Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, Interim Dean and Sydney Stein Professor

Following the announcement that Katherine Baicker would be transitioning from her role as dean of the Harris School of Public Policy to become the next provost of the University of Chicago, Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, AB’96, Sydney Stein Professor, and long-time deputy dean at Harris, was appointed the school’s interim dean, effective March 1. We sat down with Bueno de Mesquita, a political scientist who uses game theory to study national security, violent conflict, and electoral politics, as he begins his tenure. In our wide-ranging discussion, he shared perspective on his goals as interim dean, his UChicago roots, his scholarship, and why he’s passionate about Thai kickboxing.

What are your thoughts as you assume your new role as Interim Dean?

It’s a tremendous privilege to step into this role. It’s exciting and daunting at the same time. While I love writing papers and teaching classes, I also have a longstanding interest in institution building and academic leadership. I've been helping lead Harris as a deputy dean for a long time, spanning four deans, and I am deeply invested in the school. I've spent almost my whole career here. Harris is unquestionably the defining institution of my professional life, and the University of Chicago – where I was also an undergraduate in the College – is in many ways the defining institution of my intellectual life. So, getting to help lead here is a particular honor.

I have the deepest admiration for Kate Baicker and for what Harris has become under her exceptional leadership. I have had a front-row seat for the almost six years she served as dean, and I look forward to continuing to work with and learn from her in her role as provost. Harris now needs to build on the momentum of the last several years while doing some hard things that make sense to tackle during an interim period.

What are a couple of those things you’d like to accomplish as Interim Dean?

On the student-facing side, I’m hoping to implement some changes to the MPP Core curriculum. Nothing radical, our fundamental views on policy education haven’t changed. But for the past several months we  have had committees thinking about ways to make sure the Core is as effective and relevant as possible for our students, even as it lays the deep intellectual foundations that are prerequisite for serious policy thinking. I hope to finish the conceptual work this year and start implementing changes in the classroom this coming fall.

We’ve got some faculty-facing things to do as well. We will remain hard at work expanding the faculty. And we are going to spend a bit of time this year thinking about internal governance norms and institutions. The school has grown tremendously in the past decade and this year is a good opportunity to make sure we are operating in a thoughtful and efficient manner at this new scale.

Finally, I am looking forward to getting to know many more of the friends and partners of the school so that we can build on the momentum we created under Dean Baicker in terms of Harris’s relationships across campus, our city, and the broader policy world.

How do you see the role of an interim dean?                     

I asked President Alivisatos that exact question, and he told me that the way to think about it is that the interim dean is the dean. We aren’t going to tread water this year. We have great opportunities before us and we are going to seize them.

In the end, the job of the dean is to have a principled and holistic view of the school’s mission and to make decisions in service of that mission.

Thankfully, I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of many parts of the school. I’ve been teaching in the Core for over 15 years, so I’ve gotten to know a lot about our students. I’ve been deputy dean for over a decade, so I’ve been immersed in many strategic decisions. I was involved in creating the Evening Master’s Program and in the last effort to evolve the Core. I was involved in the MACRM and in MSCAPP programs, in Harris’s expanded role in the undergraduate major, and in launching the Pearson Institute. I’ve served on the Harris DIAB (Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board), though my time on the DIAB was cut short when I stepped into the interim dean role. From these experiences, I also know Harris’ terrific staff in a way that not all our faculty do. And, of course, I know the faculty and they know me.

That said, I have a lot to learn. Harris is a big operation. Fortunately, there are terrific people up and down the organization. And the school has many wonderful friends and partners who are deeply committed to it. I’m leaning heavily on them, first to help me get up to speed and then to make sure we execute effectively so that we seize the opportunities before us. It’s going to be fun. 

Tell us about your time at the University of Chicago as an undergrad.

Being a student in the College was a life-changing experience. I thrived on the intellectualism and the ideas-first approach to life. I loved the intensity of the undergraduate Core, especially the experience of reading the same thing at the same time as everyone else, and then talking about and debating it.

I wasn’t the best high school student. (You can read my apology to my parents in the acknowledgments section of Political Economy for Public Policy, which many of our students have perhaps puzzled over in the past.) The experience here on campus was deeply transformative. From the moment I got here, I didn’t feel any of the motivational struggles I felt all through high school. I just wanted to read, learn, and discuss.

That said, I was still something of a dilettante — I took some of the classes you might expect in political science, economics, math, and statistics. But I also studied a lot of literature, philosophy, theology, and the like. I even took astrophysics from Bob Rosner, our current Harris school colleague. It was just a wonderful time.

I was also in a band; it wasn’t all high minded.

Who were the teachers and mentors who had a large impact on your career trajectory?

Amy Kass, who was a senior lecturer in the College, was the teacher who had the biggest impact on my intellectual life. I took the year-long humanities core sequence, Human Being and Citizen, from her, as well as other courses from both her and her husband, Leon Kass, who was a faculty member in the Committee on Social Thought. For me, Mrs. Kass set the example for what an intellectual life could and should be like.

My colleague at Harris and frequent collaborator, Scott Ashworth, had big impact on my academic career. Scott and I were classmates in a course Jim Snyder taught at MIT (where Scott was in the economics PhD program) when I was a first-year at Harvard in the political science PhD program. By the time I reached my third year, the Harvard Government department had hired Scott as an assistant professor. He was on my dissertation committee and made a major difference in terms of my academic direction. He provided invaluable guidance about what courses to take, and what good applied game theory looks like. We ended up writing many papers and a book together, a collaboration that continues to this day.

A couple of my graduate school classmates also had a major impact. Early in an academic career, there are no intellectual influences more important than your co-authors. I was lucky to write early papers with Matthew Stephenson (now at the Harvard Law School) and Amanda Friedenberg (now at the Michigan economics department). Those early collaborations had an important role in shaping me as a scholar.

Your father Bruce Bueno de Mesquita is also a member of the academy. How did he influence you?

I guess you could say that I’m in the family business. My father is a political scientist at NYU who has worked on both international relations and comparative politics. In fact, Harris students have been learning about some of his most important ideas in the Analytical Politics Core’s discussion of the selectorate model for a long time. He was part of an early community at the University of Rochester that pioneered the intellectual agenda for political economy—not entirely coincidentally, that was the department where our former dean, Daniel Diermeier, did his PhD training. Our work at Harris trying to create the world’s best political economy community builds in important ways on the Rochester tradition.

My father’s career is an exemplar for me of what it means to care deeply about ideas, students, and the pursuit of new knowledge. He also is a big believer in institution building; he was the chair of both the Rochester and NYU political science departments. So maybe I can blame some of my interest in academic leadership on him too.

What makes Harris special?

Professor Bueno de Mesquita teaching.

Harris is the intellectual’s public policy school: it’s committed to the proposition that experience is no substitute for analysis. While experience is, of course, important, the ability to step back and be dispassionate and analytical about complex, nuanced policy issues, even issues you care deeply about, is essential to making good, serious decisions.

Put another way, the Harris philosophy of “doing good” vs. “feeling good” sets us apart. As a community, because we know that policy is serious work for serious people, we are inclined to question everything. We are committed to finding real solutions – not letting our students or ourselves feel good about obvious-sounding, but fundamentally flawed, answers to hard questions about climate change, or public safety, or taxation or economic development, orgovernance and democracy, or any other pressing issue. Rather, Harris insists that students learn the analytical skills necessary to wrestle with hard problems. This training is what will empower them to make a real difference.

The hard-working Harris community – our staff, faculty, students, alumni, partners, and friends – is tenaciously committed to our distinctive approach.

Let’s talk about your research.

I think of my intellectual life as having a few different components. In my career as a political scientist, I have always been split between research agendas. One is scholarship focused on national security issues. That started with work on terrorism and counterterrorism early in my career. Over time, that work led me to other related topics. I moved from terrorism/counterterrorism into thinking about rebellion and insurgency. And lately, I’ve been thinking about cyber conflict.

In addition to this national security and conflict-oriented agenda, I study electoral politics. I’ve written on electoral accountability, term limits, voter competence and democratic performance, voter discrimination, and lots of other issues related to the ways electoral systems do and don’t work to achieve good governance.

I also devote energy to methodological work. My colleagues Scott Ashworth, Chris Berry, and I wrote Theory and Credibility: Integrating Theoretical and Empirical Social Science. That book grew out of the opportunity the three of us had in 2011 to run the Empirical Implications of Theoretical Model Summer Institute, part of a long-running program at several U.S universities. That experience sparked a series of conversations over the course of a decade about how to really think about theory and empirics and how to fit them together.

I’ve also written a couple textbooks. Political Economy for Public Policy grew out of course notes I originally created for the first analytical politics course in the MPP core. And Anthony Fowler and I wrote Thinking Clearly with Data: A Guide to Quantitative Reasoning and Analysis because we saw the need for a book on quantitative reasoning that focused more on the conceptual and less on the purely technical. I like writing these types of synthetic books. I find it satisfying to take a somewhat amorphous body of knowledge and help organize and explain it in a way that hopefully people can make sense of, apply for themselves, and benefit from.

Your research has unlocked some interesting opportunities.

Speaking with students.

That’s true! In 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, and the rest of the American national security apparatus was trying to learn everything that it could about terrorism. And, since I had written a paper on negotiations between governments and terrorists in my dissertation, even though it wasn’t remotely about al Qaeda or transnational terrorism, I started receiving invitations to all sorts of events that encouraged conversations between scholars and practitioners. These were exciting opportunities early in my career. I suspect that I learned far more from the practitioners than they learned from me. Just getting to be in the room with people with a wide diversity of experiences, who were trying to make sense of a new set of challenges, helped me understand what the important questions were and what was worth working on.

As I’ve continued to work on national security issues from terrorism to cyberwarfare, those opportunities to interact with policymakers in the military, intelligence community, and foreign policy world have continued to be an incredibly rewarding part of my career. It has also shaped the way I think about policy engagement for academics. I sometimes sum up my view with, “scholars are more valuable to policy than scholarship”. The pace of policy and of academic research are so different, it is rarely the case that a new research finding directly answers a policymaker’s immediate question. But academics have ways of thinking and habits of mind that are important and different from policymakers’. So, it is essential that we have a seat at the table.

That is why, when I am given the opportunity to spend time in the policy world, I seldom want to provide an extensive briefing on my own work. I want to hear what policymakers are thinking about and struggling with, both so that I can learn from them and so that I can see whether any of my broader social science perspectives and intuitions can be of service. I find that approach often leads to meaningful, ongoing conversations about critically important policy issues. And it ultimately feeds back into doing better research.

Another strain of my work involves thinking critically about and advising on thorny governance issues in the tech world. Many tech platforms—from e-commerce to social media to new AI applications—face hard, politically and culturally fraught governance decisions. What content, people or behavior are allowed on their platforms? And who should decide? Thinking through the principles and procedures that lead to good and legitimate decisions about these issues is important for both the firms and for society. We’re in the nascent stages of this incredibly rich set of issues surrounding technology governance and the relationship between technology and society. There’s exciting research to be done that can have real impact. It’s an energizing field for me personally right now.

What else should we know about you? Any hobbies?

I am an enthusiastic, which is not to be confused with gifted, practitioner of a couple hobbies. The first is martial arts, which I’ve been involved in for well over a decade. I started karate with my son when he was very young, and my daughter and wife joined us a couple years later. We also spent some time learning the Filipino weapons art of Kali-Escrima. Over the past several years, my son and I have switched over to Muay Thai, which is Thai kickboxing. (My wife is still doing karate, but my daughter gave it all up for ballet.) I believe there is no better training for academic leadership than routinely getting punched in the nose by people who are younger, faster, and more athletic than you are. I don’t much go in for parenting advice, but I do highly recommend finding a hobby to share with your kids. It keeps you connected even as they become surly teenagers. And, if it is a sport, you get the added bonus of combining quality time with exercise.

My other hobby is guitar. I've been a folk, country, bluesy guitar player since high school. But over the past few years I've been studying with a jazz teacher, so I'm playing jazz guitar these days.

Lastly, I guess it is worth mentioning that I do all the cooking for my family. My kids were excited about my becoming interim dean, but only if I agreed to keep making them dinner.