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Conflict Management in Higher Ed Report
printfriendlyVolume 5, Number 1, Sept 2004

Graduate Peace & Conflict
Studies Programs: Reconsidering
Their Problems & Prospects

Barely 25 years ago the notion of an academic pursuit that I will broadly call “the peace and conflict studies field,” was simply the idea of some scholars and practitioners who dared to think outside their disciplinary confines. Just as the Iowa farmer in the 1989 movie, “Field of Dreams,” presumed that if he built a baseball diamond “Shoeless” Joe Jackson would come to play on it, the pioneers of the first graduate programs presumed that their new academic endeavor would attract students. It did! By some counts there are today 80 some graduate programs in the U.S. alone, ranging from certificates and minor concentrations to masters and doctorate degrees (see Polkinghorn and Chenail, Conflict Management in Higher Education Report, Vol. 1, Number 2, March/April 2000). The early program pioneers placed their endeavors under various programmatic umbrellas, ranging from “peace studies” and “conflict management” to “dispute resolution” and “conflict resolution.” Using the concept “conflict transformation” to define (and perhaps also distinguish) the meaning and purpose of program content, is a trend that can be seen in some of the newest program titles here and overseas. Every year or so colleges and universities announce one or two more programs under one of these different program names.

When dreams become realities we often discover how exciting new prospects also bring new sets of complications and responsibilities. In this article I consider how peace and conflict type programs are created and developed, reflect on their prospects and problems, and introduce topics that I believe will have to be dealt with in the future. Please note, however, that my observations on this topic are not based on any scientific form of data gathering. Instead my “findings” are grounded in my years as a student of peace and conflict studies, my experience as a professor in several diverse programs, and in listening to and learning from the anecdotes and experience of many colleagues. During the past seven years, in particular, I have engaged in informal discussions with colleagues in the field about how the field has developed during the past 15 years. I have also observed how new programs are being conceived and advertised at various academic institutions. Most recently, I also had an opportunity to gain and share some insights during the Conference on Current Trends in Conflict Resolution in Higher Education held in Greenbelt, Maryland, on November 10-11, 2003.

Peace and Conflict Programs
as Academic Innovation

The interest in any academic program or field of study does ebb and flow. Obviously, many of the peace and conflict studies (PCS) type programs were created as a result of the sincere personal and professional beliefs among their inventors of how social conflict should be approached and studied. These inventors also had specific ideas about where in academic institutions such programs should be housed. Since then these early and somewhat individualized beginnings of PCS programs have made way for more structured and auspicious developments. For example, alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is no longer simply a social movement, but has an ever growing following in the liberal arts, and in business and law schools. One reason for the growth in new PCS programs may be as a way of capitalizing on a “hot new field.” It is, of course, also a way to replace faltering older programs. Because of their interdisciplinary nature, new PCS type programs may be conceived as a sure way to enlarge and attract student numbers without having to invest in more than one (or at the most two) “start-up” faculty in the new program. Most programs lean heavily on the existing infrastructure of faculty and interdisciplinary course work. However, while a minimalist approach seems logical for programs that have yet to prove their viability, it can eventually negatively impact the quality of such programs and the satisfaction levels of their students.

The Mixed Blessings
of Good Enrollments

Most relatively new PCS type programs report solid student enrollments. What makes this a decidedly mixed blessing is the way it has challenged the resources of these programs. Most educational systems in the U.S. are experiencing severe financial cuts and constraints and university administrators expect departments to make do with less rather than to support or reward fast growing programs with more. The response can apparently be summarized as, “You are doing so well with what we have given you, now just do a little more.” The ever-present pressure in universities and colleges for always better enrollment figures is slowly leading to concerns about standards and the quality of the education. It seems that some PCS programs (as indeed also a number of programs in other disciplines) are under funded and under staffed. This situation raises rather pointed questions: Are there minimum expectations about what such programs should provide, and, if so, are they being met?

The seemingly strong trend in student interest in the field for the past decade or more also leads to another concern: Are we overpopulating a field in which some students have difficulty in connecting their degrees to careers in several related professions and workplaces? What are the responsibilities of these programs and their faculty to assist their graduates with career opportunities beyond their degrees? Or are career concerns, as is often the case in the social sciences, beyond the capacity and accountability of such programs? As many faculty members can attest, a full-time teaching and research responsibility does not leave time or opportunity to work on creating a job market for students. Extra staff members to help graduates with skills that enable them to translate their degrees into positions in the field or related to the larger field do not, on the whole, exist for PCS programs.

In general, students who came to a PCS program with a “mother field” such as human relations, nursing, law, law enforcement, or social work find it easier to connect their newly found qualification to positions in a more established area. Students who have had no post baccalaureate working experience, and therefore, no existing profession or workplace within which to integrate their new found expertise may have a more difficult time in establishing themselves. To frame this concern in a somewhat different manner: Can an academic endeavor and a professional field still proving its utility afford to turn out large numbers of graduates who might struggle to apply their qualifications professionally? Fifteen years ago faculty in PCS programs responded to questions about how students will use their degrees by answering, “We hope that, in time, you will answer that question for us.” That was a luxury that no longer exists. Adult learners now tend to be career minded and want to link their higher education qualifications (and the time and dollars spent) to specific work opportunities.

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