October 2019 Faculty Spotlight
October Faculty Spotlight with Marxe Chair of International Affairs and Professor, Zachariah Mampilly
In the three years since Austin W. Marxe bestowed a historic gift of $30M to the School, many critical changes have been made to enhance programs and faculty. Included among these changes are the addition of chairs to the new Master of International Affairs (MIA) program. The latest addition is Dr. Zachariah Mampilly, who comes in as professor and chair of international affairs.
Welcome to the Marxe School! You’re coming onboard as Marxe Endowed Chair of International Affairs and Professor. Tell us a bit about your thoughts on our Master of International Affairs program. How do you see it evolving over the next five years?
The existing world order is under considerable duress and unlikely to persist much longer into the future. A new world is coming into being, unmoored from the Western Liberal tradition that has shaped the international system for the past 75 years. The existing Liberal order, despite its promise, failed to achieve many of its stated objectives. While many are mourning this transition, I think its more important to prepare our students for what comes next. There is no reason to assume that a new world order will be better or worse than what came before. Our challenge as a program is to prepare our students to contribute to a humanistic, just, and equitable vision for our shared future as a global community and ensure it does not descend into parochial nationalisms.
As a new program, the Master of International Affairs degree has a unique opportunity to offer a truly innovative approach to the study of global issues. Most existing programs view international affairs as an elite, top down project limited to governments, international organizations and the business community. International policy is treated as the preserve of the Davos set with personnel rotating between luxury venues in New York, London, and Geneva. But what would the field look like if we started from the bottom up? From the experiences of refugees, migrants, transnational social movements and other marginal voices for whom “international affairs” is not just an abstract field of study but an arena with direct material consequences for their existence. This is the approach I am interested in foregrounding at the Marxe School.
Can you talk about the two fellowships you’re working on?
I am currently wrapping up a fellowship with the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, part of the United States Holocaust Museum. Along with partners in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Sri Lanka, we are examining how civilians respond to episodes of mass violence. Rather than assuming civilians are always helpless victims of political violence, we’re trying to tease out the nuanced ways civilians attempt to resist or otherwise interfere in atrocities. I’m also beginning a new fellowship with the Open Society Foundation working with African social movements. Across Africa, social movements have emerged as the central force fighting for a renewed spirit of democracy, challenging the vapid forms of electoral competition that mostly serve to entrench elite power. Towards this end, a number of social movements in Africa have been working together to create a Pan African network of movements that can work to promote substantive democracy and reduce inequality for all Africans.
Both fellowships are extensions of my existing research agendas on how ordinary people resist their political and economic marginalization. For the Holocaust Museum, the fellowship builds on the work I have done over the past two decades on how ordinary people survive during war. This research took as its starting point the idea that the least interesting thing about war is the violence. Of much more interest to me, both intellectually and politically, is how communities respond to violence rather than how a few individuals wield it. I have written extensively about how communities work to ensure their basic conditions of life, especially when faced with extraordinary threats to their existence. Similarly, my interest in popular movements and inequality, which I will be exploring with the Open Society Foundation fellowship, builds on my work on African protest. I am particularly interested in how popular movements can challenge economic policies that have transformed Africa into one of the most unequal continents in the world. Seven of the ten most unequal countries in the world are in Africa, a fact that I believe reflects the neoliberal economic consensus between the ruling and opposition parties in most African countries (and beyond). To combat this dynamic, new forces must be mobilizd. I believe social movements, which are the most authentic expression of the popular will, show the most promise in bringing a more substantive democracy to Africa’s masses.
What courses are you looking forward to teaching?
I will be teaching a seminar on political violence as well as one on race, ethnicity and nationalism in comparative perspective in my first year. I tend to draw on multiple disciplinary traditions with the goal of demonstrating the real world utility of academic work.
What do you find most appealing about the prospect of working at the Marxe School?
I am most excited by the extraordinary diversity of the student population. As the product of public institutions with a child in New York public schools, I am a firm believer in the role public institutions play in ensuring economic mobility and social harmony. This is especially relevant for the field of international affairs which remains a very exclusive and elitist world. Too many young people, especially those from diverse backgrounds cannot imagine working on international subjects. As the child of immigrants myself, I believe any global institution will only be effective if they draw from the broadest spectrum of the human experience. The Marxe School is the only international affairs program in the city that seeks to cultivate such a diverse student body and bring them into the real world of international policy. I am thrilled to be a part of this exciting and essential project.