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Finding a better balance in your work (essay)

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It's also about a better balance in your work life, says Lynn Talton.

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Why adjuncts should quit complaining and just quit (essay)

Recently I stumbled across an article in The New York Times about my favorite topic: online academic rage -- and whether it spikes among those frustrated by the struggle to find a tenure-stream job. “Is there something about adjunct faculty members that makes them prone to outrageous political outbursts?” Colby College sociologist Neil Gross asked.

Citing recent examples in which the most vulnerable among us have been fired for an impolitic tweet or Facebook post, Gross argues that full-time faculty members are not the “tenured radicals” that American conservatives have feared since the 1990s. Instead, he proposes, the vast majority of full-timers are “tamed” by the prospects, or long-term comforts, of tenure. Research accounts, regular raises, the orderliness of being able to plan our lives and the satisfaction of promises kept inevitably sutures most of us to civility in all its forms.

But what incentives do workers who are already vulnerable in so many ways have to be polite? Although many people with humanities Ph.D.s do other jobs, this stubborn belief that they have trained for one thing, and one thing only, keeps many adjuncts on the hamster wheel long past a time when frustration and sorrow have turned to rage. Aside from the stress of trying to piece together a career one course at a time, the adjunct army -- permanently contingent, underemployed, overworked and underpaid faculty members -- has every reason to demand radical change.

But do these conditions produce a truly political radicalism, or are they simply radical utterances that get contingent faculty into trouble and leave a system that relies on a reserve army of labor unchanged? And since people with doctorates aren’t tied to a particular factory or industry, would the radical solution be to stop teaching as a per-course adjunct?

So I posted Gross’s article on my Facebook with this comment:

Why won't anyone say the obvious: no one should work as an adjunct. If people refused this labor and did something else with their Ph.D.s -- which, according to studies done by professional associations is more than viable -- institutions would be forced to adjust their hiring practices.

I waited for the blowback, which was not long in coming. Negative comments were all in the radius of “check your privilege” and reminders that contingent faculty sacrifices supported tenure-stream faculty lifestyles. Positive comments -- many from tenured faculty -- trended toward proposed reforms that have been circulating for some time: constricting the supply of Ph.D.s, dissolving tenure and redistributing privilege, and simply being kinder to contingent faculty when you pass them in the hall. Except for eliminating tenure entirely and making us all into contingent labor, such solutions are reformist, not radical (and, as one tenured colleague pointed out, being polite seems like a low bar for a labor policy).

Then there is unionization. But this too is a reform under most conditions: it’s not that unions can’t be radical -- it’s that they often aren’t. The organizing phase can be quite radicalizing, particularly in its emphasis on consciousness raising. However, part-time faculty unions, even as they make gains for workers, may also promote an unexpected and, for many still in search of full-time work, unwanted outcome: stabilizing the academic class system by making part-time teaching perpetual. When the contract is signed, both the union and the university have effectively agreed that maintaining a significant pool of per-course contingent faculty -- not converting those courses to full-time jobs -- is the objective.

For example, at the New School, our part-time faculty union (a UAW local) does not guarantee a living wage or permanent employment. Union membership is also a privilege, one that is earned over a lengthy period of uninterrupted teaching. Although they are eligible for annual increases and research funds, the salaries of many union members begin at less than $5,000 per course, and most teach between one and three courses a year at the New School, necessitating other jobs at other universities. Union status confers health benefits but only at a minimum course load. And while the university must pay union members the equivalent of their “base” teaching load whether they are assigned courses or not, that base can shrink to nothing if their courses are not needed over a period of semesters -- or do not meet a minimum enrollment and are canceled.

There are, perhaps, better union contracts elsewhere, but my point is that unionization itself does not translate to full-time jobs, only the power to fight more effectively for minimum standards on part-time jobs.

This is not unimportant for those who, for whatever reason, are committed to contingent teaching. When Long Island University locked out its contingent faculty in September 2016, it couldn’t find the new teachers it needed, and many who were offered work refused to scab. In addition, LIU was forced back to the bargaining table because students were not only angry that they had no classes to attend, but also appalled to see their teachers being treated so unfairly. “The LIU administration discovered,” Jessica Rosenberg, president of the faculty union, said to Inside Higher Ed, “that denying students the education they deserve is never a successful strategy.”

LIU was a union success story. But it also underlines the point that part-time faculty unions are not, by their nature, in the business of helping humanities scholars leave per-course contingent employment and make careers as scholars. They are in the business of making that employment as bearable as they can, and that’s an important task.

But what if those who feel harmed by contingent teaching just stopped doing it? What if enough people found other work they loved and universities did not have the large pool of overqualified people to draw on, a pool so large that they can get 15 courses for the price that five or six taught by a beginning assistant professor on the tenure track would cost? And what might persuade contingent faculty members that it would be all right to withdraw their labor from a system that isn’t working for them? In other words, how can we talk about the alternatives to contingent employment differently enough that those who do it would be willing to stop?

First, no one -- whether a department chair, a graduate adviser, a graduate student or a contingent faculty member -- should be dismissive about the value, availability and satisfactions of work in nonprofits, industry, government or secondary school teaching and academic administration. Yes, you may need some help from a career counselor to mount a successful search; yes, there may be geographical challenges. But the fact that other people you know have had difficulty pursuing careers that make good use of a humanities Ph.D., or that your own doctoral program discouraged you from even thinking that way, doesn’t mean such work isn’t available or that a doctorate in the humanities is not good preparation for it.

It is. My own professional organization, the American Historical Association, funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has established a program called Career Diversity for Historians, a robust set of initiatives aimed at expanding job horizons and opportunities. More importantly, despite what your graduate adviser told you, the tracks for such careers have already been laid by prior generations of historians. A 2013 report issued by the AHA followed 2,500 scholars and found slightly more than half in tenure track jobs at four-year colleges and universities; 17.8 percent in part-time, contingent or temporary jobs; and the rest in “a wide range of careers that included government, law firms, libraries and publishing houses.” Only two out of the 2,500 historians were confirmed unemployed, and 70 could not be located. “Even if we assume that all of the 70 Ph.D.s who could not be found are missing because they don’t have jobs, that’s an unemployment rate of about 3 percent,” the report concludes -- lower than the national unemployment rate in 2013 and now.

While many departments don’t track the employment of graduates off the tenure track, many do, and those outcomes are also worth examining. I was surprised and pleased to note that a survey about job outcomes for my own department, which confers a terminal master’s degree and sends some students on to the Ph.D. in other departments at the New School and elsewhere, roughly confirms the AHA’s findings. It showed many of our graduates in tenure-stream jobs, and some working as contingent faculty at two- and four-year colleges and universities.

But many graduates had used their history degrees to access an even wider range of occupations than the 2013 AHA summary report revealed. New School alumni, some with M.A.s and others with Ph.D.s, were working in jobs that included finance, public relations, psychotherapy, high school teaching, local historical societies, textbook publishing, business, information technology, politics, international relations, national security, journalism and poetry. “We’re tremendously proud of how our students have applied their master’s degrees,” department chair Julia Ott explains. “Our interdisciplinary program, geared towards paths individual students choose, facilitates these outcomes by connecting our students to a wide range of history-related opportunities both across the New School and throughout New York City.”

Second, no one should be ashamed of not getting -- or not wanting -- a tenure-stream job. In this vein, I sometimes wonder if the term “alt-ac” really serves us, particularly when academics use it to describe a second-choice job, or one that leaves the skills developed over the course of a doctoral program on the table. Most professional work requires advanced research, teaching and learning skills.

Furthermore, jobs in university administration are not alt-ac -- they are “ac,” and teaching faculty would be wise to stop speaking about administrators as if they were intellectual failures rather than crucial supporters and collaborators in the academic enterprise. I look around my own provost’s office and nearly everyone -- career administrators as well as colleagues who have stepped into the provost job for a fixed term -- has a Ph.D., its equivalent or some graduate education. So do many of my other colleagues in IT, public relations and admissions. “Our career diversity initiative is trying to emphasize that higher ed employment includes administration,” says Jim Grossman, executive director of the AHA. “There are good administrative jobs, ones that provide opportunities to teach. Our Ph.D.s would be highly qualified for these positions, and even more so with some small changes in our graduate programs.”

Perhaps per-course adjuncts are right to be angry at not being offered the full-time jobs that clearly should be available, but it is also possible that many may feel more trapped than actually are. What would it take to return power and agency, and the ability to make decisions over their own lives, to contingent faculty themselves? What would it mean to admit that, while contingent teaching may be satisfying for some, it is -- at its best -- painful and demoralizing for others, and that they need to take their talents elsewhere?

This is something we could really change if we wanted to -- not by some of us checking our privilege, but by all of us agreeing not to insist that the only successful graduate students are those who only commit to one definition of success -- and one location for pursuing their intellectual dreams.

Claire B. Potter is a professor of history at the New School and the executive editor of Public Seminar.

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Yale Gives Update on $50M Faculty Diversity Initiative

Two years into its $50 million faculty diversity initiative, Yale University says it has hired 50 new ladder-rank professors. Some 26 have been hired within the last year, Yale said this week. Yale also has hired 11 Presidential Visiting Fellows this year. Such fellows, recruited from around the world, bring unique perspectives on research, practice and teaching, according to information from Yale.

Some diversity funds have supported a Dean’s Emerging Scholars program within the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Fifteen incoming Ph.D. students were admitted as fellows based on their outstanding potential and contributions to diversity this year, and 20 additional Ph.D. students will receive competitive research awards.

“Combined with support for nominations from divinity and music during our inaugural year, the initiative has now provided support to every school campuswide,” Provost Benjamin Polak and Richard Bribiescas, deputy provost for faculty development and diversity, said in an email this week to faculty members and administrators. “We now look ahead to the third year of the faculty excellence and diversity initiative, energized by our successes to date.”

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Five pieces of advice for grad students dealing with mental illness (essay)

Jill Richardson shares five coping strategies she developed through personal experience.

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Diversity Newsletter publication date: 
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
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Navigating Graduate School With Mental Illness

Author discusses his new book on why liberal arts majors make great employees

Author discusses his new book about why those who major in liberal arts disciplines -- and the humanities in particular -- make great employees.

The concept of reliability in higher education (essay)

I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t hear Queen’s “We Are the Champions” on the car radio. Sometimes I flip from one station to the next, and “We Are the Champions” is on both stations at the same time. I doubt that “We Are the Champions” is played on the radio so often because it is one of the greatest songs of all time; it’s not.

“We Are the Champions,” classic rock stations seem to believe, is a reliable option for airplay. That is, if there is any Queen song a radio station should take a risk on playing, “We Are the Champions” is the one most likely to find a sympathetic audience. Reliability, classic rock stations also seem to believe, is the most compelling reason to tune in when drivers are stuck in their cars or when listeners are playing background music at work. “Don’t surprise me with a Queen song I’ve never heard of,” a given radio audience must believe. “Play ‘We Are the Champions’ yet again.”

In the university, reliability is a keyword as well. We produce reliable discourse by repeating -- over our own metaphoric two stations at once -- the same messages daily. We have our own versions of “We Are the Champions,” and we typically call them “policy,” “email correspondence,” “strategic planning” and “administration.” We might hate to hear our version of “We Are the Champions” over and over again, but we are still compelled to listen when it’s played, and in some cases, we are even sympathetic to the repetition. That reliable repetition includes the promotion of “cutting-edge research” and “innovative teaching.” It also includes the support of “critical thinking” and “lifelong learning.” We are “transformative.” We prepare students to be “citizens.” We are the champions, indeed.

I am sick of hearing “We Are the Champions” on the radio when I’m driving around town. Yet what’s wrong with being exposed to what is reliable? Reliability suggests boredom (“Oh, that again?”), but is also suggests dependability or expectation. To teach critical thinking is a reliable gesture (and a sympathetic one).

As department chair, I often feel the pressure of being reliable. I am in my office every day, so people who never stop by can still find me if they one day feel the desire. I schedule meetings at regular intervals. I write letters of support for various initiatives, grant applications, sabbaticals or special requests in a timely fashion. Emails are responded to quickly. I often ask colleagues “How is it going?” and “How’s your semester?” in order to project the image of reliable concern.

The average person would, no doubt, describe this type of work attitude as “reliable” as it attempts to establish comfort and an overall feeling that everything is going according to plan. No worries. It’s all going to be OK. Everyone is all right. At the same time, I don’t want to be my department’s version of “We Are the Champions.”

What is the difference between being reliable and repetitive? If we feel comfortable with having our research called “transformative” by an administrative strategic plan, are we not also admitting to the comfort of meaningless repetition? Still, our academic lives must be regulated by reliability. The semester begins on a specified date and ends on a specified date. Classes begin and end as listed in the course bulletin. Every year, departments collect materials for merit evaluations on the same date as the year before and turn in tenure materials on the same date as the year before. Such acts demonstrate reliability. Such acts give direction and meaning to the academic life. Such acts respond to audience -- the faculty members’ and the students’ -- expectations.

Our discourse, however, walks the tightrope between being reliable (we know what to expect) and simply being repetitive (we’ve heard this before). Administrative email communication to the faculty reminds us monthly that we are “exceptional,” that we provide “leadership,” that we “must work together,” that “we look forward” to something or other, and that despite all of our supposed success, “we must work harder.”

Every administrative presentation to the college’s leadership features a PowerPoint presentation, a printout of that PowerPoint presentation and a follow-up email with an attached file of that PowerPoint presentation. What could be more reliable than three versions of the same presentation? Everyone now can rest comfortably knowing that three times I have heard the same update about the university’s formation of a panel that will investigate how to “envision” an “intellectual vision,” and be “better before we are bigger.”

The standard cliché is that nothing is more reliable than death and taxes. Reliability, indeed, is often situated in terms of clichés: Old Iron Horse. Like a rock. Lean on me. Clichés, too, are simultaneously meaningless and meaningful because of their cultural repetition.

When a novice and inexperienced worker writes a CV, they often include the meaningless phrase “I’m hardworking and reliable.” A young writer might turn to the reliable (and meaningless) introductory phrase to begin an assignment for a first-year writing course (“Since the beginning of time”) and conclude with an even more meaningless yet reliable sign-off (“For all the reasons I stated above …”).

We used to joke that it was reliable to expect someone’s grandmother to die in a freshman writing class. The death announcement after excessive absences was something an instructor could depend on occurring. These are meaningless acts. But they are meaningful in that we find a common knowledge in their repetition.

As much as I hate hearing “We Are the Champions” every day on the radio, I also find the lyrics disturbing, and thus, the song’s reliable appearance during drive time is interrupted by its overall message of despair. Freddie Mercury may be describing a state of eventual success, but everything he says up to that point of becoming a champion is depressing: “Bad mistakes, I’ve made a few/ It’s been no bed of roses/ No pleasure cruise/ I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face.” When a given audience requests reliability -- whether in administrative presentations, semester scheduling or the department chair’s behavior -- what they are really saying is “Don’t show me the shit that happened prior to the moment repeating itself in a familiar and comfortable way. It’s been no bed of roses. That’s why we want everyone to believe we are transformative. Don’t look at how messed up we often are.”

Thus, the reliable moment may not be positive or even comforting but rather a confirmation of frustration. For every administrative call for action (new program initiative, new courses addressing X, entrepreneurship, diversity in our faculty) we can reliably expect a colleague-led committee to throw up an obstacle, another administrator within the university hierarchy to withhold funds, a department colleague to cast doubt on the project’s potential based on their gut feeling, the administrator who asked for the initiative to have since forgotten about it, or a lack of university capital investment to get the called-for project off the ground. Mistakes, we’ve made a few.

We are the champions. And yet, we’re not. We’re merely audiences positioned in front of repeated messages that appeal to some type of insecurity we possess. Repetition is among the most comforting acts we can engage with, but in the end, repetition becomes frustrating, tiresome and annoying. I don’t want to hear “We Are the Champions” ever again when I am driving through Lexington. I also don’t want to hear about “lifelong learning” or “student success” or “our exceptional faculty,” either. I have to change the channel at some point and hear something else. The only problem is that when I eventually reach for the metaphoric radio knob and switch stations, I hear the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” This song, unfortunately, also is reliable.

Jeff Rice is chair and Martha B. Reynolds Professor of Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky.

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Tufts Adjuncts Reach Second Contract Agreement

Part-time lecturers at Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences reached a second, tentative contract deal, averting a strike planned for this week. The five-year agreement covers 240 adjuncts who voted to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union in 2014. Gains in the new contract build on those achieved in a first contract notable for its pay increases and job security measures. The new deal includes pay raises of 22.5 percent over five years for half the part-time faculty, and a 12.5 percent pay increase for others. Eligibility criteria for a professional development fund are expanded, and faculty members will get earlier notification of non-reappointment.

James M. Glaser, dean of arts and sciences, said in a statement that Tufts has had “a productive and respectful relationship with our part-time faculty, and under the terms of the new agreement they would continue to enjoy pay, benefits and terms of employment that lead our local peer institutions and the relevant market, as was the case with the previous contract.”

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Tweet About Professor Goes Viral (in a Good Way)

Twitter isn’t always friendly to academics; professors have been bashed and threatened via the medium (and sometimes professors do the bashing). But for Doug Schneider, a professor of accounting at East Carolina University, Twitter turned out to be a place for praise. Last week, a student emailed Schneider, asking for help on some course material during a late-night study session at the library, according to ABC-11. Instead of simply replying, Schneider headed to the library to help the student out. A student in the study group was so moved by the visit that she took a photo and shared it on social media with the caption “Sometimes ya just gotta appreciate professors who do everything possible to help you succeed.”

Photo of Doug Schneider, with a student, time stamped 11:10 p.m., with the caption “When [you’re] confused and email your professor and he comes to the [library] to help you study. Aw.” Photo posted Oct. 5 by student Marissa Flood from East Carolina’s Joyner Library.

The tweet has since been liked more than 36,000 times. East Carolina joined the conversation, too.

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Nobel winners share tips on their success

Winners share tips and the keys to their successes. Many cite luck as a factor.

Scholars need to use their research more effectively to weigh in on public issues of the day (essay)

That academic policy analysis is not very likely to influence public opinion let alone be given weight in legislative or political domains should hardly come as a shock. People often disdain university research professors as intellectuals who inhabit spaces far removed from where the common man abides. Our perceived insularity and elitism hardly help, but neither does the undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in America that has received a boost in recent months.

The effect is to divide the “educated them” from the “uneducated us” and to alienate those needing information from those in good positions to provide it.

Citizens are bombarded with so much information, moreover, that responsible vetting of it has become increasingly difficult. They may absorb information about climate change, health care, school choice, foreign trade and diplomacy, and immigration without critically questioning the sources, or the intentions, of those creating the message.

So it behooves academics to reach across political and ideological divides to bring their expertise to bear on the issues of the day and to put policy arguments forward effectively.

Our work is cut out for us: not only have legislators in various states since 2014 filed close to 70 “academic freedom” bills permitting teachers to present established science as controversial, but science is now also under siege by an administration that questions empirical reality and disregards objective information to make policy. Scientists are fighting back, but they and academics more broadly need to do more than protest. We must figure out how to translate what we know and what we discover into understandable, meaningful language that is clear and credible, so that it, in a word, matters.

That we do not do this in a substantial way is, at least in part, our own shortcoming.

We develop expertise in our disciplines, often with a narrow, even detached, focus that can dissuade us from speaking publicly, let alone advocating actively. What’s more, academics who do speak in public often meet disapproval from their colleagues who perceive public communication as unprofessional, or worse, attention grabbing. Consequently, a public scholar is taking a risk.

Yet democracy depends on taking that risk. Otherwise, the public arena can devolve to the loudest or most politically pointed voices, not to the best informed.

Informing Public Discourse and Policy Making

With respect to climate change and public health, to take but two vital areas, academic research should figure prominently in public discourse and decision making. Providing it is a seminal role for a university, especially one with a land-grant tradition. At my institution, Rutgers University, such work has begun in earnest. For example, several scientists at our Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences and Rutgers President Robert Barchi have presented groundbreaking research in New York, Philadelphia and Washington that highlights how climate change is affecting life on our planet.

Disseminating Rutgers research on human health -- on the impacts of environmental hazards of toxic spills, on climate change and vector-borne diseases -- is another example and provides a model for other research areas. A series of programs that included faculty members and communications professionals focused on: 1) attracting media coverage to research, 2) communicating with the mass media on air and in print, 3) writing books for general audiences, 4) developing an online presence through the websites, social media and blogs of academics, and 5) forging social change by communicating the research to policy makers by, among other initiatives, giving effective expert testimony to legislators and building productive collaborative relationships with state and federal policy makers.

Rutgers is hardly alone in this. Stony Brook University has pioneered a program to train faculty members and graduate students so that their research can inform and engage a broad audience. Public writing and presentations are an important part of an academic’s overall mission there. It’s a promising initiative.

Professional associations are lending a hand, too. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, is encouraging their scientists to speak publicly about their expertise more often and teaching them how to reach policy makers. That was prompted by the paucity of university researchers -- as opposed to lobbyists -- among those invited to address lawmakers during a period surveyed by the association.

According to Todd Gittlin in “Promoting Knowledge in the Age of Unreason,” we need to move beyond Earth Day demonstrations -- although those matter -- to new strategies, such as deploying billboards to present short messages from science that attest to, say, the importance of vaccines. It means institutions should sponsor more nonprofit, nonpartisan journalistic endeavors, such as the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism in Madison and the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Iowa.

Demonstrating just how effective researchers can be when deploying their knowledge to public purpose, geometry professor Moon Duchin of Tufts University has shown how to use mathematics to confront gerrymandering. Duchin also created a program to train mathematicians to serve as expert witnesses in court cases over redrawn electoral districts.

At Carnegie Mellon University, graduate students started a group called Public Communication for Researchers, an undertaking to learn to explain their work to the public in ways that can be understood and valued.

Taking Public Engagement Seriously

If academe is to embrace a more expansive view of scholarship, to connect our disciplines to the complexities of life and bring scholarly research and thinking to pressing issues, then institutions should give such public engagement weight in the promotion and tenure process. They should encourage faculty members to engage in such public service and reward them for it. If professors appear before congressional committees and staff, for example, as well as state legislatures, they should be supported with university funds.

Universities might give some thought to hiring a dedicated communications liaison in their public relations offices to aid this important mission of translating significant research into forms and formats that can inform policy and educate the nation’s citizens. This person could play a key role in both shaping faculty members’ writings for mass-market outlets -- Politico, The Huffington Post, Red State, RealClearPolitics, Drudge Report, Vox and more -- and in facilitating the access the media have to faculty members and their writings. Entering the viral internet to create well-crafted messages for Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms can be an opportunity as well. Liaisons can also create contacts and build relationships with think tanks, libraries and community centers -- places where public programs take place -- not to mention keep doors open to legislative chambers for hearings and staff briefings.

And, as philanthropies become more engaged with public policy matters -- as they try to shape political discourse, education policy, health-care research and more -- academics ought not to overlook the need to deploy their research to help determine what ideas have legitimacy and deserve support, and thus seek to influence where donors choose to make their grants and investments.

Getting Results

The kind of concerted effort in which academe joined with media to help reduce cigarette smoking, raise awareness of threats to our seas and mobilize behind Earth Day is what we need to keep climate change, public health concerns and other pressing issues front and center on the nation’s and the world’s agenda. For advancing understanding -- and undertaking the policy challenges that face the nation -- we need to have an honest and thorough conversation with academics who are willing, prepared and encouraged to embrace an active public role.

Linda Stamato is a faculty fellow at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and co-director of its Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution. She has also served as chair of the Board of Governors at Rutgers.

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