful reflections.
There was one kid who took care of children while their parents attended Stop Child Abuse Now meetings. Now these were parents who were under some court order or something else because they were at risk or had abused their children. And this kid is reflecting on his work with two twins, African American kids, identical in every way except the pink skin on the hands of one of the twins, which was a remnant of the burn that the child had when the parent put the hand in boiling water. And the kid writes about a parallel universe, that these are things that they had no knowledge of. Other kids went down to the family emergency shelter…
SCARPINO: So you were pushing the students outside their comfort zones, on purpose.
COUTO: Yes. The three kids went down to the family emergency shelter and they’re getting an orientation to the family emergency shelter. It’s a cold day, it’s a winter day, and as they are talking to the volunteer coordinator, the phone was ringing and she’s explaining that they have no space. And then they drive back and the kids, the kid’s reflection was, “This was one of the rare times that I left campus other than to go to a bar and we went to the emergency shelter. And we sat there and in the course of 20 or 30 minutes, we learned that there were three families in Richmond that had no place to sleep that night. Then we returned to campus where my classmates drive $40,000 cars, and we asked ourselves, ‘What are these worlds, how do they compare?’” And that’s exactly where we wanted to go.
I had a student and we were working, two or three years ago we were trying to get to a point where she could write some on her experience in the CIA. She was relatively new there and just happened to be sitting at the Iraq desk when all hell broke loose in Iraq. She was a point person and she was interested in writing about that. So, we started talking about that experience and we started talking about other things at Richmond. I asked her, “Tell me about your service learning experience.” And she said, “Oh, you mean so-and-so,” and she remembered the student’s name. I said, “Tell me what we read in that course,” and she said, “Oh, I have no idea.” But the exchange and the interaction with the student was still primary. When I was there, that’s the thing I insisted on. We lost some students. They were really talented kids. So let me go in there and write software for them. No, you have to have face-to-face contact with a client of these services.
SCARPINO: And did they have to do this for a certain number of hours?
COUTO: Yes, there were 15 hours in class and 30 hours—would that have been right? It was a one-credit course, so however that works out.
SCARPINO: But they did some reading or planning or something in the classroom.
COUTO: They did reading…
SCARPINO: They had to go out into the field and…
COUTO: …And journals, they kept journals, and then we also had discussions about central questions. Robert Coles’ work was excellent to use in this, The Call of Service, and the National Society for Experiential Education had developed several good books of readings that we used also.
SCARPINO: So, we had been talking about what you were doing in 1992-93, and one thing I noticed that in that time period Jepson aligned with the Pew Partnership for Civic Change. Do you remember that?
COUTO: Suzanne Morse.
SCARPINO: Was that a significant development?
COUTO: Not as significant as it might have been. There wasn’t enough integration. John Rosenblum, I think, was part of that effort, but Suzanne taught courses. Suzanne offered students internships. We had a chance to make that into a really major thing and we didn’t develop it as well as we could, I don’t think.
SCARPINO: So, the next year ’93-94, the school awards its first Bachelor of Arts degrees and the W. K. Kellogg foundation grant supported the first Leadership Education Conference. How did that Leadership Education Conference work out? I assume you were a participant.
COUTO: Right. That was the first of several years of discussion. Jim had this idea of the Correspondence Committee that preceded—was it the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution? But he wanted scholars to be engaged.
SCARPINO: The Declaration of Independence.
COUTO: He wanted scholars to be engaged in writing back and forth about the field of leadership studies, etc. Well, that didn’t happen, but we did manage to get people in the same place in small groups at first and then groups up to 30 or 40. There was a consistent core, Bernie Bass, Ron Heifetz, Barbara Kellerman, but then we would have people coming in and out also.
SCARPINO: And yourself?
COUTO: Yes, and Joanne Ciulla.
SCARPINO: Now, those met in Maryland?
COUTO: We met in Maryland, we met at Harvard, we met at Richmond, the smaller one at Richmond. Did we meet anywhere else? I can’t think of anywhere else that we met. My father was a welder, as I explained to you, and one time he had to go into Cambridge to fix a boiler at Harvard. When he came home he said, “Mac, when you grow up, you just tell everybody that your dad went to Harvard.”
COUTO: And so when I was making my presentation at this leadership conference at Harvard, I told that story.
SCARPINO: I bet that went over well. So, Larraine Matusak was the grant officer at Kellogg at that time?
COUTO: Yes, yeah.
SCARPINO: How would you assess the significance of Kellogg in promoting leadership studies and leadership scholarship?
COUTO: Kellogg has a terrific bias against research. It comes out of the land grant traditionally, I think, where everything should be applied, and I can’t tell you how many times I heard from them. We already know enough, so the question is: How do we apply it? So their work was—I mean it’s curious, within the Fellowship, it was all: come to an interdisciplinary understanding. So, we went to Brazil for 10 days.
SCARPINO: That’s when you were a Kellogg Fellow?
COUTO: Kellogg Fellow, ’82-85. And I said we lived like the rich and we looked in on the poor, and after 10 days we came to an interdisciplinary understanding, on the whole, the rich have it better, but the poor make better music. I mean it sounds like a nonsensical summary, but Kellogg was—that program was very intent that people not come to closure or demand action on what they saw. So we went to California, spent a week looking at agriculture. But if you start talking about let’s fashion an agriculture policy, or let’s write a letter on behalf of this or on behalf of that, they didn’t want any of that.
SCARPINO: Again, this is when you were a Fellow?
COUTO: When I was a Fellow. Now, fast forward to Castle and the leadership education effort, Larraine was pushing for a better understanding of where we are. Larraine would come back several times, and it’s a question that a lot of people have raised, within the ILA now it’s a refrain: “Leadership for what?” Now, that underscores the place of values in leadership. Larraine just got impatient with, you know, like 40 senators from 40 different districts coming in and each of them boosting their adjective of the day for leadership, or their metaphor. She wanted more of a synthesis and an understanding of where we’re going and what are the processes to get there. So eventually on the closing session, the women caucused and started working on a booklet, “Leadership for the Twenty-First Century,” which was the best work that I think the group did.
SCARPINO: And this was the closing session…
COUTO: Closing session of the Kellogg Leadership Studies Project.
COUTO: Then they got some more money and they went to Arizona and had a retreat and finished that publication. She asked me to step outside of the session we were having and she said, “Go outside and do the synthesis.” And people said, “That’s crazy, you can’t do that.” And she said, “Give him time.” So, I came back and that’s when I had the change conflict and collaboration values initiative inclusiveness and creativity, I think I had. Anyway, it was that 12-cell thing, and that was the closest we ever came to integration.
SCARPINO: That’s also part of the process that eventually resulted in the International Leadership Association that we talked about.
COUTO: Castle first and then the International—I’m going to have to excuse myself again.
SCARPINO: Let’s hit pause now.
So we are back on. You and I, as I mentioned when we started, are sitting in your office in your home. Yesterday we began talking about Lawrence and the 1912 Strike or the Bread and Roses Strike, and I notice that you have a poster of that right over your computer in your office. And we talked about your Portuguese heritage and there’s a button up on your bulletin board that says “Portuguese Power.”
COUTO: A very difficult button to find.
SCARPINO: (Laughing) I’ll bet it is. We also talked yesterday about Highlander and Myles Horton and I notice that you’ve got a drawing up on the wall and there are some pieces in the ground and it says “Our job as a gardener or as an educator is to know the potential is there or will unfold. People have a potential for growth. It’s inside, it’s in the seeds.” And it’s signed Myles Horton, 1990. And I think that’s what you were referring to yesterday.
COUTO: Yes, yeah. The other thing, somewhat similar to that, I do this with my grandkids all the time so they’d be able to show you, but if you cut an apple not lengthwise, but across, there’s a star in the center of every apple and so I use that to indicate that if you go to the core of who you are, there’s a star.
SCARPINO: So, what do these things say about who you are?
COUTO: Well, we talked about the uniqueness of my grandmother’s part in the Bread and Roses Strike. I would have loved for her to be standing in the Commons next to Mother Jones, but she didn’t. She lived that strike authentically according to her values, but she couldn’t support the strike at that time because of her marital relationship and the needs of her family. It was a very significant strike. People worked across language and ethnic divisions and developed bonds. It was also significant because it just receded into a collective, almost repressed memory of a whole town. It wasn’t until the Village Voice article that people realized that, hey, we might make some money on this; we could every Labor Day have a Bread and Roses Festival and that’s what they started doing. I went to the first one and they had Odetta and they would bring first-rate names in, and it was a two- or three-day festival and it’s down to one day, but it’s always very enjoyable and it’ll bring the Cambridge group into Lawrence. It just reminds me of what I took for granted as a kid, and now come to value, and it took me a while to uncover that.
SCARPINO: You sort of lived your grandmother’s legacy, didn’t you?
COUTO: How so?
SCARPINO: Over the course of your career, I mean you worked in labor issues and she, because of her own shared values, didn’t join the picketers, but there’s the strike that was a pivotal labor action. And there’s Myles Horton, each one bracketed by them in your office here with all the other mementos of your career that relate to similar themes. I mean, you’ve got the cover from Making Democracy Work Better on the wall, and then on another wall you have Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me Round.
COUTO: That’s Square Morman who my wife talked about, and that’s my daughter. And we were leaving Tennessee, so I wanted to go down to Rossville to say goodbye to Square and I wanted her to come with me and she was a good sport and did that. So we went to church services on that Sunday morning. We came in an hour or two late and we stayed an hour or two. I mean, they were genuine church services down there.
SCARPINO: So, what you have here is a framed copy of the cover of your book and right next to it within the frame is a picture of your daughter and the man is…
COUTO: Square Morman. And that’s—God, he’s a world famous French photographer and that photograph on the left cost me something like $600 to—it cost me all the royalties I ever made on the book—but it is literally a picture that says 10,000 words with two African men sharing a bench and a white man spread out across the space of a bench and both of them against the background of a pretty dilapidated store.
SCARPINO: Did the photographer take that for you, or did you buy it from him?
COUTO: I bought it from the archives in D.C.
COUTO: The one over there, Together For Peace, is a poster I took back from Iraq in 2003.
SCARPINO: I notice in the materials that you’d been in Iraq. What drew you there? It’s not exactly a vacation spot.
COUTO: I had a chance to go with about 40 other academics at the invitation of the faculty of the University of Baghdad. We went in January to see if we could start a dialogue that might forestall the invasion. We made friends, we spent maybe a week there. I went to Babylon, stood in the hall where Daniel saw the writing on the wall and interpreted it. It was fascinating. We made friends, and then after the invasion in June, we went back, a smaller group, 12 or 15, to see if we could help in the reconstruction. There were health professionals and educators, and so we talked to people in higher education and we talked to people in health care. And, as you well know, we did a hell of a job in preventing the invasion, as well as the success in reconstruction. But that was eye-opening.
SCARPINO: What did you learn?
COUTO: It was pretty clear to us that there weren’t any weapons of mass destruction. It was pretty clear to us that it was a very repressive regime. The reconstruction was just a horrible mess and it was so convoluted. The president of the University of Baghdad went back to his health practice and one day gunmen showed up at his clinic and shot him dead. So, I asked people who were better informed than I was, “Who did this?” And they said, “Who knows? He was Saddam’s private physician so Saddam may have sent someone to kill him because he would know some of the locations that Saddam used. It could have been some rival.” And I thought, a disgruntled faculty member over tenure? And they said, “This is Iraq, this is the Middle East, there are just numerous explanations for these things.” And the burning of buildings, they would say, was then to cover up the looting from Saddam’s invasion earlier. I wrote a report that I think is one of the best pieces that I did, “The Incidental Liberation of Iraq.” It was very clear to the people there that liberating Iraq was only incidental to U.S. foreign policy goals, which was financing its Middle East ventures with Iraqi oil, which never happened. It was amazing, the thing that I became sensitive to. When you spoke to the political scientists as we did in January, and we asked, “What do you think the reasons for the U.S. policy is? He said, “There are three reasons; Israel, Israel, Israel.” And then if you read Bob Woodruff’s book, or if you read any number of analyses of our getting into Iraq, it was never mentioned. I mean, it’s just a real blind spot, that we were intervening to take down the Middle East’s largest armed forces, perhaps next to Iraq or equal to Iraq, but we were changing the balance of power, vis-à-vis the Muslim nations and Israel. The terrific resilience among people—we were there for the first graduation from the art school post-Saddam, and the art that was coming out of these graduates were just compelling stuff. And it was again what happens in that free space where people had maintained their memories and then all of a sudden the repressive container is lifted and there is just a burgeoning of expression and life which is remarkable. This goes back many hours ago to our conversation about leaders and followers. It’s not that these people were following somebody, they were taking their own initiative as artists, etc. I don’t know if you saw the cover of that report or not, but it’s brilliant. The Square where they took down Saddam’s statue, the pedestal was still there. So a collective of artists went in and put up another statue of a female figure with a quarter moon, and it’s very symbolic and representative of Islamic art. And on the pedestal somebody had spray-painted graffiti that said “All done, go home.”
SCARPINO: Which of course, didn’t happen.
COUTO: Yeah. The other thing I learned is that had George Bush run for mayor of Baghdad in June of 1993, he would have received 95% of the vote. People were ecstatic about the liberation, and that’s how they regarded it. But they were also—I mean, I’d be standing at the hotel, the hotel reception counter, and there’d be shooting across the street. The guy at the counter would lean under the counter, pull out his automatic weapon, run out in the street, start shooting at people. It was the Wild West. People said, “We have our freedom, for what? I can’t visit my sister, we don’t have telephones.” They asked, “How can the United States, with the technology to kill a seabird sitting on a rock in the middle of the ocean, not be able to restore electricity to a city like Baghdad?” They pointed out that Saddam had electricity back within days all the time. It was very, very clear that the de-Baathification and the disbanding of the army were very, very bad moves that we made and it was clear as early as June.
SCARPINO: Kind of a failure of leadership or vision.
COUTO: It was the hubris. I got interested in Heifetz’s framework. He says there are clear problems and clear solutions, unclear problems and unclear solutions; and when you have a clear problem and a clear solution, it’s a technical matter. You go in and here’s what we do, we fix it. When you have a clear problem and unclear solutions, it takes adaptive work. And then you have unclear problem and unclear solutions, it takes adaptive work. But that leaves an empty cell, you know, a two-by-two grid, and the remaining cell is where you have an unclear problem but a clear solution, and that was what happened in Iraq. Rumsfeld said it very, very well when he said, “Well, we had to shift from Afghanistan to Iraq because Afghanistan didn’t have targets big enough for us to use.” We knew what the solution was, we had a clear solution, but the clarity of that solution obfuscated what the problem was.
SCARPINO: That’s an interesting analysis. I’m going to switch back. Like I said when I started this conversation, it is interesting what a person puts in their office that says about their life. You do have an interesting juxtaposition up there. You’ve got the peace poster for Iraq and then right next to it MIHOW.
COUTO: MIHOW, yeah.
SCARPINO: That stands for?
COUTO: Maternal Infant Health Outreach Worker.
SCARPINO: You went to a meeting of MIHOW at one the prettiest places in Indiana, Clifty Falls State Park.
COUTO: Is that right?
SCARPINO: Well, that’s what it says up there; Annual Conference at Clifty Falls State Park, Madison, Indiana. I love that place.
COUTO: Oh, who knew?
SCARPINO: Just a very beautiful place. So, we started this, we were talking about Jepson, and just a couple more questions. Skip ahead a few years, 2000-2001, you were awarded the Independent Sector’s Virginia Hodgkinson Research Prize for your book, Making Democracy Work Better, which we’ve talked about. 2001-2002, James MacGregor Burns rejoins the faculty, and he and Georgia Sorenson coedited a four-volume Encyclopedia of Leadership. Many of the faculty, including yourself, worked on that.
SCARPINO: You did contribute to the encyclopedia?
SCARPINO: What do you think the significance of that volume is?
COUTO: It was a marker in the development of the field. I think every once in a while in the development of the field, you have certain milestones. In this case, we had a critical mass, we had all these terms, we had different perspectives, we had a collection of authors; how do we put all that together into some kind of compendium? And I think it would fit Jim well in terms of the, again, as a member of the enlightenment to go back to the encyclopedias of the French period, just before the revolution of people coming together and trying to codify the knowledge that we had about something, and I think it was a very early effort at that. We’ve had several brilliant collections since then as well, including the SAGE collection on the reference handbooks on leadership in different areas, and environment and any number of other areas.
SCARPINO: And your own recent two-volume work.
COUTO: Yes, Civic and Political Leadership, yeah.
SCARPINO: So, also in 2001-2002, you received the first annual Servant Leader Award presented by the Jepson Student Government Association. How do you define servant leadership? What is a servant leader?
COUTO: Well, I put a lot of thought into this because, of course, Greenleaf is the person that we identify with servant leadership. For Greenleaf, servant leader means a person who acts as the trustee of an institution or organization, that is willing to take initiative on behalf of the shared values of an institution. He bases that concept on the character Leo in Hermann Hess’s book Journey to the East, which I think is all wrong, but I didn’t like Leo much at all. I loved the book. For me, servant leadership is helping a person discover the leader and leadership within that person. Now, that’s very consistent with being trustee of an organization. It’s also very consistent with that field of followership that goes away from dependence and subordination and emphasizes more the need for people to exercise autonomous judgement and critical thinking. So, the servant leader is the person who helps others understand their capacity to stand up for values, understand their values, first of all, and then take initiative on behalf of that and then perhaps even how to be effective at taking initiative. If we go back to some of the books that are essential for leadership, I would add Milgram’s book on authority, because it’s the very, very strong antidote to a shallow concept of followership. This idea of people, the more socialized roles, the more education we have, the more the buffers we have between our own values and what is right and what is wrong. So, those people with the most education were more likely to go the triple-X warning on the voltage board. You’re familiar with Milgram?
SCARPINO: Yeah, yes. It’s the pain test thing, yes.
COUTO: Right, right. There’s a movie out now about it. We had to read several review—internal review—what do you call them? Institutional Review Board?
SCARPINO: Yeah, yeah, Institutional Review Board, yes.
COUTO: Well, Milgram would have never passed at Yale.
SCARPINO: (Laughing) No.
COUTO: Yet it’s one of the most insightful experiments that anyone ever did, I think. I think that is such an important part of leadership studies and where I would say facetiously, students should know the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, Milgram is telling that story in so many ways. And I think that goes to servant leadership too, to strip away things so that people can see what the reality is, not only themselves, but others and to act upon that.
SCARPINO: In 2001-2002, and that was the year that you left, and we talked about that. You held a Fellowship, James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership, University of Maryland, Senior Research Fellow in Higher Education from 1996-98, and I assume you must have been resident there at least part of the time?
COUTO: No, I think I commuted. I commuted all the time. We have Amtrak service just up the road in Ashland, so it was three hours exactly from my door to Taylor Hall at University of Maryland.
SCARPINO: You were studying Kellogg Fellows and so on as part of that, or maybe I should back up and say what were you doing?
COUTO: I think I was codifying what higher education efforts were going on and we came up with a grid and a website that in the course of an afternoon you could construct your own leadership program with courses, extracurricular activities, and have a whole list of sources of schools around the country and contact people, where you could go and understand, well, how does cross-country hiking fit into a leadership program? And there you would have programs that were doing that.
SCARPINO: You went to Antioch, a founding faculty member 2002-2008, where you talked about it a little bit early, PhD program that was partially residential. Other than you were ready for a move, what attracted you?
COUTO: The Antioch brand.
SCARPINO: That is, the reputation of the university you’re talking about?
COUTO: The reputation of the college.
SCARPINO: College, yes, in Ohio.
COUTO: I had been there to interview Arthur Morgan. I knew something about Antioch College. I was just ecstatic to be part of one of the finest traditions in American higher education. Morgan was a visionary, a cantankerous visionary. All of us found a way to alienate his closest admirers.
SCARPINO: A few words on who he was for people who might not know.
COUTO: Yeah, he was the Chair—well, he was a self-taught engineer, one of the most brilliant engineers of the 20th century, very critical of the Army Corps of Engineers. He was a person who believed in engineering as a way to social fulfillment. He wrote a book called Utopia: Nowhere Was Somewhere, where he did his best to trace the European writings on utopia to the Incas and their engineering. He was on the Board at Antioch and then they selected him president. He instituted cooperative education. He had the idea of having a college at the center of the village and then ringing around the college, industries where students would go to school for a semester and then work in the industries for a semester. Berea College has tuition-free education and every student is employed, so they don’t step out of school as they did in Antioch, but there’s some similarities there. So, it wasn’t entirely brand new, but certainly it was the first major cooperative education effort program in the United States. And out of that came this brilliant faculty and these amazing students who were expected every semester just to pick up, move to a new town, find a place to live, go to their work, and thrive for four to six months. I was sending students into the community. These students were doing labor organizing in the ‘30s in the South. They were fighting McCarthyism in his home district. Just incredible things. They were the epitome of what I thought the interaction of higher education and community could be. A lot of them worked with Highlander, and Myles and Arthur Morgan were friends. Morgan lived in east Tennessee and Myles knew them. Myles honeymooned in Arthur Morgan’s cabin in North Carolina, I think.
SCARPINO: So that was then the intellectual and experiential context for the college’s move into a PhD level leadership program.
COUTO: The college and the university had come to bitter disagreements, of which I did not know, so that the college was independent from the university by the time I was there. So, the university had campuses in Seattle, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and Keene, New Hampshire, also in Yellow Springs and MacGregor. The university wanted to expand into adult education looking for revenue streams. The college did not want to do that for a whole lot of reasons. I’m being terrible to the conflict, and anybody who was engaged in it will pick up immediately that there were many more nuances that I’m not touching upon. Gene Rice was Provost of Antioch College, I think, and his wife was Dean of MacGregor, I think, which was across the street, and people say that they were the only two people in the Antioch system that spoke to each other. The divisions were pretty severe. Nonetheless, the PhD program enjoyed the marketing benefits of the Antioch brand. It gave me a chance to work with really distinguished people who had graduated from there in the golden years. I did a very small book called Courses in Courage, and it had six people who recounted their undergraduate years at Antioch and the difference that it made.
SCARPINO: So, at this point, when I had my plan, and you actually talked at the beginning that you can start with a plan and it doesn’t always add up. I was going to talk to you about scholarship at this point, but we’ve done most of what I wanted to cover. I just want say for the record, and I hope that my math works here, by my count, you published 14 books and 73 articles and book chapters between 1975 and 2015. As we mentioned yesterday, your first book was Poverty, Politics and Health Care: An Appalachian Experience in 1975. We talked about your third book for which you’ve got the cover on the wall behind me, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round: The Pursuit of Racial Justice in the Rural South for which you won the Outstanding Book by the The Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights in 1992. For anybody who might not know, what’s the significance of that title?
COUTO: It’s one of the popular songs from the Civil Rights Movement. The other significance is that it’s another lesson that authors don’t get to choose their titles. My title for that book was Sick for Justice which was Square’s comment and the editor, Mike Ames, now at Vanderbilt, did not like that title at all.
SCARPINO: I did talk to him, by the way.
COUTO: He wanted something that was right out of the Civil Rights Movement. I think it’s a dreadful title, it’s just too long. And then there’s a subtitle, which I tried to avoid most times.
SCARPINO: Just again, for the benefit of somebody who’s going to use this interview, you looked at four communities in Haywood County, Tennessee, Lee County, Arkansas, Loudoun County, Alabama, and the Sea Islands in South Carolina. You did oral history, on-site investigation, and so on.
SCARPINO: Part III of that book is titled “Hope” and the final chapter is titled, “Process: Race, Leadership, and Change.” Why did you end that book with a section on hope?
COUTO: Because I think when you look at the political archaeology of these places, there are periods of change and then periods—there are waves and change comes and goes and it depends upon the context. I was talking with a person who had been active in the resettlement administration and she was now school superintendent in Loudoun County, and I was calculating that every 30 years there was a period of progressive change; the ‘30s, the ‘60s. So I said, “Wow, the ‘90s are going to be a great period of change.” That didn’t work out. So, there went my—who was it - Toynbee who had the cycles in history that went along. Also, because I came to identify that there were three significant agents of change; the community of memory, the local people, who in their minds as the last refuge of free space, keep alive an alternative history, an alternative view of themselves, etc. Then there are a set of redemptive organizations with the theme of redemption again, and within race, they were trying to redeem the country from the original sin of racism, slavery. Then the third agent of change is heroic bureaucracies. They come along in unusual circumstances and they bring about very, very profound change, a whole new standard, and a willingness to invest public goods and more resources in people, regardless of the status of the labor force at this time, but in people as members of community and as members of a democratic community. So, looking at history, I have hope that those three forces still remain alive. It depends upon context, they’re not always entirely predictable, and good thing, because if we could predict them, people with power would prevent them.
SCARPINO: Or co-op them or…
COUTO: Exactly. So, it’s precisely because of chaos and complexity and because things are not always predictable that things will come along and just generate change that people thought was impossible. This fruit vendor emulating himself in Tunisia sets off a fire across the Middle East. Who was going to predict that? These were strong men. These were presidents who’d been in there for a lifetime and there was no foreseeable end to them, and then all of a sudden, goodbye, they were on the skids. And then we have this God-awful Civil War in Syria that’s still going on.
SCARPINO: So, I’m going to do my best to make sure I stay in the time period. You published Political and Civic Leadership: A Reference Handbook and we’ve talked a little bit about that. But, what I didn’t ask you is, how did you get selected to be editor?
COUTO: Again, people worked their way down the food chain.
SCARPINO: (Laughing) That’s hard to believe.
COUTO: I mean it happened at Mount St. Michael when kids wanted to go to Appalachia and it happened at SAGE when they were looking for an editor. I never asked, but I was sure that several people had passed on it. The acquisition editor came to me, we met in Washington. As I said, teaching political leadership was the most difficult course because I couldn’t find material. So, I was very happy to work on this book because I would be bringing together material to teach political leadership and to gather in one place enough material to fashion courses, both at the undergraduate and graduate level.
SCARPINO: Did you have the freedom to pick the authors, and so on and so forth?
COUTO: A great deal of freedom. I put together a five-person editorial committee that helped me identify topics and suggested authors, and we came up with maybe 40 or 60 with them, most of them Jepson people. Georgia helped me out on that and Georgia’s suggestion was…
SCARPINO: Georgia Sorenson?
COUTO: Yeah, make this your own, have fun. Al Goethals, Thad Williamson, I’m blanking on one woman’s name, but we went for the very top, you know, who’s the best in the field in this? And as I mentioned yesterday, if I wrote somebody who was premier in the field, chances are I would hear back from them in hours saying, “Can’t help you, no, but here are some people you might consider.” And it was just wonderful. And there I am writing to the president of the University of Pennsylvania on deliberative democracy because she and her partner are the best in the field. And she said, “Sure.”
SCARPINO: Which would say many of them did not say no.
COUTO: Yeah, I got many more yeses than nos, some out of personal friendship, like Ron Heifetz and a lot of people in leadership, and then others out of the goodness of their hearts.
SCARPINO: So, I’m going to ask you just a couple of wrap-up questions and we’ve spent a fair amount of time off and on talking about…
COUTO: Can I just go back to a couple of those things?
SCARPINO: Absolutely, yes.
COUTO: We started off with 40 and then I would have conversations and got some great ideas. I mean, I never thought of deception as a topic for political leadership, and I knew I wanted to do something on humor. It was hard to find someone with that background, especially in political and civic leadership, and that’s one of the things that I want to continue to follow up. But deception, there were a number of topics that people suggested to me that I would have never in my wildest dreams thought of. So, it became a nice collaborative effort with people making suggestions that I just jumped at. I think we ended up with 118 or 120 chapters, quite a few.
SCARPINO: In two volumes?
SCARPINO: We’ve talked off and on quite a bit about leadership studies and so on, and it’s an area, after you discovered you were doing it, been involved in for many years yourself. What are the two or three most important things to your mind that remain to be done in that field?
COUTO: Leadership studies?
COUTO: I think we need to continue to give more attention to leadership outside of the formal organization framework. If you look at the major journals within the field, most of the contexts are hierarchical formal organizations, most often business corporations and things like that. I think we need to open that up much wider. One of the founding texts of the field is Jim Burns’ Leadership. As we mentioned yesterday, the gravitational forces within the field of leadership studies are so great that people turn that into an organizational study and almost integrate the emphasis on collective action for social change. That is the primary focus of the book. So, that’s one thing. I think one area of terrific hope for the field is in leadership development, especially students. There’s some real excellent work being done by the non-faculty people in the leadership development programs around the country. God, they’re so informed, and they know so many small group activities. A friend of mine, when she was in charge the program, would invite me down to the University of Tampa, and she would have programs of swimming with the manatees and sailing and all the rest to teach this group of kids collaboration and give them experiences upon which to reflect. Those people have profound insights. I did my best. It’s difficult enough to do interdisciplinary work at a university or college, but when you start crossing the boundaries from the curriculum to the co-curriculum and you start talking about student activity people and how they integrate with your course work, etc., boy, I mean, that’s strange people in a strange land, it’s almost like we don’t have much to do. Those staff members who are sitting down with students who are in violation of some fraternity or sorority thing or have broken the honor code or something, they’re dealing with profound leadership moments and they have a much better feel than we do as faculty members who, we have lots of protective coats on that. I think one of the things that needs to be done is trying to recognize the instructional import of those student activities people. Dennis, Denny—I forget his last name, but there are people who have done excellent work in this field. Then, I think going back to my earliest training, I think there’s a lot of need for phenomenological approaches in the study of leadership. How is it that we come to understand leadership? What are the words we use? The work of Foucault, which is now just beginning to appear in the leadership field. Steven Lukes and his work on the three dimensions of power and how power is embedded in language and other features of society. We need to be uncovering that; the very words “leader” and “leadership” and being more precise in what they mean and not letting those terms slip to be synonymous with authority.
SCARPINO: As you think about your career over several decades, what are you most proud of?
COUTO: That barn in Gray Hawk, Kentucky, is still standing, that dairy farm, the barn on the dairy farm. The difference that some of my students went on to make, especially because of the service learning opportunity or because of internships. A woman who become an attorney and was the staff attorney for the Virginia Mental Health Council said, “I would have never done this except for that internship that I had at Jepson.” Going back to my Catholic roots, I mean I’m really attracted to the paradoxes of Christianity, and one of the greatest paradoxes is Judgment Day. Allegedly, the Lord will say, “Come, because when I was hungry, you fed me; when I was thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was naked, you clothed me,” etc., etc. And the response was not “Well, I’m glad you recognized that, Lord.” The response was, “When did we do these things?” And I guess I take as an order of faith and hope that I’ll never know many of my students’ greatest achievements. This former student just stopped by about a week or two weeks ago, and you have this experience all the time too, and they’ll say, “I’ll never forget when you said…” and you don’t remember saying that and sometimes you even doubt if you said that.
SCARPINO: “Did I really say that?”
COUTO: Yes, and, “Boy, I’m sorry you took it that way.” But it’s that little thing that we contribute and we don’t know how they’re going to develop. So if I say, what am I proudest of, it would be some of the written words which are very tangible and they occupy places on shelves and you can find them online and people will respond to them, and I like that a lot. I’m also proudest that I think I’ve created educational and leadership development opportunities for a whole set of people who then go on and carry on themselves. One of my first students at the University of Richmond that I had was also one of their very best, a Truman Scholar, who is now running the Truman Scholar program. He worked for the gubernatorial candidate in Delaware who got elected and worked with him as liaison to state legislature. He then went to Yale, wrote a book on think tanks and their influence on the public agenda. He then went to Wake Forest and was very successful as a teacher there. And I said, “Well, what’s the secret?” He said, “I’m just doing what you did.” And he was a senior here the only class we had together and he said, “Well, your class was very different from all the other classes.” I said, “How?” He said, “I knew everybody’s name.” This is a little arts college. The class has 20, right? And they would go through a whole semester in a class that size and not know each other’s name. He said, “You learn some names when they hand back papers.” But I always did two things at the beginning of every class. I called the roll, then I had somebody else call the roll, then I took the roll away and asked the person to go around the room and call everybody’s name. We did that day after day until everybody in the room…
SCARPINO: ..knew everybody’s name.
COUTO: …could call everybody’s name. Then the other thing I did was to ask them to draw a picture of leadership. Now, Paulo Freire, in dealing with literacy, would go from pictures to words and bring people to a consciousness or an awareness of what their situation was like. But when you have literate people and you ask them to use words, it goes on forever. So, I would ask them to draw a picture and then we would talk about what we saw in the picture. That broke down a lot of barriers. It was fun. In fact, I still have—these are from some of the very earliest sessions at Antioch and that article in Change, “The Art of Teaching Democracy,” I did that at the American Political Science Association. If you can imagine getting political scientists to sit around a table and draw pictures of what it means to teach democracy, that was fun. Jim didn’t think it was so much fun, and Jim was a very, very serious person, but he did a good one. It had to do with concentric circles, I think.
SCARPINO: I’m going to ask you the same question, as you look back on your career, only this time, what would you do differently if you could pick one or two things? What would you change? Where do you want a do-over?
COUTO: I would take Jackie Reed’s advice about conflict and look at conflict as a prelude to collaboration and I would not be as adamant about conflict as standing up for principle and almost an end in itself in terms of espousing principle, but being more open to conflict as an invitation to collaboration.
SCARPINO: Do you consider yourself to be a work in progress?
COUTO: More so than I did before. This old body is just reminding me that it has its limits. But I’ll tell you, I have far less contact with young people, apart from my grandchildren, but if there’s a place where I am still a work in progress, it’s in my interaction with them. I love to see them gaining their sense of humor. I love to see they’re enjoying my humor. It was freezing cold out here for the longest time, and one of the kids had left a piece of their clothing and I tried to kick it to get it up and it was frozen solid to the driveway. So, when my granddaughter got off the bus, we’re walking up the driveway and I said, “Isabelle, would mind picking up that glove for me?” So she leaned over and (sounds of struggling), it was frozen solid and she just stayed at it and pulled it off and then said to me later, she’s nine, she said to me later, “That was pretty funny, Poppy.”
SCARPINO: (Laughing) What do you consider your legacy to be?
COUTO: The largest part of my legacy will always be unknown. Those are the seeds that we deposited and that people nurtured on their own. Sometimes there’s a wonderful opportunity to come back and share, and some of my students do that. But I also trust that others are nurturing those seeds on their own. So, I’m not sure, I’m simply not sure. I think as I established things at Jepson and that there’s still an influence—my influence can still be felt at Jepson. When I go back to Jepson, there are two things that stand out, and these are just anecdotes, but they’re also part of a legacy of just thinking outside the box that just leaves students in wonderment. Number one, we were doing a participatory action project and there were only about six of us in the class. I was ready to get started and one of the students wasn’t there and another student said, “Ah, she turned 21 yesterday, so she had 21 at 21,” so she was sleeping it off. We had telephones in the classroom, so I called her and then I said, “Hey, we’re in the classroom and we’re about to get started. We’re just wondering are you coming in?” And she said, “Who is this?” I explained who I was and she said, “Okay, be right over.” I said, “You’re not coming, are you?” She said, “No, I’m not.” So I said, “Okay, we’ll come over to you.” So the five of us walked across campus, and went to her dorm room and had class there. So students will always ask me, “Are you the one who went to…” I said, “Yeah.”
Then another time when I was leaving, as I mentioned, I very, very rarely brought things together, closed off the different elements of a class. So, here I was teaching a course on critical thinking and we were talking about how artists see reality. We had just finished talking about systems thinking and paradigm and paradigm shifts. So I said, “How do I bring all of this together?” And the thought occurred to me, a hot air balloon. So, see that picture at the top there? That’s the first line from Hermann Hess: “It was my destiny to join a great experience.” That’s the class standing up against the hot air balloon. I had some money that I had to spend, so I brought in Captain Jacques and his crew and the students went on tethered hot air balloon rides above campus. It combined the artistic expression of green lawn, blue skies, white clouds, and this colorful hot air balloon. And it was a system, every part of which was heavier than air, but when brought together was lighter than air. And it brought them to a new place where they could see things differently in paradigmatic shifts. And they got it. One of them carefully explained that to a newspaper reporter who showed up, and fortunately it wasn’t just “University of Richmond rich kids show their advantage once again,” but she could explain what was going on pedagogically. So, those opportunities where we could do creative things like that, work legacy, and I hope that they inspired students to think like that, also; what are the opportunities that I have to do things differently, different than others, different than their own experiences? This is the question of legacy, right?
SCARPINO: Yeah, so I’m going to use that as a segue into my last question.
COUTO: All right.
SCARPINO: Here it is. Is there anything that I should have asked you that I didn’t, or anything that I didn’t give you a chance to say that you’d like to say?
COUTO: No, I’ve just been amazed at the amount of work and preparation that you put into this. Certainly, no one has ever paid that much attention to me. (Laughing)
SCARPINO: Well, look at it this way; I worked for two weeks, you’ve worked for 50 years. So, before I shut the record off, I want to thank you on behalf of myself and the Tobias Center and the International Leadership Association for spending this much time with me. Thank you very much.
COUTO: Oh, what an honor, are you kidding? I’m just so grateful that you would go to this effort, and I know that this is going to be a wonderful gift for my kids and their kids.
SCARPINO: I hope that they enjoy it. Thank you.
COUTO: Thank you.