Photo: Lee Pellegrini


Kathleen Bailey '76, Ph.D. '01

Life lessons from a longtime BC Political Science Professor. 

Professor of the Practice of Political Science Kathleen Bailey is an expert on the former Soviet bloc and the ethnic and regional politics of Uzbekistan, Central Asia, and the Persian Gulf. She began teaching at BC in 1984 and is the director of the University’s Islamic Civilization and Societies Program and the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program.

I’m from a small town in the Hudson Valley called Kingston. There were nine of us crammed into a small house with one bathroom. That was my first lesson in diplomacy: I wasn’t getting my sisters out of that bathroom by making unilateral demands. It was all about negotiated settlements.

My high school guidance counselors wanted me to go to finishing school, but that would have finished me. I wasn’t interested in lunch on china and wearing white. Instead, I went to the library and took out this 1,000-page Barron’s compendium that listed every single college in the country. I would have read the whole thing, but luckily, Boston College starts with “B.” I’d never seen anything as magical as this campus.

I joined the very first BC women’s swim team in 1972. When I heard the Jesuit idea that mind, body, and spirit go together, something clicked for me. It was wonderful to realize that caring for your body could fit in with spirituality. To this day, the girls I swam with are my best friends.

College is a chance to be surprised, to discover what you love. I majored in political science because I thought I wanted to be an attorney, but in my sophomore year, I took a course on Soviet politics that changed everything. Back then, Russia was, as Winston Churchill said, a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” There was no access to information. I’d never even left the Northeast, but almost immediately, I knew I had to travel to the Soviet Union to study that riddle.

My husband, Donald Carlisle, was also a Soviet specialist and a BC professor. We published articles together, traveled to Moscow and Uzbekistan, read obscure Soviet newspapers, and talked endlessly. When he died, in 1997, that was what I missed most—our ongoing conversation.

Sometimes, life lights a fire under you. I started my Ph.D. in 1978, and for years, I had the findings for my dissertation. But between teaching at BC and raising three boys, it was hard to find time to write. When Donald passed, my youngest child was only 2, and I realized, Now I’m it—it was up to me to support my kids, and my dissertation couldn’t wait any longer. It was all hands on deck, and I finished it in 2001. Now, I’m turning it into a book called Clan and Politics in Uzbekistan.

Since 1989, I’ve taken more than 300 students abroad. One of the invaluable things about going abroad is that, ideally, you become connected to people’s real lives. Beliefs and issues become tangible rather than theoretical. You start to see that the world is interconnected, and political solutions need to be interconnected as well. At times, especially after September 11, Americans have struggled to engage with what Islam really is—the daily, beautiful, peaceful practice of it. But once you spend time with Kuwaitis and Jordanians, once you’ve eaten their food and talked to their children and seen what wonderful people they are, all preconceptions fall away. You have to do that to understand any society, any faith.

Mentorship, to me, is about helping people see who they want to be and what they want to do in the world. You can’t tell someone to find the questions and passions that will shape their lives, but you can expose them to things. I see it happen all the time with the Gabelli Scholars—after students volunteer at a food bank or travel to Kuwait, they talk about their experiences in a profound way. They begin to ask how they can contribute to solving problems on a societal level. With any luck, they work it out for themselves. 

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