Mission Critical

The new era of violent conflicts involves an expanding spectrum of entities-from global superpowers, to state, substate and nonstate groups like ISIS. And depending on the duration and severity, these conflicts can often drive people from their homelands. Current global conflicts have displaced a record number of people—an estimated 13.9 million individuals in 2014 alone, with an additional 5 million in the first six months of 2015. With nearly 60 million people either refugees, internally displaced or seeking asylum, it is crucial to ask why many conventional approaches and current policies no longer work, and what breakthrough approaches can help produce a global society more at peace.

Tom and Tim Pearson are business entrepreneurs, investors and philanthropists with a longstanding interest in resolving global disputes and violent conflicts. Growing up in Iowa, the twin brothers were strongly influenced by their parents—a Methodist minister and college professor—who were deeply engaged with the civil rights movement, nuclear disarmament and other central issues of their day. Later, as accomplished business leaders, they also learned the critical significance of rigorous, fact-based analysis serving as the foundation for effective decision-making.

These values underpin The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts and The Pearson Global Forum. A landmark $100 million gift in the fall of 2015 from the Thomas L. Pearson and The Pearson Family Members Foundation—equal to the second-largest gift in University of Chicago history—places the University of Chicago and the Harris School of Public Policy at the forefront of global conflict resolution. Through the judicious application of the gift proceeds, the grant unleashes the power of data-driven research approaches to identify the root causes of conflicts, so policymakers can design, pioneer and inform effective new approaches to help prevent and resolve them.

“This is an extraordinarily important undertaking,” says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who helped facilitate peace negotiations in Northern Ireland in 2013. “I applaud and marvel at the new Institute’s scale and design. It has multiple dimensions that include research, convening power and education. From my experience, a lot of what we call history results from the intersection of people and ideas, and The Pearson Institute embraces both.”

“The timing is perfect,” adds Anne C. Richard, AM’84, currently the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. “Right now, we need the smartest minds grappling with these problems. We need good evidence on which to argue various policy options and then to push them internationally to places like the UN in New York or in Geneva or in capitals overseas.”

“When I heard about the Pearsons’ gift to the University of Chicago, I was blown away,” says Bill George, senior fellow at Harvard Business School, the former chairman and CEO of Medtronic, and the best-selling author of Authentic Leadership:Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value and Discovering Your True North. “I had no idea that they were talking about a gift of this magnitude or something that would have this enormous impact. If we can just avoid one armed conflict through the work at The Pearson Institute, that’s going to be a great gift to humanity.”

For years, global foreign policy has been driven largely by political expediency and personal experience. As a result, too many policies have been developed—and too many programs funded—without a fact-based understanding of what causes conflicts and what it takes to resolve them. Consequently, despite the best intentions of policymakers, the cycle of despair too often endures for decades. It is not unusual for children born into refugee camps to live in exile as refugee parents and then as grandparents.

Recent developments within the social sciences, however, have opened new empirical pathways for exploring what causes violent conflicts and how policy decisions affect them. Researchers are increasingly recognizing that today’s most complex conflicts have multiple, interrelated causes that require cross-disciplinary study by political scientists, psychologists and others, along with strategies that turn raw data into insight.

“We’re experiencing a time of unprecedented innovation in the social sciences,” says Daniel Diermeier, dean of the Harris School of Public Policy. “We see much better approaches, much better ability to handle large amounts of data, to develop sophisticated statistical models, to use data analytics in interesting new ways, to have randomized controlled experiments. The Pearson Institute will take the lead in applying these innovative methodologies to the study of violent global conflicts.”

This potential has not been lost on the diplomatic and philanthropic communities. At a time of increasingly restricted budgets and a growing number of conflicts, it is no longer acceptable simply to throw aid workers and aid at victims of conflict. Instead, organizations have no choice but to show why their programs actually work. A growing number of organizations, including USAID and the U.S. military, have called for evidence-based approaches to address the allocation of resources to global conflicts.

“My sense is that at the State Department we are looking for the type of analysis that The Pearson Institute would provide,” says Richard. “We need good data. We need cross-cutting, interdisciplinary analysis. We need people who have taken the time to study the situations on the ground and can come up with solutions. For example, if you do not understand the role of minorities inside Syria, you are not going to understand why Assad has managed to stay in power.”

“The value of the research that will come from The Pearson Institute is far-reaching and will impact people on the front lines of our diplomatic posts around the world,” says Kathryn Hall, the former U.S. ambassador to Austria. “Negotiation is what ambassadors do, and The Pearson Institute will put out new approaches and new tools that our diplomatic community can use day in and day out.”

In 2012 Tom and Tim Pearson began to discuss their family’s legacy during a series of fly-fishing trips to Wyoming, Montana and Utah and over long dinners at a family home in Park City, Utah. Thoughtful days on blue-ribbon trout streams flowed into evening discussions of family values. Shortly thereafter, brothers Philip and David joined the dialogue and the brothers’ collective thinking quickly coalesced. The Pearson family would leave a lasting mark by supporting research aimed at reducing violent conflicts, and by applying research conclusions to inform related public policy.

“No single issue 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,” Tom Pearson says.

As their vision took shape, they realized it would take a strong institutional partner to help drive their agenda. Enduring success would also require integrated work across the entire spectrum of global conflict resolution strategies—from identifying root causes, to influencing data-driven policies, to inspiring and training future practitioners.

“Ultimately, we became convinced that the University of Chicago would be the best partner,” Tim Pearson says. “It has committed leadership. It has an existing entity, the Harris School of Public Policy, where The Pearson Institute can reside and undertake new forms of interdisciplinary and data-driven research. It has global reach through its collaborative University Centers in Paris, Beijing, Delhi and Hong Kong. And from its inception, the University has fostered an environment in which rigorous inquiry is successfully applied to society’s toughest problems.”

“The mission of The Pearson Institute is to become the leading institute in the world that will help us to understand global conflicts, to analyze existing as well as potential solutions, and to inform new public policies that help us resolve them,” says Tom Pearson.

“It will be based on a rigorous quantitative methodology that intersects these dimensions and finds innovative policy solutions to resolve conflicts in a variety of different places around the world,” adds Diermeier.

The Pearson Institute will create a new academic and research community at the University of Chicago that will bring together the world’s leading scholars to define an entirely new approach to thinking about, analyzing and resolving global conflicts.

The Pearson Institute will reside within the Harris School of Public Policy, and the University will appoint as executive director a recognized authority in global conflict and/or national security, who has worked at the highest levels of the defense, foreign policy, nongovernmental organizations and/ or third-world development communities. The University will also appoint an internationally respected scholar as academic director to lead faculty recruiting, curriculum development and research. The academic director will hold a named professorship at Harris, designated as The Rev. Dr. Richard L. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict Studies and Faculty Director, The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts.

This academic director will lead a group of four chaired faculty members, who will collaborate with affiliated faculty, fellows, graduate students and visiting scholars to conduct research. In addition to the academic director, the three other named professorships will be designated The Ramalee E. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict Studies, The Philip K. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict Studies, and The David L. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict Studies. Each of the four professorships will also carry The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts designation.

“Together, these scholars will apply modern social science’s complete toolkit—mathematical modeling, data analysis, on-the-ground fieldwork, empirical studies and randomized controlled trials—to confront the biggest foreign policy challenge of our generation: global conflicts,” says Tom Pearson.

“Quantitative data is essential for conducting good evidence-based policy because a lot of times we make assumptions about how certain elements impact certain outcomes,” says Oeindrila Dube, an assistant professor of politics and economics currently researching global conflict at New York University. “For example, policymakers might assume that the disbursement of military aid leads to greater stability in a country. But, in the case of Colombia, we documented numerically that para-military violence tended to increase in locations where these groups had access to U.S. military aid.”

The Pearson Institute will also draw upon the University’s other divisions, schools, institutes and affiliated organizations and leverage a wide range of University initiatives, both locally and across the globe. As such, it will tap into a rich tradition of leadership by the University in data-driven scholarship across such domains as economics, medicine, law, sociology, political science, education and criminal justice.

Armed with new methodologies and conclusions, researchers need a conduit both to other researchers and to the legislators, policymakers, diplomats, military leaders and nongovernmental organizations responsible for resolving
global and regional conflicts. That way, researchers can introduce innovative new approaches and gain feedback from their peers. They can also share their conclusions with policymakers, who need and value fact-based insight about what approaches are most likely to work.

“Methodology is absolutely essential to bringing academic discourse about public policy to a more constructive level,” says Roger Myerson, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Economics and the Glen A. Lloyd Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago in the Department of Economics and Harris. “But we also want those policy questions considered by people who do not have a stake in any particular answer, and who are only committed to making statements that can be defended in some logical way that is clear and transparent what the logical foundations are. I think it is an important part of building better public policy for our country and for the world.”

Beginning in 2018, The Pearson Institute will annually convene preeminent international policy leaders, scholars and other global stakeholders at The Pearson Global Forum. These events will ensure that scholars, students and policymakers regularly exchange ideas and that insights from the growing body of research inform public policy. It will also present and host additional conferences and other events highlighting successful applications of The Pearson Institute’s research to inform public policy intended to prevent or resolve global conflicts. The Pearson Global Forum will be led by a University-appointed director well recognized for operating prestigious interdisciplinary forums, among other matters, that convene global thought leaders.

In the years following the attacks on 9/11, a new generation of students and scholars have emerged who want to have a positive impact on the world. They understand the changing nature of violent global conflicts and see that Cold War-era solutions are less effective against today’s asymmetric threats. And they know that by exploring the origins, dynamics and consequences of global conflicts, they can help to diminish it.

“There are new problems emerging that are hard to understand and incredibly complex, and the old tools of interpretation are outdated and no longer useful,” says second-year Harris student Cameron Peltz. “The level of investigation and rigorous systematic thinking here, that also deals with new definitions and new creative interpretations that are unconventional and unprecedented, can be really useful in shaping the way that problems like these are approached.”

Through The Pearson Institute, the University will support these students by offering new educational programs that give them the empirical foundation they will need to study global conflicts. These programs will include formal academic coursework, innovative tools for resolving conflicts and informing more effective policies, development workshops for policymakers and an innovative experiential learning curriculum.

Additionally, reflecting the scale of the Pearson family’s landmark gift, The Pearson Institute will provide scholarships to a select group of distinguished professional and doctoral students chosen based on their interest in global conflicts and individual potential for impact. The Pearson Fellows program is open to Master of Public Policy students, and The Pearson Scholars program supports PhD students.

“This element of the overall program may be the most critical over the long term,” says Tim Pearson. “It will embed a data-driven approach to research and study into the students, and they will take that experience with them throughout their careers as they explore potential resolutions to global conflicts.”

Though acts of terrorist violence capture the headlines, they are just the flashpoint of the much deeper suffering that follows. In the Syrian conflict alone, one out of every two residents has now fled the country, and the United Nations Refugee Agency estimates this total reached 4.25 million at the end of 2015. But the impact of the civil war extends far beyond the global humanitarian crisis it has produced. The conflict also threatens regional and global stability as well as investment and economic growth. ISIS has also caused irreversible damage to countless heritage sites across areas of Iraq and Syria.

“For the Pearson family, resolving global, regional, state and nonstate conflicts is a deeply personal issue,” says Tim Pearson. “It is about helping to create a more stable world where families and children can lead happy and healthy lives regardless of their location.”

The Pearson family also envisions a program that continues to expand as it attracts additional outside funding targeted at both the research and the educational agenda. Support from other private and public benefactors will help The Pearson Institute and The Pearson Global Forum provide additional faculty and student support, new programs for students and existing policymakers from around the world, expanded programming and an even wider curriculum.

“We know the journey ahead will be formidable—to find new ways through The Pearson Institute to study and understand global conflicts, to significantly and meaningfully impact and inform policy, and to share these findings around the world through The Pearson Global Forum,” Tom Pearson says. “This mission to contribute to a global society at peace can make a difference in millions of people’s lives. For those committed to making a difference in the world, we ask everyone interested to join us.”

— Rob Squire, AM’83