Difficult, sometimes seemingly impossible decisions were part of the job during Philip Odeen’s days serving in the office of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the Vietnam era.
Nor were they any easier when he later led the Defense and Arms Control staff for former National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. “The environment you’re in shapes your decisions,” Odeen told about 30 Palm Beach Atlantic University students last week. “You’re a prisoner to some degree to what you know.”
Odeen, who went on to achieve success in the corporate world, was the speaker during the University’s first President’s Lyceum, held in the Warren Library. The President’s Lyceum is a speaker’s series in which visitors who have distinguished themselves in various professions come to present their insights and experiences in a discussion with PBA students.
The speakers are asked to share case studies, stories and the wisdom they have acquired over the course of their careers.
Odeen holds a bachelor’s degree in government from the University of South Dakota in 1957. He was a Fulbright Scholar to the United Kingdom the following year, and he earned a master’s degree in 1959 from the University of Wisconsin.
Today he is the non-executive chairman of AES, an international power company and Convergys, a leading outsourcing company. He is active in various government advisory groups, primarily in the defense and national security areas.
During Wednesday’s presentation, Odeen took questions from the students, all of whom are considered high achievers in and out of the classroom.
When asked how college students can prepare to deal with the world’s problems, Odeen suggested studying economics, traveling internationally and mastering technology. He also said that being active on his college debate team has helped him greatly in his career.
Another student asked about his most satisfying moments professionally. Odeen said one of them was working with Kissinger during the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). “I think we all felt very comfortable with what we had done,” he said.
Another professional highlight was helping a small company grow to a billion-dollar, publicly traded entity, he said.
The students said they appreciated being able to hear about Odeen’s unique view of historical events.
“The speaker was very insightful. He gave a real-world perspective,” said Greg Bromley, a senior who is majoring in pre-law and philosophy. “It was definitely an honor and a privilege to be invited.”
Olivia Anderson, a sophomore honors student who is majoring in English and minoring in history, agreed. “It’s so exciting to know the background information to some of the events I’ve studied in history.”
After hearing Odeen’s talk, Juan-Jose Cavallo, a music major and a sophomore in the Supper Honors program, said that many times the past is portrayed as black and white. In fact, he said, “a lot of things are very gray.”