2 Peace and Conflict Studies in Colleges and Universities (New for 2018)

Julie Shedd

Peace and Conflict studies are a growing part of the College and University landscape, both in terms of numbers of degrees but also in terms of the institutionalization of these disciplines within the University setting. 2017-18 was a banner year in this regard with both Kent State University in Ohio and Kennesaw State University in Georgia consolidating their peace and conflict programs into a stand-alone School within the University. These two join George Mason University and the University of San Diego in the U.S. as Universities who have recognized the value and role of these programs and the research and teaching happening in this area. These institutional commitments to the field are in addition to the explosion of degree programs around the world. I won’t even attempt to give a summary number of programs internationally, since there is wide variation depending on what you consider part of the field. For a searchable database with a sampling of programs, you can visit the Peace and Justice Studies Association’s Directory here.

Much like our community college colleagues, 4-year institutions are increasingly being tasked with developing “career ready” graduates and linking directly what happens in the classroom with career skills. The challenge that we face in linking our academic programs to career prospects is the vast range of careers that we are preparing our students to embark on. We are asked all the time, at recruiting events, about job prospects, so to illustrate the challenge this variety of careers presents, let me say a little about what the trajectories of our graduates includes, what I refer to as “the buckets”.

One bucket of jobs is the most obvious, the conflict resolution or dispute resolution practitioner, although even within this bucket there is wide variation. This buckets includes mediators or facilitators, jobs in human resources or equity offices, restorative justice practitioners and counselors. There is a long tradition of conflict resolution practitioners working with unions and management to mediate or negatiate. The introduction of policies at local, state and national levels that require dispute resolution systems in place in organizations, has created a strong market for students with the skills to help individuals and small groups navigate disputes.

Another bucket is related, but deals more with organizations and how they more broadly manage conflict and change. Here we have graduates working either as employees or consultants providing assessments, training, or interventions with organizations of all sizes and across the public, private and non-profit center. They work on enhancing organizational cultures and structures to help manage a diversity of work styles, values, personalities or ideologies. Work in this areas requires strong interpersonal conflict skills, but also effective facilitation skills, as well as the ability to do deep level analysis of structures and organizations. It requires creativity and the capacity to understand context.

Graduates are also found in quite a different bucket of jobs, national security and law enforcement. Here we find military members, law enforcement, investigators, intelligence analysts, and policy jobs. For many of these graduates the analytical training as well as capacity to think across disciplines and to bring insights from the range of the social and behavioral sciences prepares them for success. They may also depend on the interpersonal conflict management skills they develop.
Related to that, are the bucket of jobs related to diplomacy and international organizations. Here we have graduates at international governmental organizations like the United Nations and its subsidiaries or the Organization of African States as well as graduates working within a national diplomatic core. They may be helping to negotiate peace processes or working on transnational issues. They might also be using communication and negotiation skills to negotiate trade or political deals. Again here, the combination of strong analytical skills to diagnose a problem, paired with interpersonal skills is key.

A slightly different bucket is those working at the local, state or national level in the policy arena. This may be jobs developing policy directly, but also is often associated with the processes by which governments and their constituents interact. This includes designing processes by which public deliberation and decision making can happen, providing avenues for citizen feedback, creating spaces for dialogue across lines of difference within communities about issues that matter. Heavily contextually specific, for this work our graduates need to have the preparation to do effective process design that is contextually relevant.

An area of work in which conflict resolution has been mainstreamed, is in “conflict-sensitive development”. The international aid and development community has increasingly called for our graduates to have the skills to help design and implement development and aid projects that address poverty, gender based issues, human rights, and democracy promotion. In many cases, jobs here look quite similar to jobs doing peacebuilding in domestic contexts. Our graduates are using their tools to deal with the structural and historical issues that affect so many. They may be working with communities in the aftermath of violence or disaster or in times of political transition. They may be helping communities address discrimination or division based on race, ethnic identity, class or religion through dialogue or restorative process. Graduates working in these areas have a huge range of skills they need to be able to call on based on their context, including process skills, trauma healing, communication skills, analytical capacity and technical knowledge.

Our graduates are also found in education, both k-12 and higher education. They are teachers, researchers and guidance counselors, bringing conflict resolution tools to their work with students. They might be bringing peer mediation or restorative justice to schools, or providing leadership within a school or school system. In higher education settings you find our graduates both in academic departments, but also working in student services or programming areas to bring conflict resolution strategies to students of all majors. The ability to transmit knowledge and to train and educate is essential for graduate in these roles.

The final bucket I’ll mention, although this list of buckets should not be considered exhaustive, is that of advocacy work. On a variety of issues, both close to home and with global reach, our graduates are advocating for social change, human rights, and many other causes of interest. They use their knowledge of conflict dynamics to find ways to impact perceptions and create spaces for many voices. They may be directly engaging in protests, lobbying for policy change, or writing op-eds and serving as public intellectuals. All of these take advantage of our graduates strong communication skills and ability to understand underlying causes of conflict.

John Paul Leaderch and Katie Mansfield developed a visual for their conceptualization of “Strategic Peacebuilding Paths” which are similar in many ways to what I have described here as buckets. You can see the wheel and descriptions they created here if you would like another take.

So by now you probably have noticed the challenge we face, how do we possibly design curriculum that prepares students for all of these different types of careers and takes full advantage of the multi-disciplinarity of our fields components and members. Looking across different universities, there seem to be two approaches to this challenges, each has advantages and disadvantages. Some programs, like mine, have adopted a generalist approach, where our philosophy is to educate students about conflict causes, dynamics and opportunities for intervention across the whole spectrum of conflict types and levels. Sitting in the same classroom will be student who wants to work in dispute resolution and one that wants to create Middle East peace. The idea here is that conflict has some underlying principles or conditions that you can find no matter the level, and that we are preparing students to be able to analyze a particular conflict and then prepare a context specific intervention. The advantage here is probably obvious, it is the transferability of skills. Students educated in this style should have the ability to deal with any conflict they are faced with and may through the course of their career work at many levels. I can use myself as an example here since I was educated in this tradition- my research work and writing is about international terrorism and extremism and I have recently found myself working concretely with school systems on addressing conflicts in the special education process between parents and teachers. The downside may be equally obvious, we often have students that struggle with their direction. Where do they go from here? Or sometimes more fundamentally students that have jumped around through the curriculum and get to the end and wonder, what did I actually learn? Do I have enough specific technical knowledge for the jobs I am looking for? The challenge is to navigate the balance between coherence of curriculum and specific skills development and the more generalized and transferable skills and knowledge.

The second option, (and I shouldn’t present these as bi-polar options, but rather as end on a continuum) is to design a curriculum that takes one particular industry, type of conflict, level, or possibly one of the career buckets I described above and tailors the courses to prepare students to work specifically in that area. This might involve strong linkages to another academic discipline or program or embedding the program within a specific school. Examples here include programs embedded in diplomacy schools, law schools, business schools or social work schools (to name just a few) as well as programs in specific subareas of the field like negotiations, alternative dispute resolution, human rights, or genocide studies (again not an exhaustive list). The advantage here is also probably equally obvious. Graduates from these programs have a much clearer connection from curriculum to career and the program itself is structure in a coherent way. Students are able to articulate more clearly what they know and have deeper specific knowledge about their particular context. The down side is, of course, that they may not have the ability to transfer their skills from the specific area they studied to another context. In terms of employment options they may not have the flexibility to look at multiple industries or types of jobs.

For those thinking about developing programs in peace and conflict studies I would recommend real deep and strategic thinking on where you want to fit on the spectrum from general to specific programs. Reflect on your schools capacity to “teach it all” or if you have areas of deep specialization you can tap into. Think about what kinds of graduates you want to have and where they will likely find jobs based on your own context.

As a final thought, there will be more about this later in the volume so I’ll be brief here, but I would also encourage anyone developing or enhancing a program to build in from the very beginning, scaffolded opportunities for students to engage in experiential learning. One of the primary strengths we need our graduates to have is the confidence in their capacity to intervene in the world in a meaningful way. In order to achieve that we have to provide opportunities for them to engage in reflective practice and supported spaces for them to try, struggle and succeed. This takes real intentional thought to make these opportunities effective.

Dr. Julie Shedd
Associate Dean
School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution
George Mason University
March 2018

About the Author:  Juliette Shedd, Ph.D. is teaching faculty and the Associate Dean at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution