Westmont Magazine An American in Brazil
When he arrived in Brazil at the age of 2, Tim Mulholland ’71 was an outsider, the son of missionaries. But as he grew up, the foreign country became his land, the place of his heart. He learned the language and immersed himself in the culture.
Then, like three generations of his family, Tim left his childhood home and went to Westmont. Taking a psychology class opened new worlds to him, and he worked as a teaching assistant for several professors in the discipline. By his junior year, he had decided to go to graduate school and pursue an academic career. He earned master’s and doctoral degrees in cognitive psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.
In 1976, Tim found a position with a major research university in a well-planned, futuristic city. By design, its modern skyline towers above expansive greenbelts close to the shores of a large lake. The cosmopolitan capital appealed to him as a center of government, education and the arts. But it had an even bigger draw: it was home.
For the past 29 years, Tim has lived in Brasilia. He is American by birth and Brazilian by choice. He has lived most of his life in the country of his youth.
Tim is no longer an outsider there. Comfortably bi-cultural, he speaks both English and Portuguese fluently. His dual citizenship has not hindered his career as a professor and psychologist; this year he began a four-year term as president of the University of Brasilia.
“To my knowledge no American has reached a position this high in Brazilian public life,” he says.
Tim has taught and conducted research in cognitive psychology at the university; he has also held administrative positions such as dean of the school of psychology and vice president. He includes university planning and management among his areas of expertise.
Like Brasilia, the university was founded in 1960 and carefully planned. The campus, which sprawls across 741 acres on Paranoá Lake, includes gardens, an arboretum and a number of notable buildings. Within 20 miles, the university owns a large, 11,000-acre farm and preserve.
Most of the university’s 26,000 students come from Brazil. Ranked among the top five schools in the country, UnB is known for programs in the sciences and social sciences (especially biology, anthropology, psychology, political science, earth sciences, tropical medicine and economics).
Like other public university presidents, Tim faces two main challenges: raising money and drumming up political support. The university obtains much of its funding from the state. Being located in the capital city minutes from the seat of government makes it convenient for Tim to connect with key legislators.
Working with the people — especially students — is Tim’s favorite part of his job. He also finds satisfaction in developing new solutions to problems. “A university is a potent instrument for producing change and making a difference in society,” he says. “We are able to influence national government policies in various areas. That makes our responsibility very great in a country like Brazil with so much to be done.”
According to Tim, “One of the major problems facing the capital is a heavy influx of migrants from poorer parts of Brazil, which overloads public services and generates housing shortages, crime and other maladies.
He’s proud of the university’s history. “We were part of the resistance to the military regime (1964-1985) and the first to adopt the credit system, flexible curricula, departmental structure and other ideas prevalent in the United States and other countries,” he says.
Looking back, Tim appreciates the quality of his college experience. “My academic preparation at Westmont was equal to that of my fellow graduate students at Pitt,” he says. “As a university administrator, I consider my Westmont training to have been superior in comparison to what I have seen elsewhere.”
Living in California left another legacy. “I learned to like sports cars in Santa Barbara, so I’ve collected a few oldies over the years to work on, enjoy on weekends and take to car events,” he says.
Another hobby is traveling throughout Brazil, enjoying its natural beauties. “It’s a fascinating country,” he says. “I enjoy living here.”
Tim and his wife, Lecia, have a blended family of five children, ages 14 to 24 years. Lecia works in the Brazilian congress, so she is involved in public life like her husband.
The differences between the United States and Brazil have taught Tim about the diversity of human experience. “The need for mutual knowledge and tolerance is greater than ever in the 21st century,” he says. As a university president and a citizen of two cultures, he has an opportunity to make a difference.