Dr. Sophal Ear

Dr. Sophal Ear

Dr. Sophal Ear (ΦΒΚ, Occidental College) is the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs and Global Development and Associate Professor in the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University. He is Chair of the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Advisory Board of the Los Angeles District Attorney. He wrote and narrated the award-winning documentary film "The End/Beginning: Cambodia" (2011) and has appeared in other documentaries.



You moved to the US from France as a Cambodian refugee at the age of 10. Can you talk about how that experience shaped your educational choices and aspirations after graduation?

I came to the US from France not speaking more than three words of English at age 10. I remember taking an English class in my French Lycee and barely getting started when we moved. It was hard adapting, being on the treadmill that is junior high school and high school. But people helped along the way. First, it was the UC Berkeley tutor at Willard Junior High School who accosted me in the Berkeley High School cafeteria on the day I picked classes. She told me to stop taking English as a Second Language (ESL) classes so I could do the University of California’s required A-G requirements. I had no idea. I just did what she said. The only time my mom ever came to BHS was the day she signed me out of ESL. Then, at BHS, it was a Vietnamese-American counselor, a former refugee himself, who told me one day to go to the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at UC Berkeley and meet with some folks there. There, one of the attendees was gentleman named Bob. Bob wrote his phone number on the cover of a University of California application. I didn’t think anything of it. He said to get in touch if I needed help on admissions. When Berkeley denied me admission, I was crestfallen. I had gotten into virtually every other UC from UCLA to UC San Diego. I dug out Bob’s number and called. Though many things could have gone wrong, from me not leaving him a message to the message getting lost, somehow fate had it that we would connect and I’d end-up in his basement office at Sproul Hall where he told me who to write to (a woman by the name of Pam Burnett in admissions) and worked with me on the language of my appeal letter. Miraculously, it worked. Years later, I would read that Bob, whose full name was Bob Laird, had been named Director of Admissions at Berkeley.
My educational choices and aspirations were driven in large part by an immigrant ethos: become a (medical) doctor, which I failed miserably the moment I met organic chemistry. Some people just get it immediately. I wasn’t one of them. It was in a chemistry lab that I realized that I should study what made me happy: political science. However, I couldn’t just do political science. I needed to know how to count too, and for me that meant the dismal science: economics. Double-majoring was the way. It was as a junior at Berkeley that I saw a flyer on a wall describing a Summer program at Princeton, Berkeley, and elsewhere to study in a Junior Summer Institute on public policy and international affairs. It was sponsored by the Ford Foundation. I was smitten. Not with the subject matter, but the idea of being close to New York, which Princeton seemed to be. Dreams of skyscrapers danced around my head. But never having lived on campus (being too poor to afford it and a homebody), I told myself I’d apply to the JSIs of Berkeley and Princeton and that, in reality, I would go to Berkeley’s, where I knew I’d be comfortable. Fate would have it that I was rejected by Berkeley’s JSI and got into Princeton. I was not going to go; it seemed too daunting. A dean by the name of Wardell Robinson-Moore reached out to me and assured me I’d be alright. Her words made the difference and off I flew to Newark`.
That summer was one for the ages; it was more intense as an educational experience than I had ever imagined. I remember over breakfast one day, one of the tutors there asked me what I wanted to do in five years’ time. I thought and blurted out: Governor at the World Bank. I had no idea that a Governor meant that I’d need to be Finance Minister of a country! But within three years, I was a consultant at the World Bank. That shaped my choice to do more work in international development, work that continues to this day as an academic and as a board member of the Partners for Development, one of many organizations on whose boards I serve.  It was during three years at the World Bank that I realized having a PhD was what everyone at the Bank had, as professional staff, and so I decided to return to Berkeley to study, first agricultural and resource economics (a disaster for me because I had deluded myself that I really wanted to be economist when in truth I wanted to be a political scientist). It took a very painful year in ARE to shift to Political Science and never look back. During my PhD I was hired by the United Nations Development Programme and ended-up working in Cambodia and East Timor only to once again realize that upon finishing my PhD, my window to be an academic would be very small. I decided to take a leap of faith, and the only place that took a chance on me was the Maxwell School of Syracuse University which gave me a Post-Doctoral Fellowship in International Development. I was to take on the course of Jeremy Shiffman who had gone on sabbatical, and before taking over his course we met. I asked how he’d gotten his job and he said he went to the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting. They had job interviews there. I had no idea. I signed-up for APSA Annual Meeting in Philly and started getting invites to meet. I had no idea this was what Jeremy had talked about. I got my first Tenure-Track job that way, at the US Naval Postgraduate School. Then Occidental College came along for tenure and now I am at ASU Thunderbird. What a journey it has been and continues to be!

As a leading national advocate for the value of arts and sciences education, Phi Beta Kappa’s Key into Public Service program highlights the wide range of opportunities for liberal arts graduates to pursue rewarding careers in public service. Given your public service background and expertise in political economy, diplomacy, world affairs, and international development, do you have any advice for recent graduates who would like to launch a service career?  Are there any skills or attributes that you would encourage our members to cultivate?

Public service is about vision and mission; it’s why you want to wake-up each morning to change the world. The arts and sciences provide the foundations for the kinds of skills or attributes that are needed for public service. I frequently tell my students that a Malaysian billionare says “PhD, MBA, I don’t look at that. I look at attitude.” The right attitude can make the job; the wrong attitude will sink any prospects regardless of how many letters you have after your name. Critical thinking, writing effectively and purposefully, understanding numbers, statistics, etc., of course are all incredibly useful for a life of public service—but also for life in general and all kinds of jobs, generally.
My advice for recent graduates who would like to launch a service career is to network with alumni who engage in public service; to approach not with the “please give me a job” mindset, but one of informational interview. While that alum may not have you in mind for a job, maybe someone they know does.

What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?

My most transformative course from my undergraduate education was Political Science 3 by Professor  A. James Gregor. The course itself was Prof. Gregor riffing on various issues of the day, under the guise of a research methods course. This curmudgeonly exterior hid a golden heart. In my four undergraduate years at Berkeley, Prof. Gregor was incredibly kind. He showed it many ways by spending countless hours in his office with me and a motley crew of other students, frequently not whom one would expect—they were not necessarily white, they were not of privilege, but poor and people of color--who wanted to engage him in conversation.

You have a new book about the intersections among disease, politics, science, and culture in the global battle against pandemics. Can you talk about the value of interdisciplinary projects and how you encourage well-rounded thinking in your students?

In my book, which just came out in December, Viral Sovereignty and the Political Economy of Pandemics: What Explains How Countries Handle Outbreaks?, I argue that over the past few decades a number of emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) have disrupted societies throughout the world, including HIV, Ebola, H5N1 (or ‘‘avian flu’’), H1N1 (or “swine flu”), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and of course the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)  which spread worldwide to become a global pandemic. As well as EIDs, countries and regions also contend with endemic diseases, such as malaria. There are many factors that have contributed to the rise in, and spread of, EIDs and other diseases, including overpopulation, rapid urbanization, environmental degradation, and antibiotic resistance. Political and cultural responses to disease can greatly affect their spread. The global community needs to defend itself against disease threats: one weak link is enough to start a chain reaction that results in a global pandemic such as COVID-19. Some states take a nationalistic approach towards combating disease; however, international cooperation and meaningful ‘‘viral sovereignty’’—empowering countries to create effective health institutions and surveillance systems in order to contain disease—must be considered.

The value of interdisciplinary projects is in how they break silos. I never imagined I would engage in issues of global health but studying political science and economics made that adventure possible. I think of how a professor of mine once said “political science asks the right questions, but economics has the right methods.” I’m an example of that interdisciplinary approach, having studied economics and political science as an undergraduate, then public affairs with a concentration in economics and public policy, then agricultural and resource economics, only to return to political science for my PhD. I encourage well-rounded thinking in my students by asking them to go deeper; to present their arguments in front of their classmates and myself. This sharpens their logic and encourages self-reflection. What approach will they take? What questions will they ask? Some students have used Kahoots and Jeopardy to engage their classmates. Others have used simulation games of their own designs. This is how learning takes place, not just for the creators of such games, but also for their players, who are fellow students.

What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you? 

I have received so much great advice over the years, it’s hard to share just one example, so I will share two: First: “Don’t ask questions to which you don’t want to know the answer.” It’s a riff on the classic “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.” This was advice given to me by a Dean of mine back at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School when I was an Assistant Professor. Second: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” This is the classic Washington, DC, advice for decision-makers and the origin of how I received it is lost now to the ages. I will say that I use that line all the time, whether it’s to my students to encourage them to engage and be at that table, or in my role chairing the Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Advisory Board of the Los Angeles District Attorney, George Gascón. I have used it to encourage my fellow Board members to join the meetings because how else will our voices as AAPIs be heard if we’re not there? And, as we all know, showing-up is eighty percent of life (or success).

Phi Beta Kappa’s motto is “the love of learning is the guide of life,” and we are dedicated to life-long learning. What do you want to learn next?

I want to learn to be an even more effective director on boards I serve. A while back, I became Director Certified by the National Association of Corporate Directors. I continue on this journey serving on boards like Partners for Development, Refugees International, the Center for Khmer Studies, and the International Public Management Network. I’m starting a certificate course called the Diligent Climate Leadership Certificate Program, which helps corporate leaders to meet the challenges and opportunities of climate change. I want to drill down into the E in ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance). So much of what we have done historically was based only on the bottom line, which invariably meant profitability. We need to look at profits, certainly, but also people and the planet: the double bottom line and the triple bottom line.
As a scholar of modern Cambodian political economy, I’m always learning. I learn from the reporters who contact me on a near-daily basis. When they ask me questions, I’m learning from them what’s on their radar; what matters to them. Of course, just like reviewing journal article manuscripts, it’s a bit like seeing the future or reading tomorrow’s news today. I learn so much from this process.

What book(s) are you reading right now? Are you listening to any podcasts or watching any shows? Anything you'd recommend? 

I am reading Salvador Santino F. Regilme Jr.’s Aid Imperium: United States Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Post-Cold War Southeast Asia (University of Michigan Press, 2021) which is a fascinating study that explains the effect of US foreign policy on state repression and physical integrity rights in the region.
I listen to classics from National Public Radio, but now on-demand via podcast, like This American Life and The Moth, but also RISK! which is “a live show and weekly podcast where people tell true stories they never thought they’d dare to share in public.” These stories are at once heartbreaking but also incredibly empowering and hopeful.
As for shows, I watch what the kids watch, from Magic for Humans on Netflix to the Book of Bobba Fett on Disney+ to a never-ending parade of free foreign films on Amazon Prime like the Korean dramedy: A Taxi Driver, about the Gwangju Massacre and two men’s intersecting lives, one Korean and the other a foreign journalist, to The Attorney, based on the Burim case and loosely based Roh Moo-hyun who would become President of South Korea. Both are incredible movies that all four of my kids (starting at age 6) watched and loved (they used to complain when I put subtitles on; now they even ask for them and I know it has done wonders for their reading comprehension and decoding).