Dr. Richard Farson
Dr. Richard Farson, a behavioral psychologist, author, educator, and president of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, was known for his innovative work in areas diverse as group therapy, children’s rights, organizational leadership, distance education, and design. He came to an understanding that “absurdity and paradox are the rule, not the exception” in human relations. He died Thursday, June 13, at the age of 90 in La Jolla, California.
Born in Chicago and raised in Glendale, California, Farson attended the University of Minnesota as a Naval officer trainee, received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Occidental College where he met his mentor, famed psychologist Carl Rogers, and went on to study with Rogers at the University of Chicago, receiving his Ph.D. in psychology there in 1955. With Rogers he coauthored an article titled “Active Listening” which introduced this term into the vocabulary. While serving two years of active duty as a research officer studying motivation, morale, and leadership for the Navy in San Diego, Farson visited La Jolla and fell in love with the clear water and white sand of WindanSea Beach.
In 1958, along with physicist Paul E. Lloyd and social psychologist Wayman (Bud) Crow, he formed The Western Behavioral Sciences Institute (WBSI), a nonprofit think tank in La Jolla devoted to improving human relations. During the 1960s Farson and his collegues, who included Carl Rogers and other mentors such as psychologists Abraham Maslow and Alex Bavelas, did pioneering work in, for example, leaderless group therapy, producing an Oscar-winning documentary film Journal into Self, and in criminology, employing ex-offenders as researchers in studies that led to large reductions in crime in convenience stores. Upon being named chairman of the board of WBSI in 1968, Farson left the staff to become founding dean of the School of Design at the California Institute of the Arts where the emphasis was on social and environmental design. His interest in the field of design was evidenced also by his over 30-year membership on the board of directors of the International Design Conference in Aspen, a leading forum for interdisciplinary discussions of the designed environment. In 1974 Farson published Birthrights: A Bill of Rights for Children, which examines how a society designed by adults conspires against children, and calls for a radical recasting of the status of children. Upon the invitation of Michael Murphy, Farson served for a year as president of Esalen Institute in Big Sur and San Francisco, and moved his family to Marin County. Bouncing around from job to job in the heady environment of the human potential movement of the 1970s, Farson, with characteristic self-deprecating humor, would later joke that his life and career had really been a sequence of failures.
Rather than reward success and penalize failure, Farson proposed that we focus on what can be learned from both. Paradoxically, Farson argued, the less we chase success and flee from failure, the more likely we are to genuinely succeed.
He was one of the early members of the International Design Conference in Aspen (aka IDCA) Board, along with Jane Thompson, the Chermayeffs, Moshe Safdie, and others, who catapulted the Conference into what was arguably the leading creative design gathering in the world. Dick helped build a bridge between the world of design and communication. He was funny, self-effacing and always urged the IDCA Board to keep the conference affordable, grounded and always available to locals. He helped organize a committee that worked closely with the Aspen Institute and the City of Aspen to give the IDCA, the Aspen Center of Physics and the Aspen Music Festival the chance to chart their own destinies and establish their independence separate and apart from the esteemed Aspen Institute. For over 25 years the IDCA was the kick- off event for Aspen’s summers, and always set the bar high for the quality of their participants and programming.
He loved Aspen and had a high regard for its unique niche in the world of ideas, music and culture. He also helped organize the International Resort Conference (IRC), convened in various areas throughout Japan from 1989-99. He was oft a speaker and gadfly for setting the tone of the conference’s efforts to transform ski resort development in Japan, so that these resorts became much more in tune with the environment. This resort conference series was credited one year in the Diet’s Annual Report with being instrumental in changing the direction of Japanese resort developments, so that they became models for becoming greener and more in harmony with nature.
Returning to WBSI in 1979, he did pioneering work in online distance education, creating virtual communities of leaders in the School of Management and Strategic Studies. Among his other books are Management of the Absurd: Paradoxes in Leadership, Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins (with Ralph Keyes), and The Power of Design: A Force for Transforming Everything, which champions the potential role of designers in shaping our social and physical infrastructure.
Never truly retiring, he continued to write and lecture with passion in his later years, to enjoy daily swims at WindanSea Beach, and to participate in the café society of his La Jolla community. A great proponent of the importance of community life, he abhorred bad architecture and refused to shop at big-box stores.
Richard Farson was married and divorced twice, his first wife, Elizabeth Grimes Farson predeceased him and is survived by his second wife, Dawn Farson, five children, Lisa Maher, Clark Farson, Joel Farson, Ashley Bush, Jeremy Farson, six grandchildren, John Maher, Page Schlumpberger, Logan Messina, Savannah Bush, Clark and Chloe Farson and one great-granddaughter, Ava Schlumpberger.
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