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July 11, 2005

Michael Moffitt: Mediator knows a fight when he sees one

UO degree in mediation rooted in middle ground
By Bill Bishop
July 10, 2005 

Michael Moffitt knows a fight when he sees one.

He can name it, categorize it, discuss it and diagnose ways to end it.

As a mediator, Moffitt has resolved conflicts ranging from international aid for African nations to a lawsuit over a house cat left ill by a carpet cleaning chemical.

This fall, he and other University of Oregon professors will launch a new interdisciplinary master’s degree in conflict and dispute resolution at the University of Oregon School of Law to teach others to tackle the problems of the world.

Moffitt – who at age 36 is considered an old-timer with his 15 years of experience in the field – believes that people with conflict resolution skills truly can change the world in ways big and small.

“Absolutely. No question about it,” he says. “I really do firmly believe doing this well can change the way people think about how they interact with each other.”

Conflicts fall into categories and mixes of categories. Different types of fights require different approaches to break the stalemate and resolve the problems.
“What this field can do is provide context. Every person in a dispute conceives of that fight as utterly unique from every other fight,” Moffitt says. “What this field can do is provide context for what to do. I can go in and say you are in a fight of this kind. Once you’ve diagnosed why the fight isn’t settling, you’ve just made it remarkably easier to understand. 
Moffitt discovered his interest in dispute resolution while working for the WK Kellogg Foundation when the group was granting money for inner city developments. The grants generated complex conflicts over land use and other issues. The foundation took it seriously and paid people to solve those problems.

 “It fascinated me,” Moffitt says. “It is intellectually challenging. It’s socially important. It seemed cool.”

But it’s such a new field, few colleges offer undergraduate programs. When he returned to Marietta College in his native Ohio, Moffitt began piecing together classes to help him understand conflict resolution.

“My big `Ah ha!’ moment in all of this was realizing almost everything I studied seemed to me related to conflict resolution,” he says.

Moffitt earned a law degree at Harvard University, where he supervised the mediation program and taught negotiation. His job as a consultant with a private company, Conflict Management Group, took him around the world for several years.

His clients ranged from senior judges and tribal leaders to unionized prison guards and corporate executives. He joined the UO law faculty in 2001 to boost the school’s effort to build the multidisciplinary master’s degree in conflict and dispute resolution. The program will be only the second master’s degree program in conflict resolution in the nation that is run through a law school.

“It’s going to be a program that really makes a difference,” says Jane Gordon, an associate dean at the law school. “These are people who are going to be interested in solving problems.”

Students in the first year of the program will study ethics, cross-cultural aspects and third-party dynamics of conflict resolution. The second year course work will be tailored to each student’s individual interests, and will include hands-on work in the field.

Basing the program in a law school will give graduates the perspective needed to advise clients when to negotiate and when a good old-fashioned court battle is really the best way to settle a problem, Moffitt says.

“There are some people in this world who desperately need to be sued,” he says.

But lawyers are not likely to fill the majority of the 15 seats in the first class before registration closes July 17.

The program is aimed at students who intend to apply the knowledge to conflicts in fields ranging from business and international affairs to government and environmental regulation, Moffitt says.

Although it’s a new field, Moffitt says he expects conflict resolution will prove so valuable that it soon will be as common as political science in both undergraduate and graduate studies.

“It’s awfully important to daily life, to public life. It’s just going to get a lot of attention,” he says.

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