Inside USD

Shirk’s D.C. Fellowship Strengthens TBI’s Impact

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On Monday, David Shirk boarded a plane to Mexico for a quick, one-day business trip to hear more about a strategic plan on workforce development and economic opportunities in the U.S.-Mexico border region. He said it would be his final airplane ride of 2010 and his last, at least, through January. He and his wife are expecting their first child soon.

While a parental role and the adjustment period that comes with having a baby isn’t lost on Shirk, one can’t help but think how seasoned he may actually be for fatherhood when it’s put in the context of his experience as director of the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute.

Shirk, after all, has been the face, the voice and leader of an institute on campus that provides public education and careful analysis of issues concerning the U.S. and Mexico and the border region. TBI, created in 1994, is an integral part of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies (KSPS) and the Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice (KIPJ) education triangle. Shirk, TBI director since 2003 and an associate professor in political science, has been at the forefront of TBI’s rise to local, national and international prominence.

“I’ve flown about 120,000 miles this year and it seemed like I was on a plane every other week,” he said. But the true payoff seems destined to come from the actual mileage TBI gains through a fellowship Shirk earned through the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C. He took a sabbatical leave from USD for the 2009-10 academic year and, judging by the amount of work he accomplished, TBI is on a path for mainstream attention.

“At this point we’ve made a huge leap forward in our ability to engage in important policy discussion in Washington D.C. and in Mexico City,” he said. “This year, as opposed to a year ago or three years ago, we’ve been able to make much stronger, higher-level contacts than ever before. There’s an interest in Washington D.C. to connect to us and the work we’ve been doing.”

Upon Shirk’s departure for the fellowship last year, KSPS Dean William Headley said, “So much of the policy thinking comes out of Washington D.C. and I’m pleased that we’ll have a West Coast voice there.”

One of the premier West Coast academic voices belonged to Wayne Cornelius, then director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at University of California, San Diego where Shirk had fellowships in 1998-99 and 2001-03. Cornelius, Shirk said, saw Mexico’s rise as a politically democratic country a decade ago and sought out what challenges lie ahead.

“It was very impressive when he said it would be judicial sector reform,” Shirk recalled. “I had just finished my doctoral dissertation when he called a meeting and wanted to talk about this issue. For the next decade I’ve been working with some of the same people who were in that meeting and we’re trying to understand the public security challenges Mexico is facing right now, the institutional solutions, police reform and judicial reform needed to address those challenges.”

Shirk, taking a cue from his mentor, has a similar vision for TBI. “The recognition of the big picture questions, the big policy questions that face Mexico led us to this particular focus. I think that’s what should always guide TBI. What we’re doing is incredibly relevant, incredible to document and analyze as we try to come up with better ideas of how to manage Mexico’s public security and rule of law challenges. To the extent that we can add value, and I think we do add value, by helping connect U.S. policy makers and U.S. stakeholders to what’s going on in Mexico and to help them understand it and maintain a measured and structured dialogue, is very important.”

Shirk, who praised TBI assistant director Charles Pope and staff members Octavio Rodriguez, Stephanie Borrowdale and student workers for their efforts during his sabbatical, is an in-demand source for national media publications on Mexico’s drug-related violence and public security issues. He also served as USD’s lone panelist on a live MSNBC nationally televised two-hour town hall meeting on immigration and immigration reform at Shiley Theatre last month.

But it was the fellowship in Washington D.C. that gave Shirk opportunities to broaden TBI’s outreach and form strategic institutional relationships that “maximize our impact and our productivity as an organization.” He developed 10 different publications and presented his work throughout the U.S. and internationally while he was there. One of his publications, “Shared Responsibility: U.S.-Mexico Policy Options for Confronting Organized Crime,” came through a partnership with the Mexico Institute within the Wilson Center. Shirk and another editor, Andrew Selee, will do a presentation of the book on Wednesday, Dec. 15, from 9 to 11 a.m. in USD’s IPJ Room A and B.

A USD-National Defense Intelligence College collaborative capstone student project gave Shirk a chance to indirectly supervise trips to San Diego, Guadalajara, Mexico and Washington D.C. for meetings with high-level intelligence personnel on issues of Mexico’s drug violence and security. “The (NDIC) was motivated by a 9/11 Commission recommendation to seek outside points of view and understand things from different perspectives. We were very eager and happy to contribute,” he said.

Other partnerships include the Congressional Research Service and a relationship with the Council on Foreign Relations. Shirk adds that TBI’s reputation in D.C. is growing as several USD alumni work in D.C. for organizations such as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the FBI and the Wilson Center.

“TBI has accomplished a great deal and has achieved a national reputation over the last several years,” Shirk said. ”It’s rewarding and shows there’s a lot of potential to continue our development as a center of excellence.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

Photo courtesy of Luis Garcia

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