ICAR Professor Mitchell Retires in May

Posted: March 18, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Fran Rensbarger

Christopher Mitchell, Drucie French Cumbie Professor of Conflict Resolution at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (ICAR), will retire at the end of the current semester. He has been at George Mason since 1988, when he came at the invitation of his old teacher, John Burton, who was ICAR deputy director at the time.

Christopher Mitchell
Christopher Mitchell
Photo by Evan Cantwell

“It sounded like—and turned out to be—a very exciting opportunity in what was then a very new field,” says Mitchell, who earned his PhD in international relations from the University of London. After 16 years teaching in the department of systems analysis at the City University in London, he felt he was at a dead end. “And there seemed to be a lot of future here.”

Mitchell began at ICAR by teaching the basic introductory course all conflict resolution students take, which he designed. He’s gone on to teach “virtually everything” that ICAR has offered—laboratory and simulation courses; courses about third party intervention, mediation, and facilitation; and courses on methodology and comparative peace processes.

“Chris Mitchell has not only anchored the development of the field of conflict analysis and resolution via his excellent research, but he has grown a generation of students that are able to, through their insightful questions, continue the growth of research that deepens our understanding of conflict dynamics and the processes of resolution,” says Sara Cobb, director of ICAR.

On the highlights of his career at Mason, Mitchell counts as one of the most important the chance to do a lot more practice. “One of the nice things about the institute was that you were expected to practice—to get out into the world and see if some of your ideas could be applied. So I had the opportunity of working in Africa, Spain, the Middle East, and Latin America.”

“The second nice thing about this place is the variety of students that we have here from all over the world. They come with backgrounds and knowledge that is just an enormous resource for the institute and for us as faculty and still as students. For example, one of our students comes from Aceh, Indonesia, and recently gave a talk about the effects of the tsunami in Aceh,” he says.

Mitchell also takes pleasure and pride in the fact that about 90 percent of ICAR’s PhD graduates and some of the master’s alumni are now teaching conflict studies in universities all around the world. ICAR’s alumni are also working, he notes, in the many organizations that do conflict management or conflict resolution work. Others are now better able to handle the tensions that exist in hospitals, business organizations, and schools where they work. One of the major efforts started during his tenure is the annual peer mediation conference for public school students, which was held earlier this week on the Fairfax Campus.

“I’d like to say that we’ve brought peace to the Middle East, but we haven’t. But we have made things a little bit easier in a lot of places—we’ve set up situations where people talk to each other instead of shooting at each other. We’ve defused some crises, and we’ve helped rebuild societies that have torn themselves apart. Often it’s a small contribution, but we’re a relatively small outfit.”

His greatest achievement? “One answer is simply keeping this place together while I was director, from 1991 to 1994,” he says. During that time, the faculty shrank to just three other professors, and the Conflict Clinic, which was one of the associated organizations of the institute, went bankrupt. “That was quite a tough three years. At the time, I think, there was every possibility that the institute would fold, but it didn’t.”

Mitchell may be retiring, but he won’t be resting. He plans to be around at least for the next year. “I still have eight PhD committees that I’m chair of,” he says. “I’m going to see them through.”

And, of course, there will be books. He plans to edit a book with one of his alumni on local peace communities in countries like Columbia, the Philippines, and in Central America. He also plans to update his survey book of the field, The Structure of International Conflict, which was published in 1981 and is still in print.

In his free time, Mitchell hopes to keep a hand in peace-building projects. And he plans time for gardening, listening to music, and “watching my daughters’ careers develop.” One is a college teacher in New York who is becoming a writer, and the other is a promising actress in Atlanta. He and his wife, Lois, are also pondering a move back to London.

“The work Chris Mitchell has done is only part of his contribution—he has also contributed in the manner in which he has done this work,” says Cobb. “He has exemplified the best practices in terms of building relationships based on trust, listening to others, and responding with care, insight, and humor. ICAR has greatly benefited from his contributions over the years, and we very much look forward to his continued presence, in Emeritus status.”

Write to at