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

Graduate Peace & Conflict
Studies Programs

A Field-wide System of
Quality Assurance

I started this discussion by pointing to the range of programs that fall under the larger heading of PCS programs. Thus far the field has self-differentiated itself into various strands without an attempt at field-wide standards or quality assurance on matters such as appropriate curricula, course content, student performance standards, and program structures. While some programs have solicited review processes from outside colleagues and experts in the field, this has mainly been a private matter and not a field wide review or learning procedure. Has the time come to have a more organized, and perhaps more rigorous internal review of what our programs actually accomplish?

Leaving aside issues of how exactly such a peer review system will work, field-wide accreditation processes are widely used in academia. Our field could benefit from an advisory review or oversight process in which everyone joins in reviewing programs, and in being reviewed. The intent here would not be to perform an internal policing function, but rather to set up a quality assurance system that would strengthen peace and conflict studies as a separate and distinct discipline and improve our standing within academia at large. Moreover, a review system would also provide programs with guidelines and some built-in protections about the requirements of the field that could be used as leverage in internal university negotiations. Accreditation rules, or even broad expectations about student-faculty ratios, faculty expertise, course content, and clinical training, could take the field to the next level of academic quality and performance.

A field-wide system of quality assurance (or at least enhancement), whatever its formal or informal character, could provide internal motivators to all concerned. It is one way of guaranteeing the future of this field. It is also, I believe, the challenge for the newer generation of scholar-practitioners in this field. Our predecessors were mainly educated through the traditional disciplines. They provided initial frameworks for programs in this field. Our task—as the first generation of scholar-practitioners with a more separate peace-and-conflict-studies paradigm—is to more firmly clarify the content and standards for such programs. Without it, I fear, the field could experience diminished returns in establishing itself as a freestanding and respected discipline.

Ultimately, I suppose, the questions that need to be answered are what exactly are the basic requirements for graduate PCS programs, and what are the minimum curricular expectations that would fulfill these requirements? PCS type programs are by their very nature academic enterprises, but they are also a part of a field that proclaims to have specific clinical and practical aspects to it. What then are the responsibilities of theory-based academic degree programs in a field that has a distinct number of processes and practices? Some of these issues are indeed unresolved concerns for academia and the field in general. Should universities, for example, be in the business of certifying practitioners? Or, where should the lines be drawn between training and “certification” versus graduate education? To what extent has the current emphasis, some people would say over-emphasis, on mediation narrowed the field? One could argue that it has actually lessened students’ understanding of the range of career opportunities in the field and the wide range of its application. The larger issue here, of course, is whether the focus on mediation practice in universities and elsewhere fully addresses the issue of how to balance theory and practice.

Moving Forward

Many of the concerns with PCS programs that I addressed in this article were discussed, and mostly left for later consideration, at the first national meeting to explore the direction the field was taking that was hosted by the Department of Dispute Resolution at Nova Southeastern University in 1996. Let me repeat what I deem the most important questions: Are there minimum expectations about what PCS programs should provide, and, if so, are these expectations being met? To answer questions such as these we need a clear and shared understanding of the theoretical and practice-oriented knowledge and skills required for graduate education in this field. By implication surveys on the core skills and knowledge areas of PCS programs do document a fairly general agreement on these matters. (See, for example, Bill Warters’ article in the May 1999 edition of The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution). Particular programs also put considerable work into defining the core competencies and indicators of success for conflict resolution studies. In this regard I have taken note of the Graduate Certificate Program in Conflict Resolution at Carleton University in Canada (see: http://www.carleton.ca/law/conflict/goals.htm).

There is, however, no field or program-wide agreement or official sanction of these core skills. Perhaps more importantly, there are to my knowledge no attempts at explaining exactly how these goals are achieved or measured. This pedagogical disconnect in terms of learning objectives and how to accomplish such goals, is one of the major obstacles in professionalizing PCS programs, and perhaps the field in general. How do we know that the mediators and conflict managers that we produce in any of these programs are qualified to do this kind of work? An agreement in principle on the basic skills and knowledge that need to be taught to aspiring newcomers to this field, does not assure didactic or clinical rigor. Nor will it move the perception of the field as one with “do-gooders” without recognizable abilities and expertise, to being acknowledged as professionals with demonstrated and tested skill sets.

In an earlier edition of the Conflict Management in Higher Education Report (Collaboration and Conflict Resolution Skills: A Core Academic Competency?, CMHER Vol. 1, No. 4, Nov/Dec 2000) Bill Warters acknowledged that “expressed stated academic competencies in conflict resolution” are rare phenomena, and he wondered whether competency requirements “will ever be seen as an essential part of academic training.” I would argue that creating such standards is another luxury we no longer have. More and more universities and accrediting bodies are accepting the notion of measurable learning objectives. My guess is that embracing rather than attempting to avoid such requirements might be in the best interest of the field as a whole.

Without trying to stifle individual program foci or needs, could we consider ways to steer our academic endeavors into generally agreed upon ways of achieving measurable goals? We have talked about “what” needs to be known or done in teaching new generations of students, now I am looking for partners in seeing “how” to assure that this learning actually occurs. Is anyone else interested in another round table specifically on these matters?

Johannes “Jannie” Botes is an Assistant Professor teaching in the Negotiation and Conflict Management Master’s (CNCM) Program at the University of Baltimore (UB), focusing on conflict analysis, negotiation and mediation. Before joining UB he was a visiting professor at Bryn Mawr College (1997-1998) and at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution--ICAR (1998-1999). He holds a Ph.D. in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University.

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