From humble beginnings with
a box of stationery at Carolina,
J. Robinson West ’ 68
grapples with world peace
During his junior and senior years at UNC, J. Robinson West ’ 68
was chairman of the Carolina Forum, a one-man gig that existed largely
in the form of a box of stationery. What he achieved with a letterhead
and a typewriter set the stage for his later accomplishments in politics,
business and the arts.
West — the CEO and founder of an energy consulting firm, PFC
Energy — served as a deputy assistant secretary of defense in President
Gerald Ford’s administration and an assistant secretary of the interior for
President Ronald Reagan. But of the all the jobs he’s had, the one he
talks about most passionately is his position as chairman of the U.S.
Institute of Peace.
“The Institute of Peace is almost perfect for me because it’s a way to
participate in frankly some of the great issues,” West says. “My sense of
public service is about finding consensus and seeking consensus and get-
ting results, and that’s one of the things I think is so powerful about the
Institute of Peace.”
Created by Congress in 1984, the institute has become a key player in
U.S. peacekeeping ventures around the globe. One of its more high-pro-
file endeavors was the formation of the Iraq Study Group. Headed by
former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and former Rep.
Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), the group was influential in reshaping the U.S.
administration’s policy in Iraq.
“We have very strong convening power,” West says, referring to the
institute’s ability to bring together powerbrokers from across the political
spectrum. The institute has a bipartisan board that oversees a nonpartisan
staff. It’s not a think tank, he notes, and it’s not in the business of generating
opinion. Instead, its mission is to find pragmatic solutions to conflictive
situations worldwide. “What we are trying to do is to figure out what
works,” he said, and then use myriad strategies — training programs,
mediation efforts, book publishing, etc. — to disseminate what works.
In Afghanistan, for example, a network of trained facilitators works to
mediate tribal and community-level conflicts; following the earthquake in
Haiti, the institute released a report detailing the country’s short-term and
long-term needs; and in the Philippines, it provided funds to HOPE
International Development Agency to create 52 model peace communities.
“The world needs something between the Marine Corps and the
Peace Corps, and that’s sort of the space we’re in,” West says.
— Lucy Hood ’ 83
Finding its place in the world:
Despite its growing role on the world stage, the Institute of Peace has
been tucked away on the second floor of the National Restaurant
Association’s building in downtown Washington. It’s been there for the
past 12 years, but that is about to change. A new five-story, $186 million
building is slated for completion this year in a prime locale among the
monuments — Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington — that define the
view when one enters the city from Virginia. “The entrance to
Washington over Memorial Bridge is the most beautiful manmade
entrance to any city,” West says. The new USIP building “will be the
fourth thing you see, and that’s a big deal.”
When he was basically a one-man band running the Carolina Forum, J.
Robinson West ’ 68 says, “I would write letters to everybody I could think
of” to bring speakers to campus — and he snagged leading political figures, including senators Bobby Kennedy and Barry Goldwater.
Finding his place in the world:
In Chapel Hill in the late 1960s, West’s office for the Carolina Forum
consisted of a box of engraved stationery that said “Office of the
Chairman,” and that’s what he used to write letters to prominent politi-
cians inviting them to speak at UNC. The list included, among others,
President Lyndon B. Johnson and Vice President Hubert Humphrey. “I’d
write letters to everybody I could think of,” West says, “and then [UNC
System] President [Bill] Friday [’ 48 (LLB)] would swing into action and
work the phones. We didn’t get the president to come, but we got the
vice president to come,” as well as senators Bobby Kennedy, Ted Kennedy,
Barry Goldwater and Mike Mansfield.
Finding his place at Carolina:
West grew up Unionville, Pa., in the Brandywine Valley area north of
Philadelphia. He went to boarding school in Groton, Conn., before head-
ing south to go to college. “I came from up north, and up north you had
to give people a reason for them to be nice to you,” he says. “My experi-
ence in Carolina was you had to give people a reason not to be nice to
you.” He credits UNC with providing the encouragement and to some
degree the confidence he needed to pursue his own goals, which at the
time were focused on politics. “It wasn’t very judgmental,” says West, who
majored in political science, “and you could just kind of find your own
way at your own pace.”