#CGAat15 Faculty Interview Series: Michael Oppenheimer

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This year, The Center for Global Affairs (CGA) celebrates its 15th Anniversary. To mark this occasion, the Global Affairs Review (GAR) sat down with Professor Michael Oppenheimer, to discuss his CGA journey and experience. Professor Oppenheimer is a Clinical Professor at the CGA. His courses include International Relations, US Foreign Policy, and Future International Systems. He also leads a team of students each semester in a research and consulting project for the UN Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) on countering violent extremism. He is the originator and director of the Carnegie Corporation-funded project on alternate futures for pivotal countries, which has published China 2020, Russia 2020, Turkey 2020, Ukraine 2020, Pakistan 2020, and Syria 2018. He has authored several books, most recently Pivotal Countries, Alternate Futures, published by Oxford University Press in December 2015.

Global Affairs Review: Can you share with us how your journey at CGA began?

Professor Oppenheimer: It began 15 years ago. I was the first professor hired at the CGA. For me, CGA came at the end of what had already been a fairly long journey, starting after graduate school at the University of Virginia, and then several years in the US government, advising Congress on American foreign policy. After that, for 20 or so years I worked for a consulting firm called the Futures Group, that grew from 20 or so people into several hundred employees and offices around the world. We did strategic forecasting and consulting for governments, international organizations, private companies, and think tanks. I eventually bought the company from the founder, then a few years later sold it to Ogilvy, and I went my separate way to start my own consulting company called Global Scenarios. I ran Global Scenarios for three years, moved from Connecticut to New York, when the CGA opportunity came up. I had been reading The New York Times one morning, and there was Vera’s ad for a professor or two to join this new master’s program at the Center for Global Affairs. I was ready for a career change, and had known Vera for some time, so that was a very happy coincidence. So that is how it evolved. So I have done government work, private and public sector consulting, and now for the past 15 years, teaching, research and consulting at CGA.

What have the last 15 years at the CGA meant to you?

It has been the perfect late chapter in my professional life. The combination of imparting to students knowledge I’ve accumulated over many years, the continuing opportunity to tap my experience in consulting to train students in this profession (through the CTED project), and the freedom to do research and publishing, all make this a special place for me. CGA is very entrepreneurial, reinventing itself as changes in the world and in our competitive environment requires. I’ve enjoyed being a part of that: adding to and redefining our concentrations; introducing a new a Master’s program in Cybersecurity. We’ve been very open to new ideas, including offering consulting practicums to students, one of which I am running at the moment for UN CTED.  I’m teaching the things I love to teach. I am always revising my syllabi, thinking of new ways of teaching and emerging issues to put before my students. CGA is very encouraging of this. The faculty is first rate, collegial, diverse and interesting, and the students are terrific.

Despite all the focus on academics, I am also still free to do work outside the CGA. Several years ago, I received a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to do alternate future scenarios for countries that are pivotal to American interests; that is very much the kind of stuff I did in consulting. We ran that project over four years with lots of students involved and generated a book out of it, published by Oxford, just a few years ago. This project and also the practicum with the UN that I lead at CGA is very much an application of academic knowledge in a consulting context, to bring value to a client. So I get to teach my consulting skills as well as my academic skills. What more could you ask for?

What do you think is distinctive about the CGA community?

I think what makes the CGA stand out is its diversity: diversity in terms of the community’s countries of origin, languages, and cultural/political perspectives; in terms of the range of CGA concentrations, and the way students are encouraged to shape their own curricula by mixing and matching courses from the various concentrations to fit their particular interests; and the combination of academic and practical strengths. Many global affairs programs appropriate the same vocabulary to promote themselves: interdisciplinary, innovative, practical. At CGA, we actually demonstrate these qualities. CTED, for example, was the first consulting practicum we offered at CGA, launched five years ago. We’re about to complete our 11th project, and are now called upon each semester to tackle the toughest terrorism problems facing the UN system. We’re extending this model to other concentrations, with three practicums running in the spring semester. Such practicums bring students from the classroom into the real marketplace, to do real-time consulting and research delivering value for clients.

I think that the combination of academic rigor and practical application, and the diversity of the program are genuinely unique attributes of the CGA!

What three words would you use to describe the CGA?

Entrepreneurial, rigorous and practical.

What do you envision for CGA in the next 15 years?

I’d like to see the CGA growing, gaining more faculty and students. I envision more rapid growth in students coming out of the workforce, with four to six years of experience, which would enrich the program. The practical aspects of what we are doing at the CGA will grow as well. I imagine all concentrations running some consulting or research program for public, private and non-profits organizations, in order for students to receive the critical real-world experience of actually applying their knowledge and skills by delivering strategic value for clients. This would fully leverage our New York location, with its unequaled concentration of intergovernmental, business and NGO institutions.

Those are some of the things I look forward to!

Upwards?

Upwards, absolutely, you bet!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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