Senator George J. Mitchell has had a distinguished career in public service both in the United States and on the international stage, serving as U.S. senator, ambassador, and special envoy for Middle East peace. On April 24, he shared his thoughts on the turmoil in the Middle East and its effect on U.S. policy to a large gathering of faculty, staff, students, and alumni as part of the Annual Sylvia and Benjamin Slomoff Lecture in Conflict Resolution.
Chancellor J. Keith Motley welcomed the crowd by saying, “There are two of my heroes in the room today.”
Chancellor Motley shared that his first hero was alumnus Ben Slomoff, the generous benefactor of the lectureship that bears his name. Despite his 98 years, Slomoff, who earned both a graduate certificate and master’s degree in conflict resolution, traveled from California to attend the lecture. The chancellor referred to Slomoff as “a model of leadership, support, and love of this university.” Chancellor Motley then said that his second hero was the guest speaker, George Mitchell, calling him “a political activist and staunch advocate for peace."
Provost Winston Langley also welcomed the senator to UMass Boston, noting, “George Mitchell embodies the attributes we try to cultivate as a school and university: to be champions of human security and global governance. His presence here will, in part, symbolize our commitment to our mission to the world and to the public good.”
Beginning with some initial personal stories of his appointment as a senator from Maine, Mitchell shared a humorous and humbling tale of the discouragement and disbelief of his three older brothers as he consulted them before accepting the position left vacant by Senator Edmund "Ed" Muskie's retirement. He also recounted the story of his first day in our nation’s capital which required his first vote a mere two minutes after being sworn in and his meeting with Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd—a role Mitchell would later fill himself.
Mitchell went on to share his philosophy on peace and conflict resolution. Citing examples from his work in Northern Ireland and in the Middle East, Mitchell said that he strongly believes that “peace, no matter how difficult, can always be achieved.”
“Human history is, in large part, a tale of conflict. But we must have an unshakable belief in peace. It is not a hopeless idea; peace is pragmatic,” Mitchell continued. He then continued professing that “principled compromise, flexibility, and leadership” are needed for peace and conflict resolution.
Mitchell also talked about the potential proliferation of nuclear war, and the extraordinary leadership and necessary compromises needed to resolve disputes. He spoke of the role of terrorism, the use of technology in the form of suicide bombers and solid fuel missiles, and high levels of poverty, famine, and disease. He mentioned the factors of population growth in poor and less developed lands, especially Africa, and the need for better land and clean water as potential causes of conflict.
When Mitchell opened the floor to questions, not all were related to conflict resolution. When asked about the value of higher education, he wholeheartedly agreed that America is the land of opportunity. He told the audience that his parents didn't have an education and couldn’t speak or write English. His mother worked in a mill. His father, who was raised in an orphanage, was a janitor. Mitchell is most thankful for the education he received—an education that led him to positions such as federal judge, senate majority leader, and later, U.S. ambassador.
Conflict Resolution alumna Vanessa DiCarlo attended the lecture. She noted that Senator Mitchell "spoke eloquently and directly on matters that are extremely complex and made them relatable."
Eben Weitzman, chair of the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security and Global Governance, praised Mitchell as "a great thinker and practitioner of conflict resolution," one who brought "thoughtful and innovative approaches to the most complex intractable conflicts."
Resource: Biography of Senator George J. Mitchell
After 15 years as a U.S. senator from Maine, including six years as senate majority leader, George J. Mitchell was appointed special advisor to President Clinton on Ireland, and, from 1996 to 2000, he served as the independent chairman of the Northern Ireland Peace Talks. Under his leadership, the Good Friday Agreement, an historic accord ending decades of conflict, was agreed to by the governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom and the political parties of Northern Ireland. For his service in Northern Ireland, Mitchell received many honors and awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor given by the U.S. government, and the United Nations (UNESCO) Peace Prize.
In January 2009, Senator Mitchell was appointed by President Obama as U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace, a position he held until May 2011. This appointment built on his work as chairman of an international fact-finding committee on violence in the Middle East in 2000 and 2001.
Senator Mitchell is the author of four books, and in 2008, Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential persons in the world.