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When Theory Meets Practice
by Gregor Krause

What do a couple of roadwork specialists, an expert witness, a public relations coordinator, and a terrorism expert have in common? They're all professors at CSU, Chico.

Not many people relish the idea of sitting in the witness chair in a high-profile criminal case—but Ed Bronson does. “Testifying is a tricky skill,” says Bronson, Department of Political Science. “The whole point of cross-examination is to make you off-balance and uncertain and defensive—to make you look like a complete jerk.” He pauses, then says, “But I love it.”

He’d better. As a nationally renowned expert witness for more than 30 years, Bronson (above) has taken the hot seat in some of the highest-profile legal cases of our times. In the last few years, he’s testified in the trials of Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Polly Klaas murderer Richard Allen Davis, accused synagogue arsonists and murderers the Williams brothers, and the San Francisco dog mauling case, among others. Bronson’s principal area of expertise is change of venue in capital cases, so the stakes and the pressure are incredibly high. Even so, he loves the challenge: “I probably enjoy cross more than I do direct testifying.”

But Bronson’s responsibilities when he takes on a case go far beyond mere testimony. After all, he has to have case-specific material to testify about. For the survey that provides that material, Bronson must select a cross-section of the jury-eligible population in the trial venue and “attempt to assess awareness, prejudgment, knowledge, and feeling” about the case at hand. He also testifies in matters involving discriminatory charging of the death penalty, compositional challenges (where data indicate that either petit juries or grand juries don’t reflect a fair cross-section of the population), and severance of joined co-defendants (trying them separately), especially in capital cases.

“The sort of stuff I do takes a weird amalgam of background,” notes Bronson. “You have to have a social science background for credibility. And you have to be very comfortable with the law.” Bronson studied law as an undergraduate, subsequently graduated from law school, and then went on to earn an L.L.M. (master of laws).

Today, he regularly takes on pro bono cases, and he travels to the Third World to help minority and disadvantaged students get into American law schools. That’s in addition to both his teaching and his paid expert testimony. “This is all I do anymore,” he says. “I don’t watch TV; I don’t go to movies.” His expert witness work is so consuming that Bronson had cut his teaching load to half time even before he took retirement in 2000 from CSU, Chico.

Although retired from the university, Bronson still teaches civil liberties classes. His students benefit directly from Bronson’s work outside the classroom. The outside work, he says, “keeps me very involved with the law—on the cutting edge of these issues. Even in law school, they’d be considered cutting edge, so for undergraduates it can be pretty challenging.” Students also sometimes work on the surveys or on research projects related to the cases he consults on. “One great thing about Chico State,” he says, “is that undergraduate students get to be involved with this level of work.” Work done by Bronson’s undergraduate students has even been cited by the California and U.S. Supreme Courts.

Proceed with caution

Without the work of CSU, Chico Engineering Professors Tom Ferrara and A. Reed Gibby, people might still believe that crosswalks make intersections safer for pedestrians.

In the early 1990s, through the California Public Works Studies program they initiated in 1988, Ferrara, Gibby, and a number of their students executed an extensive survey evaluating the accident experience in marked vs. unmarked crosswalks at non-signalized intersections and found that the unmarked crosswalks were safer. It sounds counterintuitive to a layperson.

“Well, it makes sense when you think about it,” says Gibby. “Drivers can’t really see marked crosswalks from any distance, so there’s very little difference between the marked and unmarked ones for a driver. But a pedestrian in a marked crosswalk believes that it’s safer. So pedestrians are lulled into a false sense of security in the marked ones.” As a result of the Gibby and Ferrara 1994 study, Caltrans and municipal and city governments around the state quickly began removing some crosswalk markings.

Ferrara, Gibby, and their students have conducted a number of investigative surveys with direct impact on the lives of Californians who use the state’s roadways in just about any conveyance. With titles like “Collision Experience with Speed Limit Changes on Selected California Highways” and “Statewide Study of Bicycles and Pedestrians on Freeways, Expressways, Toll Bridges, and Tunnels,” no one’s going to mistake the final reports for Stephen King novels, but few people are going to remain unaffected by the results, either. This work provides vital analytical bases for everything from significant Caltrans budget, project, and policy decisions to legislative proposals. And it is largely conducted by CSU, Chico students—very often by our undergraduate civil engineering students.

“In transportation engineering research, no place else gives undergraduates this amount or quality of experience,” says Ferrara.

“Chico State students get top-level experience” on these projects, seconds Gibby. Student involvement is high at every level, from doing actual pedestrian counts at intersections to technical analysis and writing the ongoing working papers and the final reports.

Even for the students not directly participating, the civil engineering professors’ critical involvement in these significant projects is of immediate benefit. The findings and results of the surveys are often incorporated into what Gibby calls his “evolving textbook on transportation engineering,” and the projects provide a variety of material for both Ferrara and Gibby as well as their students. Through the projects, says Gibby, “You stay right on top of the subject areas—you’re dealing with problems Caltrans is having right now, not conceptual things that won’t prove out for some time.” Ferrara, too, uses examples from their real-world projects in his project management courses.

Ferrara and Gibby alternate in the role of project director. Each in his turn selects and hires students to do portions of the work, then supervises and ensures that the components are completed. Most of the projects run 12 months, but some have run as long as two years. The projects sometimes buy out portions of both professors’ teaching loads, paying for release time, but neither man cites money as a reward for the extra work. Says Ferrara, “I like the things that our former students/employees go on to do as a result of both the real-world experience and the instruction they get here. When they leave, they get good jobs.”

Lessons in diversity

Journalism Professor Katie Milo’s specialty is public relations. She knows that perception can be everything. “When a poster went out for a field test, some Asian groups found the use of three family members in the photograph culturally insensitive because the number three represents bad luck,” says Milo. The poster was redone, of course, but more important to her as a professor, says Milo, was the lesson learned. “The commitment of our journalism program to preparing students to work in diverse cultures is directly affected by the challenges I encounter on these projects.”

“These projects” are the Child Support Project (founded in 1992) and the CalWORKS Family Planning Project (since 1996), statewide media campaigns aimed at fostering personal growth and effective parenting skills. “It’s a real multimedia environment; we do everything from a poster or a brochure for a new county service to door hangers to public-service announcements to newsletters to refrigerator magnets to a four-month campaign for radio and TV,” says Milo.

Administered, shaped, and nurtured by Milo since their inception nine years ago, the two projects are examples of how everyone benefits from good partnerships. The communication skills and experience it takes to create the campaigns dovetail with the content of undergraduate education in journalism and communication arts.

Each of the two off-campus projects requires a full-time project manager and a staff person, who are CSU, Chico graduates of communication arts and journalism. Milo directs. “I do strategic planning, guiding,” she explains. “I introduce the staff to the challenges before us to solve communication problems.” Milo is also chair and intern coordinator of the Department of Journalism. “I have a hectic yet fairly flexible schedule, and if I don’t have the time, I make the time,” she says.

Project managers Claudine Payne (B.A., Journalism, ’91; M.A., Communication, ’01) and Debra Johnson (B.A., International Relations, ’90; M.A., Public Communication, ’92) speak highly of Milo as a “great mentor” and the driving force behind the projects. “Throughout the years, she’s contributed her public relations knowledge and expertise,” says Payne, Child Support Project manager. “What I really like is that she’s always willing to give feedback, and she’s always encouraged our creativity.”

Johnson, CalWORKS Family Planning Project manager, agrees: “Katie gives the staff the freedom to be creative, hyper, and outlandish at times. She encourages everyone to think beyond the traditional government form of communication.”

Milo emphasizes the value of staying involved in these projects. “I believe that professors really need to stay connected to their disciplines,” she says. “I haven’t lost my creative chops, so to speak, and this is a very creative process. It’s a real multimedia environment, and our challenge is, ‘How do you make the messages evergreen and attractive to a wide audience?’ We have to communicate education and awareness so that groups and populations receive the information they need.”

But the rewards go even deeper than that. The three-person photo faux pas is only one example of how Milo is able to use her experience on the public projects in her classroom teaching. “On a weekly basis,” she says, “I’m able to bring in examples of problems we’re working to solve on behalf of our clients. It’s a creative stimulus.”

When theory meets reality

For Professor Jim Jacob, it was a work morning like many others over the course of the past two decades. He was delivering a PowerPoint presentation on terrorism. He wasn’t in California, though, teaching his political science and international relations classes at CSU, Chico; he was in Florida, lecturing as an expert before an audience of military and civilian personnel from throughout the federal government at the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School, the largest course on terrorism offered by the Department of Defense. On this day, he was serving not in his capacity as a university professor but rather as a 20-year veteran consultant to the Defense Department.

About halfway through his presentation, Jacob called a break, as he routinely does in long presentations. But things were about to become decidedly nonroutine. The morning was Sept. 11, 2001.

All of a sudden, pagers and beepers began going off all around the auditorium, cell phones began ringing, and people were quick-marching out of the room to get better reception outside. The course director came into the auditorium and said, “Sometimes, the things we talk about happen even as we speak.” With that, he switched the monitors to CNN—just in time for everyone in the room to see United Airlines Flight 175 smash into the second tower of the World Trade Center. As the news footage shifted to scenes of the destruction at the Pentagon, the matter became even more personal to Jacob’s listeners. Those on ready alert announced that they’d been recalled; they left to fly home.

Jacob developed a fascination with cross-cultural communication issues and their relationship to terrorism when he was studying in France during his junior year at UC Berkeley. While teaching at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio (from 1978 to 1995), Jacob was asked to speak on cross-cultural issues at the U.S. Air Force’s Wright Patterson base nearby. That eventually led to his current schedule of one or more lectures a month—before audiences of individuals whose very survival may depend on the information Jacob is there to present.

Jacob, dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at CSU, Chico from 1995 to 1999, makes time for his Department of Defense consulting by scheduling his class load to leave Mondays open. He flies out on the weekend, delivers his terrorism lectures Monday morning, then flies back in time to be at class in Chico Tuesday to teach his courses on international relations. Such a schedule can be grueling, but it offers singular rewards. “I don’t know anyone who does this, who does it for the money,” says Jacob. “The greatest reward is the opportunity to give something back to the country that guarantees all of us the freedom of speech and the freedom to dissent.”

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he says, transformed his classes that semester. “A course in international relations quickly became a course in important current events,” he observes. “I began the course by saying that international relations was the study of change. But no one could have predicted how much change. And I’ve been greatly impressed with the students’ quality and intensity of interest in the subject area. Students who hated high school civics have seen not only the importance but also the fascination of international relations. We’re all bystanders in the drama of history.”

Jacob says that Americans are surprisingly unfamiliar with foreign cultures and customs. “The current conflict in Afghanistan reminds me of a great quote from Ambrose Bierce: ‘War is God’s way of teaching Americans about geography.’” Studying foreign cultures, says Jacob, helps students think not only about those cultures but also about “what makes us tick—what values we hold most deeply as Americans.”


About the author

Gregor Krause is a writer and editor who lives in Chico.


  Chico Statements is published by the Office of Public Affairs and Publications twice a year for alums, parents, faculty, staff, and friends of California State University, Chico.

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