The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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David Bella Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Chris Petersen.

July 9, 2014


David Andrew Bella was born in 1938 in Greenwich, Connecticut. His father worked at a local high school as a physics teacher and principal; his mother was a concert pianist who died when David was four. Growing up, Bella, his father and his three siblings often went camping, formative experiences that helped spark in him a consuming interest in nature and the environment.

Seeking a challenge and wishing to prove himself, Bella enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute for his undergraduate work. An excellent student, Bella attended VMI from 1957-1961, graduating with honors in civil engineering. After finishing his degree, Bella was employed by the U.S. Public Health Service Division of Indian Health. He worked in this capacity for one year on a Native American reservation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, preparing plans for, and supervising the construction of, sanitary facilities including water and sewer systems. The following year, 1962, Bella moved to Portland, Oregon to continue working for the division as a project engineer.

In 1963 Bella returned to school, studying civil engineering at New York University, where he received his Masters in 1965 and his Ph.D. in 1967. During his time at NYU, Bella used computer modeling to study lakes and estuaries. In 1968, Bella accepted a position as an assistant professor at OSU, teaching civil engineering as well as mathematical modeling and computer simulation. He remained at OSU for the entirety of his academic career.

In the 1970s, Bella's research interests began to change. While his focus had been on developing computer models for lakes, estuaries, and rivers - a research agenda that had been quite successful - he increasingly came to feel a more pressing need to study human systems and, in particular, to explore problems regarding the environment and military weaponry. From this imperative emerged an eclectic and creative program of work that has defined Bella as a free-thinker willing to cross disciplines.

In the early 1980s, Bella spent six years observing the Reagan administration's Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") program meetings. He also served as a consultant to chemical weapons destruction operations in Tooele, Utah and Umatilla, Oregon. In the early 2000s, Bella proposed the creation of a Wild Salmon National Park, which would involve the purchase of flood zones to be preserved as salmon habitat. He has also conducted research on the tobacco industry, nuclear waste disposal, and global climate change, among many other topics.

A key component of much of Bella's work has been engagement with the academic discipline of systems theory. Concerning human systems, Bella has focused on the ways in which institutions can be the source of corruption, negligence and distortions, simply as a function of their very existence. In this, he has examined how information can be distorted without deliberate deceit or fraud, the distortions instead stemming from organizational structure itself. He has also written on the ways in which organizational structure, when combined with an individual's desire for competence and pride in their work, can lead to the pursuit of inhumane or undesirable goals.

In 1998 Bella retired from OSU, though he continues to research human systems and re-frame questions, in part by teaching classes in the University Honors College. Bella has also maintained his involvement with the Swallowed Camel Club, a discussion group of OSU students, faculty, and members of the local religious community that he helped to found in the 1970s.