Professor Paul Isbell: “Schiller has a better chance of success and a transformation that will put it on the map”
January 16, 2023
All Knowledge Areas
*Interview by Sonia Alegre, Schiller Alumni
Paul Isbell is a writer, researcher, analyst, and strategic consultant. He taught economics and international affairs at Schiller Madrid from 1993 to 1999. He has developed a successful career both as a senior strategic think tank analyst and, as an economic analyst, editor and writer in the financial sector and media.
He was a Senior Fellow for International Economy, the Director of the Energy and Climate Change Program, and a Senior Research Associate at the Real Instituto Elcano in Madrid. He was also the CAF Energy Fellow and the Gulbenkian Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations (CTR), Johns Hopkins University SAIS, in Washington, D.C.
He is the author of Energy and the Atlantic: The Shifting Energy Landscapes of the Atlantic Basin (2012); co-author and editor of The Future of Energy in the Atlantic Basin (2015), and of Energy and Transportation in the Atlantic Basin (2017) (all available at Brookings Press).
Currently, he is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Transatlantic Leadership Network (TLN) and an affiliate professor in global political economy, energy, and climate change at IE University School for Global and Public Affairs (Madrid) and Mohammed VI Polytechnic University (Rabat).
In this interview, he tells us about the beginnings of Schiller in Madrid, its unique campus with a bar, how teaching has changed over the years and why he liked it all so much.
How did you arrive at Schiller?
I happened to be in Spain when I was around 30 years old. At the time, different kinds of universities, public and private, were building some degrees in English and there were not a lot of English-speaking people who could teach economics and other related disciplines. At one stage, an old friend and fellow ex-alumnus from Georgetown university was teaching at Schiller Madrid. It had been open for a handful of years, and he was moving on to another job so he essentially and easily, back in those informal days, arranged for me to take over his work at Schiller which, at that stage, was a handful class per year. I taught at Schiller for about 6 or 7 years, and I ended up teaching in those years at other universities, usually simultaneously. And then I resigned from Schiller and most of my other teaching posts to work full-time at Banco Santander, at the time engaged in a merger with Banco Central Hispano.
What courses did you teach?
I taught most of the economics and international relations courses offered at Schiller. It was micro and macroeconomics, international trade, international finance, monetary theory and banking, international relations, and diplomacy. I also taught strange courses that were very interesting but generally weren't offered, like economic geography or economics of developing countries.
What was particular about Schiller that attracted you to the university compared to other universities you were teaching at?
It was very informal at the time. The Madrid campus was kind of like a forgotten outpost within the SIU campuses but it was also the campus that was doing the best: student numbers were rising, they were generating more income for the Leibrecht family and they had the lowest overhead because at that time the campus was located in what was essentially an office flat, in a building that was a hot fudge of apartments and other kinds of strange entities. The entrance was on the back side of an inner courtyard, and we had to enter through the ground floor of an underground parking lot to access our floor. With time, I’ve come to appreciate it even more than when I was there because it was very interesting as we could pretty much do whatever we wanted to do.
The director was kind of laissez-faire and non-intrusive. The real life of the campus revolved around the Registrar or Dean of Studies, the legendary Larry Heglar, and, at the time, the students and the faculty socialized together. That was part of the life and ethic that we had so the faculty did a lot of things with the students off campus. There was a real sense of community. We also had a campus bar, and that atmosphere was very charming and very unique.
It was a German-created university, but it had an American personality and character that strived to meet American university standards. It was the only one among the American programs that had this unique campus, and probably the one that had the most campus life and spirit. Most of what I actively know about economics today, I learned at Schiller. For several years, I combined teaching at several different universities, leaving at 8 a.m. from home and returning at 11 p.m. Those were the years in which I got to know Madrid, either walking between classes or commuting to my other teaching assignments.
What did you always try to convey in your classes?
I wanted them to understand the basic anatomy of the economy, but I always injected a historical angle and a historical background, so that ideas and theories could be placed on a timeline that could then be related to economic history, the time of changes in economic policy, and so on. I tried to unite theory and ideas with history and policy and the mechanics of economics or policy. I was essentially populated by a mental map of how the world worked in terms of economics and power politics during those years. I got a bit more of an education working as an economist and an analyst at the bank, but then I went to work as a strategic analyst for the highest foreign policy strategic think tank in Spain, the Real Instituto El Cano de Estudios Internacionales y Estrategicos (The Elcano Royal Institute for Institute for International and Strategies Studies).
I stopped teaching in 2002 because working at the Elcano Institute was too demanding and too interesting to have my attention divided, but I always remained connected to it.
You have returned to teaching recently…
Yes, and it’s completely different teaching at universities now, even in the international universities in Spain or any university, like in Morocco, where I'm teaching now. It makes me look back at Schiller and realize we had the Garden of Eden, with real academic freedom. There was a line of freedom and a lot of natural learning going on both in the classroom and outside the classroom.
It's one of the things I always tried to do, back in the nineties, and even now, only the ethics have changed. I've always believed that, whether at a university or a conference, usually what's worthwhile, where you learn the most, is in the hallways, outside or on the street, so I would organize informal volunteer sessions off campus, usually upstairs in the Café Comercial, where there was plenty of space. The sessions were designed to get students to understand and ask more questions and talk more than they would in class. We would spend a couple of hours after class, and I found that it was good for bonding and opening the heads of both the teacher and the students. There is not so much freedom in teaching anymore. Everything is much more controlled and rigid, it's a general trend. In some ways it's horrible, in others it's an encouragement to be on your toes.
How important is connecting with the students for their development?
I believe that the more connected students and professors are, the more time they spend outside the classroom in informal conversations, the more enriching their learning experience will be. Students need to go through college with an open mind, opening their horizons as much as possible while sticking to one discipline, to make sure they acquire the basics and get a degree. But it's more than just a degree. The trend has become for education to be a credential, the university itself has been subjected to the contradiction and constraints of the economic system and techno-capitalism, and education is becoming a commodity. So that's the challenge, students need to keep their minds inspired and look further into the notions of the disciplines they are studying. Schiller's new incarnation has a better chance of success and a transformation that will put it on the map and make it an interesting university and a well-known institution that stands on its own. Schiller has a long list of interesting alumni who have gone through it and many people who went to Schiller squeezed every penny of value out of their degree.
Are there any anecdotes or special people you remember you would like to share with us?
My memories of the place in the 1990s are almost like the set of a comedy series like Mash, with very charismatic personalities. I remember Lynn Bergunde, the director with the laissez-faire attitude, which was a very good trait. There was, of course, the already mentioned Larry Heglar, a scholar, an academic and a published author as well. There was a whole assorted cast of characters, like Terry Reynolds, who had been a veteran in Vietnam and as such, always had a lot of war stories. There was John McGee, the classic high school geek, who taught business and accounting, and told great jokes constantly. Many of us would meet for lunch at Manolo's around the corner. And George Collinson, another legend among students, was an older veteran whom the students liked because he was a bit racy, a bon vivant, and had this ethic of getting together with the students. I could go on and on.
Among the students, there was Akram Sherif, from Libya, and Usman Tugger, from Nigeria. I remember Akram very well; he was running the cafeteria. We had a very international crowd, many Serbians and Syrians too at the time, mixing and learning from each other.
Who were your best Schiller students?
The best students I had were always remembered: Anthony Healy, a British Irish guy, very smart, decided to do a second degree in economics. At a certain stage, we worked together on a writing project.
But probably the best student I ever had at Schiller was Boris Sergeev, a Russian who was brilliant and serious. He would follow me into my office after every class and we had to sit there and go through every detail because he was hungry for more. He graduated from Madrid and went into investment banking; I think he went to Solomon Brothers in London and trained in the New York office. He’s had a brilliant career as a specialist in structured derivatives. In the summer of 2001, he was sent to the Solomon Brothers office in the World Trade Center. He was there on 9/11 and described to me the scene of confusion in that building that collapsed but he made sure to find his way out of it. He then went back to Russia and had a great job there, too.
We had a few eccentric Americans and a then few ambitious elites from the non-West. It was all very multicultural with interesting characters.
What areas and disciplines have a better future for current students at Schiller within the economy?
The two big new areas of the economy since the 1990s are Environmental Economics, with an eye on energy transformation, decarbonization, climate change action, environmental action, protection and the circular economy; and, another new area, with potential if someone manages to be a specialist in both, is digital transformation and the cyber economy. Because the problem with digital transformation is that if it's not linked to the effort to decarbonize and achieve environmental sustainability, it will make the situation worse by increasing the excess demand for electricity, and it may even outpace the pace of decarbonization; so all the smart functions that would allow us to use more energy more efficiently and harness more renewables in our electricity mixes would depend on harnessing the smart capabilities of digital transformation and energy transformation. So, these are two hot new areas for entrepreneurs.
There are all kinds of opportunities to be entrepreneurs in activities that lower emissions or help us achieve sustainable development goals. Schiller has a master's in sustainability, and they are also moving into artificial intelligence and digital transformation, economics, and sustainability in general.
What impact do you want to make on your students?
In the past, if they remembered me and expressed appreciation and became a friend and even a colleague, later, I was happy. Now, I want my students to either work with me as partners in projects beyond the university or even hire me at some stage, to work on what they are doing. That’s where I want the students, to move beyond the many frontiers I have explored.
Would you like to teach at Schiller again?
Of course, I would love to teach at Schiller again. It seems to be tied to my destiny somehow. I think Schiller has a very interesting opportunity in the future.