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Boardroom diplomacy and the birth of the IB

jeudi 20 août 2015   (2 Comments)
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Loet Velmans was an Ecolint parent from 1960 to 1969, being the father of La Grande Boissière alumnae Hester, Marianne and Jessica. In this extract from his forthcoming second memoir, From POW to CEO, he describes his tenure on the school's Governing Board and the early days of the International Baccalaureate.

 


 

 

Extract from the forthcoming* memoir "From POW to CEO"

by Loet Velmans (pictured right, circa 1969)

Loet VelmansWe felt fortunate to have stumbled upon the International School: our three daughters were thriving there, and we were impressed with the educational system and the international outlook ingrained in the students. However, every utopian ideal of global harmony can have its ups and downs, and Ecolint was no exception. In the nineteen-sixties, tensions had arisen between the English side and the French side. When the school was founded in the thirties, it had been evenly divided. But thirty years on, owing to the great influx of American and English transplants, the students on the English side far outnumbered the French.

The French and Swiss parents and teachers felt their existence threatened, while the Anglo-Saxon majority resented having to subsidise the much smaller French side. Two French board members resigned, and in the stormy debates that followed, the French parents complained that the school was becoming “Americanized”. A vocal group of American and British business executives and international bureaucrats griped about a budgetary imbalance; the French-speaking parents felt that the defence of their national culture was at stake. It was war. The school auditorium became a battlefield: parents who in their day jobs practised the niceties of diplomacy, turned into rabid partisans guarding their offspring’s interests at night.

During one such rowdy and acrimonious meeting to elect new board members, I was involuntarily swept into the fray. I had been asked if I would run, but had declined to have my name put on the ballot. Someone called out my name from the floor, however, and I was elected by a unanimous show of hands. I was the only candidate to receive all English and French speaking votes. It must have been the fact that I was Dutch, the perception being that I was a neutral and compromising fellow, unlikely to worsen the already threatened entente cordiale. After a second bloodbath evening that dashed any hope for a calm and realistic compromise, the board decided to invite Michael Blumenthal, then U.S. Representative to the U.N. Commission on International Commodity Trade, to act as arbiter. I was assigned to make the call; Ambassador Blumenthal accepted, and negotiated a solution that left most members of the board reasonably satisfied, although the most fanatical parental faction still evinced a bitter sense of frustration. (This was the same Michael Blumenthal who was later U.S. Treasury Secretary under President Carter.)

As a school board member I was drawn into a project that, looking back, is one that I am most proud to have been part of. The school had a top-class teaching staff, but some parents expressed frustration with the restrictive nature of the final exams. There were four different avenues to graduation: the Swiss Maturité, the French Baccalauréat, the British A Levels, and the American College Boards. That was fine if the student was interested in attending, for instance, a British, a French or an American university. But what if you were Norwegian, Argentinian, Nigerian or Chinese?

As an international career nomad, you might not be able to foresee where your next assignment would take you, or whether your children would have the right qualifications to pursue studies in their native country. Besides, preparing a student for one of the four national exams meant having to teach a restricted curriculum, rather than one reflecting a truly global outlook, and separating the students into national groups was counter to the principles of a truly international institution. For all of those reasons, the concept of the International Baccalaureate diploma took hold: a sensible idea that would some day allow its graduates to be eligible for admittance to any university anywhere in the world.

As a member of the school board, I was asked to join a four-member committee to review the plans presented by John Desmond Cole-Baker, Ecolint’s headmaster, and Alexander Peterson, an Oxford University professor and expert in international education. Cole-Baker and Peterson were passionate in their pursuit of the idea. They had enlisted several teachers to fashion a curriculum intended to encourage an understanding and appreciation of other cultures, languages and points of view. Our committee was enthusiastic about having our children serve as guinea-pigs in a programme that could lead to a breakthrough in international education. Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, and Cambridge were among the first universities that agreed to accept the exam as an entrance qualification. Our committee meetings were held in the home of one of the members, the daughter of Linus Pauling, the Nobel Prize winner and promoter of vitamin C. The room was lit by dozens of candles of various sizes, which lent a mellow mood to the proceedings, far removed from the brouhaha of the parent nights in the school’s auditorium.

One of the challenges facing the fledgling programme was the search for seed money. UNESCO had provided some early funding, but the teachers devising the tests and curriculum were basically doing it on their own time. In the sixties, fundraising from individuals was not yet an accepted practice in Europe. Fortunately, an angel was found in the person of another board member, Georges-Henri Martin, editor of the Tribune de Genève. Georges-Henri also sat on the board of The Twentieth Century Fund, which came up with $75,000 in start-up capital.

It was proposed that I should attempt to get some publicity for the new exam, but at this early stage the progress was insufficient to get the attention of the press. Later, when the programme was somewhat more fully developed, it received funding from a number of governments, including the Netherlands, Germany, U.K. and Iran, the Ford Foundation, and other trusts.

Over the years those modest, Geneva-based IB beginnings took off, turning into a worldwide success story. From a start that involved just a few students and a core of top admitting Western universities, the IB is now widely used by nearly one million students in thousands of high schools around the world. I am told it is regarded as a mark of distinction in the world of education.

This spring (June 2015) I sat at a delegate’s desk in the UN General Assembly in New York proudly watching my youngest grandson graduate from UNIS (UN International School). The Commencement speaker was Ban Ki Moon, who told the graduates that they had to honour their upbringing as “global citizens”. Like students the world over, including Ecolint, Luca and his classmates are products of the IB programme.

 

* Update (December 2015): From POW to CEO is now available to purchase.

 


  

 

Loet Velmans' first memoir, Long Way Back to the River Kwai, is an account of how he survived World War II in Japanese POW camps in Southeast Asia and in a slave-labour camp in Thailand.

It is available from Amazon and was reviewed in the Washington Post.

The next instalment, From POW to CEO, from which the above extract is taken, will be published this autumn.

We are grateful to Hester Velmans (LGB '69) for facilitating the publication of this article.

  


 

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Comments...

Community Administrator says...
Posted mardi 8 septembre 2015
@Mary - Glad you enjoyed the article. You should look out for Loet's book when it is published later this year.
Mary Roosevelt (Winskill) says...
Posted mardi 1 septembre 2015
Wonderful article. I so well remember those days. Thanks.

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