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Esser to present Distinguished Faculty Lecture

esserJames Esser, university professor of psychology, will focus on “Negotiating with Terrorists” when he presents Lamar University’s 2012 Distinguished Faculty Lecture at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 13, in the University Theatre.

Esser is the 26th recipient of the honor – one of the highest to be accorded teacher-scholars at the university. A resident of Beaumont, he has been a member of the Lamar faculty since 1976, now serving as head of the industrial/organizational psychology master’s program.

Esser said he will discuss the issue of whether it is sometimes possible and desirable to negotiate a resolution of a conflict that involves terrorists.

“First, however, we must identify which types of terrorists are better or worse candidates for negotiations,” he said. “Being labeled a terrorist is often a political decision. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

“The point is that some people would argue very strongly that we don’t negotiate with terrorists, but the fact is we do that all the time. The interesting question to me is, given the fact we do it all the time, how does it work?”

The lecture is open to the public without charge.

Esser earned the bachelor of science in psychology (with honors) from the University of Iowa in 1971 and the doctor of philosophy in social psychology from Indiana University in 1975. His honors at Lamar include selection as University Professor in 2000 and Teaching Bonus Awards in 1994, 1996 and 1998. Esser is a previous Distinguished Faculty Lecturer, having been selected in 1995 for his presentation, “Groupthink from Pearl Harbor to the Challenger: Failure of Decision-making Groups.”

Esser has covered or touched on his lecture topic in a number of conference presentations and publications. He has taught 11 different master’s-level courses, which include all the graduate courses in statistics and research methodology and all the required courses in industrial-organizational psychology, a specialty involving the application of psychology methods in the workplace. He is the co-author of several books on statistics as they relate to behavioral science.

“I like what I do,” Esser said. “I’ve been the face of industrial/organizational psychology, which makes up half of our graduate program.” First, he said, “I like working with the students on a more individual basis at the graduate level. Second, I’m able to pursue what interests me in research, and that’s always a fun thing.”

An especially fulfilling part of Esser’s job is arranging  and supervising practicums.  Each semester, teams of graduate students under his supervision provide free industrial/organizational psychology services to local organizations, including cities, counties, hospitals, refineries, the local power company and other for-profit and nonprofit organizations. “Recently, it’s been mostly non-profit, and that seems to work very well for us because they’re eager for assistance in view of budget challenges. We do things that, I think, are very valuable to them.”

Another high point is following the achievement of his graduates – a mix of those who go into Ph.D. programs and teaching positions in universities and those to enter the workplace in a variety of settings. Many of them keep in touch, Esser said, “and we enjoy that because we get to see how they move up through the ranks.”

During his early years as a student, a career as a psychology professor was far from Esser’s list of aspirations. He was a champion tennis player, ranking No. 1 in both singles and doubles as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa. “Psychology was an accident,” he said. “Back in the day, all I really cared about was tennis.”

That changed when he enrolled in a special section of an introductory psychology class – one with labs – only to find out he had to be a psychology major or an honors program student to  take the course. “I changed my major to psychology, and I liked it enough that I stayed,” he said.

When he was a senior, a professor recommended he attend graduate school and specialize in social psychology. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in the field from Indiana University, with minors in math psychology and business.

“The business minor got me my job at Lamar,” Esser said. “I attended a psychology convention where Lamar recruiters were looking for somebody who would fit into the master’s program in industrial-organizational psychology.”

Although he no longer plays tennis, Esser remains “a definite sports fan,” sharing a love of soccer with his family, including his wife of 16 years, Christine Bridges-Esser, associate professor of Spanish, the 2006 Distinguished Faculty Lecturer and his partner-in-adventure on summer pilgrimages through Spain. “My two kids played through high school and in college intramurals, but my whole family is kind of soccer crazy.”

Esser coached for several years, and his stepson now coaches the Midland Soccers, a semi-pro team affiliated with FC Dallas. Christine was already a fan when the two met, having coached her son. Esser also follows NBA and college basketball, having, fortuitously, been at schools while Ralph Miller, Bobby Knight, Billy Tubbs and Pat Knight were or are coaching.

Esser’s travels to Spain began when he was in graduate school. For many years, he and Christine enjoyed the same destination, first to see the sights and, in recent years, for intensive, summer-long pilgrimages on El Camino (the subject of Christine’s Lamar lecture).

Those travels led Esser to research on terrorism and the opportunity to gather material up close and personal through interviews with members of the Basque terrorist group and its political arm.

“Terrorism got to the forefront of everybody’s mind in 2001, on 9/11,” he said.  Although his research is worldwide, said Esser . “I started with Spain because that’s where we were all the time.”

Elaborating on his topic, Esser said “Conflict with terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda, whose aims are highly ideological and rigid, should be very difficult to resolve; on the other hand, when the terrorist group’s goals are more pragmatic and flexible, like those of the Irish Republican Army, negotiation may be more feasible. We must determine when the time is ripe for a successful negotiation.”

Esser also will discuss how such a negotiation might proceed – including the tactics to be used and the utility of third-party intervention. The full text of Esser's lecture is available online at http://hpcc.cs.lamar.edu/senate/index.php/dfl.

Additional information about the lecture is available at (409) 880-8203.