Prof. dr. Andraž Teršek (author), and Prof. dr. Arne Baruca (interviewee)
Prof. dr. Arne Baruca is from Koper, and on what he calls a “working trip” to Texas. He is currently employed as a marketing specialist Associate Professor at the University of Texas A&M San Antonio. This is a new, ten-year-old university and is part of the Texas A&M system, one of the largest educational institutions in the United States. It is the only university in the system operating in a major city, all other universities in the system, including the central ones, are located in smaller cities throughout Texas. He received his doctorate in South Texas, from the University of Texas Pan American. He had his first academic appointment at Sacred Heart University, a small private university in Connecticut. Unfortunately, he and his family did not like living in Connecticut, although it is close to New York. Fortunately, he was offered the opportunity to study in Connecticut, San Antonio, and they were able to return with their family to their beloved Texas.
Dr. Baruca, why do you acquire knowledge and skills through study, research, and work and pass them on to students and professionals in the USA and not in Slovenia?
Since I have been studying in the MBA program at the Faculty of Economics in Maribor (Slovenia), I have somehow been interested in an academic career. The “lifestyle” of the professors, or rather the relative freedom of this profession compared to other professions, seemed fascinating to me. I fantasized about this world, but I never imagined great possibilities… I did not find it realistic to reach that goal. Especially because I did not really have the desire to do a doctorate in Slovenia. There was simply no money to study abroad. After several years of working in large companies on the coast (Banka Koper and company Cimos, Slovenia) I told myself that I was tired of such a lifestyle and that I should at least try to realize my academic fantasy. When I returned from a one-month vacation in Canada, from Vancouver, I was already thinking about how I could return as soon as possible. Somehow I always wanted to enjoy life abroad.
Maybe Slovenia felt sorry for you for some reason?
No, not at all. I have never been, how shall I put it, hostile towards Slovenia or anything like that. Just out of curiosity. At home or in Slovenian companies where I worked, I felt like I was in a cage, and the thought of such a one-dimensional life that lay ahead of me at that moment frightened me. And Vancouver was ideal for something like that. It worked for me, and I always cultivate an attitude like a multimillion coper. I began to wonder how and where I should go. During my research, I came across the information that if you are accepted into a doctoral program at business schools, they actually pay for it. And so I began to enroll in a doctoral program in Canada. Well, I was not accepted to those, but I just happened to receive an invitation to enroll in a college in Texas. At first, the message seemed like a spam mail, and I answered very nonchalantly with the question if they happened to have Europeans in the program. But another coincidence was that an Italian from Rome (Italy) was already there. We connected and three months later I was in Texas. I completed my studies there and in the meantime, I went to the so-called labor market, because the whole process of finding a job actually starts more than a year before a new job starts. All my colleagues did, and I myself started it naturally. And I still have not thought about moving back to Slovenia. Every year there are on average over 300 vacancies for a marketing professor in the USA (the USA has over 4,000 universities), but the competition is still fierce. After submitting applications, telephone interviews, and visits, I ended up in Connecticut. Everything happened and happened without a concrete plan…
So have you completely abandoned the desire to return to work in your home country?
It was not quite like that. In the beginning, I honestly did not cultivate this desire, and the thought of returning was always present. After five years of my doctoral studies there, it seemed natural for me to enter the US job market. At that time there were more opportunities than at home, so Slovenia was not the country I wanted to work in. In the meantime, I was already homesick because everyone, both my extended family and friends, were still in Slovenia. After a short consultation and a comparison of the conditions, however, I decided that it made no sense to go back there again. The working conditions in Slovenia are still different, the differences are too big. The idea as such of working and living in the home country is and will always be floating in the air somehow… My wife and I have been in the USA for 13 years, and I am “afraid” that the older the children (5 and 8 years), the more difficult it will be.
What do you do in these situations when you can do your daily work and afford a break, leisure time?
A little less at the moment. The work never ends. In addition to university obligations, there are chores to do, but children, in short, non-stop is something. But now everything is so much more chaotic and disorderly because we are all at home all the time and all the work takes place in a kind of interval. You work until the screaming starts (laughs), then the intervention, then back to work and so it goes on all day. I go running or walking in the surrounding parks where we are allowed to move around. In the meantime, I jump in the pool with the kids (which is not possible in Connecticut at the moment). In the evening you can relax by watching Netflix.
What is everyday life in the United States, in public life, through the eyes of a resident and a professor?
It’s pretty messy right now. Some people are afraid and do not know what and how it will be, while others whistle everything that happens around the virus and do not follow instructions. The schools are closed, the children are all at home, and this is already a serious problem for people. Not to mention social security, which is virtually unknown in the US. Many of my students have already lost their jobs, so they do not know how to continue. Otherwise, most Americans have received $1,200 per person, but that may only cover the monthly rent for the apartment and some bills. And that is about it. In San Antonio, the seventh-largest city in the United States, a region with roughly the same population as Slovenia, there have been 1,195 cases of infection and 43 deaths officially linked to Covid-19. In Texas, a city of 30 million people, there are about 23,733 officially recorded cases of infection and 623 deaths. So the situation in our country is not as bad as in New York, for example. However, it is true that Texas ranks 48th in terms of the number of tests per capita, so these figures are probably much higher.
What is the situation at the university, how is the work progressing? Do you also use the Internet predominantly or all by yourself?
The university is closed and everything takes place exclusively via the Internet. Lectures, meetings, office hours… everything is virtual and quite boring. Also in the summer semester everything will be virtual, and for autumn we hope that everything will somehow return to normal. Personally, I doubt it. Fortunately, our salaries at the university have not been cut yet. But I know colleagues all over America where this is not the case. Especially smaller private universities have many problems, and many of them can close their doors forever. The situation is very serious.
Is it possible to see more police officers on the streets than before the pandemic? How do state officials treat people on the streets and in public places?
It is difficult for me to comment on this because I actually go out of the house very rarely. I go to the shop where the employees make purchases of basic goods ordered from the internet to the parking lot and load it onto the hood of the car and back home. That is all. And no cops are seen in the vicinity. But meanwhile, there are cases where wearing a mask is mandatory, many policemen stop people without a mask and write them down fines. In Philadelphia, for example, a man was forcibly removed from a public bus because he was without a face mask. In San Antonio here, police officers have received 4,000 anonymous calls about people without masks when we talk. To this day, in one week since such an order was issued, in 1986, warnings and 28 payment orders for $1,000 each have been issued, setting the amount of the fine for disregarding the order to wear masks. Pretty surreal for the US.
I assume that you are at least partly following the crown of events in Slovenia and elsewhere in Europe. What do you think are the differences between politics and the medical profession in dealing with the pandemic?
Um, it seems to me that in Europe, politicians and people are more obedient to the medical profession, even if the interests of politicians and the views of the medical profession are in conflict in some cases. However, here, in the US, politicians often have the last word. Dr. Faucci, who has been working in epidemiology since 1984 and has worked with seven presidents, sometimes works as a synchronous translator at White House daily conferences. Although both speak English, it sometimes seems that after President Trump says his, dr. Faucci says something completely different behind him. In fact, few people know exactly how the situation will develop. All of this is too new to have any definitive findings. The virus is spreading fast, and that is a fact so that for the most part everything is closing. And here, as I understand it, experts all over the world agree. But not the politicians. In Europe, they are more united. The exception, as you know, is Sweden, where there are no strict bans, but now there are differences compared with Norway, which has almost completely closed down. In Sweden, the number of people infected and the number of deaths officially attributed to the virus is increasing exponentially. Norway, on the other hand, has much control over the “curve”. In Sweden, there have officially been about 150 deaths due to COVID -19 a few days ago, in Norway one. Only time will tell which model of dealing with the virus is better. So far nobody has been able to send in the perfect solution, which is not surprising.
Are there differences in the USA in this respect?
Yes, in the USA there are more of these differences. There are some countries that have made the situation more difficult, and some are behaving as if they are not taking the matter too seriously. The difference is particularly obvious in terms of the political affiliation of the governor of each country. Georgia, for example, although it does not yet have the conditions to do so, is now opening according to the instructions of the CDC institution; the 14-day downward trend in the number of infected people is likely to lead to this. Oklahoma is a similar matter. While California, New York and Illinois, for example, are still fairly closed. Texas is somewhere in between. The Governor, who is a Republican, is slowly calling for reopening, while all four major cities (Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Austin), all of which are under Democratic mayors, want to keep closing for some time.
What about people, more precisely how do they react to a pandemic, what are the essential characteristics of a life adapted to the existing situation?
Unfortunately, this is also reflected differently in political affiliation. People who are more left-wing follow the rules and are more careful. People who are more right-wing oriented, however, invoke the typical American freedom fetish and demand that things return to normality as soon as possible. I cannot, on average, generalize about all this, but my view is also confirmed by opinion polls. It is clear that people want things to return to normal as quickly as possible, but, as you may have noticed, some even protest in front of state institutions and demand that everything be reopened as soon as possible. In the typical American “free” and individualistic spirit.
Do these crises therefore have a significant impact on political developments with regard to the upcoming presidential elections?
Absolutely. The Democrats fear that this could affect the number of voters who will vote. The latter lose the most if people do not go to the polls. In the last two presidential elections, the Republicans had fewer votes than the Democrats, but the Democrats won only once. However, if voter turnout is reduced, they have little chance of winning, so to speak. It will be interesting, but I think Trump will stay on for another four years.
What do the media pay more attention to: politics, statistics on the sick and the dead, or the success of the medical profession and positive information on how to cope with the corona problem?
The media circus is dedicated to all this. They start with the deaths, both at local and national level, and then move on to what the leaders say. Finally, they report on possible solutions. But I will return to the political orientation – until recently, Fox News reported repeatedly on how the problem of COVID -19 could be solved with the malaria drug Hydroxychloroquine, because President Trump promoted the latter, although dr. Faucci did not agree. When it finally turned out that Hydroxychloroquine did more harm than good, Fox calmed down too and is no longer reported as it was days ago. Unfortunately, here in the USA everything revolves around political orientation, which is quite sad.
Once the situation has calmed down, will the US be the same country, both domestically and geopolitically, as it was before the pandemic?
The US has been losing its geopolitical power in the world for some time and its response to the pandemic has not helped it. Although the general opinion is that things will soon be back to the way they were recently, I personally do not share this opinion. If the drug is not found quickly, the blow will be much greater for the US than for other countries in the world. If the economy here is not doing well, it will soon be known. And this is reflected all over the world. But less so than in the past when the United States was the dominant superpower. Just look at the current oil situation. It’s too much, people here do not use it any more than they did until recently (it’s really not being used anywhere else in the world). But here the economy is quite dependent on certain things, on others, as it is elsewhere in the world. And if this continues for a little longer, it will be much worse in the USA.
Would you prefer to be able to spend those days, weeks, months on the Slovenian coast where your home country was before you went abroad?
Ha, I have spent the last 13 years in the United States… But… I would always prefer the Slovenian coast, regardless of the current situation in the world. You probably know the slogan: “The coast is the law!” (Laughs)
(Published in REPORTER magazine, May 4, 2020, pp. 46-49)