An interview with 2013 APA President Donald Bersoff

Bersoff answers questions regarding international outreach and collaboration and discusses how he is using the APA presidency to address issues of global importance.

2013 APA President Donald Bersoff, PhD, JD2013 APA President Donald Bersoff, PhD, JD is a professor emeritus at Drexel University’s Earle Mack School of Law and an adjunct member of its Department of Psychology. He recently completed his tenure as director of Drexel's JD/PhD Program in Law & Psychology at Drexel University. His expertise is in ethical and legal issues in mental health, developmental disabilities and education. After receiving his PhD from New York University, Bersoff served as a clinical psychologist in the U.S. Air Force, including two years in Southeast Asia. Following his service, he taught psychology in Ohio and Georgia, maintained private practices in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and directed a college counseling center. He received a JD from Yale Law School and developed the nation’s second joint program in law and psychology, offered at John Hopkins University and the University of Maryland School of Law. Bersoff became the first general counsel of APA, a position he held for 10 years, and authored 50 briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court. He also served three terms on the APA Council of Representatives as president of the American Psychology-Law Society and chairman of the Association of American Law Schools Section on Mental Disability Law.

PI:  In your lead-in election statement, you listed “the globalization of psychology” as one of the fundamental realities that APA must face. How would you define globalization, and in what ways do you hope to address psychology’s globalization during your presidency?

Bersoff: I see globalization, in the context of psychology, as a process for the international exchange of ideas and cultural values. Globalization is not new. The Silk Road connected Asia to Europe; the telegraph connected Europe to the United States; and now the Internet connects all of us to each other.

I am seeking to tackle one small part of globalization. The United States is becoming a plurality nation. By 2040, non-Hispanic whites will be in the minority in this country but our profession is ill-prepared to serve clients from South and Central American, Middle Eastern, Asian, African and Caribbean cultures. Although we can do more, we have done a commendable job in attracting racial minorities to our doctoral programs. But we still need to attract more cultural minorities to these programs so we can better serve a burgeoning ethnic population that will in the near future become the plurality. Thus, one of my three presidential initiatives is to stimulate more diversity by identifying up to three innovative doctoral programs that admit, retain and graduate students from diverse cultures by recognizing them at the 2013 APA convention and granting each a $2500 cash award. To aid in this endeavor, I have organized a five-member working group chaired by former APA President Melba Vasquez. About 20 programs were nominated, and the grantees will be honored during a special session in Hawaii.

In addition, I will be traveling to several international conferences and representing APA globally.

PI:  Some APA members are excited about the prospects of international outreach and activities; others believe that APA, as a national organization, should focus within its own borders and leave international activities to international organizations. How do you feel about these two perspectives?

Bersoff: I am clearly in the camp that promotes international outreach. No association today, including APA, can view itself as exclusively national. The issues we address have become global, and the expertise we need to address those issues is international. It would be foolhardy to advocate ethnocentrism. To promote an inclusive and comprehensive science, we need to move beyond current models where American data, theories and research dominate the literature and are viewed as universal. By listening to others from across the globe we can discover innovative ways to address the challenges facing psychology. There is no doubt that we must address the problems facing psychologists in the United States (e.g., funding for research, adequate compensation for practitioners), but the APA is large enough and its governance and staff is diverse enough to be able to tackle both the problems within and without our borders.

PI: Which areas of psychology have particular urgency or offer particular opportunities for APA members in the international arena?

Bersoff: Given the proliferation of mass shootings, civil war in the Middle East, worldwide terrorism and alleged connection between mental illness and violence, I would think that issues of global violence would be of particular urgency. There are other grand global challenges that offer opportunities for APA members as well. One area that deserves special attention is the plight of women and girls in Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Although the United States must remain mindful of cultural traditions and values, there is a great deal of expertise within APA regarding violence against women and their exploitation that might be useful in ameliorating how their lives are led.

PI: Your specialty is psychology and law. Do you have any advice or insights for psychologists in this arena who wish to assume a more international perspective and how APA as an organization might help to foster that?

Bersoff: The APA has been great at collaborating with the American Bar Association over the past 20 years by presenting joint conferences on various topics. For example, on Oct. 2-5, 2013 the APA and ABA will sponsor a joint conference on confronting family and community violence. Using that example, it might be helpful to organize a conference sponsored by APA (along with its Committee on Legal Issues and Division 41: American Psychology-Law Society) at which international scholars and practitioners gather to disseminate cross-cultural research on the intersection between law and psychology. The results could then be published in one of the several peer-reviewed journals devoted to that intersection.

PI: What do you see as the role of APA in addressing international issues or participating in global initiatives addressing issues such as health, climate change, human rights, migration or political conflict?

Bersoff: One of the arenas that APA has done well in is developing consensus documents and policy statements that represent the best scientific knowledge on the topic. These consensus documents could be used to address such international issues as human rights and political conflict in collaboration with psychological organizations from other countries as well as other disciplines.

Another area in which APA might be useful is in advancing the adoption of revisions of the International Classification of Diseases as an alternative to the highly criticized Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition, published by the American Psychiatric Association.

PI: During your presidency, the European Congress of Psychology will be held in Sweden, and the Interamerican Congress of Psychology will be held in Brazil. Is there anything you hope to communicate during your participation in these conferences?

Bersoff: At the European Congress of Psychology I will be moderating an invited symposium on International Perspectives on Law and Psychology. I will also be participating in the signing of Memoranda of Understanding with two countries — Sweden and Portugal. This continues APA’s tradition of cooperating with the psychological associations of other countries.

At the Interamerican Congress of Psychology to be held in Brasilia, I will be giving an invited address on the prediction and prevention of violence and the influence of culture in addressing these issues.

The presence of the American Psychological Association and its president at these conferences and at the International Congress of Psychology is of utmost importance to promoting APA as an international entity. I will also be traveling to Oslo, Bogota and Cuba during this year as further evidence of this promotion.