LEWISTON — A local professor’s plea to get real has landed him at the head of a worldwide effort. Its goal: sharing knowledge.
“I know it’s going to be the last great thing I do in my life,” said Ike Levine of Poland.
Though he works as an associate professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College, Levine has been crisscrossing the globe as a Fulbright New Century scholar and bio-fuel researcher — taking him to India, China, Germany, England and France.
And that’s only the start.
In April, Levine announced the creation of Professors Beyond Borders, launching the organization at a National Press Club event in Washington.
He is already planning a trip to Thailand to help rural villagers find better ways of growing food. And in two weeks, he is scheduled to be part of a U.S. State Department trip to Chile, representing Professors Beyond Borders as its first executive director.
The group’s mission is to help the Chilean people rebuild colleges and universities that crumbled when earthquakes shook the country this past February.
“We are mobilizing intellectual capital,” Levine said. “This is my new gig.”
His group’s lofty ambition — to help people through brainpower — is far beyond the modest goals that were floated when Levine and several Fulbright colleagues met in Berlin last year to share ideas for a group project.
The State Department, which funds the Fulbright program, wanted something from the group that reached above and beyond their individual work.
“They said, ‘We’re not going to tell you what the project is. You figure it out,’” Levine said. “They said, ‘We’re not going to tell you how to organize yourselves. You figure it out.’”
Levine fell in with “six hard science-y guys and gals.” A couple of people suggested writing books. Another wanted to hold a conference. Gathering academics to make speeches or writing something for other academics to read left Levine cold.
“Why don’t we do something real?” he asked. “Why don’t we offer our services up to communities in need?”
It began with the group’s water-related specialties. Levine teaches marine biology and is leading research into production of bio-fuels using algae.
A kind of momentum took over. People began volunteering to help. Levine and others began planning the Thailand trip.
“It’s amazing how many people volunteered,” Levine said. “In one week, we had almost 400 members.”
He even talked a local lawyer, Jack Conway of Auburn’s Linnell, Choate & Webber, into giving some of his time to the effort.
Then events gave the organization a push.
“We were muddling along, doing our own thing, when Haiti occurred,” Levine said. “That rung a lot of bells. When Haiti came along, the State Department got very excited that we could possibly use Professors Beyond Borders to help the rebuilding of the Haitian education system. I think 11 of the 14 universities are flattened. Fifty percent of the professors are either dead or gone.”
Levine dipped into his growing database of experts and found professors with the right knowledge and the ability to speak Creole French.
He hopes the organization will follow the model created by Engineers Without Borders, which began in 2001 and now has more than 12,000 members. The group has done 400 projects in 40 countries and has a staff of 20.
Levine and his colleagues hope to give people skills that will improve their lives.
Just imagine wanting to help a small farming community, Levine said.
“I could farm it once, and you’ll have some food,” he said. “But if you teach people how to farm, they’ll have an industry. You train the stakeholders to do a better job going forward. We’ll have the professors to help train people and to help give classes.
The professors can come from anywhere, Levine said.
“All professors have nine-month jobs,” he said. “Why don’t you give me three or four weeks a year? I’ll raise the money. You just go to the places that need the help.”
As the number of volunteers rises, Levine hopes his own travel will slow. After all, he wants to continue to teach in Lewiston. Though he and his students have become accustomed to e-mail exchanges, he hopes to spend more time in his little office.
“With all those trips, I only missed one lecture,” he said. He also hopes to incorporate some of his students into his Professors Beyond Borders effort.
“I think we can do some really cool things,” Levine said. “If I’m an effective leader, I never have to go. I just have to get the people who are better at being out in the field. And I have to make sure we have the money to support them.”