Graduate programs in dispute resolution keep growing

Most dispute resolution

practitioners today who have graduate degrees –

and a large majority do, according to a recent Consensus

survey (January, 1997) – earned those degrees

in public policy, law, urban planning, or related

fields.

Those types of degrees are still popular for

prospective mediators. But a growing number of

schools now offer master’s degrees or even

doctorates in dispute resolution.

In 1998 13 universities in the United

States offered graduate degrees in dispute

resolution or conflict management, and since then the number has grown. The program of

Virginia’s George mason University is the oldest

by far – it was established in 1982. Antioch

University in Ohio and Nova Southeastern

University in Florida were next, starting in

1993. Ten programs have come into existence since

then. Three more are slated to open in the next

two years. Two schools, George Mason and Nova

Southeastern, offer doctoral programs.

(Many more schools offer conflict-management

specializations within other degree programs.)

Dispute resolution degree programs have grown

in popularity, in part, because there are a

novelty and because they offer students an

opportunity to enter the burgeoning dispute

resolution field. (The programs also appeal to

students who don’t want to enter the dispute

resolution field.) Many students say they like

the interdisciplinary nature of the programs, the

practical experience they can gain through

internships and practicums, and the flexible

learning options that many programs offer.

What is their appeal?

Many students are drawn to dispute resolution

degree programs because they see such programs as

innovative and cutting edge.

“I liked how new the field was, how open

to new ideas,” says Jennifer Frank, a

graduate student in Nova’s dispute resolution

program. Frank (who majored in sociology and

minored in women’s studies) thinks dispute

resolution programs appeal to “those who are

interested in pioneering in a relatively new

field…and those who are creative, open to new

ideas, risk takers.”

Of course, students also see such degree

programs as a way to get a foot in the door of

the fast-growing dispute resolution field. Many

graduates go on to become mediators, consensus

builders, negotiators, facilitators, and dispute

resolution trainers.

“[Students in my program] go on to do

everything from ‘track two’ [international

diplomacy] to community mediation,” says

George Mason graduate student Rex van der Reit.

Some students pursue dispute resolution

degrees, however, as a way to further their

careers in other fields.

“I thought it would add a nice balance to

my profession in human resources,” says

Angela Roberson, a student in the negotiation and

conflict management program at California State

University, Dominguez Hills. “HR

professionals are constantly called upon to help

people resolve issues they are unable to handle

themselves.” She adds, “I’m also very

active within my community and had a vague notion

this would help me be more effective.

One factor that appeals to dispute resolution

students – no matter what field they intend to

enter upon graduation – is the interdisciplinary

nature of the programs. Classes in conflict

management theory, mediation, and negotiation

generally form the core of such a program, but

students may also study international relations,

public policy, sociology, law, psychology,

organizational behavior, urban studies,

communications or environmental science, among

other topics.

“I was interested in studying how

communications, psychology, and law function to

resolve conflict,” says Katherine Haydu, a

graduate student at Ohio’s Antioch University.

“[P]ursuing a curriculum in dispute

resolution allowed me to…draw upon all these

areas rather than concentrating in just one…I

think [this kind of interdisciplinary approach]

is a big strength.”

Another strength, according to proponents, is

the emphasis many programs put on practical

experience, in addition to theoretical knowledge.

For example, George Mason, Antioch, and the

University of Massachusetts, Boston, all require

students to complete an internship or practicum.

“One of the best things about UMass’s

program is its mediation internship,” says

University of Massachusetts, Boston student David

Pincus. “The university places students in

small claims courts and family courts all over

eastern Massachusetts for a semester or two. This

gives the students hands-on, real-time mediation

experience in real-life situations. The

mediations are supervised and the students get a

chance to debrief with their coordinators, who

are very well-trained and experienced mediators.

Coupled with extensive training in class, the

internship program provides an unbeatable

learning experience for dispute resolvers that

far exceeds the inherent limitation of

role-plays.”

Another draw for prospective students:

flexible learning programs that are specially

tailored to mid-career students. Many dispute

resolution degree programs offer evening classes

and/or “distance-learning” programs.

Antioch’s distance-learning program, for

example, relies heavily on independent study and

encourages students to take classes (for credit

toward their conflict resolution degree) at other

universities. It also enables students to live as

far from the university as they’d like – across

the globe, even.

According to Moira Dugan, chair of the

conflict resolution program at Columbia College

in South Carolina, flexible programs allow

students “to arrange a program around their

lives, rather than the other way around. This

means that they are using what they are learning

when they are learning it, ” Dugan says.

“It allows them to really incorporate what

they are learning.”

These various characteristics of conflict

resolution programs accommodate and attract older

students. The average entry age for students in

George Mason’s graduate program is 33, according

to clinical faculty member Frank Blechman.

however, the average age has been dropping,

Blechman notes. In 1982 it was 38.

Mission: difficult, not impossible

Unfortunately, finding a job can be difficult

for those who want to use their dispute

resolution degree to get into the dispute

resolution field.

“there are not many opportunities for

people to go right from the academic field to

practice work. It’s not really the medical school

model,” says Rob Ricigliano, executive

director of the Conflict Management Group, a

non-profit organization in Cambridge,

Massachusetts. “[M]any folks that come out

of [dispute resolution] programs …are really

hard for us to use. they need to have some good

external experience. I see it as a danger if they

think they can walk out and be an environmental

mediator.”

Because the degree is fairly new, students may

need to work harder to educate potential

employers about what it offers.

“[T]he downside [of a dispute resolution

degree] is that you often need the time and space

to explain it,” Dugan says. “If you

have an MBA…, people think they know what it

means. [Dispute resolution] [s]tudents need to be

a little more entrepreneurial about how they go

about a job search. They need to be sure to

explain to a potential employer the benefits of

the degree.”

Such a degree may, however, help a student

land an internship or entry-level position in the

field. Rosemary Romero, a partner in the Western

Network in Santa Fe, New Mexico, says that when

she is seeking to hire an intern or

associate-level mediator, a degree in conflict

resolution “would definitely give [a

candidate] an edge.”

Dispute resolution students may be able to

improve their marketability by specializing in

one aspect of the field, and by gaining as much

practical experience as possible.

A conflict resolution degree would benefit a

student wanting to get into the mediation field

“if and only if, [the program] has a strong

emphasis on hands-on experience and allows

students to specialize, gaining practical

experience in their specialty,” says Julia

Wondolleck, assistant professor at the University

of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and

Environment (SNRE), who teaches conflict

resolution courses. (SNRE does not have a dispute

resolution degree program.)

“My observation over the years is that

practical experience in dispute resolution

processes or situations does sway potential

employers,” she says. “Having said

this, however, I will also note that SNRE

has…many alums in the dispute resolution field

who do not have a conflict management degree.

They were hired because they have a degree from a

reputable program, one that includes conflict

management courses, and they received

strong recommendations from faculty here.”

Is the base adequate?

For these reasons and more, it’s clear many

people will continue to enter the field with

other degrees. The University of Michigan’s SNRE

and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, among

others, likely will continue to be fertile

grounds for budding dispute resolvers. The

prestige of those schools is one reason.

But it’s also true that dispute resolution

degree programs have their critics.

Some argue, for example, that dispute

resolution programs alone cannot prepare a person

to be a mediator.

“[B]eing a mediator is more ‘art’ than

‘science,’ more a technique or a skill than an

intellectual exercise…,” says Philip

Harter of the Mediation Consortium in Washington,

DC. “I have seen people come out of these

programs and say, ‘I’m a mediator,’ and then

proceed to break every rule in the book.”

Harter does not advocate dismantling dispute

resolution programs, by any means, but he does

think prospective mediation can better learn the

trade through apprenticeships and other

“learn by doing” situations.

The interdisciplinary nature of the programs

is also seen as a drawback by some. Blechman says

George Mason’s program is sometimes criticized

for being “too diffuse” and “too

ambiguous.”

But one person’s ambiguous is another’s

innovative. Dispute resolution programs

clearly offer opportunities that many students

are seeking – to be a part of something new, to

gain theoretical knowledge and practical

experience, and to feel they are learning how to

make a difference in the world. So, despite

criticism, it’s clear that dispute resolution

degree programs are here to stay.

And it’s a good bet they’ll continue to grow

in popularity.

                        author

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