University launches Pearson Institute with program on global conflicts

Panelists discuss how new initiative at Chicago Harris can address need for policies informed by data

  • Prof. Ethan Bueno de Mesquita (left) moderates a Sept. 30 panel discussion on public policy featuring military, foreign affairs, academic and international perspectives.

  • A Sept. 30 event at Mandel Hall announced a $100 million gift to UChicago, which created The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts and The Pearson Global Forum.

  • University Professor James Robinson (right) said, ‘Much of social science is a projection of how [the West] looks at the world. Sometimes you have to deprogram yourself to understand what’s going on [in another country] because you come in with so many preconceptions.’

  • The audience gives a standing ovation after President Robert J. Zimmer announced the $100 million gift to UChicago.

  • Thomas L. Pearson, chairman of The Pearson Foundation, said, “No issue is more important today than the study of the intersection of war, failed states, terrorism and economic cataclysms—and the response, the design of policies directed toward developing a more peaceful world.’

  • Timothy R. Pearson, president and CEO of The Pearson Family Foundation, told the audience that ‘our ambition is to leave the world a better place, as a result of our gift.’

  • A Q&A following the announcement included (from left) Chicago Harris Dean Daniel Diermeier, Thomas L. Pearson, President Robert J. Zimmer, Timothy R. Pearson and Richard Haass.

  • Singer/songwriter John Ondrasik (Five for Fighting) performs his song ‘The World’ at the beginning of the Sept. 30 announcement.

  • The scene at Mandel Hall.


By Greg Borzo

There is a legacy within academia where there’s distrust between academics and policymakers and practitioners—and a lack of interest in working together: Those days are gone.”
—Colonel (ret.) Joseph Felter
Senior research scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University

On a day when the University of Chicago announced a gift of $100 million to establish The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts, an in-depth program of experts explored many of the international policy issues that the new initiative will address.

President Robert J. Zimmer announced the landmark gift from The Thomas L. Pearson and The Pearson Family Members Foundation, which will support data-driven scholarship to inform effective policies.

“There is no more single issue that is more important today than the study of the intersection of war, failed states, terrorism and economic cataclysms—and more importantly, the response that the design of policies directed toward forming a more peaceful world will have,” said Thomas L. Pearson, chairman of The Pearson Family Foundation. Pearson noted that 59.5 million people are refugees, displaced or seeking asylum. “The time to act is now,” he said.

The institute will focus on conducting research to understand, prevent and resolve global conflicts; engaging international policy and academic communities; and promoting education and scholarship. It will create four named faculty professorships at the University and offer fellowships to master’s students and scholarships to PhD students.

The donation also will support The Pearson Global Forum, an annual gathering that will bring together policymakers and scholars with the goal of sharing new insights and applying the institute’s findings.

“Our wish is, in the coming years, that the insights and findings of The Pearson Institute can transform the world that we live in together, in some small way,” said Timothy R. Pearson, president and CEO of The Pearson Family Foundation.

‘Unlike anything we've faced in our history’

A panel of experts who convened after the gift announcement praised the new initiative. Julianne Smith, director of the Strategy and Statecraft Program at the Center for a New American Security, said the new institute and forum are critically needed today because policymakers in Washington, D.C., are “overwhelmed, struggling to, frankly, keep up. We’re now dealing with an array of actors that is unlike anything we’ve faced in our history,” including “rogue regimes,” failed states, non-state actors and “super-empowered individuals,” who use potent new technologies to generate violence.

Meanwhile, the toolkit that policymakers use is outdated, much as it looked in the 1960s, she said. But the institute will generate new ideas and provide new tools that will equip policymakers to deal with these unprecedented challenges.

The increased violence around the world has caused a major surge in the number of displaced citizens fleeing their countries and attempting safe passage to others that will host them. Panelist Simon Henshaw, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration at the U.S. Department of State, said the nature of refugees has changed dramatically in the past few years.

“Traditionally, humanitarian work was aimed at keeping refugees alive in an enclosed location (camp) until they could return home,” Henshaw said. “Now three-quarters of the world’s refugees live in towns and cities in their host countries, and many of them have no hope of returning home.” As a result, those who supply humanitarian and developmental aid must increasingly try to balance the needs of host communities and the needs of refugees, Henshaw said.

Challenges of addressing global conflict

Moderator Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, professor and deputy dean for Research and Strategic Initiatives at Chicago Harris, suggested that expectations for the success of a particular approach to resolving an issue can sometimes have a negative impact due to unforeseen consequences, some of which may be counterintuitive.

Panelist Colonel (ret.) Joseph Felter, senior research scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, noted that in some cases, economic development increases rather than decreases violence. “Understanding the impact of economic development is very challenging,” said Felter, “and it’s really an area that lends itself to the types of contributions that scholars can make.”

Given UChicago’s global reach—with scholarly centers in Beijing, Hong Kong, Paris and Delhi, among other international cities—researchers working with The Pearson Institute and Global Forum will have access to new and diverse viewpoints to bring to the research and, ultimately, to policymaking.

“So much social science is a sort of projection of how [the West] looks like to the rest of the world,” said James Robinson, University Professor at Chicago Harris and co-author of Why Nations Fail. “Sometimes you have to deprogram yourself to understand what’s going on [in another country] because you come in with so many preconceptions. One of the reasons that The Pearson Institute is so exciting is because you can get all of that on the table … and try to address some of these issues in a different way.”

Ian Solomon, vice president for global engagement, added, “The Pearson Institute will bring international voices to the conversation, and that will force us to ask a new set of questions.”

Promoting interdisciplinary collaboration

The Institute also will encourage an interdisciplinary approach to studying global conflicts, something that is sorely need, according to Smith. She said because government is structured on a “stovepipe approach,” it needs more channels of communication between parties with different fields of expertise.

There is a strong demand among policymakers, practitioners and the military for rigorous, evidence-based research on ways to prevent and resolve global conflicts, Felter said. “There is a legacy within academia where there’s distrust between academics and policymakers and practitioners—and a lack of interest in working together: Those days are gone,” he said. He added that scholars are welcome when they “show up to the table and add value.”

Smith stressed that for academics providing advice, “delivery is absolutely key.” She added that the Institute will be helpful in convening groups and providing them “exposure to some experiences in Washington so they can have a better way to relay those lessons.”

The panelists agreed that the Pearson Institute and Forum will foster information sharing and lead to better decision-making. Ultimately, building relationships between researchers and policymakers and military personnel is key, the panelists agreed.

“There’s tons of data—troves of info out there that’s not being shared with academicians, for no good reason,” Felter said.

Originally published on October 6, 2015.