Eminent Faculty Award winner shows how study and collaboration can bring civil wars to a less-destructive end

David Mason doesn't claim to be an economist or Wall Street expert, but he's found an investment with a 6,000 percent return peace studies.

Mason, a UNT Regents Professor of Political Science, says that's largely because peace scientists have learned how to write peace agreements that “bring conflicts to earlier and less destructive conclusions.”

“The World Bank estimates that civil wars cause on average $60 billion worth of destruction,” says Mason, winner of the UNT Foundation's 2016 Eminent Faculty Award. “On the other hand, a peace keeping force costs about $1 billion. So a $1 billion investment in peace reduces by 50 to 70 percent the odds of a nation experiencing another $60 billion worth of destruction.”

That doesn't include the loss of life and life-long emotional scars that result from military conflicts.

Mason will be honored during the Salute to Faculty Excellence Award Dinner and Celebration, 6:30 p.m. Sept. 22 in the Hub Club at Apogee Stadium.

Other UNT Foundation Award winners include:

  • UNT Foundation Faculty Leadership Award -- Narendra Dahotre, University Distinguished Research Professor
  • UNT Foundation Community Engagement Award -- Jean Keller, professor of kinesiology, health promotion and recreation
  • UNT Foundation Outstanding Lecturer Award -- Wendy Watson, senior lecturer of political science

Learn more about the award winners.

Peace begins to prevail

Peace science has flourished since the end of the Cold War, Mason says. Before 1990, many of the civil wars around the world continued largely because the United States and the Soviet Union funded them. If the U.S. supported the rebel group, then the USSR supported the government. If the USSR supported the rebel group, then the U.S. supported the government.

“After the cold war ended, and those two countries stopped funding those conflicts, the two sides didn't have any interest in continuing to fight,” he says.

Since then, peace agreements have ended more civil wars than military takeovers have.

He says political scientists also have gotten better at identifying conflicts that are ripe for an agreement, who is best to broker a settlement and what terms make the settlement more likely to stick.

For example, Mason noted two UNT alumni who played a significant role in crafting a peace agreement that is expected to end a 52-year-old civil war in Colombia.

Madhav Joshi ('10 Ph.D.) and Jason Quinn (10 Ph.D.), research professors at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, manage a database, the Peace Accords Matrix, that has served as a key resources for those who monitoring the agreement.

Mason served as the major professor for both at UNT.

“Two of our graduates are playing a key role in the implementation of the peace agreement that will end the longest-lasting civil war in the post-World War II period,” Mason says.

Mason himself has contributed much to that field.

A peace studies pioneer

Idean Salehyan, a former colleague of Mason at UNT and now an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Dallas, says Mason has been a pioneer in this field.

“In particular, he was really known for his work on why ordinary citizens join a civil conflict or join a rebel movement,” he says. “Then, he was one of the very first people to really study the peace process and how civil wars end the way they do and how peace is negotiated to resolve civil wars.”

Mason wrote the book Caught in the Crossfire in 2004, exploring what motivates civilians to risk their lives to join a rebel movement against their government. He also anticipates finishing the book The Ecology of Civil War in 2016, exploring conditions that make a country susceptible to civil war, the factors that determine the outcome and the risk of a country relapsing into war.

Mason quickly acknowledges that much of this work could not happen at many places.

“We have a collection of scholars here at UNT that most people would agree is very good, among the top by world standards,” he says. “What makes this place such a good place to work is that it's not just six or eight or 10 people sitting in their offices with their doors closed writing their own papers. What we really get excited about here is collaborating with each other.”

Opening a peace studies institute

Mason joined the UNT faculty in 2002, and almost immediately began working with James Meernik, then the political science department chair, to create a blueprint for a peace studies institute. Mason says they determined early that they would need to find donors to support such an institute.

A few years later, he attended a dinner for the Dallas Peace Center. As he handed out literature about peace studies at UNT, journalist and women's rights activist Vivian Castleberry approached.

“She said, ‘I've always thought peace was profitable. Does your research confirm that?'” Mason recalls. “I launched into my spiel: The average civil war causes $60 billion in damage. A peace keeping force costs $1 billion…Her eyes lit up.”

About two weeks later, Castleberry called him to inquire about locating the Castleberry Peace Institute at UNT. In 2010, the university finalized the agreement.

“His willingness to make the calls, and, if you know Dr. Dave, to get up in people's faces to make sure that change happens was critical for ensuring that we were able to bring the Castleberry Institute to fruition,” says Kimi Lynn King, Distinguished Teaching Professor of political science. “He took what was basically an idea that folks said could not be done, and he made it happen. Here we are years later, having accomplished so many wonderful projects.”

Humble, hard-working

Students and colleagues acknowledge his diligence to work hard, to drive them to work hard and his humility.

“He has this wonderful ability to take what you do and be a force multiplier,” King says. “Then after he has contributed so much, he has a way of looking back at you and winking and saying, ‘Nah. That was all you.'”

Eric Keels ('16) began working this fall as a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Tennessee after studying under Mason and defending his dissertation in June. He says Mason is revered both in scholarly circles because he is thorough and thoughtful. He also is respected in the broader community because people appreciate his ability to explain complex ideas in simple and direct terms.

“He fosters a degree of creativity in his students for them to pursue their own ideas,” Keels says. “He's very supportive in allowing you to pursue those ideas, giving you resources if you need more. He's also very straightforward. If your ideas are getting a little too far out of your grasp, he can bring you back down to earth.”

Mason says he enjoys working with students at all levels. He's seen undergraduates who sign up for a class simply to fill an elective become enthralled with the subject. He's also enjoyed coaching up students like Keels and see them produce their own scholarly work.

“It's a privilege to see these young scholars who will soon be your colleagues and maybe your bosses turn from students into scholars,” he says. “That's what a doctoral program is about -  turning them from consumers of knowledge to producers of knowledge.”