#CGAat15 Faculty Interview Series: Mary Beth Altier
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 Mary Beth Altier, to discuss her CGA journey and experience. Professor Altier is a Clinical Associate Professor teaching courses on Transnational Security, Transnational Terrorism, Security Sector Governance and the Rule of Law, and Analytic Skills. She also leads a Consulting Practicum with the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center and recently led a Global Field Intensive to Belfast and London. In 2017, she received the NYU SPS Excellence in Teaching Award. Professor Altier’s research interests are in international security, foreign policy, political violence, and political behavior. Her recent work centers on the reasons why individuals support the use of political violence in developed and developing democracies as well as why they participate in acts of political violence, especially terrorism. Her current book project examines the conditions under which citizens vote for political parties associated with armed groups in developed and developing democracies and the strategies employed by armed groups and their associated parties to maximize electoral support.
Global Affairs Review: Can you share with us how your journey at CGA began?
Professor Altier: I spent a few years working as a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Pennsylvania State University on a project on terrorist disengagement, re-engagement and recidivism where I interacted regularly with government practitioners in the United States and United Kingdom. I saw firsthand the value of the research I was doing for them and learned a great deal from those interactions that later informed my research agenda. I decided I wanted to be at an institution that valued practice as well as theory, which is not always the norm in academia. Usually what matters most are your publications, and interactions with practitioners are valued to a certain extent but not always that much. I knew that I did not want my research only sitting in journals and read by academics, but that I wanted it to have a real world impact and shape policy and practice in positive ways. When I started looking for jobs, CGA seemed like the perfect fit.
What have the last 6 years at the CGA meant to you?
My time at CGA has meant so much to me in so many ways, but I think what has meant the most is seeing the growth and success of students who have completed the program. Some students I have taught, I have had consistently during their time at CGA – a few in 5 or 6 courses, from when they first entered the program, all the way through every semester. Seeing the development and growth of their writing and analytic abilities over time is incredible to watch. For example, when they turn in a paper in their fourth semester and you compare it to how they were writing in their first semester – it brings a smile to my face to see how they grow as writers, thinkers, and eventually become colleagues working in related fields.
I am also always impressed where CGA students land. That means a lot to me because I feel like I have done my job when I see them in these amazing careers, doing exceptional things. This is my 6th year at CGA, and in the Transnational Security concentration over that time we have students who have gone on to work at the FBI, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the State Department, New America, Council on Foreign Relations, the UN, AIG, Facebook, Dataminr, Teneo, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Kroll, Control Risks, and so on. It’s wonderful to see them succeed and I feel a sense of relief knowing that one of our students is working in places like the FBI; it is not just a blank face, and you know that they are doing a good job keeping us safe.
What do you think is distinctive about the CGA community?
First are the experiences and diversity the students and faculty bring to table. Many faculty have spent time working outside of the classroom with an array of practitioners. I am also always impressed at the beginning of the semester when we go around the classroom and students say what they did before they came to CGA. Many have been out in the field, in the Peace Corps, in the private sector, etc. doing incredible work. I think those experiences and diversity adds to what we do here, and I think we all learn from one other.
The other is that CGA students are highly motivated – in terms of finding internships, expanding their network in New York City where there are so many opportunities to do that, finding interesting projects and engaging in what is going on outside the classroom. I have had students travel to Indonesia to interview former Jemaah Islamiyah fighters and others to Jordan, London, and Iran to conduct top-notch research for their theses with no prodding from me. Students on the Global Field Intensive last spring spent 14 consecutive days in what was an unusual amount of hailing rain – even for Belfast and London – and they always showed up to every meeting so eager and invested in the occasion to learn from the individuals and organizations we met with. CGA students are dedicated and ambitious.
What three words would you use to describe the CGA?
Connected: The things that we do at CGA are very connected to policy and practice, and we are also really connected to one another. We have a very strong alumni network and practitioner network through our faculty and the experiences of our students.
Pragmatic: Our education is useful, applied and practical.
Friendly: I love coming to work. The faculty, staff, students, and alumni are always friendly and welcoming.
What do you envision for CGA in the next 15 years?
I think continuing to do what we do, as well as expanding and deepening our engagement with practitioners and opportunities for applied learning. We already have regular consulting practicums students can participate in with the U.S. State Department and the United Nations Countering Terrorism Executive Directorate among others. These are great opportunities for students to translate research into practice. It is not that the theory and empirics do not matter – they do – but how do we take those theories and findings and produce evidence-based recommendations for policymakers and practitioners working on critical issues. Several other agencies in New York City have expressed an interest to work with CGA in a similar capacity and I anticipate students will have even more exciting opportunities like these in the future.
I also see CGA continuing to grow its alumni network. It has been remarkable to see our alumni build their careers over the last 5 to 6 years, and I can only imagine that the next 10 to 15 years will see them move into leadership positions in their fields. Their continued success and engagement with CGA will further contribute to the experience of our students here as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.