Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Eagle, the Lion, the Arm and the Hammer

WPI's President Berkey, his wife Dr. Cathy Berkey, and the VP for Development and Alumni Relations, Dexter Bailey spent three days in Venice this week. It was a great pleasure for me to host the first WPI president to visit Venice in the 20 years of existence of the Venice Project Center (VPC).
It also gave me a chance to get to know the distinguished visitors on a personal level and to share with them the successes of the VPC, as well as my dreams for the next 20 years of the center.  It was a really enjoyable and fruitful experience.
The visit started with a relaxing dinner at the Corte Sconta restaurant, near the Arsenale and a short walk from the hotel where they were staying.  At dinner, we discussed some of the main highlights about the work that WPI students have done for Venice since 1988 with the goal of "leaving Venice better than we found it".  I was positively struck by the keen interest President Berkey showed for our program, and for its impact on our students and on the City itself.  As dinner progressed, I had a chance to put forth to the president an idea that I had previously discussed with WPI trustee Stephen Rubin.  How great would it be to offer a full scholarship to a young Venetian to go to college at WPI for free?  What if we did the same at all of our global project centers?  The repercussions would be immense!  These alumni would create a permanent bond  between WPI and our project sites, which over time would foster a thriving alumni network in all the countries where we operate, with exponentially positive consequences for all.  President Berkey really liked the idea and I plan to spell it out in full detail in a memo to him after I return to the US at the end of the year.
Since they brought the sunshine with them, our esteemed visitors had a chance to see the city in its glory on the following day.  During a leisurely walk from the Arsenale to the Frari church, I showed them some of the highlights of the city and introduced them to the great work completed by the 500+ WPI students who have traveled to Venice over the past two decades.  It was a beautiful walk on a beautiful day.  They even had a chance to walk on the acqua alta planks since St. Mark's square was slightly flooded...
As a crowning climax to the walk we were treated to a backstage tour of the Venice State Archives, with its 70Km of shelves containing the history of Venice's Republic in the form of government records handwritten on parchments dating from before the year 1000 AD to 1797, when the Serenissima fell to Napoleon.  Readers of this blog may recall reading about our long-term efforts to develop an online application called uScript that would allow the cumulative transcription of ancient manuscripts, thus allowing historians to tap into the wealth of knowledge contained in the Venice archives.  We still have a $350,000 grant application pending with the National Endowment for the Humanities to bring the effort to fruition and a team of WPI students is continuing to make progress on this endeavor this term in Venice.
Following a meeting with the archive's director, who pledged full collaboration in this joint effort, the highlight of our visit was when we were shown original handwritten letters sent by none other than Benjamin Franklin, one of the most famous founding fathers, and John Adams, the second president, of the United States of America.
These most prominent of all Americans, were writing to the Doge to request a commercial treaty between the ancient Venetian republic and the newly independent colonies across the ocean.  It was enlightening to read the letter from Venice's ambassador to Paris that accompanied the American request, who begged for permission to communicate to the letter writers (who were utterly unknown to the Doge) that "at least the letter had been received and read"...  Apparently the republic had better things to do that to pay heed to these rebels from across the pond... Funny how the tides of power have turned in just 200 years!  Who knows what the balance of power will be in 2209?!
After another great meal at the Zucca, we enjoyed a complimentary taxi ride, thanks to our former project sponsors Consorzio Venezia Motoscafi, who later picked us up for the gala dinner at the Stucky Hilton Hotel.

The dinner was attended by all 27 of the current Venice Project Center students, plus a number of distinguished Venetian guests, including Dr. Pierpaolo Campostrini of Co.Ri.La., Dr. Franco Fiorin, director of the Mobility office for the City of Venice, Prof. Vincent Corruble, of Paris VI University, Dr. Emanuele Dal Carlo, founder of the 40xVenice movement, and Tyler White of the Santa Fe Complex.  One former Venice alumnus, Douglas Leenhouts, who worked on the Sounds of Venice project in the summer of 2003 was also in attendance.  The dinner was excellent and President Berkey's speech, praising the work of the students who have attended the Venice Project Center over the past two decades, was an outstanding conclusion to this very successful visit.
We all look forward to many more official (or personal) visits from WPI notables in the years to come...
Let the Eagle and the Lion be united by the Arm & Hammer!
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