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Setting up your own Dispute Resolution Program -- Updated.


Almost every dispute resolution program I am aware of was "home grown" in one way or another. If you are currently faculty at a university, you begin a program by getting a class approved, and then another and ... eventually you have enough dedicated students to have a program.  This article is not about that approach, but is instead about what to do if you aren't faculty and would like to be part of a program.

This essay covers what to do if you would like to teach dispute resolution and how to start a program as an outsider.

First, you need to make contact with the continuing education departments of each of the local colleges and universities in your area. Get their catalogs and find out how you would go about offering a continuing education class through each. A close look will probably show you that there are numerous offerings, often competing offerings, in many, many areas. The key is to find a program that has no dispute resolution classes being taught.

Second, put together three potential classes.

Third, approach the departments until you find one that will let you offer a class.

Your first class.

The first class you will probably try to offer is the "forty hour class" (called that because of a certifying standard of "40 class room hours") -- forty hours of class room instruction on mediation. You can assign as a text book The Mediator's Handbook, and use for teaching purposes, NITA's The Art of Mediation. In the alternative, you can start with an Introduction to Conflict Resolution class, and use Conflict Resolution by Daniel Dana as the text book.  Four books to review and consider (pick them up through interlibrary loan and look at them):

and   and and

The NITA book is the script, word for word, for teaching a forty hour class.  The Handbook is a great handbook that every mediator should have.  For one class based on that combination, see nada00X.htm -- that link also includes notes on handouts and other materials and drills.  You will note that CE classes are often taught on week-ends, or once a week for a three hour class, or in some other format than standard one hour class periods, and you need to plan to fill your schedule appropriately.

This class should not be taught as "all you need to know about mediating conflicts" -- but rather is an introduction to the concept of mediation so that people who take the class will understand just what mediation is and will have a foundation to work from.  Too many people attempt to market classes like this as one step stops to a new career.  For an editorial on that subject, read Ethical Duties of Mediation Trainers in the Promotion of Training Programs.

Once you have a starter class ready, and a place in an upcoming catalog (pick just one school to start with) you need to do some publicity.  Public libraries, public areas on the college campus, churches, friends who have work/study programs (where their employers pay for some continuing education) and human relations departments in local businesses are all places to post flyers that identify your class, where to sign up, and what the class can provide.

That is a start.  All you need is the minimum number of students the program requires to get it going -- for some programs that is as few as two, for some as high as eight or more.  Remember, these initial students will the be the core recruiters and sources of word of mouth for later classes.

The Next Class.

Some people stop right there with a single class.  They teach a forty hour class or an intro class over and over again.  While that can be a successful place to stop, the next class is usually an "Introduction to ADR" -- an essential class if you want your program to grow and a good class for lower division college undergraduates.  Your introduction class takes one of two approaches:

  1. It goes over mediation, arbitration, ombuds offices, facilitation, and simple negotiation concepts.  It educates students as to why they would want to take a class on mediation, or one on arbitration, or one on facilitation and how an in depth class on negotiation can help them.  In many ways it is an extended advertisement for an entire dispute resolution program.
  2. Or, it provides basic conflict resolution skills (using a text such as Conflict Resolution, above) -- giving students concrete useful tools that they can apply in their jobs and day to day lives and giving them an entirely new perspective on the science of conflict resolution and dispute management.

Teaching either class, of course, leads to the next classes you should have in mind (and, if demand is high enough, classes you might want to have a friend help you with by teaching -- so you teach part of the class load and your friend does -- and you now have a two instructor program growing).

So, at stage  one:

At stage two:

At stage three:

You can get details and information on a number of actual classes at Dispute Resolution Classes -- Materials and Class Outlines and more ideas at Proposal for a Conflict Management/Dispute Resolution Program Curriculum. In addition, visit the web page for The Academy of Management Conflict Management Division for links to other educators sites.

Creating a Program.

Once you have three or four classes going, you need to decide what you are going to try to do with your "program."  There are several directions that work.

First, you can try to expand the reach of your program -- teach the same classes but to a broader audience.  There are many, many programs out there with a mix of three or four classes that they teach to as broad of an audience as they can find. (Visit the educational links at for some examples).  You may want to refine your choice of the four classes you offer to fit niche audiences in your community or your marketing target (e.g. you may wish to do conflicts in higher education, institutional conflicts or some similar class in the place of one or more of the other classes and tailor the rest of your classes to fit that niche).

Second, you can try to grow the program into a degree or certificate of some sort.  If this is your goal, as your class load picks up, start looking for allies on the main campus who will be grateful for the enrollment and student dollars that you are bringing in. There are many, many departments that a program of the type outlined here can be housed in.  Psychology, counselling, sociology, education, legal studies, philosophy, business, anthropology, student services, economics -- all of these departments have a legitimate connection to dispute resolution studies and all have an institution or two that houses an ADR program under their aegis (yes, this  entire approach has been done before, and I'm using examples from a list of where it has been done).  Again, visit web links and look at programs currently in play.

Third, you can try to create a continuing education empire where you bring a number of friends on board to teach classes as a part of your program and you get promoted to program director (where you are paid a part of the revenue of the program as an administrator and where you teach and direct).

Fourth, you can grow the program into a graduate program.  This requires some real work in recruiting faculty and students.  It means focusing classes on what graduate students need and can use and a set of specialty classes (even more so than the first alternative).  In the alternative, you can grow the program into a minor.  Several universities now offer a dispute resolution minor.

Fifth, you can apply for grants and sponsors.  Visit web sites, but consider Houston, Cornell, Syracuse and others -- all of which have sponsors who underwrite all or part of the program's access to specialized buildings and improved status -- these are all programs that successfully applied for grants and sponsors. In this approach you need to look for a distinctive mission you can reach, either in terms of a national audience or a local need.

Useful links, background material and notes are found in the postscript, below.

Notes on Finding a Home.

The natural place to look for a home for a program is wherever any current negotiation or dispute resolution or public policy classes are being taught.  The three foundational classes are conflict management (from a manager's perspective), mediation (the basic, basic introduction to the topic) and negotiation (students who will be using the skills need exposure to basic negotiation skills before they begin to take classes on public policy negotiation or international trade negotiation, or advanced game theory).  

The places such a program can fit are extremely numerous -- as are the places that feel that such a program doesn't fit, all depending on the academic ecology of the institution you are dealing with.  So, in one school, the business school will dominate negotiation, law and process, and related classes.  In another, the business school won't even offer negotiation and there will be a broad set of offerings in the psychology or social sciences department.  In another school, the dispute resolution program will be an outgrowth of economists studying game theory and in another it will be an extension of restorative justice in the criminology department.

Positioning and placement are fascinating topics, but there is not a recipe, a "one size fits all" approach.  You will need to adopt and adjust to the essential needs and perspectives of your institution of choice (consider finding a home as you would a needs driven facilitation initiative and it suddenly becomes a very resolvable issue that fits your professional skills instead of a confusing maze of unexplainable options).

The Final Step.

Write an article for me (a case study) on how your experiment and efforts worked out and what you would do differently or plan to try next.  Leave me an e-mail message and we can talk.  I'll publish case studies and articles sent to me to the web and will appreciate the feedback no matter how it comes.

With my best wishes,

Stephen R. Marsh

Send me an email


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