Questions for Richard Farson, President, WBSI

Richard Farson is the president of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute (WBSI), a nonprofit organization he helped found in 1958. He has served as either president or chairman ever since. He directs the Institute’s centerpiece program, the International Leadership Forum, an Internet based think tank composed entirely of highly influential leaders addressing the critical policy issues of our time. He has long been interested in the field of design, and his next book, due out in June, is about the power of design to make a better world. He was the founding dean of the School of Design at the California Institute of the Arts, and a 30-year member of the Board of Directors of the International Design Conference in Aspen, of which he was president for seven years. In 1999 he was elected as the one Public Director (non-architect) to the national Board of Directors of the American Institute of Architects. A University of Chicago Ph.D. in psychology, Farson has been a Naval Officer, president of Esalen Institute, a faculty member of the Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center, and a member of the Human Relations Faculty of Harvard Business School.

Q: What brought you to La Jolla?

In 1955 I was ordered to San Diego by the Navy, and within two days my old lifeguarding buddy Don Fulton found out I had arrived in town so insisted that he would show me a great beach … Windansea, in La Jolla. It was even better than he had described it. Getting out of the water, I looked up and noticed a nice new apartment building, Shore Colony, on Neptune right between the Shack and the pump house, with a for rent sign in the window. Immediately I found the owner and rented a choice corner apartment for $155/month.

I had to justify that exorbitant rent because I was planning to spend only 80 dollars a month (LTJGs made $6000 a year) so I told myself to think about it this way: the best place to live is the U.S., and the best state California. In California one should live at the beach, and all things considered Windansea is the best beach, and I found a brand new apartment that has the best access and best view of Windansea. Therefore, no one in the world would have a better place to live. Putting it that way helped.

Q: What makes La Jolla special to you?

Practically everything good that has happened to me happened here. My children were born here, my work at WBSI, writing books (I don’t enjoy writing them, but I love having written them), a lifetime of making friends … and diving under the waves at the beach!

Q: If you could snap your fingers and have it done, what might you add, subtract or improve in La Jolla?

First, I would eliminate the high rise apartment building at 939 Coast Blvd, then a few other oversized architectural monstrosities. I’ve been thinking of learning demolition techniques, but if snapping my fingers will do it, I won’t bother.

I miss all the stores and other services that have disappeared because of a combination of the tourist business raising the village rents and the shopping centers and discount houses driving small operations out of business. Those were the places where I would run into my friends. I can remember walking down Girard with my small children tugging at me because I would stop to talk several times on each block to people I knew. Now I can walk down Girard and rarely see anyone I know. But I can still see some of them at the Pannikin, Von’s, Jonathan’s, Warwick’s, Burns Drugs, D.G Will’s bookstore, Meanley’s, and the gyms. Except for these, there are almost no remaining places in the village that the residents need. We are losing the experience of community, and that is dangerous indeed.

Q: Who or what inspires you?

I’ve always been inspired by my mentors at WBSI, psychologists Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow and Alex Bavelas, and a host of distinguished visiting fellows, plus my many other colleagues including co-founders Paul Lloyd and Wayman Crow and such staff members as Lawrence Solomon, Patricia Falck, Bill McGaw, Andrew Feenberg, Rosemary Ennis, Tom Gillette, Betty Berzon, Hall Sprague, Lynne Robinson, Garry Shirts, John Rase ... at one time we had 70 outstanding, and often inspiring, people on the staff.

And then of course there’s the inspiring view from the deck of my house.

Q: If you hosted a dinner party for eight, who would you invite?

Off the top of my head I’d invite Mark Twain, Cole Porter, writer Dorothy Parker, jazz pianist Bill Evans, writer and historian Gore Vidal, Woody Allen, Thomas Jefferson, Audrey Hepburn, William Shakespeare … oops, that’s nine. Sorry, Bill.

Q: Tell us about what you are currently reading.

I read all the time, much of it online, but almost all of my reading is directly related to my work, and some that is indirectly related…such as keeping up with the op-ed page of the New York Times, and such magazines as the Nation, New Yorker, Harper’s, Atlantic, New York Review of Books. I also get manuscripts from people who want me to read them, and I usually do. Right now I’m reading a published book, Herb Childress’s “Landscapes of Betrayal, Landscapes of Joy,” about how teenagers really live.

Q: What is your most prized possession?

My family is not a possession, but in case of a fire I would first save my family photo albums. I love having a grand piano, even if I can only play Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are.”

Q: What do you do for fun?

The question reminds me of the time that there was a small informal celebration in the office of economics professor Robert Lucas of the University of Chicago right after he was notified by phone of his winning the Nobel Prize, the department’s fifth Nobel in five years. One member of the press approached the university president and asked him what he thought about the current Playboy magazine rating of 300 universities as to which were the most fun, the University of Chicago rated 300th, right at the bottom. President Sonnenshein smiled and replied, “This is how we have fun.”

To a great extent I guess I’m like that. I have been extremely lucky to have had jobs that were intrinsically so rewarding that I often get a big kick out of….well, work. I can hardly leave it alone.

Beyond that, when the ocean water temperature gets above 63 degrees, I take an afternoon swim that I just love.

Q: Please describe your greatest accomplishment.

Wihout doubt, leading the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute. This year we celebrate our 50th anniversary. The other day I was looking over a chronology of some of the highlights of those years, and we have an impressive record of ground breaking research projects ranging from simulations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff on deterrence strategies to developing widely used educational games to reducing robberies and accompanying violence in convenience stores by 40 percent (using ex-offenders as research assistants).

We have often been first, opening many doors toward achieving a better society, including developing the first online distance education program (ten years before the advent of the Internet), the first televised series in group therapy, leading to our filming a more intensive group, which won for the institute and for Bill McGaw, our director, an Oscar for best feature length documentary; the first program in self-directed therapy groups, a program that made possible therapeutic experiences for many thousands of people around the world. These intimate mass media presentations done back in the sixties led us to imagine a major dimension of television showing people being real-a couple making up after a fight, a father telling his child a bedtime story-but what happened instead was Jerry Springer, and what is called reality TV. So not every idea had the outcome we hoped for.

We also published the first article in a national magazine calling for women’s rights; later the first book calling for full Constitutional protection of children’s rights, and now the first online think tank composed entirely of influential leaders generating recommendations for policymakers.

It is also the institute where some of the top social scientists did some of their best work….psychology superstar Abraham Maslow wrote his most important book while with us, Carl Rogers, considered the most influential American psychologist in history, was first exposed to group processes with us, and went on to write and contribute extensively in that area. We are about to launch a program in design research to determine how the work of architects and other designers can both reduce the indices of social despair….crime, mental and physical illness, school failure, addiction, divorce, domestic violence, child abuse, suicide…and foster creativity, community, cooperation and affection…again moving into relatively uncharted areas.

Q: What is your motto or philosophy of life?

I don’t believe in simplifications of something as complex as life, but I do try to make every human encounter special. I enjoy almost every interpersonal contact I have, whether it’s kidding around with the clerk at the supermarket check stand or engaging the people I work with or loving my family. I don’t have a motto, but I do try to remind myself that in human affairs absurdity and paradox are the rule, not the exception, and that most of our troubles are not problems we can solve, but dilemmas or predicaments with which we must cope.