Global Conversations With: William Burke-White, Inaugural Director of Penn's Perry World House

Peak Johnson, for GPA -- When William Burke-White attended Harvard Law school, he worked very closely with Ann Murray Slaughter, who was then a professor at the university.

As Burke-White completed his PHD in political science, Slaughter became Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs at Princeton University. She gave Burke-White his first academic job as a lecturer.

Burke-White started teaching international law and foreign policy at the prestigious university and after three years of service, he was offered a position at the University of Pennsylvania’s Law school as a professor and deputy dean of international programs. The university announced that on July 1, Burke-White will begin a new role as the inaugural Richard Perry Professor and Director of the Perry World House.

Could you tell me about the Perry World House?

About a year and a half ago, Richard Perry and his wife Lisa, who are alumni of Penn, made a major gift to establish a center for all things international across the university. Over the last year the university has been searching for someone to come in as the inaugural director and I was asked to do so.

The world house will be a kind of connecting point, a hub for everything international that happens across the university that brings in the different schools and provides a place for students and faculty doing international work all over the world to really come together.

It will also be a kind of think tank within the university that brings Penn’s academic work to solve global challenges. Thinking from an interdisciplinary perspective, if you’re trying to address climate change for instance, you can bring together scientists, political scientists, economist and engineers in a single place to really apply academic knowledge to advancing a solution.

As the inaugural director, what will your role be?

Over the next several months I will be working to build the programming and determine where the Perry World House will focus. The world house will kind of be a gateway and leading place for conferences and events at Penn and in the greater Philadelphia community for an international nature. So we’ll be a partner with other schools and other institutions in the city to host conferences or to issue academic papers or to have various types of programming of interest for faculty and students.

You mentioned that you are an international lawyer. What does that mean?

It means that I study, write about and research law between governments or between individuals and governments. That could include anything from the international criminal court prosecuting a warlord in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or an American investor bringing a suit against Argentina.

You were once part of Hillary Clinton’s policy planning staff. Could you talk a little about that experience?

It is a dream job for any young person who wants to do foreign policy. I was asked by Secretary Clinton to serve on her policy planning staff. That is a group of 10 people within the State Department who work directly for the Secretary of State to provide her with advice on all the different foreign policy challenges that she has to deal with. I worked on things like reforms of the United Nations. I was in charge of writing the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.

It was really a wonderful experience to put all of my academic work in foreign policy and the international law area into practice for the government.

What do you think Philadelphia can do to improve its profile as an international city?

Many types of events and speakers programs happen in New York or Washington and we really have to do more to organize events and have programming right here in Philadelphia. I think we have to turn our location halfway between New York and D.C. into more of a positive.

I think we can be a real gateway in the academic area. We have wonderful universities, Penn, Drexel, Temple, Villanova and others. So really by being an academic global leader, that is something Philly can really stand out for. We also have an extraordinary history that we think about only as history, but the kinds of constitutional questions that were debated here in Philadelphia 200 years ago are the very type of constitutional questions still being debated around the world today. Capitalizing on our history and doing things that utilize the offerings at the Constitution Center, as well as those of the universities.

Finally, I think we need to look at the medical community. The challenges of global health and medicine are really extraordinary and again, we have institutions that put us at the lead. Capitalizing on those things that we do really well, capitalizing and turning our location into a real advantage, I think can help Philadelphia standout as a global leader and a global city. 

Photo courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania.