Skip to Main Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Footer Navigation
Give Now

Profiles in Giving

Waging Peace

Communications pioneer develops leaders in nonviolent resistance

Although he volunteered for military service during World War II, Sid Topol, J79P, doesn’t think the globe’s problems are best settled by force. He’s promoting another approach: He’s funding research and teaching on nonviolent resistance, to establish a cadre of leaders who will fight injustice without taking up arms.

“I want to support a community of young people who will become leaders themselves and who will influence other leaders to work toward peace, reconciliation, diplomacy, and nonviolence,” he says. “This isn’t research to write a paper. We have to reignite a peace movement.”

A sense of urgency animates Topol’s voice. The retired CEO was a pioneering entrepreneur in satellite communications and cable television, working for Raytheon before leading Scientific Atlanta. At 90, he directs his current effort from his Boston home office, which is filled with photos of him with Barack Obama, Harry Belafonte, and other liberal luminaries. His goal is peace, and he wants to see results.

Creating a Network

Topol made a gift to The Fletcher School last year to expand its long-standing commitment to the study of nonviolent resistance. His support has made possible a graduate student fellowship, student summer research stipends, and the introduction of a new course on nonviolent resistance.

“Fletcher has one of the longest institutional histories of top-notch policy-relevant academic research on nonviolent resistance,” says Benjamin Naimark-Rowse, the first graduate student to hold the Topol Fellowship. “Sid’s gift provides the financial support for building out that community, so we can convene policymakers, academics, and activists and continue to be a hub for practice, teaching, and research on nonviolent resistance.”

Fletcher is one of several institutions to which Topol has made similar gifts. Others include Brandeis, Harvard, and two schools he attended: the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Boston Latin School. Topol’s connections to Tufts include his daughter and son-in-law, who both graduated in the Class of 1979, and his granddaughter, who graduated in 2014.

Roots of Devotion

The son of Polish immigrants who met at a sweatshop in New York City, Topol grew up in Dorchester, Mass., in a Yiddish-speaking family. He worked on his father’s fruit and produce truck after school. His military training, which included attending radar school at Harvard and MIT, disrupted his college years, but provided the technical foundation for his later business success. He became the author of several patents in antennas, including one that became the standard transportable radar used by NATO, and led the once-small telecommunications manufacturing firm Scientific Atlanta into the Forbes 500.

Since his retirement, Topol has devoted himself to activism and philanthropy, with one of his main causes being the pursuit of peace.

“Wars have been notably disastrous failures,” he says. “Think of Vietnam, Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon—thousands of people killed, fortunes spent that could have been used for schools, infrastructure, health.”

Topol is inspired by people who’ve chosen a different path. One of those is Teny Gross, A94, a former Israeli army sergeant who now leads the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence, a Rhode Island organization that Topol supports. Describing how Gross will head to the streets at any hour to talk down gang members who are ready to fight, Topol says, “That takes as much energy as it takes to be a sniper.”

Research and Teaching

Fletcher has for 10 years hosted the Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict, in partnership with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. The institute brings together scholars, journalists, observers, and participants in nonviolent resistance campaigns for rights, freedom, and justice. The study of nonviolent resistance is also woven into several courses at Fletcher. Naimark-Rowse co-taught a class on the topic for undergraduates through Tufts’ Experimental College in fall 2014 and hopes to teach it again. The new graduate course on nonviolent resistance will be taught in the fall by the Topol Lecturer, whom the school is in the process of selecting.

Current Fletcher students are also now able to apply to be Topol Scholars in Nonviolent Resistance. Three students annually will receive up to $5,000 each in support for eight weeks of summer research or a summer internship with a significant focus on nonviolent resistance. The scholars will reflect together on their experiences and present their research publicly in the fall.

Topol says Fletcher’s focus on diplomacy is an excellent fit for his goals. He hopes the school’s graduates will carry forward the passion and skills to make a difference.

“I’m motivated by my age,” he says. “When you’re 90, your long-term plan is what are you going to do next Wednesday. But I was always a long-term strategist, a visionary. I’ve always been thinking of something in the future.”