I first knew Josh only by reputation; then as a colleague who became a friend and ultimately a model.
In talking about Josh and his time at UW, I have to start with Jill. IN all the many places they lived around the world, Jill and Josh made a wonderful life together and raised two great kids. Visiting them abroad you knew you were visiting a home, not a way-station. It was extraordinary.
Josh’s career at UW can’t be captured in just a few minutes, but one comment he made says a lot about it. Sometime in the early 1990s, I was trying to convince Josh to take the lead role in our WB Bolivian project – to be Chief of Party. And he said to me, “You know Ken, what I really like is being in the field, solving problems.” Even though he was ultimately prevailed upon to take the Bolivia post - and other leadership roles, Josh always kept his feet on the ground, - in the field, solving problems.
I first came to know Josh back in the 1980s, when the college was starting a farming systems research project in the West African country of The Gambia. That led us to contact Josh, who already had a big reputation for this kind of work. We invited him to apply, and sure enough he was the top choice of the search committee. What I want to especially note is that Josh came right into UW with tenure on the recommendation of the Agronomy Department and the Biological Science Divisional Committee. This was quite a feat for someone who had spent most of his early career in the field in Africa and Central America, not in a campus office. That was a testament to the rigor with which Josh approached his work throughout his career, regardless of location or context – and regardless of whether there was electricity or running water or telephones - or toilets.
A few years later, the Rockefeller Foundation awarded us a grant to start the Summer Institute for African Agricultural Research to train African doctoral students. I was feeling pretty good since I had written the proposal. But that was short lived. The Rockefeller VP, Joyce Moock, took me aside one day and said. “You know, Ken, you did not have the best proposal. You had the best people – and Posner is exhibit A.” And she was right. In the 12 years of the Summer Institute, as in The Gambia, Josh showed an extraordinary ability to mentor and motivate young scientists in a way that not only enhanced their careers but also led to wonderful friendships.
Josh’s warm, embracing personality could be seen in his hospitality and his humor. I was reminded of both by an old email. Josh was organizing a meeting for five of us to talk about China, and he wanted to offer refreshments. So he sent us all an email. I quote: “We have our options, a light red wine from Burgundy or if we want to stay local, a full bodied (I am talking about the wine) red from Languedoc. I will have both at room temperature and well aerated before the meeting.” What a thoughtful guy. Well, the only hitch was that this meeting was held via Skype. Four of us were in chilly Madison while Josh was in sunny Montpellier – with the wines! But he did make sure they were visible on the screen and he toasted us with them repeatedly!
That conference call was about the NSF China IGERT project that Josh directed, starting about 7 years ago. Working with Josh on that project I learned a lot about his resilience, his optimism, and his persistence. Our first proposal to NSF got high marks but wound up just below the list of funded projects. That is the first time I became aware of Josh’s favorite expletive— “Phooey’! What a gentle guy. An NSF staffer encouraged us to try again, which we did, but that time got terrible marks. When the same NSF staffer encouraged a third try, I said “forget it’— and added a few of my own expletives— a bit stronger than phooey! But Josh would not give up. His optimism and persistence prevailed. That third proposal was successful.
In directing the IGERT project, Josh showed a remarkable talent for gathering and leading people from very different backgrounds. The project had more than 25 faculty members from three different colleges in 12 different departments, literally spanning Anthropology to Zoology – in addition to scientists and administrators from four different research institutes in China. Josh molded this diverse collection of individuals into a congenial group, all working toward the same objective.
A measure of Josh’s effectiveness as a leader and of the high regarding which he was held by his colleagues can be seen in how the IGERT project was governed. You know that faculty governance is a big deal at Wisconsin. So one day a group of us were discussing how to set up a governance structure to ensure fair funding allocations to all faculty and students. the discussion kept getting more and more complicated. Finally, Ed Friedman, a seasoned, while head from political science spoke up. “Look” he said “we’ve all gotten to know Josh and I think I can speak for all of us in saying we can trust him to make fair decisions for the best of the project” And that was that. end of meeting. We never had another governance issue for the life of the project.
When I think about Josh now, I think about his enthusiasm, about his optimism, and his good cheer. I think about the warmth of his friendship and his empathy toward others. I think of Josh as a model for how to live one’s life.