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USF's Center for Strategic & Diplomatic Studies Shines In Global Media Spotlight Tackling Top World Security Issues – Aided by a Special Duo

Dr. Mohsen Milani and Judge Raymond Gross

Center Executive Director Dr. Mohsen Milani with Advisory Board Founding Chair Judge Raymond Gross

By Dave Scheiber

They have followed distinctly different paths in life that now intersect on the world stage – with the University of South Florida at the center of it all.

One man made his way as a youngster from Tehran to the United States, eventually chairing USF's Department of Government and International Relations; the other, a native Floridian, became a successful criminal defense attorney in Pinellas County, then a respected judge on the state's Sixth Judicial Court – with a lifetime of service to his alma mater, USF.

But despite following their own roads, starting from distant points on the planet, Dr. Mohsen Milani and Judge Raymond Gross have also shared a common course that has helped the university shine in the global spotlight of international security.

Linked by their love of political science, as well as a personal friendship that developed by chance, they have collaborated to help cultivate Milani's creation – the Center for Strategic & Diplomatic Studies (CSDS), a national hub at USF for research and discourse regarding serious safety problems facing the world.

"The goal of the Center is to bring down the wall of mistrust among government, academic and business entities, and facilitate important dialogues about pressing international issues that impact all of us," says Milani, who began envisioning a national forum for the exchange of critical ideas many years ago.

Out of view, housed inside the Patel College for Global Sustainability, the Center seems like a well-kept secret on campus. Yet it pulses with perspectives and visits from a Who's Who of top names in the field: such as the New Yorker's two-time Pulitzer Prize winning writer Steve Coll, David Ignatius of the Washington Post, Roger Cohen of the New York Times, former Post writer and Middle East correspondent Thomas Lippman, former Deputy Director of the CIA Michael Morell, former Commander of CENTCOM General David Petraeus, Deputy Commander of CENTCOM Vice Admiral Mark Fox, and the past ambassador to the UN, Israel, Russia and Nigeria, Thomas Pickering.

In all, Milani has brought in more than 70 guests with heavyweight credentials over the past four years. And the phone in his office often rings with calls seeking his expert opinion from the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, or video interview requests from outlets ranging from CNN to the BBC to CCTV in China. 

Dr. Milani interviews Thomas Pickering

Dr. Milani interviews retired ambassador Thomas Pickering during a visit to USF.

The CSDS has hosted a number of international conferences. Often, the topics are tied to trends and events in the news – as evidenced by the Center's a five-member panel on terrorism and the growth of ISIS, featuring guests from visiting universities and think tanks, and a program on Russia's annexation of the Crimea. The next event of note takes place Oct. 5 in the first USF Center for Strategic & Diplomatic Studies fundraiser, featuring former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and South Korea Christopher Hill in a debate format with Milani on some of greatest security challenges the U.S. faces today.

The center came to life in 2012 with the backing of university leaders such as USF President Judy Genshaft, Provost Ralph Wilcox, College of Arts & Sciences Dean Eric Eisenberg and Senior Advisor Karen Holbrook. Then, two years later, Milani turned to Gross to help found and serve on the Center's advisory board.

The judge gladly accepted – contributing yet again to the university at which he earned his B.A. in 1969, and has since become a key USF supporter in many areas. His efforts also include the Judge Raymond O. Gross Scholarship established in his honor through the Alumni Association (for which he once served as president) and his work through the years on the USF Foundation Board.

"The things that are done here are amazing," says Gross, who retired from the bench in 2015 after being appointed by late Florida Governor Lawton Chiles in 1995. "Most people would think they would have to go to Washington, D.C. or New York City for this level of discussion and analysis."

But it happens right here at USF. And together, the Professor and the Judge want the world to know – after all, there's a world of trouble out there to tackle.

• • •

On any given day, you might see Milani seated in his Patel office, setting up his own personal TV studio of sorts – complete with lights, video camera and a carefully arranged spot to sit for Skype and online interviews that beam across the world. His opinions and input are regularly requested by overseas news organizations, resulting in more than 300 interviews alone in the past two years. His words have appeared in more than 100 national and international media outlets. And he has written extensively for Foreign Affairs, the country's leading and highly influential journal of foreign relations.

Dr. Milani conducts Skype interviews

Dr. Milani conducts numerous Skype interviews with national and international media outlets from his office.

Or you might catch one of his in-depth "Conversations Series on Global Security" – with luminaries such as past U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iran and former hostage John Limbert, who discussed the 33rd anniversary of the occupation of the American Embassy in Iran; or Wall Street Journal writer and former managing editor Karen Elliot House on the topic of "Saudi Arabia and its Future Challenges."

He is a whirlwind of energy, charisma and intellect who earned his political science doctorate at the University of Southern California, served in his USF department chair role from 1998-2012, and then stepped down to run the CSDS.

"Our goal is to educate, address subjects that are vital to U.S. national security in a global context – and bring together diverse viewpoints to make that happen," says Milani, whose book, The Making of Iran's Revolution, has been required reading at universities across North America, Europe and Asia.

At the heart of the non-stop activity is a strong bond between Gross and Milani; the former who earned his law degree from FSU, the latter who was born in Iran and educated from high school, college and graduate school in the United States. They are connected though a desire to raise USF's profile in the realm of government affairs at home and abroad – and a mission to educate and enlighten students so they can make a difference.

Judge Raymond Gross

Distinguished USF alum and judge Raymond Gross

Gross first met Milani in 2000 when he had an idea for adding a new law-oriented political science course. Then president of the Alumni Association, he first floated the thought to university leaders and they suggested he speak with the political science chair, Milani.

"Even though I'm an alumnus of the program, I didn't know him from Adam's house cat – and he didn't know me, either," Gross recalls. "But he didn't get to be chair of political science by pulling it out of a Cracker Jack box. We started communicating and fleshing out this idea. Then Dr. Milani asked, 'Who will teach it?' Lo and behold, the class was created and I was the professor. I'm really proud of what it accomplished – turning out many distinguished young alums and literally hundreds of lawyers with great careers."

Gross soon had another idea that he broached: a class in public policy and policy makers, with the idea of bringing experts with state government ties and USF affiliations to campus to speak. "So I went to Dr. Milani, and said, 'I have an idea to run past you – and he smiled, hid his heartburn and told me he liked it," Gross recollects. What's more, Milani offered to co-teach with Gross, leading to another successful addition to the curriculum and a Tallahassee internship program to boot.

"One of the crazy things universities do is allow you to interact with people totally different than you are, with totally different backgrounds, yet you find this common humanity there," Gross reflects. "Out of two people who didn't know each other if we passed on the street, a very warm personal relationship developed between us."

• • •

Eventually, it was Milani's turn to come to Gross with an idea that had long been percolating – the concept of a center devoted entirely to the academic study of global affairs and security. Gross was excited to help nurture the plans – and, when the time came in 2014, agreed to serve as a founding chair of the advisory board.

"We always just saw things eye to eye," Gross says. "Dr. Milani is the consummate academician, while I have a sense of pragmatism and understand how the university is structured. So I've been able to add a little insight and help push this rock up the hill, to give it some fertilizer and water and cultivate it. We had no idea where it would go, but it has really started to take root."

The hallmark of the program is the "Conversation" series – with Milani pressing his guests with tough, probing questions. "If you've ever watched the Actor's Studio with James Lipton, Dr. Milani is the closest thing to that," Gross says. "He's unflappable, and he's no sycophant in the questions he poses."

CSDS graduate assistants

Graduate assistants past and present discuss the program.

Milani's exuberant and demanding teaching style has been a source of motivation to many a student at USF. Rahi Dayerizadeh, a PhD candidate in government and an Honors College professor, has known him for more than a decade – as a graduate assistant, then a part-time advisor and now full-time advisor. "The program allows students to talk not just about theory but the reality of what is happening today, and get a perspective outside of textbooks," she says.

Eric Wolters met Milani while earning his master's in political science, and went on to work as his graduate assistant and as an advisor. Now he's a professor at Pasco-Hernando State College, and constantly encourages his students to attend Milani's conferences with guest speakers. "The Center truly makes the campus a magnet that draws people to USF from all over the area," he says. It also attracts numerous student-volunteers and interns to the program in exchange for academic credit.

And around the world, the Center has drawn attention to the university through the caliber of the guest speakers – coupled with Milani's many global TV interviews from his cozy USF office, heightening USF's profile as it goes. The publicity has untold value not only for the university's reputation but in the recruitment of top students.

"The conferences we put on bring international visibility," he says. "Reputation is very important in how major universities are ranked, and we're helping USF's name become known amongst very influential people – and countries around the world. That, to me, is priceless."

Just like the friendship between two men whose different paths converged by chance – ultimately helping USF shine an important light on a precarious world.