Mediation and conflict negotiation scholar Sara Cobb has been named executive director of the Program on Negotiation (PON) at Harvard Law School (HLS) and plans to help it stay top in the field.
The PON, founded in 1983, is an HLS program researching the theory and practice of dispute resolution. Cobb, appointed last February, has taught negotiation and communications for most of her career. She accepted the position because it allows her to be at the forefront of the study of conflict resolution.
"I came because I wanted it to live up to its own history...and I wanted very much to shape the field of conflict resolution," Cobb said. "To do that, you have to come to the middle of the vortex, and this has been the middle of the vortex for a long time."
Cobb said that although the PON has an excellent reputation, it must continue to grow and change.
"The [PON] is bar none the most influential site for addressing conflict resolution and the relation between theory and practice," Cobb said yesterday. "But it can't rest on its laurels. It has to develop new intellectual property and capital, sort of like a reinvest in itself."
In her few months in her new position, Cobb has articulated a new vision for the PON. Cobb said she is planning several new initiatives, some of which she has begun already.
Among these fledgling projects is the launch of a PON "virtual community," which allows interaction through the Internet between members of the program, who are from various universities. In addition to Harvard, scholars from MIT, Tufts University and the Simmons Graduate School of Management participate in the program. The initiative will allow PON members to interact much more easily, Cobb said.
PON Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Project on Negotiations in Employment Relations Deborah M. Kolb called Cobb's Internet initiative "a wonderful idea" that will make the PON run more efficiently. Kolb served as PON executive director from 1991-94.
"We've just been on e-mail before," Kolb said. "This [virtual community] allows more dialogue in a place where people are very busy."
Cobb came to Harvard after a five-year stint at the Fielding Institute in California, where she dealt extensively with the problems and advantages of so-called "distance" or "network learning."
Kolb said she thinks Cobb's background in online technologies, among other things, makes her "the perfect person at this time for the program."
In her new role, Cobb said she also wants to help the PON reach out to other academic disciplines. Cobb said she has already initiated discussions with people involved in sociology and anthropology studies, in addition to contacting the Divinity School.
"Augmenting research and theory...would help us understand social or human or psychological aspects of negotiation," she said. "We need to include other people in conversations beyond the traditional suspects, like the Business School or the Law School."
Kolb said Cobb brings a fresh perspective to her job.
"She's really going to invigorate the intellectual community," she said.
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